I’m writing this post for people who are similar to myself except they have yet to build a DAW. If you have been building machines for years you still might learn something about building a DAW since some considerations are different from building a general use machine. There are lots of guides on DIY computer builds out there. My focus will be on what I learned from the actual build not what I learned from reading .
In my last post I talked about the process of selecting a DAW. The choices were:
- Mac Pro
- Large PC manufactures like Dell and HP. I’m not taking about consumer machines. I’m talking about “workstations” like the HP Z600 or the Dell T5500. Unlike consumer models these run Xeon processors.
- Boutique DAW builders like http://www.reyniersaudio.com
- DIY builds like the one I just finished.
My conclusion was: Buy a workstation model from a big manufacture or a Mac Pro. Before I go into the details of the DIY process I’d like to recap my reasons.
I am technology agnostic. I have no preference for Macs, PCs, or anything else. I only want my technology to perform and be reliable. Over the years I have used 2 Macs (G4s), a big manufacturer PC (Dell precision 380), a boutique DAW builder machine (ADK Intel E6600 Dual Core Processor) and now the DIY build I finished a few months ago (Intel i7 950). The Macs gave me the least amount of trouble. The boutique DAW and my current DIY machine gave me the most trouble. I’d put the Dell in the middle.
As things stand right now my next machine will be a Mac Pro running Bootcamp. In fact, a studio owner in LA told me he only builds and uses that very combo due to performance and reliability.
Here are my arguments against a DIY DAW build. (This is no way to start a long DIY DAW post.)
- DIY will likely not save you money. You have to see the big picture: The price of the parts, your time doing research, assembling, troubleshooting, and necessary software such as Windows 7.
- DIY will take longer to get up and running unless you know exactly what parts you need, can purchase them locally, assemble them fast, have no troubleshooting, and can set up the bios and OS fast.
- It’s easy to build your own PC! I’ve read that many times. Perhaps it’s true. But I believe it’s not so easy to build a high performance and reliable one.
- Dealing with several manufactures instead of one. I have at least 5 different parts manufacturers in my DIY DAW. If there are hardware problems I will need to figure out which one it is and then deal with that manufacturer. With a Mac I just deal with Apple and they do the troubleshooting. One exception here is if a part fails quickly. In this case you may be able to return to the retailer such as Newegg.
- Boxes and clutter. My DIY DAW build left an array of boxes, packing materials, extras, and manuals in it’s wake. I don’t want to store these or organize them. With an assembled machine you get one large box.
- Resale. In my experience name brand machines have better resale and a larger pool of buyers.
Still, for better or worse, I just had to build my own DAW. Perhaps because I consider experience to be the best form of information.
So why would you want to DIY? Some people enjoy building things. Some people like to know exactly what components are in their DAW (super quiet fans and hard drives). If you built it yourself chances are you can repair it yourself and not rely on questionable repair shops. Some people have been building computers so long they have streamlined the process.
I want to stress that I did not go into this build without some research. I read a respected book on the topic (Scott Mueller’s Upgrading and Repairing PCs 19th Edition). I read many posts online. I asked questions in technical communities. And I received the advice of seasoned DAW builders. There were still holes in my knowledge that I will cover here.
Expect to spend most of your time selecting parts. All the specs you need to know should be available online. If the retailer does not list it you can go to the manufacturers site.
Some tips: Find out what other DIYers and boutique DAW builders are using. Also check online retailers feedback on the item. This feedback is undoubtedly bias since people with problems tend to leave feedback more then happy customers. I still find it useful. I look for well written and specific feedback rather then emotional and general feedback like “this sucks”.
Here are the parts I used and why. My cost was around $1,200 including Windows 7, two 1T Drives, and 6Gigs of RAM. I bought everything at newegg.com.
- CPU/processor: Intel i7 950.
