This month Martin Walker seeks out the suppliers of products aimed at reducing noise from your PC.
Things change fast in the world of PCs. In last month's Q&A I told a reader that I wasn't aware of a quiet power supply specifically recommended for use with Athlon‑based PCs, and now I've managed to find one from the UK firm Quiet PC (mentioned in PC Notes April 2000). Their product range has now expanded considerably to include several low‑noise power supplies from Q Technology, including two that are apparently approved by AMD for use with their Athlon and "are more than capable of meeting their critical power needs". But more about this later.
Three Ultra‑Quiet PSUs are available — the 230W model is £44, and Quiet PC say that this should be suitable for most PCs, while those running lots of expansion cards, in particular 3D graphics processing cards with heatsinks, will probably benefit from one of the 'beefier' models. Both of these — the 250W model at £47 and the 300W model at £54 — are also recommended for Athlon‑based PCs. All three models benefit from thermally‑controlled fans for minimal noise, and should work with nearly all motherboards, apart from one rogue model, the Asus P2BLS, which restarts instead of powering down. They are ATX‑compatible, and will directly replace the existing ATX PSUs in most PCs. Conversion cables are also available to allow those with older AT‑style motherboards to use them.
Power supplies fitted to commercial PCs are typically very cheap and cheerful, normally being supplied with the case at a unit cost of £50 or less, so replacing the whole thing with a more upmarket design could well make your PC more reliable in the long term. In addition, replacement is a simple matter of unplugging the floppy drive, hard drive, and motherboard cables, unscrewing the old PSU, and then reversing the process.This is far easier than attempting to replace just the PSU fan, where you need to open up the current mains supply and expose yourself to possibly lethal voltages, as well as getting out the soldering iron.
Expanding The Fan Club
In the past it has been tricky for UK users to get suitable fans to silence their PCs, since it either involved dealing with an electronic components company, with a bewilderingly vast range of products, or buying from a company who specialise in overclocking accessories, and who are therefore far more interested in heat dissipation than low noise. Both of the aforementioned methods hold the potential to be a bit unreliable and, in fact, some PC users have found that their replacement fans are no quieter.
Thankfully, Quiet PC now have several fans in their range that are specifically designed for low‑noise operation, including an 80mm model for PSU use. This isn't thermally controlled, but does have ball bearings, a low speed of 1600rpm, and a rated acoustic noise level of just 20dBA. So, if you're happy to open up your PSU you can save some money and buy one for just £16. You can also leave your soldering iron in the cupboard, since it terminates in a hard drive‑type connector, which makes installation far easier.
The latest product in the range is a processor heatsink/cooling fan featuring a Radial Fin design that offers "superb cooling performance but at the same time runs almost silently". Its surface sound pressure level measures a very low 22dBA and, because the large surface area of the heatsink fins provides such good cooling, it's also suitable for overclocked processors that run hotter than normal. It's suitable for retrofitting to any Pentium III processor, along with the PGA 370 Celeron II series, AMD K6, K62 and K6III, Intel PPGA Celeron, Pentium MMX and Pentium Classic. The Radial Fin Cooler is also very good value at just £17, although sadly it doesn't fit either the Pentium II or Athlon ranges, the older slot 1 Celerons, or the Pentium III Xeon.
Quiet PCs web site has a set of useful FAQs, along with very detailed step‑by‑step instructions and photographs showing how to fit each product. Silent Drive hard disk sleeves are still available at £24, for those who have spare 5.25 inch drive bays and want to silence their hard drives as well. Quiet PC obviously sell direct to UK customers, but can also deliver to 200 countries world‑wide (www.quietpc.com).
Athlon Power Supplies
After reading the above, some of you may still be wondering why Athlon‑based PCs need specially approved power supplies at all, and why some web sites should issue dire warnings such as "Only AMD‑recommended power supplies should be used. Failure to use a recommended power supply may result in damage to your motherboard". Well, processor manufacturers AMD say that their recommendations are based on the ability of a supply to provide sufficient current from its +5V and +3.3V supply rails. They maintain a checklist of approved supplies on their web site (www1.amd.com/athlon/power).
Nearly all of the ones mentioned on this list are of at least 300W capacity, although you can use a recommended 250W device if you have a 'minimally configured' system with only one 5400rpm hard drive, 128Mb RAM, and a 16Mb AGP graphics card. You would probably be safer using a 300W (or larger) device, especially if you anticipate adding more expansion cards later on. However, I've heard rumours that even some of the approved models worked badly with some Athlon motherboards, and some users have found that their PCs wouldn't run for more than five minutes before shutting down. Athlon PCs bought as complete systems will, of course, already have approved power supplies, but you should be careful if you're building your own.
By the way, you can certainly use an Athlon‑recommended PSU in a Pentium‑based PC, since the voltages are exactly the same. In fact, I personally welcome the concept of approved lists of PC components for particular tasks. After all, wouldn't life be easier if soundcard manufacturers all displayed prominent lists of compatible CPU and motherboard chipsets, to save users finding out incompatibilities the hard way, after their soundcard purchase. With the current popularity of the Athlon it just isn't sufficient any more to say that soundcards are only tested with Intel components, and that using anything else is at the user's own risk.
