Build the Perfect Lab or Office Workstation

Do-It-Yourself Systems | Silent PC Build Guides
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About Bartek Plichta and how his article came to be featured here, in his own words:

"I work in the fields of hearing science, psychoacoustics, and acoustic phonetics at the University of Minnesota. I publish open-source acoustic analysis software and review research equipment (mostly microphones) for researchers in speech and hearing sciences. [See his web site,] I am also an avid PC builder and share your interest (and somewhat of an obsession, really) in building the quietest, but powerful, PC possible.

"I am writing to thank you for the wonderful resource that you and your colleagues have been providing for the enthusiast PC building community. Your website offers a wealth of useful information, and the strict testing methodologies you've been using make a truly unique resource.

"I am interested in becoming involved in your website, in some capacity. Perhaps I could offer my help in research, reviewing, or writing for the website."

This article chronicles my building of a silent research workstation. While I focus primarily on the needs of acoustics-related research, the workstation should prove to be a powerful tool for just about any research lab or office.

Over the last twenty years I have worked in a number of different research laboratories, ranging from make-shift research "mobiles" at Nene College, Northampton, to a state-of-the-art anechoic chamber at Michigan State University. Despite the obvious differences across these research environments, they all shared one major flaw: they were plagued by computer-generated noise. I am sure most of you have experienced it, too. The constant, buzzing, humming, the relentless drone of computer fans spinning frantically; all required to keep the workstations cool. The issue has become progressively worse over the years, as the increase in processing power inevitably involves an increase in thermal output, which, in turn, requires powerful and noisy air or liquid cooling.

Computer-generated noise is not merely an annoyance. It can seriously interfere with the quality of our research. In this article, I am going to document the process of building a powerful, versatile, and nearly silent computer workstation. My goal is to build a system with a total noise output that is lower than the typical ambient noise floor of a research laboratory. You can be sure that you would not be able to buy a similarly powerful and silent computer, at any price from any of the major PC makers. However, if you follow my tutorials, you should be able to put together a sweet system, at a fraction of the mainstream price.

Part 1

What makes a workstation a workstation?

The term "workstation" refers to a specific type of a computer. On the surface, it may look just like a typical office PC, but it is quite different. The first thing you'll notice is that workstations cost thousands of dollars. The price is justified both by specially designed hardware components as well as some vendor-specific, value-added software and customer care. The ultimate goal of a research workstation is to provide power, stability, and longevity. In addition, certain components can be used for dedicated processing. For example, the workstations sold by Kay Pentax, include an audio processing board, and an external audio I/O interface box. The workstations running in our lab, for instance, use a Lynx L22 audio A/D and D/A processing PCI cards and NVIDIA Quadro FX graphics cards, for low-latency digital signal processing and stimuli presentation. The computer that we will be building in this series has most of the capabilities of a high-end workstation, such as power, stability, versatility, and extensibility, but, unlike most off-the-shelf workstations, it offers cool and virtually silent operation.

Why bother?

Why should one bother building a workstation if one can easily order one from Dell or Apple? Yes, these manufacturers do build powerful computers, but they do not pay nearly enough attention to noise. Modern designs are driven primarily by the need to provide ample computational power and sufficient cooling. Even though you may come across a workstation that is advertised as quiet, it will, no doubt, turn out not to be quiet enough for your needs. To be fair, there are small, boutique PC makers who might be able to manufacture a silent PC (e.g., Puget Systems), but if you want to have a truly quiet, yet powerful workstation, you have to build it yourself. Besides the obvious utility of a DIY system, the process of designing and building a silent workstation can be enjoyable and rewarding. Did I mention significant savings? Without a doubt, a DIY workstation will be considerably less expensive than most off-the-shelf systems.

How quiet should it be?

Before we set out designing the system, we need to establish some standards for how quiet it needs to be. Measuring noise can be rather tricky. Noise varies not only in intensity (perceived as "loudness") but also in spectral distribution (colloquially referred to as "color"). Yes, we could come up with a very detailed description of acceptable noise levels, but it would be impractical for each builder to implement such guidelines without proper testing equipment and technique. Instead, let's define "silent," quite simply, as producing noise that is at or below the existing noise floor in your work environment. In other words, we can define a silent workstation as one that does not significantly raise the ambient noise levels that are already present in the research laboratory or office.

If you have the diagnostic equipment available, you can measure the noise levels with the workstation turned on (at idle and at full load) and off, and compare the results. I recommend that you use a spectrum analyzer, rather than a simple sound level meter. It it is important to identify noise levels across the audible spectrum, as some types of noise (e.g., 60 Hz hum) may be more objectionable than others.

If you don't have a sound level meter, you have no reason to worry. I suggest that you assess the noise levels perceptually. Place the workstation in its designated location, turn it on and log into the operating system. Run your typical applications for at least 30 minutes so that the heat-producing components have a chance to reach their peak thermal output. Listen to the sound of the workstation from about 1 meter away. If you cannot hear it distinctly, i.e., you cannot easily identify its sound against ambient noise, then your workstation is probably quiet enough. Things get more complicated when we have more than one computer (or other noisy equipment) running in the lab, but as long as the workstation is perceptibly silent against ambient noise, it passes the test.

For those of you who are interested in rigorously tested, commercially available computer components, I strongly recommend visiting Silent PC Review, a fantastic web resource for all things related to silent computing.

What makes workstations noisy?

Powerful computers produce a lot of heat. There are three major components whose thermal output requires active cooling: (1) the power supply, (2) the CPU (also known as "the processor", and (3) the GPU (also known as "the video card" or "graphics card"). Other heat-generating components include the motherboard, optical drives, spinning hard drives, dedicated RAID adapters, as well as some of the audio (e.g., Kay Pentax CSL Model 4500) and video (e.g., Matrox Matrox RT.X2) processing add-on cards. Some of these components use dedicated heatsinks and fans, while others rely on proper air circulation inside the computer chassis. Computer cooling fans are used as the primary means of providing active cooling in most workstations. When they spin at speeds in excess of 1,000 RPM or so, they produce noise (mostly due to the resulting air turbulence, perceived as "white noise") and cause vibrations that often resonate through the computer chassis (sometimes perceived as all kinds of rattling and shaking noise). The more fans you have and the faster they spin, the more noise they are going to cause. In addition to fan noise, significant noise can also result from hardware components involving moving parts, such as the rotating data platters and a motor-driven spindle in hard disk drives. Finally, electronic components, such as capacitors, can sometimes become noticeably loud, especially if poorly designed or built.

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