This is a low/mid priced Intel processor. I think it’s a good bang for the buck. If you plan on overclocking the lower priced processors stand a better change of large gains. The 950 also uses the higher performance LGA 1366 socket. This would allow me to upgrade my CPU to a faster i7 chip such as the Core i7-9xxX Extreme Edition. Checking the Wiki page for the i7 I see they are using a new socket for the latest i7s. Dang. The 2 big things to get right here are the performance of the processor and the socket. For performance you can see what others are using in DAWs. For example many DIYers use the i7 chip as well as some boutique DAW builders. There are benchmarks available but I wouldn’t put complete faith in them since they are in part dependant on hardware and software you might not use. Socket! The socket is the connection between the CPU and motherboard. It is actually part of the motherboard. Just like a light bulb a CPU and motherboard MUST have the same socket.
- Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-X58A-UD3R.
If the CPU is the brain then the motherboard is the central nervous system. It connects the CPU to everything else: Memory, hard drives, audio card, video card, etc. I picked this particular board because it had just what I needed with little extra. My last board was kinda pricey and included all kinds of extras I never used. The big points here are to match the socket with CPU and make sure the board will have the connections/slots you need. For example, I have an old UAD-1 PCI card. PCI is being replaced with newer PCI-e. So I had to make sure this board had a PCI card slot. I also wanted lots of SATA connections for many hard drives, some firewire ports, usb 3… you get the idea.
- Case: COOLER MASTER Centurion 590
A case may be more important then you think. Motherboards come in different sizes (form factors) as do cases. So all motherboards will not fit all cases. This case is an ATX form factor. This is the most popular one and my recommendation. There is an advantage with sticking with industry standards as upgrades and future compatibility should be better. A case will play a roll in how your computer is organized. For example it will determine where fans mount, where drives mount, where power supplies mount, how much room you have to work inside the machine, the airflow for cooling, and where front panel connections (usb, firewire) are located. This case is a no frills and inexpensive model. It has plenty of venting and lots of bays for multiple hard drives. Make sure your case form factor and mother board form factor are the same!
- Ram: CORSAIR XMS3 6GB CMX6GX3M3C1600C7
Do not buy cheap off-brand RAM. Figuring out the problem is RAM will take some time. Testing RAM is not fast. Then you will need to remove and replace it. So imo the “savings” of cheap ram are not worth it. Your motherboard must be compatible with your ram. There is a type of memory (ddr3, ddr2), the channel mode (dual-channel, tri-channel), and the speed (1600MTps, 1333MTps). All things the same DDR3 memory is the fastest. Channel mode has to do with how many sticks are accessed at the same time and how fast the ram is. The higher the channel mode the faster the memory. Tri-channel is faster then dual channel. Tri-channel memory is designed for 3 sticks to get accessed at the same time and therefore sold in packs of 3 sticks. If you were to buy 2 sticks of tri-channel memory they might work but not at the faster tri-channel speed. Just don’t do it. The speed is what you’d expect. Higher speeds are faster all things the same. Before you buy a ton of RAM make sure you can use it. Windows XP Home Edition can only use about 4 gigs of ram. Even if you can support 64 gigs of ram such as Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit your applications may still be running in 32 bit mode and only use 4 gigs ram. The ram I bought is name brand ddr3 tri-channel at 1600MTps speed. It was mid-price. Unfortunately my motherboard does not officially support 1600 speed ram so that extra cost and speed may be going to waste. One way to test with would be to change my memory settings in the BIOS and do some testing. (I’ll put that on my list.) One last thing. When I built my machine it was possible to buy RAM faster then the stock motherboard speeds. So my advice is don’t go crazy with expensive high speed ram.
- Hard Dives: Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 ST31000528AS 1TB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s
For hard drives I want something quiet with a good DAW track record. Hard drives make a lot of noise. Most of the noise in my system is from hard drives. How do i know? I unplugged them all and restarted into BIOS. Very quiet. Drives are getting super cheap these day and I’ve heard on good authority they are also getting less reliable. As with ram do not buy cheap off brand drives and always back music up to a second drive. I have one drive for OS, one for music, one for samples, and one for backup. Solid state drives have been around for a while but they are still expensive and don’t offer any huge advantages for DAWs. They are good for quick random access times such as booting. But DAWs are mostly reading large continuous files so the price for performance does not make sense to me yet. They are very quiet with no moving parts. That is nice if you record near your DAW.
