Last weekend whilst having a hunt round the BPM show at the NEC we came upon our friends at Steinberg and their wonderful little CMC series controllers. You can pick and choose from a number of cheap and cheerful units to make up your very own dream control panel. With that in mind and a view to populate his own x-mas wants list even further our Tom sat down with Andrew from Steinberg and had him take us through the options available.
Building A Silent PC Solution in the NoFan Set A40 Case
One of the main considerations for any audiocentric build has traditionally been the overall noise of the final system. If you get to design a studio from the ground up, you find yourself able to rack up or remove the computer hardware into a separate area away from your recording section of the studio. For a lot of users through especially those working in a small project studio environment this may not be viable and you may have to compramises in order to make the overall setup work. In this situation you may still need to have the ability to edit and record in the studio space where your setting up mic’s and instruments so the last thing you want to be able to hear in your final recordings is noise from the computer doing the processing work.
Whilst all of our systems are designed with this in mind and components are carefully chosen to ensure as little background noise is created as possible, what if we could go further than that? Ideally we want to be removing as many moving parts from inside a computer as we can to ensure you end up with the lowest noise footprint possible.
Enter the 3XS NF26 and the SET-A40 case.
NoFan are a new company setup by the original designers from Zalman, who have left to start up a new company developing unique designs and innovating in the world of PC silence. The SET-A40 bundle we base this build around includes a case, cooler and 400w PSU which are all designed to run passively with no fans for required for cooling and allowing use for CPUs rated at upto 95w TDP.
To sum up the design and idea behind the system I’ll add in here what the company themselves have to say about this product: ” Nofan’s bundle comprises their revolutionary CR-100A IcePipe Fanless Cooler, a fanless 400W power supply and a specialized convection case to accommodate the CPU cooler and any other components that are required to build the perfect silent computer, with zero dust build up.”
So without further ado let’s take a look at it.
Well it’s a case box. Indications on it that we should expect 0 db(a) of noise from the system and indications of the components inside. It’s at this stage that you’ll get the first indication of the crazy cooling system from the artwork on the side but more of this later.
Once we break it out of the box we get to take at look at the front panel. It has a couple of exposed 5.25 bays and a 3.5 for your card readers. The are the normal selection of ports and jacks on the front and all in all, so far, so ordinary.
With the side panel off we see once more fairly typical case design but lurking in there are some out of the ordinary bits and pieces. First of all the large brown box taking up most of the free space is certainly in need of further examination…
Having opened the box the first thoughts through many peoples minds are pretty much “What is that?!!?!?”. In office we discussed the lot from hamster wheel right through to salad spinner. In actual fact this is the very heart of the machine.
I present to you the NoFan fanless cooler.
Based around a liquid pipe design it certainly is sizable but at the same time suprisingly light. Underneath we can see a nicely polished base with the company logo etched into it with a couple of heatpipes as well as the support arms designed to carry heat away from the heatsink base itself.
It’s certainly a nice tidy design and no sharp edges to it which will make builders use to the Zalman flower designs of old breathe a sigh of relief!
So how does this monster heatsink attach to the motherboard? With surprising ease in fact and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into this design. 4 mounting poles are attached via screw mounts into a special backplate and that is more or less that which for a heatsink of this size is once again quite surprising.
A side on shot of the system with the motherboard mounted inside. You’ll notice at this point the rather odd mounting position of the psu. As this is also passive and generating heat NoFan have decided to mount it at the front rather than the rear to keep the heat evenly spread throughout the system.
Once again the thought that has gone into this design becomes apparent when you attempt to mount the heatsink. Some designs can be very hard to mount but with this you can just drop the cooler into the case and then you line up the screw holes…
Screw in the thumbscrews and the job is pretty much done.
Quick easy and far less hassle than a lot of other designs.
And there you have it. The system is assembled and ready to be fired up for the first time.
So what do we think of it here in Scan? It’s a bit of a niche item but it does the job very well if it fits your requirements. Annoyingly some mechanical parts are still required to complete the build but you can work around these as well. We’ve set ours up with an SSD for the O.S. drive which will keep the performance up and the noise down but you’ll still need something to hold your project data and a larger mechanical is still the only real option. For our demonstration unit we set it up using a caddie that allows you to fit both a laptop hard drive and a slimline slot loading Dvd drive. The laptop harddrives are generally quiet solutions and by using the caddie it allows the drive to be swappable allowing for quick backups or the moving of projects between machines. Also by using a slot loading optical drive in this solution we get a reduced noise level as slot loaders tend to pinch the optical disk on both sides rather than a single sided spindle lift you see in tray designs so less rattle from your dvd’s.
