Design The PC
If you’re like me, you want to get started on a build right away. You might decide once you have the motherboard, RAM, and CPU that it is time to assemble. For this build, I recommend planning out the parts and then assembling the PC all at once. For example, as you do the build, you will want to tie down any loose cables that could flick into a fan and make a horrendous racket. A clean and efficient build will help you make clean and efficient recordings.
I know solid-state drives (SSDs) add a major expense. I’m also not sure if the speed differences are so monumental that audio recordings turn out better with an SSD than they do with traditional hard drives. However, I still recommend them for one distinct reason: they are quieter. A recording of that amazing lick on your Taylor 310 acoustic will sound better if the hard disk is not spinning as your recording software struggles to keep up. A small SSD takes up less room in the case, which means better airflow and running the fans a notch slower. You can always use a 64 GB SSD drive for primary recordings and then move them off to an external network drive connected over a Gigabit Ethernet connection to your router in the other room. Remember, be ruthless about reducing noise.
Next, make sure you choose low-latency RAM. Usually, you have to inspect the parts listing or ask the vendor to make sure it is fast enough for audio recordings. Go ahead and max out RAM and get as much as you can afford. If your recording software of choice does not support the 64-bit version of Vista (which allows you to access more RAM), it soon will.
The example here is the PreSonus gear I use, including a rack-mounted PreSonus FireStudio. At press time, the 64-bit drivers were not quite available, but they will be in the next few weeks. Once the new drivers come out, I will likely do a re-test to find out if the latency is lower in Vista.
Case design is critical. You’ll want to look for a standard ATX case, not one that is designed for servers. I used the Thermaltake Element S because my contact there assured me it was one of the vendor’s quietest cases with a 23 cm fan that runs at about 25 dBA. But you can find quieter cases, of course, and I also experimented with turning off all the fans entirely.
I would avoid water-cooling solutions because they tend to make a slight gurgling sound on occasion. Once your system is built, use the age-old troubleshooting technique of turning off all fans, seeing if your system crashes, turning on one fan if it does, turning on another fan, etc.
Next, make sure you choose a graphics card that has passive cooling. Often, the loudest component in a case is the GPU. I chose the XFX Radeon HD 4650, which runs completely silent without a fan. Contrary to what you might think, the CPU you install should not be a powerhouse that requires a lot of cooling and has a high TDP rating. I used an older AMD Athlon X2 5050e with a 2.6 GHz clock speed and a 45 W TDP. It’s still plenty fast for audio recording, although you won’t be lighting it up in Fallout 3 with this rig.
The motherboard you pick should have an on-board FireWire port for audio-interface connections, such as the PreSonus FireStudio. I used an Asus M4A79. Of course, you can buy a FireWire card, but it’s just another electrical component that can cause problems in low-latency recording. In short, the fewer components you use the better for an audio workstation.
Would a board with DDR3 memory help an audio workstation build? Maybe. In an effort to reduce latency for recording, I chose to go with an older motherboard and RAM and a low-wattage processor in order to avoid using any extra power on the PC and to keep the system as silent as possible. In fact, I ended up with a system that just has one fan running on the CPU without any crashes or problems.
Last, go with Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit. You may be more inclined to choose Windows XP, but the truth is that Vista handles memory better than XP does in the sense that the software will record smoother onto the hard disk. At least that has been the case in my experience. Windows XP sometimes introduces minor blips and imperfections. Even if you are a Windows XP loyalist, the software companies that make recording software will build and test their wares on Vista more and more in the coming years.