It seems the studio market just isn't big enough to interest the large PC manufacturers, and even the new Intel-based Mac Pro comes in a tower case.
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While you can make your own rack brackets, or put a tower on its side in a rack tray, this is far from ideal. For one thing, CDs will probably fall out when you eject them, if the optical drives are now mounted vertically. For another, you probably won't want to drill your case to make it secure. If the case is really flimsy, there might not even be anything strong enough to attach a bracket to.
Server case fans are designed for high air volume, not quiet operation — so we can replace them with lower-speed versions, or use a fan-speed controller. Stock CPU coolers can be replaced with more efficient models for quieter performance. Here, on a Tyan S dual-Opteron motherboard, two Akasa heatsinks have their fans mounted in a push-pull configuration. Fortunately, there is a wide range of purpose-built inch Since the dot-com boom there's been a massive demand for low-cost web-server hardware, which means that these rackmount cases are now only marginally more expensive than regular PC cases of equivalent quality.
There's even an international standard to make sure your gear will fit — it's IEC International Electrotechnical Commission standard number , which you can look up on the web if you're handy with metalwork and fancy building your own case. If you're performing a conversion from a desktop case, you'll probably already have a PSU that will fit, although you might want to take the opportunity to upgrade to a quieter or better-quality one.
When converting your PC from tower to rackmount, or building a rackmount machine from scratch, there are a few factors to bear in mind. Firstly, cases intended for servers are likely to be deeper than many audio cabinets and flightcases allow clearance for, due to the large EATX dual-processor motherboards that server cases are often designed around.
Secondly, server cases are not usually optimised for quiet operation, since server 'data-centres' assume high CPU density and extreme amounts of cooling, usually in air-conditioned buildings.
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The fact that data-centre space is priced in 1U increments has meant that a lot of server cases are thin, typically only 1U or 2U in height. These cases are not particularly useful for studios, except in some specialist applications, such as headless nodes for disk-streaming samplers. The chief problem with these cases is that they cannot accommodate PCI audio and graphics cards, except perhaps on a horizontal riser which obscures the other expansion slots. In many cases their internal height clearance is insufficient to allow the fitting of a quiet CPU cooler, which most studio owners would wish to fit in place of a noisy stock unit.
Worst of all, the low front and rear panel height will only allow small case fans to be fitted, and as SOS readers who've ever tried to build a studio PC will know, small fans turning quickly make a great deal more noise than large fans turning slowly. The Antec Take 3 is one of the first rackmount PC cases to have been designed specifically for studio use. The Take 3's side fan, where the PSU would normally be, means that the case will work best if the rack cabinet is not fully enclosed. The Take 3's front door looks secure, at first glance The smallest case size that will take PCI cards vertically is 3U, while 4U allows for larger case fans, so these are both reasonable sizes to choose.
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Server cases of 5U and 6U are also available, but these probably take up more of your rack space than is required for a typical PC setup. These larger cases are often specified for RAID arrays, where the front-panel space is required for access to up to a couple of dozen hot-swap drive bays. The rackmount noise problem has begun to be addressed by some of the specialist case manufacturers, who have launched models designed explicitly for the studio market.
These cases feature both a standard inch IEC fitting for the front flanges and some innovations in noise reduction. The Take 3 has an unusual design, in that the power supply is at the front instead of the rear of the case, with an exhaust duct removing warm air to the side. This prevents the waste heat from the PSU mingling with that generated by the CPU fan, and leaves room at the rear of the case for a couple of fairly large case fans, one of which is on the side.
This side fan should improve cooling without adding much noise, as long as the side of the rack cabinet isn't completely enclosed. The Take 3 may well be the quietest rackmount case currently on the market, but from a security point of view it isn't the toughest. Although the Take 3 has a lockable front door, which is a good idea to prevent tampering with your PC, the hinge on the door is made of plastic, and the top of the door is too.
As any locksmith will tell you, a lock is only as good as the door and frame it is fitted to, and this door looks as though leverage from a large, flat-bladed screwdriver would open it fairly easily. Still, the rest of the construction is of good quality, and it weighs less than 12kg without parts fitted, which is not bad for a case made mostly of steel.
