Project Lab: Building a 'Silent' PC from Legacy Hardware
Most IT workers or computer enthusiasts tend to ‘accumulate’ computer and electronics gear over time. Over the years it is easy to end up with piles of old and outdated computer parts, components and electronics–whether it’s an old Pentium machine that your work was throwing out, RAM chips you no longer needed after your last upgrade, or an old CRT monitor that your cousin wasn’t sure what to do with. Tossing the accumulated hardware out with the next trash pickup doesn’t even enter the equation, because there’s that slight possibility you might need it someday.
I myself have one (or two, and maybe half an attic…) closet full of old stuff ranging from my old Commodore 64/1541 Floppy disk drive with Zork 5.25” floppies, to a set of four 30 pin 1 MB/70ns SIMM chips that cost $100 each as upgrades to my first 486 DX2/50 Mhz Compudyne PC back in 1989. (Yes, you read that right, $100 for 1 MB of memory.) No matter if you have it all crammed into one closet or spread all over your house, you likely have a collection of gear dating back to the days of punch cards, single button joysticks, and InvisiClues guides.
Occasionally I’ll look into my own closet and lament all the ‘wasted’ technology that resides there. I’m convinced much of the hardware still has some sparks of life left. As a result, I am always looking for a reason to revive some of it from the dead. Since they’ve already been bought and paid for, it feels almost blasphemous to the technology gods not to do something with the hardware. In some cases, it might not be worth the effort, (Windows Vista on an old Micron Transport Trek2 PII-300 laptop doesn’t end well for anyone). In others cases, you can build something fun or useful using parts that you have sitting around and are waiting for a new lease on life.
In my case, I've been experimenting a bit with podcasting and audio/video recording recently. One thing that has been an issue in general is background noise that is getting picked up during the recording. With a half way decent microphone, you can pick up background noise–and in my case–my dual GPU and overclocked CPU gaming machine was audibly humming along in the background audio. Audio mixing tools like Audacity and Levelator allow you to run noise removal algorithms and pull out much of the background noise to smooth things out, but it’s just better to just avoid recording the background noise in the first place.
My first thought was to come up with some way to isolate the machine from where I was recording by either soundproofing the case, or just locating the machine somewhere else. Unfortunately, that would require some long and expensive cables or a good deal of case insulation–which could lead to heat issues. Personally, I’d much rather spend my time elbows-deep in PC components than foam egg crates. So I decided to see if I could put together a 'silent' PC with hardware that I already had lying around.
My podcast audio/video recording process uses simple tools like Skype and Audacity that don’t require a lot of horsepower. I do any intensive activities–like encoding and mixing–on another machine, so I simply need this machine to capture raw audio and video streams without adding any background noise to the recording itself. I should be able to reuse some of the gear from my ‘Closet of Misfit Tech Toys’ for that purpose. To make things a little more interesting, I gave myself a pie in the sky goal to try to build the machine with no moving parts at all–if possible. Considering just about all of the unwanted noise coming from a PC is caused by moving fans, spindles and platters, it’d be a win-win scenario.