When Björk sang "it's oh so quiet", she probably wasn't referring to her PC — however, this month we survey the current options in the world of computer silencing, report on the release of a generic ASIO driver for WDM-compatible audio devices, and enjoy Rightmark's Audio Analyser 5.
Way back in SOS May 1997, as part of my first ever PC Notes column, I discussed the delights of silencing your computer by installing Papst temperature-controlled fans to replace the existing ones, mounting your hard drives on rubber grommets to cut down vibration, and fitting bitumastic pads to deaden case vibrations. At the time, this was very much a DIY approach that I'd been experimenting with, as very few commercial products existed for the specific needs of musicians trying to use a microphone in the same room as their computer.
Since that time, numerous companies have sprung up to cater for the demand, and manufacturers are now releasing a wider range of related products, ranging from rubber washers to complete silent PC cases like the Acousticase from Quiet PC (www.quietpc.com), which I mentioned in April's PC Notes. However, there's still a great deal of discussion about the most effective ways to reduce mechanical computer noise, and people complain that some of the products don't make any difference. So this month, I'm going to briefly revisit the subject and offer some guidelines to those considering the various 'silent' products now available for eliminating computer noise.
The first step when trying to silence the noise from your computer is to determine which is the noisiest component. In most cases, this will be the PSU (Power Supply Unit) fan, since this is the primary way for the heat generated by your CPU, other motherboard components, hard drives, graphics cards, and indeed the PSU itself, to be extracted from the rear of the case, while pulling in more cool air via the front panel vents. The reason many musicians don't hear any improvement when using 'silent' products is because they'll often start by replacing CPU fans, and silencing their already quiet hard drives in Silent Drive sleeves — but if the PSU is the problem, you simply won't hear much difference by doing this.
Unfortunately, it tends to be more difficult to replace PSU fans than the clip-on CPU ones, and it might be a job that involves soldering. However, you can now buy various pre-silenced power supplies from companies like Antec, Nexus, Q Technology and Zalman. These often accelerate the silencing process by using larger heatsinks to dissipate their own heat, and are therefore able to use fans with even lower airflow and even less noise. These are an ideal choice for anyone building their own PC.
Once you're happy that the PSU is as quiet as it can be, while still keeping your PC at a safe overall temperature, you can then concentrate on the CPU fan (which is usually the next noisiest item in many PCs), the case itself, and possibly the hard drives, although you may not need to encase these in a sleeve if you make a good job of silencing the case. Case silencing is often the most effective treatment after the PSU (but not before, since otherwise you'll end up with a silent case with a noisy fan on the back), and there are now quite a few sources of noise-deadening materials, often involving a thin layer of vibration-absorbing material stuck directly onto the case panels, and a further layer of acoustic foam on top of this to absorb internal noises.
Don't be tempted to source your own materials for this purpose unless you know what you're doing, since only open-cell foam is useful for acoustic purposes, and some sound-deadening pads can eventually dry out and cause powdery residues to accumulate inside your PC. This isn't exactly a recipe for reliability or efficient long-term cooling, and is the reason that few specialist retailers have used such products in the past.
There are quite a few web sites largely devoted to PC silencing, which is hardly surprising as it's still a reasonably cheap and very satisfying way to spend a few hours that will result in a permanent benefit to the background noise levels in your studio. One of the most comprehensive web sites I've found is Silent PC Review (www.silentpcreview.com), which has reviews of suitable products, along with articles grading CPUs and hard drives for noise and heat — if you're about to buy or build a new PC this is a very good read.
Anyone who's struggling to acheive low-latency operation with a cheap soundcard or motherboard soundchip that doesn't offer ASIO drivers will be interested in ASIO2KS, a generic ASIO driver developed by Tobias Erichsen that runs on Windows 2000 and XP and works as an extra layer above existing WDM drivers for any PCI, on-board or USB audio peripheral. Depending on the device in question, ASIO latency can apparently be set as low as 2ms — Tobius has managed this figure with an Asus P4T533-C motherboard soundchip and his Terratec EWX 2496 soundcard, although the latter already has dedicated ASIO 2.0 drivers. ASIO2KS sounds indispensable for anyone who wants to run an ASIO host application on a laptop's built-in audio ports, and it's currently available as a free beta download if you're brave enough to help iron out any bugs.
If you're interested in memory upgrades, you might like to know that both Micron and Samsung have recently created a 4GB dual in-line memory module (DIMM). Samsung were the first to announce this achievement back in January, using 46 1GB synchronous DDR RAMs that offer up to 222MB/second data transfer rates. However, Micron have now actually delivered one of their 4GB DIMMs to Intel that meets PC1600 and PC2100 DDR standards, using 1GB DDR-266 SDRAM packages. Prices and availability are likely to be announced later this year.
Users of the excellent Rightmark Audio Analyser will be excited to learn about the new version 5 release, which includes many new features to make tests easier to perform by new users. A new wizard can guide you through the entire test process, and instead of the twin -1/-6dB tones previously used for setting levels, the new Adjust I/O Level window can appear before every test run to check things over, displaying level meters, clipping and inter-channel leakage indicators, plus a text box containing helpful hints on what to do if the level isn't at the desired -1dB. There are new icon options for the various external test options for DAT recorders and similar devices, while higher FFT resolution tests are now run by default, although the old-style ones are still available for compatibility purposes. There's a new option to automatically display the frequency range up to half the current sample rate, and you can even subtract one frequency response from another to display the difference. The stereo crosstalk test has also been improved, although there does currently seem to be a bug when displaying multiple results on one graph.
Each time you install a card in a different PCI expansion slot it will detected again by your PC, both in the BIOS and by Windows; so if you tried several options after last month's feature on choosing the best slot for your soundcard, your Registry may well have ended up with multiple references to your hardware. Although these won't show up in Device Manager, they clutter up the hardware section of your Registry and your PC may well benefit from a Safe Mode cleanup, as described in PC Notes June 2000. However, your Registry will only contain these redundant references if you've gone through the 'New Hardware Found' cycle, so multi-boot users need only examine the Windows installation they booted into while shuffling their card's position.
If your MIDI interface doesn't have multi-client drivers, you may be tempted to install a MIDI patch-cable utility to add this capability. The famous Hubi's Loopback doesn't run under Windows 2000 or XP, but two products that do are the $14 Ntonyx MIDI Matrix (www.ntonyx.com/mm10.htm) and the freeware Midi Yoke (www.midiox.com/myoke.htm), although the latter's Windows NT/2000/XP version is a largely unsupported beta. Unfortunately, Gigastudio seems to take a violent dislike to such products under XP, as I recently discovered after installing Midi Yoke. It worked flawlessly with other applications like Cubase SX, but Gigastudio took minutes rather than seconds to launch and left my CPU running permanently at 100 percent so that my PC slowed to a crawl. A little research showed that various other Gigastudio users had experienced the same problem, but I couldn't find any way to solve it. Thankfully I had another course of action: to abandon the slightly lower latency of my Midisport 8x8's serial port drivers, and install the latest USB versions, which do have multi-client capability.