- Mobile Racks: iStarUSA T-5-SA. These are basically enclosures for your hard drives that allow you to remove the bare drive easily. They are damn handy if you need to swap in drives or run with data in a hurry. I like this model because it does not have a fan. Tiny enclosure fans fail often and can be noisy. This model is open and allows decent air cooling. I have another model that makes some vibration noise. So far this one is quiet.
- PSU or Power Supply Unit: COOLER MASTER Silent Pro M700
Again, don’t go cheap-o off brand. When PSUs fail it might not be obvious. Failure can manifest itself in many ways. As with motherboards you need to get the right form factor, most likely ATX. PSUs are rated by how much power they provide (Watts) . There are a few online PSU calculators out there that will put you in the right ballpark. Scott Mueller’s book also has some basics wattage numbers for various devices. But wattage is not all-telling. Some quality PSUs rated at 350 watts will outperform a 600 Watt rated cheapo model. So take these numbers with a grains of salt. I bought far more then the minimum I required. Too much power is always better then just enough. Besides, I will undoubtedly add devices and increase power consumption up the road. I prefer modular PSUs. They only use the connections you need making your computer less cluttered and easier to work on.
- Video Card: SAPPHIRE 100292DDR3L Radeon HD 5450
There is no need to spend your money on a high performance graphics card for a DAW. But you don’t want one with a crappy and loud fan that burns out in 9 months. The fan on my old graphics card had a protracted and noisy death. Soon after that the card failed probably due to poor cooling. Now I only buy cards with heat sinks. I have two 1280×1024 resolution monitors so I bought a single slot card that will support them. I also wanted to use digital connections so this card has one dvi and one hdmi output. I had to run a hdvi to dvi cable to my second monitor since it does not have an hdvi input.
There are a few other things to consider like an audio card and optical drive. Audio cards or interfaces are their own big topic. Just make sure you motherboard has the proper slot or connection to support it. Optical drives are so cheap all I can say is get something reliable. Mine cost about $20.
Before you buy locally or online make sure you have double checked to make sure everything will work together. My list was revised several times.
If you record quite sources near your computer consider noise. I touch on this in a few other places. Your main culprits are hard drives and fans. Remember there are fans on the heat sink and power supply unit. Here is a cool site that specializes in all things quiet. They give detailed specs which many online retailers to not.
The next phase is assembly. This is supposed to be the easy part and I hope it is for you. I had some snags.
Things to have on hand:
- Manuals. The most handy of which is the motherboard manual. Some things are printed on the board but these can be hard to read or obstructed. I found my motherboard manual indispensable.
- Screwdriver with magnetic bits: Otherwise threading will be difficult and you won’t be able to recover dropped screws easily. Don’t worry about using this magnet by your machine. It’s safe and used by many techs.
- There will be lot of screwing. In this case it won’t be enjoyable. A small battery operated screwdriver will save you time and aggravation. One thing to consider if you go this route is the bulk of the screwdriver. Sometimes this will make fitting in tight spots difficult. But you can get extra long bits to remedy this. Be careful with an electric screwdriver. You don’t want the bit to jump off the screw and go tracking across the motherboard.
- A good light source. Some of this work is very fine (such as inserting the CPU). You want to be careful and see what you are doing. I read quite a few stories of people bending pins on the CPU socket. LED headlamps are super cheap and very useful so nerd it up.
- I found it impossible to make some front panel connections without needle nose plyers. You may or may not need some.
- Tweezers. You may need them to pull jumpers.
Stay organized. It’s pretty temping to just rip open all the new parts and start assembling. In fact, that’s what I did. Bad idea. If you ever need to return something in original packaging good luck. Aside from that all the little extras will get mixed together and you’ll wonder where that one screw went. I suggest you open one part at a time keeping all extras and packaging organized.
Order of assembly. There is definitely a wrong way to put things together. For example if you install the hard drives first you will probably need to pull them back out to get the motherboard in. The assembly steps below should keep your work and aggravation to a minimum.
