The Sound of Silence - EMusician

The Sound of Silence

How to deal with noise pollution in your computer-based studio.
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As I sit at my desk writing this article, I can hear a minor tornado blowing a few inches from my left ankle. It's the sound of no fewer than three fans spinning inside of my computer. Periodically, the noise is punctuated by the crunching of my hard drive as it reads and writes. Together, those sounds almost succeed in drowning out the high-pitched whine of my video monitors; it's the sonic equivalent of momentarily forgetting your headache because you stub your toe.

In my studio, as in many others, two trends are colliding head-on: first, the computer continues to play an ever-more-central role in music production, and second, more production is taking place in single-room facilities where writing, tracking, and mixing share the same physical space. The ankle-high storm that's merely an annoyance when doing something such as writing a “Desktop Musician” column becomes a real problem when I plug in a microphone or put on my mixing ears.

There are many ways to deal with a noisy computer, from the simple to the elaborate. As with most aspects of your studio's design, you have the choice of spending either money or time solving a problem, and you'll need to do a cost-benefit analysis of how much quiet you can afford. All of the following solutions apply equally to Macs and PCs, although some product examples may be platform specific. (See the sidebar “Quiet Companies” for a list of helpful Web sites.)

ART OF NOISE

Ideally, we all want a perfectly silent recording and monitoring environment, but such conditions are rarely available. After all, even if you have rented a well-insulated studio, you may still have to keep the instruments from bleeding into each other's microphones by using baffling and fixing instrument positions, mic positions, and mic patterns to keep things separated. You'll need to apply those same skills to mitigate computer noise.

Admittedly, my computer is pretty noisy, but under most circumstances I can record saxophone parts in the same room with no noticeable noise. The saxophone is loud enough that my mic gain doesn't have to be cranked up, leaving any computer bleed at a comparatively low level. By using my mic's cardioid pattern with the null facing the computer and placing the mic in the farthest corner of the room, I can further reduce the impact of those fans. When Sony finally comes to its senses and offers me a record deal, I might reevaluate whether this arrangement is “quiet enough,” but at that point I'll probably reevaluate a lot of my studio's limitations. In the meantime, by applying basic engineering skills and zero money (my mantra), I have devised a perfectly viable solution to the computer-noise problem.

The computer noise becomes more of an issue, however, when I pick up the flute and boost the mic's gain. A bit of baffling solves that potential problem nicely, whether I use a sheet of plywood or wallboard mounted on a base of 2×4s, or something fancier like Auralex Acoustics' MAX-Wall (see Fig. 1). A few decibels of additional shelter from the CPU is sufficient for recording all but the most extreme pianissimos. If you take the DIY route, consider draping the baffle with absorptive (or diffusive) material such as a blanket to minimize reflections off the plywood.

A KIND OF HUSH

If you want to tackle the issue head-on and you have a little do-it-yourselfer in you, you can modify your computer in several ways to reduce its din. At the top of your hit list should be either your cooling fans or your hard drives. On the PC in my studio, the fans are much noisier than the hard drives, even when I'm recording multiple tracks. That is not the case for some other computers I use regularly, though, such as the one in my classroom whose brand-name external drive makes a rather impressive racket. Whatever symptom your computer exhibits, there are ways to silence it.

A number of types of fans that run quietly are available from a variety of sources. Such fans run from $10 to $25 and feature high-quality bearings that minimize mechanical noise. They also have specially designed blades that can move a lot of air without creating excessive turbulence. Some are equipped with variable-speed controls so that the fan won't run any faster than is necessary.

Keep in mind that fans are not optional with modern processors; G4s, Athlons, and Pentium 4s by their very nature create an enormous amount of heat. Inadequate cooling of the CPU can lead to heat-related data errors, CPU failure, and even melting or burning of the CPU. Having your DAW burst into flames in the middle of a session is a drag. To help ensure that you're getting adequate cooling with your quieter fans, you might want to invest in a custom heat sink for your CPU. By using very large surface areas and materials that transfer heat efficiently, such heat sinks can make the fans' job much easier.

