By Mike Lawson
My computer is an integral part of my home recording studio, functioning as a musical instrument, hard disk recorder, editor, video editor, sequencer, mastering station, CD duplicator, and much more. I've upgraded my custom-made PC many times over the past couple of years. It currently includes a Pentium III 450 with 384 MB of PC-100 RAM, three different high-end sound cards, and 46 GB of Ultra-DMA hard disk space. I've designed this system to get the most out of the personal-studio experience and to make sure the hardware can handle the demands made by my recording, sequencing, and effects software.
One of the biggest problems I've always had with my PC is where to put it. To help me organize my gear and manage the personal-studio "spaghetti factory" of cables, I purchased an Omnirax ProStation MC studio workstation. Like most studio furniture, it provides ample rack space and a great place to put the computer monitor and speakers, but it isn't very accommodating to the minitower ATX cases that house most Pentium computers these days. While this particular desk provides a pullout shelf for a desktop AT or ATX case, cabling issues make it the wrong solution for me.
In addition, both desktop and minitower cases tend to be crowded inside, making it difficult to get around in them when you're trying to add cards, change drives, add or replace RAM, and so on. As anyone who uses a computer in the recording process can attest, you're inside your computer's case a lot!
Heat is another problem with most types of computer cases, particularly when you're running multiple sound cards and large-capacity hard drives (not to mention today's faster processors and larger amounts of RAM). Heat kills chips and motherboards, and the more peripherals you run, the hotter it gets inside that little box, especially when it's on for extended periods. Conventional computer cases have only one cooling fan, on the back of the power supply. The only other cooling mechanism is the fan attached to the processor chip, but that cools just the processor.
I decided that a rack-mounted computer was the best solution to the problems of placement, internal access, and cooling. I've seen ads for preconfigured, rack-mounted computers in Japanese recording magazines. A couple of companies that advertise in EM will also configure a computer system for home recording and sell it to you in a rack-mount case. But what about someone like me, who simply needs a rack-mount ATX case to house an existing computer system? Where could I buy such a case, and what would I need to know about these cases in order to install my system in one?
INFITECH TO THE RESCUE I learned that there are surprisingly few options. Some computer-parts retailers have rack-mount cases for servers, but they're not appropriate for ATX PCs. The music retailers I visited said, "Cool idea, but we've never seen one."
Finally I found a company on the Web that would deal with individuals, not just major accounts and bulk orders. Infitech makes and distributes high-quality rack-mount computer cases for the computer and telecommunications industries. The company had never received a request from a musician looking to rack-mount a computer, and the people I spoke to were somewhat surprised that there was a need in our industry for their products. However, they were eager to help me and pass along some great information to other musicians looking for a similar product.
I took my computer to Infitech and looked at their cases, which come in 4U and 5U heights. In addition, I had to choose between an imported case and one made domestically. The 4U cases are optimal for the home studio. The 5U cases hold more drives, but they're larger than most home-studio musicians need. Because of this, I'll only discuss the 4U cases.
The 4U imported case lists for a mere $139 without a power supply. The 4U American-made case lists for $325, also without a power supply. If you're taking your computer out of an ATX case, you should have no trouble removing the old power supply and placing it in the rack-mount case. Otherwise, be prepared to spend between $40 and $200 for a new power supply, depending on how much power you need.
The 4U rack-mount case is 19 inches wide by 7 inches high by 18.5 inches deep and weighs in at a hefty 30 pounds. Its body is made out of electrogalvanized steel with an aluminum front, and it comes in any color you want-as long as it's black!
The domestic model has three 5.25-inch horizontal, front drive bays and two 3.5-inch vertical, internal bays, while the imported version features two 5.25-inch horizontal, front drive bays and three 3.5-inch vertical, internal bays. If you have a recording computer with two internal CD devices-such as a CD-ROM and a CD-R-these will occupy both 5.25-inch bays in the import model. If you also have an internal 5.25-inch input device-such as an E-mu APS, Yamaha DSP Factory, or even the new Sound Blaster Live Platinum-you're out of luck. You must forsake one of the three devices to use the less-expensive imported case (as I did) or select the domestic model to accommodate all of them.