One assembly tip is to mount the motherboard on a motherboard tray and install RAM, CPU, and heatsink outside of the case. Having it mounted on a a tray is very important because installing RAM and the heatsink require some force. If you don’t mount to a tray you could damage your board. I recommend the tray be on a firm flat surface and not your couch. Installing outside the case gives your hands more room to work. You will have more control while applying force and have more delicacy while installing the CPU.
Unfortunately, I did not have a motherboard tray so my motherboard was installed in the case. Wah.
static discharge: In 2 years I’ve noticed static discharges only one time in my studio. So I am simply touching my hand to the case to discharge any static and handling parts by their chassis not components. If you have a high static environment (or you aren’t brave like me) you may want to consider static discharging devices: The anti-static bracelet with tether and an anti-static mat for laying out parts.
Don’t power up anything or even connect a power cord until the machine is fully assembled.
Motherboard Assembly: before the motherboard goes in we need to prep the case. The idea is to make the case as accessible as possible. Remove the side and front panels. If your case shipped with a power supply installed remove that. Btw, most power supplies that come with cases are low quality. You probably want to replace that anyway. If you plan on replacing the fans that came with the case remove them now. Fans that ship with cases also tend to be of low quality. I’ll talk about what to look for in fans latter.
Now we’ll mount the motherboard on a tray outside the case or mount it in the case.
Motherboards do not mount directly. They mount on stand offs. Here is a picture of some stand offs inside my case. Standoffs create about a 1/4″ space between the board and tray. Without this space your board could short out. Some standoffs screw in like these. Others are like nubs built into the case.
My board has 9 holes for mounting it on the stand offs. It is possible that your case can take more then 9 stand offs. These are for extra support. Just make sure your board is designed to take the extra stand offs.
If you are mounting the motherboard on a tray outside the case you can skip the next 3 paragraphs. After you install the CPU, RAM, and heat sink you can return to them.
It should be pretty obvious how the motherboard fits in the case. The mounting holes in the mother board line up with the stand offs. The back panel connections on the mother board will line up with the i/o shield on the back of your case. This is where most of your connections are like USB, lan, PSU, Firewire, etc.
Before you place the board into the case make sure the back connections of your board will fit the i/o shield on your case. If it doesn’t you’ll need to remove the shield and replace it with the one that came with your motherboard.
I think it’s best to get the i/o shield fitting first and then line up the mounting holes. Make sure none of the little metal grounding tabs on the i/o shield go into the ports on the motherboard.
With everything lined up insert the mounting screws. Now the board is well supported and ready to install RAM, CPU, and heatsink.
If your motheboard is in the case you might want to make a few difficult connections right now. Later, when things are cluttered, it will be harder.
front panel connections:
These are the connections at the front of your case for USB, Firewire, reset, power LED and a few others. On my case they are attached to the chassis and can’t be removed with the front panel. Some of these connections are very easy to make. My USB, for example, is just a standard USB header on the motehrboard. But the connections for power LED, reset, speaker, chassis intrusion, and system status are very tiny and hard to make. In this picture you can see that many of them are single wires going into a header on the board. I had to use a needle nose plyers and some patience to get them in. Imagine how much more difficult that would be later when the case has more cables and drives.
(Note: If your front panel connections are attached to your case’s front panel you may not be able to make these connections since the front panel may need to be removed to install drives.)
With my particular case and motherboard I needed to do a bit of sleuthing for these connections. When I found the correct motherbaord header in the manual the labeling did not match up exactly with the labeling on the case’s connection pins. This would be so much easier if the connections were bundled together in a foolproof inset like so many other connections!
I have heard you can order a header insert to make the job easier. This allows you to plug the small connection tips into the insert and then slip it into the header. but I was unable to find one that would work for my board. My old board came with one. Here is a company worth looking at. You can also check with your motherboard manufacture.
This is a somewhat delicate job. Let’s do it while the case is uncluttered. The CPU connects to the motherboard via an array of pins that press into a grid. This particular socket (LGA 1366) has 1366 pins. You can bend them easily. The only thing that should touch them is the bottom of your CPU during installation. Bent pins can destroy your board and void your warantee. Be careful.