You'll most likely find one fan cooling your CPU, another attached to your case to pull hot air out, and another in your power supply. Some high-performance video cards have fans to cool the graphics coprocessor as well. The easiest kind to replace is the case fan, and the most difficult is the power-supply fan. Rather than open up your power supply, you might want to simply replace it. A new quiet-running 400W power supply will set you back between $80 and $150, but in addition to obtaining a quieter system, you will gain a power supply that is more appropriate to the high-performance professional machine that you're running.

IN A SILENT WAY

Depending on just how much ruckus your hard drives are creating, there are three silencing strategies worth pursuing. If the source of the noise is hard-drive vibration (inducing rattles and such in the case), you can pull the hard drive out of the drive bay and remount it using rubber washers to dampen the vibration. A more elaborate but still affordable solution to vibration noise is the No Vibes III hard-drive mounting bracket ($29.99) from NoiseControl. Essentially a shockmount for your hard drive, it uses rubber O-rings to suspend the drive and insulate its vibrations from your case.

If your drive's noise is mechanical in origin, you need something like Silent Systems' SilentDrive ($32) to keep the noise from getting out. Essentially an isolation booth for your hard drive, SilentDrive mounts your hard drive in a sound-dampening sleeve that fits in a normal drive bay. Its design is capable of dissipating up to 5W of heat, which may not be adequate for some high-performance drives. Check your manufacturer's specs before you risk cooking your drive. Along similar lines, Digidesign's new DigiDrive FireWire 80 ($575) is built in to a sound-insulated case that is claimed to reduce drive noise by 20 dB.

If you're putting together a system or are going to upgrade, plan on buying a quiet hard drive. Manufacturers are increasingly aware of the effect that noise can have on a work environment, so they are building quieter drives and making noise ratings part of their spec sheets. Seagate's Barracuda ATA IV drive features a SoftSonic Fluid Dynamic Bearing motor along with internal dampers and other technologies to deliver what the company claims is “virtually silent” performance. Similarly, Samsung uses a technology it calls NoiseGuard to quiet things down. In addition to poring over manufacturers' specs and querying your colleagues about which drives are quietest, you should check out StorageReview.com, which regularly reports on drive noise along with more traditional performance criteria.

SILENT RUNNING

The best solution to computer noise may be to remove your CPU from your studio. You won't hear a peep out of it once you've relocated it to a closet or the living room. (I'm not responsible for any noise caused by a spouse who's upset at having a CPU in the living room!) Keep in mind that adequate ventilation is critical for performance and safety reasons.

Chances are that your remote CPU will be farther from your work position than normal keyboard, video, and mouse connections will support, so you'll need a KVM extender. Its function is to boost the signal enough to achieve reliable performance over a longer-than-usual cable run. Belkin's OmniView CAT5 KVM Extender ($319) supports relocating your CPU up to 500 feet away from the controls and display using standard CAT5 cabling.

Using multiple, ADC, or DVI monitors or running multiple computers from one console requires more elaborate KVM solutions. Gefen's Ex-tend-it series includes extenders and converters for just about any combination you can dream up (see Fig. 2).

Speaking of monitors, you should definitely consider upgrading to a flat-panel monitor for your DAW. Not only will you lose that high-pitched whine that some CRTs generate, your work area will become several degrees cooler, your desk space much larger, and your eyes less strained.

Having removed your noisiest components a safe distance away, you may now notice that your mouse and keyboard also generate quite a bit of clatter. Some people find the clacking of mouse and keyboard to be a reassuring sort of feedback as they type and point; if you aren't one of those people, however, rest assured that you can find models that are devoid of any such noises.

Remember that you probably already have 50 feet of remote control built into your system. Most DAWs support some type of MIDI remote control, allowing you to trigger anything from basic transport and recording functions to editing operations and undo commands from a keyboard, control surface, or a handy little remote gizmo such as the MIR from C-Mexx.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN

One drawback of relocating your CPU is that it makes the CD-ROM and floppy drives difficult to get to, which is a big pain when you're installing software or if you have plug-ins that require periodic CD insertion to verify authorization. Similarly, burning CDs or hitting the ever-popular reset button is more difficult when your computer is in the next room.

