Rebuilding the Studio PC (Implementation)

Building PCs can be fun and rewarding, if done with care and common sense. It is not that hard to do. But if you don’t take care, at best you will finish up with a pile of expensive components that don’t work the way you want them to or don’t work at all. If you are thinking of using these notes to build a similar machine, I make no representation or warranty about the information contained here whatsoever. And always remember that treating electricity without respect can kill.

IMPORTANT NOTES (yes, I know this is obvious, but always worth repeating):

NEVER put your hands inside a PC that is connected to a live power supply. When working on your PC, disconnect it from the mains supply.

Why not just switch it off at the mains? If I have a switch-able mains socket, I should be able to connect the PSU to the mains, but leave the switch on the mains supply in the off position. In the UK, at least, these switches are supposed to be dual-pole, i.e. switching the mains off disconnects both the live and the neutral connections, but the earth is constantly connected irrespective of the position of the switch. By connecting the system to the power supply that is switched off, I can ensure that the PSU and other components such as the motherboard are earthed through the mains throughout most of the assembly. Isn’t that better?

Maybe, but in some countries, single pole switches are employed which means the supply is live even when switched off. In others, there is no earth connection at all and so there is no benefit to this approach anyway. Now consider: how much do you trust the manufacturer of the mains socket in your house to stick to the standards? Maybe. Would you bet your life on it? Never.

NEVER take apart a PSU unless you really know what you are doing. PSUs have large capacitors that can carry a charge well beyond the time at which you switch them off.

ALWAYSwork in a clean, well-lit, dry space, preferably at a comfortable working height, e.g. kitchen top or work surface. Being relaxed avoids making silly mistakes.

If possible, AVOID carpeted areas. Carpets, especially with man-made fibres, can induce large static charges that can damage computer components. Use a wrist-strap to ensure that you are properly earthed. This will avoid damage caused by static electricity. Besides, it is so much easier finding a screw on a work surface than it is on or in a carpet.

NEVER try to force a component into a socket or a plug into a socket. If it does not seem to fit, there is, probably, a very good reason. Many PC sockets are designed to only accept a connector in one orientation. Are you inserting the plug the right way round? Have you selected the wrong socket? Is there a bent pin?

NEVER over tighten screws. The screws in a PC are made from steel, but many of the components are made of softer alloys. If you over tighten a screw, it will strip the threads in the alloy. If the screw does not fit easily, check you have the right one. Tighten until the screw is firm.

ALWAYS connect all available screws using the appropriate washers where necessary. There are moving parts in a PC that cause small vibrations. This vibration can be greatly amplified by the case, especially where you have loose fitting parts. There is nothing quite as irritating as the sound of a rattling screw or loose fitting PC component.

If you drop a screw into the case, make sure you find and remove it. The last thing you need is pieces metal moving around in the case.

NEVER pull out a plug by the cable, always use the plug, it’s what it’s there for.

If something goes wrong or is unexpected, DON’T PANIC. Stand back, take a deep breath and think about what might be wrong. If you remain relaxed, it will become obvious in the end. Relax and be patient, there’s no rush.

Generally, the build process is to put together the minimum number of components you need to be able to do an initial test to confirm those parts are working. Then you add parts one by one testing each one as you go. If you do it this way, when something goes wrong, the cause will be much more obvious.

A Few Notes for Beginners

Before you begin the installation, check that all the parts are present and correct, but leave the parts in their anti-static envelopes until you need them. Treat the time between opening the anti-static envelope and attaching the part as a critical time to be kept as short as possible. Leave the part in the anti-static bag until you have prepared the system to install it. This is also true of screws, connectors, and fixings. If you leave them in the bags they are supplied with, they will be a lot easier to find.

While you are checking the parts look for manuals. If any manuals are supplied, take the time to read them. Someone has spent time and effort writing them for a reason. If you know all the “gotchas” before you start, the whole process will take less time and significantly the chance of damaging something. Now, take all those shiny new boxes and put them to one side, so they do not get in the way during the install.

This is also a good time to find the tools you will need. This is, typically, just a medium size, cross-drive screwdriver. However, this installation also needs a flat blade for the CPU screw. There is nothing more irritating than having to stop and find a tool in the middle of doing something critical. Also, find a small open top container to hold any screws and fastenings. Otherwise you will be hunting around for a screw at exactly the wrong time. It also acts as a proof that you have put back all the screws you have removed. Some people suggest many containers for the different sets of screws removed. I find that you can easily remember which is which and that multiple containers just get in the way.

Finally, occasionally, it is helpful to label cables if you have a lot of them, but I usually leave this to the end if I do it at all. With experience, you get to the point where you can quickly recognise cables just from colour and size. If you need to label them, then a pen, large sticky address label and scissors is all you need. Write the name at the top right of the label, cut the label into a thin strip and wrap the strip around the cable somewhere convenient.

The Installation

I began the installation by making the following notes as a checklist. This was to avoid missing out some crucial step in the middle and then having to track backwards and forwards to find out what I had forgotten to do.