The CPU should be held by the edges. You don’t want to touch any contact points where it connects to the socket.
Both the CPU and the socket have a protective plastic cover which will need to be removed. The plastic cover on the motherboard socket is held down by a load plate. The plate is held down by a load lever.
Push down on the lever and pull it out a bit so that it clears the clip. This will release the the tension on the plate. I’ll try to be clear but you may want to check out some videos on You Tube for the nuances. Here’s one.
- Push down on the load lever and pull it slightly away from the socket to release it from the clip. Swing the lever up and out of the way.
- If the load plate does not come up with the load lever you can push down on an edge and it will come up. Here you can see the load lever is released and the load plate is up.
- Remove the protective plastic cover on the socket. You should see an array of pins (some sockets have an array of contact points).
- Remove the plastic cover from the CPU. Remember to hold the CPU by the edges.
- Get the CPU oriented correctly for the socket. There are notches on the CPU that will match the socket. Once you have it oriented the right way drop it in the socket. You may need to push it a bit until it falls and seats.
- Put the load plate back on
- Press the load lever down and lock it back under the clip.
Processors generate a lot of heat and unless they are cooled they will overheat. Next we will install a heat sink/fan. This operates much the same as a radiator on a car. Heat is transferred to a thermally conductive metal with lot of surface area. Then a fan is used to dissipate the hot air. Essentially the heat flows out of the CPU, across a thermal grease or phase change material, into the heat sink, and then is blown into the air.
What is thermal grease or phase change material? Even though the heat sink will be clamped down on top of the processor we still need a thin layer of material between them to insure the best heat flow. This is not optional.
If you are installing the stock heatsink that came with your CPU you will probably already have the thermal conducting material (phase change material) pre-applied to the heatsink. It will look like a few gray strips on the bottom of the heatsink. It will have a protective cover or film on it which needs to come off. If you purchased a heatsink separate from you CPU you will need to apply some thermal grease.
It’s worth checking out some You Tube videos on apply thermal greese to get the nuances. Here’s one.
Basically, you take a small amount and spread it out evenly over the heat spreader (top of the CPU). Some people use a card to do the spreading. I think it’s easier using a finger. You don’t want thermal grease on your finger or finger in your thermal grease. Wear a glove or put a plastic bag over your finger. Don’t spend lots of time deciding on what brand of thermal grease to buy. They all work about the same.
- Remove the protective film/cover from the heatsink’s thermal material.
- Orient the heat sink. The fan on the heat sink needs to plug into the CPU fan header on the motherboard. Make sure your current orientation of the heatsink allows you to reach the CPU fan header. Make sure the wires from the heatsink’s fan do not obstruct the fan. When I powered up my machine for the first time a red LED on the board lit up indicating my CPU was too hot. The power wire from the fan was ever so slightly in the fan’s path. It stopped the fan and the CPU did not get proper cooling. (Modern CPUs do not burn up when they overheat. They throttle themselves down. I didn’t want to test this out.)
- My stock heatsink as 4 retainer pins which are used to hold the heatsink firmly to the CPU. The arrows on the pins are a bit confusing. To install you need to turn the pins opposite of the arrows. The arrows indicate the correct direction for removal not install! So turn them opposite of the arrows and set the pins into the holes on the motherboard. Now you need to a apply a decent amount of pressure downward to lock the pins into place. I like to put a thumb on opposite corners to apply even pressure. You will hear a click when they are locked. Now do the other corners.
- Connect the fans power wire to the CPU fan header on the motherboard. All fan headers are not the same. Make sure you use the fan header for the CPU fan.
Be aware if you are installing a non-stock heat sink the mounting may be quite different since the heatsink may have to fit many different sized sockets. Check out the heatsink’s manual for instructions. Before you buy it make sure it fits your socket.
Make sure you buy the right RAM. Check your motherboard manual for specs. RAM manufacturer’s websites may also have a tool for matching RAM with motherboard. Your motherboard must support the type of RAM (mostly ddr3 these days), the channel mode (dual, tri-channel), and the speed (1333MTps, 1600MTps, etc).
