Shhh! Building Studio-Silent PCs
In an industry devoted to making great audio, it’s a little ironic that silence is one of the goals we pursue the most fervently.
When we open our console’s mic channel, we want the stillness in our studio to be absolute, so that nothing detracts from the magic we’re about to make. Some things that create studio noise are easy to pinpoint – air conditioning, a squeaky chair – while others, like the dreaded ground loop hum, are more insidious. But since the late 1980s, one source of noise has remained a constant irritant: PC cooling fans.
Migration to PC-based playout systems eliminated the clatter of spinning reel-to-reel decks, rumbling turntables and the “ka-THUNK!” of cart machine solenoids. But PCs came with their own set of sounds, and whether they whir, whoosh or whine, keeping them quiet is always a challenge. And the more powerful PCs became, the more we used them for. Not just automation, but recording, editing, streaming, and now, mixing.
The harder those PCs work, the more cooling they require. Today’s multi-core computers can have up to 3 fans: one each for CPU and power supply, and perhaps a third “case fan” to aid airflow. Exotic gear like fanless power supplies and liquid cooling helped with the problem, but at a hefty cost – and at least one fan was still required.
But there’s finally a solution for studio PC noise. Demand for silent PCs has increased in many applications, and more are pushing down the cost of off-the-hardware. Many fanless computers which list for around $1,000 are perfect for in-studio use, with latest-generation multi-core CPUs able to support mixing, playout, codecs, streaming and other apps simultaneously.
Fanless PC from Logic Supply
One we particularly like is from Logic Supply; it can be had with SSD and Intel® Core-i7 processing, and comes in a sealed, cast-aluminum case that’s essentially a giant heat sink. It’s a big, heavy block of hardware, but it’s also very capable. Another is Compulab’s Airtop, based on Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) technology, which can be ordered bare-bones or fully outfitted, with or without OS pre-installed.
For lighter-duty off-the-air applications, the CompuLab fit-PC4 Pro presents an attractive option. A bare-bones PC with an AMD GX-420CA CPU, it retails for less than $400; plug in memory and SSD storage, load a recording app, and it’s ready for audio editing, recording voice-overs or pre-producing news items.
CompuLab fit-PC4 Pro
With the cost of SSD drives, CPUs and RAM continuing to fall, it’s a good time to move to a fanless PC for in-studio audio apps. And with the power these new machines have, they’re also prime candidates to use as the basis for a modern, virtualized studio.