It also comes with a very good installation manual and a three-year warranty on parts and labour — unusual for PC cases. The larger Take 4 case is more conventional, with the PSU at the rear, although this features its own air inlet. The extra 1U in height over the Take 3 allows for more drive bays, a total of eight, instead of six; more than enough for most studio applications. The alternative is to take an off-the-shelf server case, then fit a quiet PSU and some quieter fans. It has to be said that this approach probably won't result in a quieter case, and could work out at about the same cost.
You would probably have to fit some variable resistors to adjust fan speeds, plus other noise-tweaking parts, such as vibration-reducing grommets on drives. The Compucase S is a tough server case, but it's heavy — and deep, too. Antec's Take 4 allows more room for drives than its Take 3 sibling.
What the better server cases have going for them is heavy-duty toughness, free of weak plastic components. The Compucase S is a 4U case with an all-steel construction, so the lockable front door feels significantly stronger than the door on the Antec Take 3. I chose one of these cases for my own studio; ultimately, I judged its security features to be more important than noise damping. It's not a case you'd want to move often once it's fully built-up, but it will take the larger dual-processor EATX motherboards, and has room for up to 10 drives.
There's also a mm-deep version available at the same price, called the Compucase S, but the optical drive-mounting hole in the front panel is vertically orientated, which somewhat defeats the purpose of a specially-designed rackmount case. Another advantage to using server cases is that there's a broader range of shapes and sizes available. The disadvantage of this case is that it will only take a micro ATX motherboard, limiting choice for system builders, and there isn't room for more than one optical drive and two hard drives.
Still, with its very compact size and weighing only 5kg without the PSU, the Janus DS35 is potentially a useful case for a road rack, or when space is otherwise restricted. A system this size would make a tougher and more serviceable alternative to a laptop for a DJ, a band playing soft synths live, or a mobile recording setup.
The Janus DS35 is a very compact and lightweight case, but it's restricted to micro ATX motherboards only, and there's little room for expansion. Shown here during the build-up, the DS35 case is still a good option for a mobile rack. If you're changing the power supply during the transplant, it's vital to make sure the new one is compatible with your motherboard. Once you've discovered what format of case you need see the 'Identify Your Motherboard' box and decided on a design, it's time to perform the transplant.
But first, take a fresh backup of your precious music projects.
Hard drives are vulnerable to shock and static, although they're pretty difficult to damage by incorrect connection. More likely, if the PC doesn't work properly when you switch it back on, you could accidentally reformat the wrong partition while attempting to reinstall software. You'll need a decent-sized table to work on; a dining table should do, if you put a tablecloth on it to avoid scratches, and corresponding censure from family members who take a personal interest in the condition of household furniture!
Next — and this shouldn't need saying to SOS readers — disconnect your PC from the mains before opening the case.
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Computer power supplies are designed to deliver low voltages, but the currents can be high: With the old case open, if you don't already have the motherboard manual to hand, read off the motherboard make and model number from its PCB. Using these details, you should be able to download a PDF of the manual from the manufacturer's web site, which will be very useful during the re-assembly. If you're changing power supply during the operation, you can read in the manual what kind of power supply your motherboard requires they're not all the same.
If your system is fairly recent, it's likely to use one of the following power supply standards:. If it's a Xeon or Opteron machine, it might have an EPS12V power supply with a pin main connector, an 8-pin secondary connector, and perhaps the optional 4-pin connector. If you use the wrong type of PSU, you might get the system to boot up, but the voltages could be incorrect or the amount of current delivered insufficient, causing system instability.
Your motherboard manual will provide figures for the current requirements of the system, and a sticker on the PSU should list the amperage that it can deliver. With the new case open next to the old one, and having established that the new power supply if required is of the correct type, you can take notes on which slots any PCI or PCI Express cards are fitted into, and which way around the hard drives and optical drives are connected.
If you put the system back together differently, your drives may boot in the wrong order, or carefully tweaked interrupt assignments may change. At this point you should remember that static electricity can damage PC components, and either ground yourself to the old and new cases with a brief touch of the finger or, for the well-prepared, fasten the anti-static wrist strap that you had already purchased.
If you work on PCs often, you might consider buying an anti-static mat for your table. Of course, you should always handle motherboards and PCI cards by their edges, and never touch any exposed metallic connectors. When you open up the PC, it's a very good idea to take notes on how the cables are attached. Place these in anti-static bags during the transplant if you don't have any, your local computer shop can probably find you some.
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