Installing RAM is not as simple as buying RAM and pushing it down into a slot.
- My motherboard manual as well as many other people recommend installing all the same memory. Same brand, speed, chip, model.
- The memory slots on your motherboard are designed to be filled in a certain order. Consult your manual. For my motherboard and tri-channel memory it’s pretty straight forward. The first 3 sticks go into slots 1, 3, and 5. These slots are not next to each other but they are all white. So that’s pretty simple. The next 3 sticks go into slots 2, 4, and 6 which are all blue. But things can get tricky if, for example, you decide to install dual channel memory.
- Don’t mix and match sets. Even if you get the same brand and model you still should not mix them up. For example if you are buying tri-channel memory the first pack (3 sticks) should go in the first three ram slots as specified by your manual. The next pack of ram (3 sticks) should go into the next 3 slots as specified by your manual. In other words don’t shuffle 2 packs of ram even if they are exactly the same. If you do mix them up you can sort them back out by looking at the serial numbers or bar codes printed on them
- At the ends of the ram slots are clips. These need to be open. So push them away from the slot.
- Ram is a bit like the CPU. It has notches and will only fit one way. Align the notches in the ram with the notches on the slot.
- Applying even pressure across the stick press the ram down into the slot. This takes more force then you’d expect. When it is properly seated it should click into place and the clips will close.
- After all the RAM is seated double check that all the clips are back in locked position and the all the RAM appears seated the same.
Now you should have the RAM, CPU, and heatsink installed on your motherboard. If you’re installing on the motherboard tray outside of the case you need to put the board in the case now (covered above).
Let’s install drives, expansion cards, and the power supply. I am going to install power supply first, then drives, then card. This keeps the center of the case uncluttered for as long as possible. That way we have more room to work.
Power Supply Installation: Depending on your case your power supply can mount in a few different places. Mine mounts on the bottom of my case. One thing that troubled me is the manual did not specify if the fan should be mounted to draw air into the case or push it out. I could mount either way. The manual was about as detailed as Ikea instructions and I couldn’t find anything online. Perhaps it does not matter, in which case I’d still like to hear that from the manufacturer. In the end I mounted it with the fan pushing air out of the case via a grill on the bottom of the case. I reasoned that puling air in from essentially the floor of my studio would introduce more dust.
My PSU had 4 screws for mounting to the case and a rubber gasket. I assume the rubber gasket is for a better mount. It should also make for less noise due to vibration. I fit the gasket between the PSU and the case. Then lightly snugged the mounting screws.
Most motherboards will have a 24 pin connection that powers the board (and devices connected to it) and a 4 or 8 pin connection that powers your CPU. Higher performance CPUs will take an extra 4 pins of power. Check your manual for where these are located and plug them in. These connections have a fool proof design and can only be plugin in one way. So look at the headers and the ends of the cables and match them up. You will notice not all the connection pins have the same shape.
You will also need to connect power to your hard drives, optical drive, and perhaps some other devices. This is one reason I like modular power supplies. They allow you to just use the cables you need. This power supply came with an assortment of cables. Pick out the ones you need, connect them to the PSU, and then to the device it powers. My old PSU had a heap of wires hanging off it. Some I needed. Many were just in the way.
Hard Drive Installation: While you have the drive out you should check and see if it has a limiting jumper on the back of it. One of my drives had one. It was the tiniest jumper I’ve ever seen and I couldn’t imagine removing it once the drive was installed. Jumpers make physical connections and change the behavior of components. This particular jumper limited the drive to a slower transfer speed (1.5 GB/s instead of the drives rated 3GB/s). You may need tweezers to pull a jumper out.
Now we need to mount the drive in the case. Drives generate heat and may need cooling but I don’t sweat that much. At one point I was reading white papers on drive failure. My rule of thumb is your drive needs a fan if it’s too hot to keep your finger on it. I have 3 drives in a 4-in-3 device module with a fan and 2 more drives in mobile racks with no fans. All of them are very touchable.
I dig mobile racks. You can remove the bare drive super fast, swap in a new one, or run with your data.
