My Turn

Silent Computing Revisited

Phil Salathe - 2001.08.06

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Like Mr. Ploudre, I have long railed against the constant hum of my Mac. As a composer and audio engineer, I need to be able to hear fine details in the music with which I'm working. The white noise of my G3's fan greatly obscures those details, and completely changes the way I listen to and write music - not for the better, I might add.

However, I suspect Mr. Ploudre's solution of getting a used PowerBook won't work for many audio engineers, if any. Audio hardware is usually designed with machines like the Power Mac G3 in mind: There are plenty of great PCI audio cards, but few, if any, PCMCIA cards of professional quality (and I tend to think, should they exist, they'd be prohibitively expensive). On top of that, audio software is as RAM-hungry as ever - and PowerBook RAM has never been cheap, to say the least.

Furthermore, neither the iMac nor the Cube can be satisfactory, either, since they aren't expandable enough - and, as Mr. Ploudre pointed out, the iMac is not a silent machine. Nor is the Cube.

The best solution for many of us is, I think, distance. I can't offer details on every possible solution, but I can talk about an approach used at my most recent place of employment, an audio engineering studio.

No job is perfect, and this one certainly wasn't by a long shot. But one of the nice things about this place was that it was not only a Macintosh-based studio, but had a lot of low-end Mac hardware. On a daily basis, machines like the Centris 650 and the Power Computing 100 were getting heavy use, thanks to proprietary networking cards from Sonic Solutions. (Indeed, we even had a "lowly" Performa 475, which happily did its part - making labels and maintaining client databases.) Oddly enough, the one G3 we had, a beige minitower, was probably the most problematic machine of them all, whereas the Quadra 950 was practically uncrashable!

The main part of the studio was divided into five relatively small booths in which all of the actual audio work was done. The noise from the computers would've been prohibitive at best, had they been in the same room. So when the studio was built, the owner arranged to have panels with connections for ethernet and 5-pin video (as well as XLR connections for AES/EBU, a protocol for digital audio) put into each booth. The panels were all wired to a "machine room" in which all of the computers were housed. For the keyboard and mouse, we used homemade ethernet-to-ADB converter boxes at each end. For the video, we used custom-made VGA-to-5-pin cables. All that was needed in each room (besides our audio equipment) was a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor, along with their respective cables or converter boxes.

The result? Total silence, and it was great! Sure, it was a bit inconvenient to have to run back to the machine room every time you needed to, say, put in a new CD to burn. But overall, it was a very effective solution. It not only let us do our job properly, but also saved our ears from a lot of fatigue.

Obviously, nothing so complex need be done for most cases. But it's worth knowing that this ethernet-to-ADB solution can work. I believe, though I may be mistaken, that in terms of signal degradation, ethernet cable may be more robust over longer distances than ADB cable. I don't know the details, but I remember being told that we were exceeding Apple's spec with our solution - the implication being, I think, that using RJ-45 (ethernet) cable somehow made it possible to do so.

Because we worked with high-end digital audio and proprietary hardware, we had to use special solutions to get our digital audio signal back to the rooms in which we worked. However, for people who just want to listen to MP3s while they work - or even for simple digital audio editing - long cables will again do the trick. Running long speaker cables is one possible solution; you could keep an amplifier near your computer, wherever it may be, and simply run speaker cable to wherever you needed it. Cable of reasonable quality ought to be up to the challenge. The idea of running long RCA cables, on the other hand, is probably a bad one; the signal degradation could be considerable.

I'd be interested, by the way, in hearing about any attempts to do something similar with USB, since all of the newer Macs lack ADB ports. Perhaps a straight cable run would do the trick?

In any event, I can say this with assurance: If you're listening to music with the hum of your computer's fan in the background, you're likely missing out on a wealth of detail and dynamic contrast. I listen to a great deal of ambient and classical music, and there are myriad pieces that simply don't sound in a noisy environment. The relationship of music to silence can be a highly important one - and it's a relationship which is badly damaged when that silence is disrupted by white noise.

So consider going silent!

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