One solution to that problem is to put your computer in its own isolation booth, so it doesn't have to move out of the room. (Hey, it's good enough for singers.) The 16-inch wide Isomac ($1,135) and the 24-inch wide Isobox Studio ($1,395; see Fig. 3) from Sound Construction and Supply are good examples; they enclose the computer in a custom isolation booth about the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet. I've recorded sessions using a Pro Tools rig in an Isomac in the same room with an acoustic grand piano miked with some very sensitive mics, and computer noise was not an issue. The Isobox Studio boasts even greater noise reduction and also provides rackspaces for studio gear.

The Isomac and Isobox Studio are built from medium-density fiberboard to minimize transmission of the computer's racket to the outside air. The front door of both products is made of ½-inch-thick insulated glass to afford a good view of the computer and related components while reducing the noise; a back door provides easy access to rear-panel connections. The ventilation system in both cabinets is specially designed to keep the noise inside, and a thermometer is easily visible from the front, so you can see at a glance if there's cause for concern. Other noise-reduction cabinets that are worth considering (especially for computers with rackmount peripherals) include the AcoustiLock from Noren Products (www.acoustilock.com) and the IsoRaxx from Raxxess (www.raxxess.com).

If you decide to take the DIY route and build your own custom isolation box, be sure to keep ventilation in mind. A simple plywood box with some acoustic foam on the inside can provide significant noise reduction if you're careful to make tight-fitting seams and caulk them to prevent any leakage. Use weather stripping to ensure a tight fit on the doors, and put intake and exhaust fans on the back of the unit. You can even make your computer's case into an isolation box by lining the inside with absorptive foam and sealing any gaps. Remember, you'll need to leave at least one hole for air intake and another for exhaust.

If you're shopping for a new computer, consider buying one that's already optimized for noise-reduced operation. Carillon Audio Systems' AC1 systems (see Fig. 4) use all the techniques discussed here — vibration damping, hard-drive enclosures, quiet drives and fans — along with a custom-designed noise-reducing rackmount case to keep the decibels down. Carillon claims noise levels below 25 dB SPL, even during heavy read/write cycles.

ENJOY THE SILENCE

It's impossible to list all of the products available to help you quiet your computer, but these ideas will give you a good head start in your search. Whether you tackle one noisy component at a time or jump in with both feet and a big checkbook is up to you. But if you use your common sense and your ears to plan your attack, you'll be able to make some significant reductions in the roar of technology.

Quieting a Mac is the same as quieting a PC, with one exception: you'll need to overcome the “closed system” mystique associated with Apple products. Be brave and open the box! Respect the danger of static discharge and your computer's need for proper cooling, and you'll do fine. Just be warned that once you've silenced your computer, you'll start to realize just how loud your squeaky chair really is.

Brian Smithersis Course Director of Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida.

QUIET COMPANIES

Auralex Acoustics
www.auralex.com
MAX-Wall and other acoustic-treatment products

Belkin
www.belkin.com
KVM extenders and other computer accessories

Carillon Audio Systems
www.carillonusa.com
Turnkey DAW systems

C-Mexx
www.mircontrol.com
MIR MIDI Interactive Remote

Digidesign
www.digidesign.com
DigiDrive FireWire 80 external drive

Gefen, Inc.
www.gefen.com
KVM extenders and other computer accessories

NoiseControl
www.noisecontrol.de
No Vibes III hard-drive insulation cage and other quiet-computer accessories

QuietPC
www.quietpc.com
Distributor of acoustically friendly computer components, including quiet fans and power supplies

Samsung
www.samsung.com
Hard drives featuring NoiseGuard technology

Seagate Technology LLC
www.seagate.com
Barracuda hard drives featuring SoftSonic technology

Silent Systems
www.molex.com
SilentDrive

Sound Construction and Supply, Inc.
www.custom-consoles.com
Isomac and Isobox Studio