Preparing the case

Installing the Motherboard

Installing the CPU

Installing Memory

Front Panel, USB and Audio Connectors

Installing the Hard Drive and CD/DVD

Initial Boot
We now have a system that is ready for an initial boot. I do a boot prior to installing the rest of the devices to ensure that everything is working properly.

First Temperature Test
Assuming everything works OK, we are ready to do our first test of the thermal solution. This involves running the system for a few minutes monitoring the temperature without load.

At this stage, leave the system running for a few minutes and take a well-earned break. Patience can be a real benefit when building PCs. This is also a good time for folding up and storing the packaging you have finished with. The system and CPU temperatures should remain quite low. The PSU fan should be rotating quite slowly.

Installing the OS
Assuming all is well, we are ready to install the OS. We need to make sure that the SATA drive is in IDE mode and that the BIOS is configured to boot from CDROM.

Installing the Smart-Card Reader

Installing the Emu 1212M Expansion Card

Installing the Yamaha SW1000XG and PLG-150DX daughterboard

Installing the Desktop

Installing the MIDISport 8x8

Connecting the Rack Audio

I collect together all the unused parts (there will be a number of them) and store them somewhere safe. We may need them later.

At this stage, I checked the power consumption – 80-90W as predicted, so there is some satisfaction there. I then enabled SpeedStep (by changing the power options to Minimal Power Management). SpeedStep is brilliant. It simply keeps adjusting the speed and voltage of the CPU depending on the work done, but is completely unnoticeable. Neat.


Burn In the Computer (or what really happened)
Once I had all the required hardware, the next step was to do a basic burn-in test of the system. This involves making the computer do a lot of work so that I can check that the thermal solution keeps the overall temperature within my tolerances. To do burn in tests, I use SiSoftware’s Sandra. You need to constantly monitor the temperature at the start of this test until you are confident that it is not increasing. As you become more confident, you can monitor at greater intervals.

I ran the CPU and memory benchmarks just once monitoring the temperature using the SpeedFan monitoring tool. NOTE: the temperature will increase, but should not do so to critical levels. I tried keeping the test running until the temperature stops increasing. However, what I found was that the CPU temperature kept going up, as did the system temperature. When the system temperature reached 50C, the computer switched itself off.

I checked that I had not, inadvertently, left any cables in a position to disrupt the airflow in the case. So, I installed the slot fan. This deferred the shutdown for a short while (i.e. it helped a little, but not a lot).

I contacted AOpen to find out of the motherboard had any other thermal trip that I was not aware of. The only trips in the motherboard are the standard ones supplied by the Intel chipset and CPU (e.g. the PROCHOT pin of the CPU that operates when the junction temperature reaches 100C protecting the CPU). Then I contacted Antec and after a couple of mails backward and forward established that the cause was a trip built into the power supply. I felt the chassis fan and hardly any air was being blown out. Now that could be a blockage where the air comes on or where it goes out or the fan is simply not powerful enough. I checked for blockage; nothing there. So, I decided to purchase a higher power fan (Scythe) and installed it into the power supply in place of the Antec one. Replacing the PSU fan invalidated the warranty and, worse, didn’t help.

So, I decided to remove the Antec power supply and replace with an external AC-DC PSU and a DC-DC converter. I opted for an Ably Tech 150W PSU set supplied by LinITX. This consists of a small board, an external brick and some connector cables. I also purchased a DIN socket to suit the PSU. I removed the Antec PSU and (drilling through the case) installed the DC converter in front of the motherboard. I then modded the back of the case to take a small DIN socket and connected the socket to the converter. Then, using an AVO meter I checked all the connections and solder points. I then mounted a 120mm fan where the Antec PSU used to be. I connected the cables to the motherboard and drives. I covered the grill at the top to ensure that air pulled in by the fan

Finally, I plugged in the PSU and switched on. I resumed the burn-in test and I am now keeping the overall system temperature to about 31C with the CPU at about 35C rising to 40C under sustained heavy load. I run the system burn-in wizard over a few hours.

Once I had done the burn-in I installed the software. Typically, I re-install software from the original distribution media and then configure it by copying the relevant data from my old hard drive across the network. This gives me the cleanest possible install whilst maintaining my settings.

The final test is to measure (listen to) the sound produced by the new computer. Is it quiet? No, then identify the source of the sound. Hopefully, you should only hear the odd disk noise and a quiet background hum of the CPU fan. In my case, the external PSU is silent – I can hear the internal fans, but they are just a background hum.


What’s the moral of the story? It doesn’t matter how much work you do beforehand, you still need to be able adapt the plans when it goes wrong. Generally, I am very happy with the new machine, the only problem in the final analysis, being the Aria case. If I were doing it again I would do exactly the same, but I would probably opt for a different case (without PSU) and plan from the outset to use the DC converter and external PSU. The latter has been a really neat solution for people looking for a quiet PC.