Mounting my drives inside the 4-in-3 device module was a slow and tedious exercise in threading screws and aligning. You can’t remove drives easily. You have to pull the whole unit which means unplugging the fan and all the other drives. Should be called a 3-to-4-times-more-work module.
My case came with tool free mounts. I don’t like them. They are fast but they don’t hold the drives tightly. I’m suspicious this could cause vibrational noise.
Mounting the drives, mobile racks, 4-in-3 Device Module, etc is pretty straight forward. Some cases may have spaces where a 3.5″ drive mounts directly. In other cases you mount the drive inside a device and then mount the device inside the case. Once mounted we need to make some connections.
Chances are you will be installing SATA drives. They need 2 connection: Power from the PSU and a SATA connection to the motherboard. The power supply connection has 5 pins. The SATA connections to the board are a bit trickier. For example, my board has ports for several different SATA standards. Usually a faster standard will support a slower one. For example I could plug a slower (1.5GB/s) device into a higher speed port (6GB/s). But the opposite will not work. make sure your port supports the speed of your drive. Also, if you are planning on setting up a RAID you need to plug into the ports that support that.
I have noticed that some of my SATA cables have a release clip on them and some don’t. A few times I inserted a SATA cable without a release clip on it and found it very difficult to remove later. Perhaps the header was designed for a cable with a release clip. I don’t know. Now I only use the cables with a release.
Here is a picture of how I worked my SATA cables out of the way. These run into the space between the rack for hard drives and the side panel. There is about 1″ of space there. It keeps things much cleaner.
As I said earlier I still don’t think solid state drives make sense at their current prices. Yes they are dead quiet. Yes they are fast at random access tasks such as boot up. But for audio I never have any issues running 50 48k/24bit tracks off my Barracuda drives. For me the cost of SSDs outwieght the benefits.
Expansion Card Installation (Video and Audio Cards): Make sure your motherboard supports the type of card you are inserting. Cards need to be seated in a slot. They also need to have their bracket mounted on the rear of the case where the port is. Here is the rear of my case. I opened the bracket space by removing the bracket that came installed with my case. You can see the blue plastic tool free mount or clip is also released.
I like to insert the card into the bracket a bit then seat it in the slot. As with RAM try to apply even pressure as you seat it. The slot may have a clip that clicks when the card it seated. Once seated we can secure the bracket. My case has tool free brackets. I don’t mind using them for cards since they don’t vibrate like hard drives. Otherwise you will have to use a screw to secure the bracket. Done.
Fans: Most people are going to want a quiet DAW. That means quiet fans and few of them. A large fan (120mm) can rotate less and push the same amount of air as a smaller fan (80mm). All things equal a large fan will be quieter pushing the same amount of air.
Note: Fans tend to make a white-ish noise which I find much more listenable then the tonal noise of hard drives. When I was recording very quiet things near my DAW it was tonal noise from the drives and a few other components that was a problem.
Another spec to consider is the bearing type. Cheap fans tend to have cheap bearings that fail sooner. As they approach failing they will get louder. Sleeve bearings don’t last as long, and are louder at high rpms. Dual ball bearings last longer and are quieter generally.
I see no reason to run more then 2 case fans. One drawing air into the case. One pushing it out. Remember you also have a heatsink fan and a power supply fan bringing the total to 4 fans. That noise can add up. If you record quiet sources near your machine you should consider that.
I run my case with both side panels and the front panel off. I’m not sure I even need to run my 2 case fans. Some people will argue the case will take on more dust if it is open. Maybe. Maybe not. Your intake fan is going to draw in some dust anyway. Your computer will definitely be a bit louder with the panels off. Even more so if the panels have an acoustic treatment. For me it makes more sense to be able to access my computer easily, see what LEDs on the board light up, and touch components to see if they are hot. Just my personal preference. I also stuck with the stock and cheap fans that came with my case. Replacements may follow.
If you really want to know if your case fans are necessary or if running the machine with panels off makes a difference you can run a CPU stress test for both options. This will tell you which scenario provides better cooling. More on diagnostics at the end of this build.