On the all important performance side it work fantastically too. We initially tried it with a normal 95w 2600 CPU and ran it on Prime 95 for around 6 hours with the CPU running around the 85 degree mark. Whilst that is still within Intels limits we like to build our systems with a bit more overhead as studios as we all know tend to get a little bit toasty once all those lovely toys are turned on! So we broke out the 2600S low powered edition which uses around 30% less power than it’s bigger brother. We clocked up the CPU to around 3.3Ghz which is only just slightly slower than the 3.4Ghz rated 2600 regular and did the same Prime 95 test once more. This time we got an average of around 70 digress over the same time frame which is far below our own in house threshold and once you factor in that the machine will never be run in the real world at this sort of level for more than a few minutes at a time it promises a long and stable life for the machines usable duration… most impressive!
Whilst you can never fully remove every mechanical component from your build, by using these options you will minimize the noise levels of what’s left and the result will be an extremely quiet solution ideal for in studio usage.
This system is available on the Scan 3XS site on the audio system configurator : 3XS NF26 Silent P.C.
The NoFan Set A40 is also available as a barebones bundle : NoFan Set – A40
Every year we find with computer systems as with so many other products it seems that the is always something bigger, better and faster becoming available. The question is how do we validate those claims and work out which solution will fit which user whilst offering the best performance at any given price point?
Here in Scan we use a number of different tests and where gamers concern themselves with performance indicators like 3DMark and video people concentrate on Cinebench for audio the stand out test used by retailers and reviewers alike is DAWBench for audio computer system benchmarking. DAWBench’s working methodology is a rather large subject in itself and something we will be covering in later articles in much depth but here we can give a quick overview covering how it relates to audio computer system performance.
The DAWBench tests revolve around running as many instances of a given effect or audio source as possible until the CPU overloads and audio corruption is generated in the signal path. The most common variation of this test is the RXC compressor test which has been in use now for a number of years and has plenty of results generated overtime making it ideal for us to look at how performance has grown from generation to generation of audio computer systems.
The test itself is fairly simple to carry out and can be run in a number of popular sequencers including (but not limited to) Cubase, Reaper, Sonar and Protools. The template for the test can be downloaded from the DAWBench website which consists of 4 tracks of audio parts and 40 channels of sine waves. On each of these sine wave parts 8 RXC compressors are included already set up but not yet activated and it is these you switch on one at a time in order to put the system under more and more load. Whilst testing the sine wave channels that you are working with are turned down but the accumulated compressors continue to up the load on the system and you monitor the situation by means of the looping audio tracks playing through your speakers. As you reach the point where the processing ability of the system reaches its maximum handling ability the audio you hear will start to distort and break up and it’s at this point where you have to turn off a few compressor instances taking it back to the point where the audio is clean and unbroken, which when you have the audio this point you then make a note of the total number of RXC compressor instances achieved and that is your score at the buffer setting in question.
A quick real world explanation of buffer latency for those not familiar with it is this. A low buffer setting means that your input devices can communicate quickly with the CPU inside of the audio computer system and the data can be processed quickly and for real time interaction this is crucial. Something you can try yourself is setting the buffer latency in your sound card control panel firstly to it’s lowest figure normally around the 32/48/64 level and playing a note on your midi controller which you will find is very responsive at these settings. If however you raise the latency settings up to around the 1024 level or higher and now trigger your midi controller you’ll notice a definite amount of lag between the key press and the sound coming out of the speakers.
So why would we want to run an interface at 1024 or higher settings?
As you bring down the buffer figure to improve response times your placing more and more load upon the CPU as a smaller buffer is forced to talk to the CPU more often which means more wasted cycles as it switches from other jobs to accommodate the data being processed. Whilst an artist performing or recording in real time will want the very lowest settings to enable the fastest fold back of audio to enable them to perform their best, a mix engineer may wish to run with these buffers set far higher to free up plenty more CPU headroom to enable high quality inline processing VSTi’s the performance to carry out their tasks without overloading the processor which as we’ve seen before would cause poor results in the final mixdown.
Too keep the playing field level the results below have been tested with Windows 7 64bit and in all these tests we have used a firewire M-audio Profire 1814 interface to ensure the results are not skewed by using various interfaces with different driver solutions. The are better cards that will give better results at super low latencies, with the RME range for instance going down to buffer settings of 48 on the USB/Firewire solutions and even 32 on the internal models. The M-Audio unit however has great drivers for the price point and we feel that giving fair figures using an interface at an accessible pricepoint gives a fair reflection of performance available to the average user and those who are in the position to invest in more premium units should find themselves with additional performance gains. We will be comparing various interfaces in the future here on the blog and the are benchmarks being produced in the DAWBench forums which also good further reading for those of you looking for new card solutions in the meantime.
So what does the chart above show us?
