This Rain Recording model is the fastest PC ever reviewed in SOS, so far, and also one of the quietest. Let's take a closer look...
Rain Recording have been quietly gaining a reputation across the US over the last few years for their attractive range of quiet yet powerful PCs, and from October last year they've been available to UK and European customers. This is the first PC I've been sent for review by Rain Recording UK, but the person running it is no stranger to the pages of SOS. Robin Vincent was part of the team who created the Carillon AC1 PC, and he's also written two books devoted to computer music.
Given this pedigree, I was expecting something special, and I wasn't disappointed. This PC is notable for three things; it features one of Intel's new Quad Core processors, it comes with a massive 8GB of system RAM, and it has the Windows Vista Ultimate operating system installed (both 32-bit and 64-bit versions were supplied). Let's get stuck in immediately.
Rain obviously like Cooler Master cases; their Element range of desktop PCs have used blue or silver Wave Master models, while this new Nimbus range features a Mystique 632 all-aluminium case that wouldn't be out of place on the set of Doctor Who. Its aluminium front doors have an illuminated blue vertical strip, and once you pull the magnetic catch, they open out using a gear-driven mechanism to provide access to the drive bays. The power and reset switches, LED indicators, two USB ports, one Firewire port, headphone output and mic input for the motherboard's 'High Definition Audio' chip set are all on the the top of the case.
Once I'd removed the side panel, I could also see that the inside of the case was lined with acoustic material to deaden remaining noise, while the internal wiring was a model of neatness. Taking pride of place in this system is an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 processor, which is essentially two E6600 Conroe 2.4GHz dual-core chips stuck side by side into a single LGA775 package, so you can drop it into many existing Core 2 Duo motherboards with a BIOS update. The Q6600 is cooled by a Noctua NHU12F cooler, which ships with a 120mm fan (the larger the diameter, the slower most fans have to run to do their job, and therefore the quieter they tend to be).
Rain have chosen an Intel DP975X BX2 motherboard for this system, which, as its name suggests, features a 975X chip set. Intel motherboards have long been renowned for being stable and compatible, yet conservative, but this one (aka the 'Bad Axe 2') is notable for being targeted at games players, being one of the first Intel motherboards to offer overclocking capabilities (although these weren't used in this system).
Instead of the usual 4GB of system RAM fitted to their regular Pro Quad machines, for this review model Rain fitted the maximum 8GB of RAM supported by the motherboard. Such vast quantities of RAM will of course interest those who run loads of soft synths, and particularly those who assemble virtual orchestras with their soft samplers, but it does considerably notch up the overall price, and to get any benefit beyond 4GB of RAM you need to run Vista 64-bit, as well as suitable applications, which are still in short supply.
Three identical Seagate SATA II 500GB drives had been installed: one as a system drive partitioned into a 100GB system partition and a 400GB samples partition, and the other two set up as a Terabyte (1000GB) RAID Zero array for audio purposes. Unusually, all three drives were fitted in elastic-mounted No Vibes cradles, to completely remove any possibility of drive vibration being transmitted to the rest of the case.
To complete the hardware line-up, Rain have included a relatively modest Geforce 7300CG 256MB fanless video card with dual-head DVI outputs (a DVI-to-VGA adaptor is included for those lacking digital monitor inputs) and a Lite-On DVD burner. A two-port Firewire card featuring a Via chip set has been fitted to one of the PCI slots to provide four Firewire ports in total (the two ports from the motherboard use a Texas Instruments chip, so between the two chip sets you're almost guaranteed compatibility with almost any audio interface, whatever its preferences).
I was also supplied with an RME Fireface 800 interface for testing purposes, and several Vista image files so I could try specially tweaked 32-bit and 64-bit installs, each with Steinberg's Cubase 4 pre-installed.
This particular system only has one free PCI slot, which may disappoint some potential purchasers, although on the other hand it features a generous complement of four Firewire ports, which will delight others. I would imagine that most users won't miss the floppy drive, but you could easily add one for a few pounds if you ever needed one, while the integral High Definition audio features on the motherboard will no doubt come in handy on occasion, even if you're running your own ASIO-compatible audio interface alongside.
- Case: Cooler Master Mystique 632 ATX.
- PSU: Zalman 460-watt 'noiseless'.
- Motherboard: Intel D975X BX2 with one Socket LGA775 (for Intel Core 2 Quad/Extreme/Duo, Pentium Extreme, Pentium 4 Extreme, Pentium D, or Pentium 4 processor), Intel 975X chip set, four DIMM sockets supporting up to 8GB of system memory, three PCIe slots (one each of x16, x8, and x4), two PCI slots.
- Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 with 2.4GHz clock speed and 8MB cache.
- CPU heat sink and fan: Noctua NHU12F with 120mm fan.
- System RAM: Kingston 8GB PC5300 667MHz DDR2 with 5-5-5-15 timing.
- System drive: Seagate ST3500 630AS, 500GB, 7200rpm, SATA II, 16MB buffer.
- Audio Drive: two Seagate ST3500 630AS, 500GB, 7200rpm, SATA II, 16MB buffer, set up as 1TB RAID 0.
- Graphics Card: XFX Nvidia Geforce 7300GT 256MB dual-port with passive cooling.
- Optical Drive: Lite-On DVD-RW LH-18A1P.
- Active System Ports: PS/2 mouse and keyboard, up to eight USB 2.0 ports, serial and parallel ports, Gigabit LAN port, two motherboard Firewire 400 ports, two additional Firewire 400 ports on a PCI card.
- Audio Hardware: Intel 8-channel High Definition Audio interface on motherboard.
- Installed Operating System: Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit/64-bit.
While the PaQ case still holds the crown as the quietest option for musicians, this Rain Nimbus system is significantly quieter than many review PCs I've received over the last couple of years, with virtually no mechanical noise from the drives, thanks to their No Vibes mountings. You could certainly record with a microphone in the same room, and the only noticeable sound is the gentle whirr of airborne drive noise and a tiny bit of 'seek' noise still slightly audible through the front drive bays (the aluminium front doors may look wonderful, but they are largely cosmetic and do nothing to further reduce drive noise).
My only reservation concerning elastic drive mountings is the possibility of the drives coming adrift during transit. Given the huge gash in the robust packaging that the review system arrived in, the courier company had obviously subjected it to some extreme treatment en route, so I wasn't surprised to find all three drives bounced completely out of their cradles! However, the drives themselves still worked perfectly, and it only took me a few minutes to get them all back into their harnesses. Robin has now enhanced the drive-mounting arrangements to prevent anyone else having a similar experience in the future.
All of Rain's computer line has been pronounced 'Vista ready', but only the particular system under review here is shipped with Vista 64-bit by default (so it can benefit from the 8GB RAM). The 4GB model is available with Windows XP Professional, XP Professional x64, Vista Ultimate 32-bit, or Vista Ultimate 64-bit. Both the 32-bit and 64-bit disk images I was sent with the review PC had been extensively tweaked, and these tweaks made a considerable difference to audio performance when I compared them to a standard Vista install.
I first ran Sisoftware's Sandra, which showed that memory bandwidth was roughly on a par with my own Conroe-based PC, at around 5.1Gb/second, while the CPU Arithmetic and Multimedia benchmarks were almost exactly double those of my PC, which is exactly what I expected, given its four 2.4GHz cores, compared to the two 2.4GHz cores of my own machine.
However, from here on in the results were more subdued. Despite its age, I decided to once again use the Cubase SX Fivetowers test to place this machine in context with all the others I've reviewed over the years. As expected, the measured CPU overhead for the Nimbus was significantly faster than any previous PC I've measured, although at 23ms it only measured 33 percent faster than my Conroe running Windows XP, while the 3ms result was only nine percent better.
I next ran the more punishing Cubase SX3 Thonex test and once again got significantly better results than my own E6600 machine, although nowhere near the double I was hoping for: depending on buffer size, the improvements varied between 22 percent and 27 percent. To check that these results weren't due to the supplied Firewire audio interface I then installed my own PCI-based Echo Mia, but got identical measurements. Perhaps these lacklustre Fivetowers/Thonex results were due to testing with Cubase SX rather than Cubase 4 (which unfortunately wouldn't run the various benchmarks I normally use).
I measured no difference in these benchmarks between Vista 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but that didn't surprise me, since Cubase SX and the other applications I used are all 32-bit, as are the plug-ins and soft synths. The identical results also meant that the extra 4GB of RAM available to Vista 64-bit didn't benefit any of these tests either, which again is no surprise. The benefits of extra RAM will be enjoyed by those who want to load huge amounts of sample data into system RAM rather than stream it from the hard drive, but until the big guns, such as Tascam's Gigastudio, are released in Vista-compatible versions, we can only speculate on the possible improvements in polyphony.