Fan installation is pretty easy. Make sure your case can mount your fan size. Fans are sized by diameter in millimeters. Common sizes are 80, 92 and 120 mm. Try and plug them into a fan header on the motherboard so that the wires are out of the way. There should be an arrow on the fan indicating the direction of air flow. A common way to set up fans is an intake on the front of the case and an output on the rear.
Powering Up: It would be nice if everything ran perfect the first time. In case it doesn’t lets leave the case as open as possible. My side panels and front panel have never been on my machine. With them off I can see all the LEDs on my board. These LEDs can tell you some useful stuff like CPU temperature. Check your manual for what LEDs you have and what colors indicate trouble. With the case open you can feel if something is too hot and check that fans are running.
Plug in a mouse, a keyboard, and a monitor.
Connect the power cord to the power supply. Flip the power switch on the power supply. Finally hit the computer’s power button.
Installing drivers and OS: There are a few more things you need to do before you are ready to install your DAW software.
Drivers that came with your motherboard: Back when I ran windows XP you needed to install these from the motherboard DVD or find them online. Finding them online was a terrific pain because the motherboard manufacture did not have the latest drivers posted on their site. So you had to download them from the individual vender’s sites. But Windows 7 installs with many drivers so you may not need to install any of the ones that came with your motherboard. Not to mention your motherboard’s drivers will likely be old. The approach I take is to install Windows 7 and then see what devices are unrecognized in the device manager. If you need to install others find them online at the manufacturer’s website. Now, if Windows 7 does not install a working LAN driver you will not be able to get online. In this case you may need to install the LAN driver from the motherboard.
Utilities that came with your motherboard: I don’t install any of these. They aren’t essential and have caused me problems. IMO the less installed the better.
So, knowing that, you may want to skip any software or drivers that came with your motherboard and go straight to installing Windows 7.
Troubles: Here I will summarize the issues I had with this specific build and how I solved them.
Bad RAM: It took me a few days to figure this one out. When RAM fails you don’t exactly get a message “bad RAM, please replace”. This goes back to my original idea about buying a pre-build machine from a big manufacturer. When those machines are assembled they are tested. Anyway, I got several cryptic BSOD (blue screen of death) errors. Looking them up on Microsoft’s site was not much help either. But I did find that one of the errors could be from bad RAM. I tested the RAM using memtest86. This test takes a few hours. It passed. After a day or so I realized I was testing the memory at my system’s default speed (1099Mhz) and not it’s rated speed (1600Mhz). At the rated speed one set (3 sticks) quickly failed and went back for exchange.
BIOS freeze: To change the RAM speed I needed to get into a screen of the BIOS called intelligent tweaker. It’s the overclocking page of this BIOS. Unfortunately this board will freeze up on that screen unless your keyboard is connected via an old PS2 connection. So several times I had to power down and restart. I had no idea what was going on until I found a few others with the same issue. I hoped the newest BIOS would solve this. It didn’t. So I had to run out and buy a $3 USB to PS2 adapter.
Testing and Diagnostic: You don’t need to use any of these programs. But after building your DAW you might want to test it a bit and see if it melts.
- Memtest86: This free program allows you to test your RAM. I ran it from the Ultimate boot CD.
- Ultimate Boot CD: This is a free compilation of helpful software on a bootable CD. They allow you to download an ISO image which you burn to CD. Being able to boot from the CD is important since your machine might not be booting from it’s OS drive.
- Sandra lite: The free version of this program allows you to get lots of information on your system and run some benchmarks. I used it to benchmark my drives. I wanted to see their actual transfer rate and compare some of the older drives to the newer ones. I also bench marked my CPU.
- Real Temp: Allows you to check the temperature of Intel CPU cores.
- Intel Burn Test: Stress test for CPU. Good for checking cooling. I found Intel Burn Test more stressful on my system then Prime 95. Anyone know a direct link for this? I hate putting up links from software aggregators.
- prime 95: Another stress test for CPU. This is on the Ultimate Boot CD.
- CPU-Z: A good program for getting information on your hardware such as motherboard model, chipset, socket, specific CPU.
Alright. Done! Now, was all that worth it?