The are a number of audio computer systems being tested on there from over the last few years and it shows the continued growth of performance as newer hardware has been released. The stock i7 2600 proved to be a great performer when stacked up against the previous high end Intel systems even coming close to the hexcore flagship chips from that generation. What we also see is that once you take a 2600k and overclock it as we do here the performance available is greater than the 990x for a great deal less cost wise although it has to be noted that the X58 platform has more available bandwidth which can help increase performance in some real world instances where the user is working with vast sample libraries, the results we see here are a good indicator of how the machines will run for a more typical user.
Also worth noting in the performance results above is the i5 2500 result as we use it in our entry level value systems currently. The performance is roughly half of the overclocked 2600k system and in real world terms the cost of the system is roughly half as well meaning that whilst neither unit offers better value for money than the other in the cost vs performance stakes, in instances where your recording requirements are not quite as great the value spec still offers plenty of power to get you going and achieve completion on smaller projects even if it doesn’t offer the additional cooling and silencing features we have as standard on the high end solutions. It’s also worth noting that the i5 2500 scores close to the last generation i7 930 which shows how much performance improved between the last generation and the current one.
Our high end laptop solution in all but the very lowest latency situations also proves to be pretty much on par with the last X58 based i7 930 processor which itself still offers enough power to the user to get the job done in all but the most demanding situations which means that the age of the full desktop replacement laptop is very much with us making it as easy to edit, mix and produce fully formed mixes on the road as it is to perform every night with the very same units.
Hopefully that helps explain how we rate audio computer systems in house for performance testing and will help you decide upon your own next system. We run these tests on each new range we release so keep an eye out for further articles showing testing results as new hardware reaches the market.
SCAN GUIDE TO MIDI CONTROLLERS:
WHAT IS A MIDI CONTROLLER KEYBOARD?
Basically a MIDI Controller Keyboard is way of communicating with a Synth or a sampler or a Computer running a VST instrument or other software based Sound generator.
It is possible to play music via a computer by simply entering data into the DAW via the QWERTY key board, but it’s not very musical.
Keyboard controllers are usually based on a standard piano keyboard. Pressing down a key allows a Note On/Note Off message to be sent to a receiving device, a sampler maybe, telling it exactly which note to sound. At the same time a velocity message is transmitted, showing how hard the key was struck.
Compared to a real piano, most keyboard controllers have small keys and provide a playing range of just a few octaves.
They usually have no internal sounds of their own. Many units also come with various sliders, knobs and pads which can be assigned to control other MIDI functions linked to filters and Oscillators.
The Controller usually connects to the computer via a USB port, doing away with the need for a MIDI interface. Most software can recognise the USB as a MIDI Device.
OTHER MIDI CONTROLLERS…….
As well as devices based on a Piano keyboard, there are many controllers available which are based around a series of pads, or sliders and knobs, as well as dedicated controllers for software packages like Ableton Live.
They basically all work the same way, sending MIDI controller data to the computer or synth, and allowing the user to manipulate the sound in a much more tangible and intuitive way.
PERCUSSION MIDI CONTROLLERS:
These are specialised ‘Drum Kits’ or individual drum like elements that allow the user to play sampled or computer generated percussion sounds in an authentic way.
32 bit systems are limited to 4gb of memory in theory (in reality its between 3-3.5gb that windows can actually use). While this might sound a lot, every time you open up a plugin or virtual instrument, it uses memory.
When you start looking at sample based instruments, such as orchestral libraries these can easily load gigs of sounds into memory.
64 Bit systems can run 32 bit programs, but each application can only use 4gb of memory.
This is currently a popular choice, as most DAW’s come with 32 and 64 bit versions that can be installed at the same time.
64 Bit issues (and how to get round them)
64 Bit Sequencers cannot use 32 bit plugins or instruments.
Whilst many manufacturers are now producing 64bit versions of thier plugins and instruments, if you do switch to a 64 bit DAW, you will probably be left with plugins that you cannot use.
Many DAW’s, such as Steinberg Cubase 6 have built in “bridges” that try to make them work, but they only seem to work for some plugins.
Cubase’s bridge mode also limits you to 4gb of memory for all of the bridged plugins.
The best soulution to this that we have found is a piece of software called Jbridge ( €14.99)
Jbridge is about 95% compatible, and has a number of options to get problems plugins to work. Jbridge lets you use 4gb of memory per plugin.
The second issue is that rewire will not work in 64 bit daw’s.
“Rewire” channels are virtual midi and audio connections to and from your daw to (predominantly) Propellerhead Reason or Ableton Live programs.
A work-around to this issue is a plugin called Rewire VST (€19.00)
This provides one stereo and six mono audio channels into your DAW (plus midi control).
Whilst this is no way near the 64 possible connections that rewire normally offers, it does mean that you can run a handful of reason or ableton instruments alongside your 64bit DAW.