Placing your computer in a rack provides better air circulation, thus helping to keep those expensive components cool. The case itself is larger, but you also have the benefit of at least three fans: one in the power supply, one on the processor, and the rack's front fan. The domestic cases have, in addition to the power-supply and processor fans, two fans in front and one in the middle.
These fans keep things cool, but they also produce noise. The front-mounted fans (which are covered by an air filter) are the biggest noise problem. But the imported model's single front fan seems only about as loud as the regular ATX case once the unit is placed in a rack. And, of course, you can easily reach inside the case and unplug the fan's power cable if necessary.
The 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch devices you install are all mounted into one vibration-dampening, shock-mount chassis. This is a wonderful feature if you need to take your rack-mounted computer on the road in a flight case. You also get an LED power light, a hard disk activity light, a sturdy power switch, and a lockable front door that provides access to the drives.
GET TO WORK Assembling a computer is a lot of work. But the rack case provides a lot of space to work with, so it's much easier to read all those little white words on the dark green motherboard and figure out where to plug things in.
Here are some basic tips for taking your computer out of one case and putting it into another:
1. Gather pencil and paper, a small Phillips screwdriver, and a small flathead screwdriver.
2. Make sure the computer is powered down and unplugged.
3. Discharge the static electricity in your body before touching anything inside the computer. It's best to use a wrist-strap grounding cable that attaches to the metal chassis of the case you're working on. If you don't have one, at least touch the metal sides of the case before you reach in and grab a card.
4. Perform the transfer on a big workbench or table, such as a dining-room table. This enables you to place the ATX minitower on one end of the table and the rack case on the other, giving you room in between to lay out the parts, screws, and cables.
5. Remove all cards from the computer. Put them on the table in the order they came out or write down the order so you can put them back the same way.
6. Take note of the position of the red line (or broken red line) on any ribbon cables. This line indicates the location of pin 1, letting you determine the correct orientation of the cable. On most modern devices, the cable is designed so that you can connect it in only one way. However, some devices do not offer such a foolproof connector; if you make a connection backwards, you can cause yourself a lot of headaches. Write down which side of the device has the red line. Sketch it out if you need to.
7. Gently remove the drives, making sure to note the order in which they were connected inside the old case. If you have four IDE devices (two masters and two slaves), know which is which so you can plug them back in correctly.
8. Once you've removed all the devices (except for the RAM and processor/fan), unplug the power supply from the motherboard, remove both from the old case, and install them in the new case (see Figs. 1 and 2). Don't let the motherboard touch any metal in the new case, otherwise it will form a ground loop that will prevent the computer from working.
9. From here, put everything into the rack case in the order they came out of the old case (see Figs. 3 and 4). This process isn't exactly rocket science, but it can be an all-day task if you don't take a little time to put things back the right way.
UP AND RUNNING When you've reassembled your computer and powered it up to confirm that everything works properly, you're ready to place your new rack-mount computer where it belongs-in the rack! But the fun doesn't end here. That computer is heavy, so place it in the bottom of the rack to make sure gravity stays your friend. I left a 2U gap above the computer so I can pop the top and get inside as needed. I also left the top cover unscrewed so it's easy to remove.
Use isolation washers to keep metal cases from touching the metal rack rails. This will prevent ground-loop noise from other devices in the rack-especially important for rack-mounted components powered from the computer, because they might not work at all if there's a ground loop. In fact, you might want to put these components in a separate rack altogether.
Now that the hard work is done, I am greatly enjoying having a rack-mounted computer. It's easier to get in and out of the chassis, the cables are better organized and integrated with the other rack-mounted gear, and I've freed up space on my desktop for other things. I highly recommend this conversion for anyone who needs to make better use of space in a home or pro studio and wants to enjoy the benefits a rack-mounted computer can bring.
Mike Lawson is a San Francisco Bay Area songwriter, guitarist, and home recording junkie with numerous performing and recording credits. He's served on the Board of Governors of the San Francisco chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) and is also the publisher of MixBooks and EMBooks. Visit his Web site at www.mikelawson.com.
After I completed this project, I learned that Middle Atlantic Products offers ATX and AT rack-mount computer cases. Both cases list for $469 and include a power supply. Wave Digital also offers computer cases with shock-mount drive bays. The simplest case lists for $389; the full-featured case, which includes a power supply, lists for $469.