On the more positive side, I also carried out the DAW Bench test and got results closer to what I expected. I managed about 160 Magneto plug-ins with a buffer size of 1024 samples (my own Intel E6600 dual-core PC manages 80 Magnetos at this setting), and 128 at 256 samples (an Intel QX6700 quad-core running at at a faster 2.66GHz is measured at 165 Magnetos at 256 samples on the DAW Bench web site).
Rain's own tests on this machine with their own CPU-intensive benchmarks (created specifically for Cubase 4) indicate that, when running audio-tweaked Windows XP, the Q6600 quad-core only outperforms an otherwise identical E6600 dual-core machine by around 23 percent. However, when Rain install Vista and tweak it to suit audio applications, performance leaps ahead, close to doubling in comparison with the E6600 running Windows XP (see the Rain web site for further details). These particular tests suggest that quad-core machines will provide better audio performance with Vista than Windows XP, although this may be a one-off anomaly with Cubase 4: such are the perils when running applications on a new operating system when they were written for an older one.
Overall, it may also be significant that whereas the Fivetowers and Thonex tests measure the Cubase CPU Meter value, the tests that gave better results with the Nimbus system (Rain's own, and my DAW Bench tests) both stress the CPU with extra plug-ins until it runs out of steam and starts glitching. This is a more real-world approach that matches what musicians actually do with their systems, and bypasses any reliance on the accuracy of the CPU meter reading.
All Rain PCs are covered by a 12-month warranty and any hardware found to be defective during this time will be repaired or replaced, although some hardware items may also be covered by their manufacturer for longer periods. They also come with 30 days of free Rain Care phone support (from 12pm to 6pm Monday to Friday), although you can extend your telephone support to a year and your warranty to three years by purchasing the optional Rain Care support program for an additional £175.
There's a dedicated Help Desk for email queries on their systems, staffed by trained technicians who aim to reply to your queries within 24 hours, and you can also use the Help Desk to book a Rain Care Remote appointment so a technician can remotely connect to your computer to help diagnose any problems. The web site also provides a helpful Knowledge Base section, written by Rain's engineers, that's available to everyone (www.rainrecording.co.uk/support/kbase). It's well worth a browse!
Rain's Nimbus Quad Core PC is a tricky machine to sum up. It's certainly quiet, attractive (particularly to those with a penchant for sci-fi) and extremely fast given the most appropriate operating system and audio applications, which so far (according to Rain's own tests) seem to be Vista and Cubase 4, and I suspect also Cakewalk's Vista 64-bit capable Sonar v6.2.
The Nimbus' Thonex benchmark is significantly faster than a similarly-clocked dual-core PC, but doesn't appear to show its full potential with the Cubase SX/Vista combination.
My own Sandra results confirm that its CPU capability is almost exactly double that of a similarly-clocked dual-core system running Windows XP, and the DAW Bench measurements scale well with those of other PCs, so while the Fivetowers/Thonex benchmarks were disappointing I don't think this is the whole story.
The Nimbus is a luxury system, with a luxury £2507 price tag to match (largely because the processor costs over £500, and 2GB RAM sticks are currently so expensive). It should suit any musician who wants to run absolutely loads of everything — audio tracks, plug-ins, soft synths and soft sampler instruments. However, if, like most musicians running a 'software studio', you tend to run out of CPU before RAM or hard drive capability, you could opt for 4GB instead of 8GB of system RAM and a single audio drive instead of the twin-drive array, which knocks a massive £1000 off the price.
I suspect Rain are slightly ahead of the game with this new Nimbus system. It currently works well with Cubase 4, while its performance with other audio applications should get better and better in the future without buyers needing to spend any more money, as Vista-enhanced versions are released. That's a concept I approve of!
- The fastest PC reviewed in SOS to date!
- Low acoustic noise.
- Huge amount of system RAM to cope with future sampling duties.
- Four Firewire 400 ports.
- Cutting-edge features such as these are reflected in the price.
- Not all audio applications may take advantage of all four processing cores.
- Vista-compatible audio applications are currently quite scarce.
- Only one free PCI slot.
The Nimbus runs quiet and cool, and is the fastest PC we've reviewed in SOS. Its performance may be even better once more Vista-enhanced audio applications are released. The reviewed system price is high, but if you don't need 8GB of RAM, the 4GB version is more affordable.
Nimbus system as reviewed, with 8GB RAM and 1.5TB drive, £2507. Nimbus system with 4GB RAM and 500GB drive, £1899. Prices include VAT.
+44 (0)845 094 3964.
+44 (0)20 8181 4651.