With this in mind I was very pleased to see that RME have published a list on their web site of hardware recommendations for the RME Reference PC (www.rme‑audio.com/english/techinfo/refpc/index.htm). This uses a 600MHz Pentium IIIE Coppermine processor, along with 128Mb of RAM, an Asus P3B‑F motherboard with six PCI slots, a Matrox G400 Dual Head graphic card, and IBM Deskstar Ultra ATA66 hard drives. Using one of their Hammerfall soundcards, it managed 24 tracks of 16‑bit 44.1kHz audio while simultaneously running a Model‑E and Pro‑Five softsynths, all with 3mS latency. Sounds good to me!
PC Hardware Snippets
Intel have announced that the next version of their Pentium processor, expected later this year, has moved on from its working codename of Williamette to the rather more mundane Pentium 4. More interestingly, due to pressure from its customers and partners, the associated chipset won't be restricted to the expensive Rambus RIMM memory like the 820i chipset, but will instead use the much more affordable SDRAM. It's also introduced a 1.13GHz version of the Pentium III, although the 1GHz version is only now beginning to appear in the real world, despite being originally announced in February (www.intel.com).
After praising the Abit BE6 motherboard in my 'Solid Foundations' feature (SOS January 2000) for its support of E‑IDE hard drives, I thought I'd better pass on some concerns that I first spotted on various user forums. Although a few musicians have reported difficulties with IRQ sharing when using this motherboard, the main problem seems to be poor performance from the Highpoint UDMA Controller that provides the additional four E‑IDE connections with UDMA66 capability.
A few users have apparently cured incompatibility problems between their Maxtor hard drives by downloading and installing the latest Highpoint drivers, but various other musicians still experienced indifferent performance which left their UDMA66 drives working more slowly than their UDMA33 ones! The easiest solution is to disable the Highpoint controller and replace it with a Promise UDMA Controller card for about £40. Thanks to SOS reader Chris Nicolaides for confirming this fix (www.abit.com).
PC Software Snippets
Shortly after completing my PC Musician feature for the September issue, a new standalone utility was released by Audio Precision, the company who market the test equipment used by most soundcard manufacturers to measure audio performance. PC LevelCheck v2.1 contains a simple oscilloscope with auto range facility that keeps the display height constant whatever level you feed it, a spectrum analyser with Lin or Log FFT display and variable FFT size, and a simulated analogue meter displaying level relative to dBFS, along with a peak level display with optional hold facility. All three can monitor either input or output signals, and you can also use the Mixer Control page with many soundcards instead of launching the Windows Volume Control utility. I did experience a few error messages, but the basics work well, and PC LevelCheck is completely free of charge (www.ap.com/techsupport/pcaudio_t...).
In his never‑ending quest for world domination, Angus Hewlett has launched yet another FXpansion product with a difference. Mysteron is a VST Instrument based on Newtonian mechanics, and emulates the Theremin, much loved by 1950's sci‑fi films such as The Day The Earth Stood Still. It can be controlled by MIDI and effectively becomes a one‑oscillator synth with portamento. However, it's the X/Y mouse controller which makes it so much more fun, since you can control pitch and amplitude by clicking anywhere on its surface, whereupon it leaps towards the target position exactly like a mass on a spring. Rate and Overshoot controls let you 'boing' and 'wobble' with the best of them, and I soon mastered Clangers voices and spooky singing saw melodies. You can get some really unique sounds from Mysteron, and it's just the thing to liven up a dull mix. Best of all, it's totally free from (www.fxpansion.com).
Logic 4.5 is now available for free download from the Emagic web site. The URL given below is the official page for PC users, and there are 4.5 update files available (if you look carefully) for the last nine versions of Logic, right back to 4.00. The biggest news is the new surround features in the Platinum version, along with a new class of audio objects, the capability for sixteen audio instruments, and improved display of their plug‑ins. Now that Steinberg have a much stronger entry‑level product in Cubasis VST, Emagic have retaliated with VST 2.0 and DirectX plug‑in support for MicroLogic AV. However, PC users will also be delighted to hear that all 4.5 versions of Logic for Windows have a new and improved audio engine with lower latency, faster fader response. However, Emagic do admit that some soundcard owners may experience problems if they previously used workarounds to resolve issues in previous Logic versions (www.emagic.de/english/support/do...).
Syntrillium have announced new versions of their Cool Edit range. The entry‑level Cool Edit 2000 is a low‑cost shareware audio editor, and this is now up to version 1.1, with real‑time previews of most audio transforms, a new faster MP3 plug‑in with variable bit rate option, and the inevitable bug fixes and enhancements. Meanwhile the up‑market Cool Edit Pro is up to version 1.2a. As the version number suggests, this is not a major update, but Noise Reduction is now claimed to be 300 percent faster, and hard disk management and Windows 2000 multi‑user support have both been enhanced (www.syntrillium.com).