5 Things Creating Noise In A Modern Recording Studio And What You Can Do About It

08-10-2014 10:53 AM

In the ‘good old days’ of recording we used to have a room for everything, live room, vocal booth, control room, gear closet and machine room were usually the basics of any recording studio. Then things got smaller and cheaper - including the record company and TV company budgets, so today many of us find ourselves in a single room to do all we used to do in many rooms.
We spend a lot of time talking about the noise in the DAW, the converters, interfaces, pre-amps, mics, cables and yet there’s another world of noise in the modern studio that we need to pay close attention too.
I’ve become somewhat OCD about noise from gear, what’s the point in having the best of the aforementioned if the ambient noise in the room is a lot higher than you think? RX is good, but I’d rather not use it.
Here are 5 things creating noise in a modern recording studio and what you can do about it.
1. Your Computer

There are a number of things in a computer that can make a noise, of course they are normally moving parts. Three places that are likely are the case fan, CPU fan and power supply fan. If the fans are temperature controlled then the harder your work the computer the louder the fans can get. Laptops in particular can suffer from this issue and of they are sat in front of you then there is no getting away from the sound created. It’s important to make sure that the air flow is maintained all the time by regular cleaning of all air intakes and fans. It’s fairly easy to pop the lid on modern computers so you can get inside to inspect all the air flow points and the fans. Always remember to turn off your computer and unplug it from the power source before you attempt to clean fans and air vents. There are companies like Coolermaster who specialize in helping to make computers quieter, this is mostly achieved by keeping them cool so that the fans don’t run as often or as fast as they could do.
The good news is that more and more computers are offering whisper quiet operation, we recently mentioned the Mac Mini as one of them. We also have one of the new Mac Pro ‘trash cans’ at PTE HQ and it’s so quiet you could record inches away from the unit and not have an issue. It’s hardly unlikely that you would, but it is nice to know you can.
So the first place to consider when trying to reduce noise in your studio is the computer you buy.
2. Hard Drives

Conventional hard drives can create noise depending on their design. Older hard drives can make quite a noise as they spin, it may be a whirring or high pitched whine as part of general operation. If you start to hear more grinding or clicking noises then your drive may be on the way out and you’ll need to get it backed up as quickly as possible just in case it’s about to go to the hard drive bay in the sky. As conventional hard drives get older then they start to suffer from file fragmentation, this means the hard drive head has to be scanned more often, this adds noise.
One thing to consider is to use an SSD, although SSDs are far more costly than conventional hard drives they have no moving parts. For storage of the large amount of data associated with media creation SSDs are not seen as a cost effective option, but the cost of SSDs is falling all the time so they might not be as expensive as you think. If you are going to use SSDs then it is important to know about TRIM, there is an excellent article here on TRIM.
There are some excellent conventional hard drives that offer both high speed performance and low noise levels. A quick Google search will yield sites that test hard drives for both performance and noise levels - reading them shows just how much noise a hard drive can add to the equation. Stick to well known respected hard drive brands, buying a cheap hard drive is about as smart as buying a cheap parachute.
External hard drives can also differ when it comes to noise produced, some are housed boxes that have fans for cooling and others, for example the Lacie D2 series, have fanless cooling. Again it is worth doing your research and balancing speed with noise levels when choosing a drive fro your Pro Tools rig. It can be tempting just buy to the biggest hard drive you can find, there are some bargains to be had with 4TB external drives at low prices, however those drives may lack both the performance needed by Pro Tools and produce high levels of noise. Our advice is do your research and buy the best drives you can afford from a well respected brand. A high quality 2TB drive that is fast and quiet may seem like a bad deal compared to a 4TB at the same price, but for studio work it’s not the case, performance and noise should be your first considerations.
3. Audio Interfaces

Getting the audio into Pro Tools requires an interface, many of them have fans inside them to keep them cool. Smaller desktop audio interfaces are less likely to have fans built in which means that operation should be silent if there are no moving parts. However some audio interfaces are noisier than others, ironically Avid have some pretty noisy fans in some of their pro interfaces. You can read our article on replacing the fan on the Avid Omni as the noise it produced for a unit sitting in the same room made it almost unusable. Reports from some Avid Omni owners is that their Omni noise is low, so it may depend on how old you unit is. We also have reports that the newer Avid HD I/O series have equally noisy fans. If you already have an interface that has a noisy fan then it is worth considering replacing the fan, replacing the fan in the Omni cost little money and was pretty easy to do, however if you don’t want to do it yourself then find an electronics specialist to do it for you.
There are some professional audio interfaces that have fanless operations, these include the UAD Apollo, RME, Focusrite and MOTU are just a few notable mentions.
If you are considering buying a new interface for your studio then we recommend trying to get one with fanless operation, if you are looking at one that does use a fan for cooling we suggest finding one and listening to it working hard in a quiet room.
4. Expansion Chassis

Expansion Chassis are not a new thing in the audio world, for many years they were used to expand the amount of cards that could be used in a Pro Tools HD rig. However as computers get more powerful and smaller, and with the advent of new technologies like Thunderbolt, expansion chassis now offer a great way of creating powerful and flexible audio systems.
Expansion Chassis require fans to cool the cards they host, which are inevitably powerful and so generate a great deal of heat over prolonged intense use.
Not all expansion chassis are created equal so it is worth checking out the noise on units before committing to have one sitting in your studio, especially if you are in a small room and it will be sitting nearby. You can read our latest review of the Sonnet Echo Express III-D Desktop here.
Expansion chassis will still generate fan noise, so again it is worth taking a listen to them in situ before making your buying decision.
5. Other Audio Hardware

Some audio hardware such as pre-amps may have fans as part of their cooling systems. One example of this is the Audient ASP008 8 channel pre-amp which has a small cooling fan on the rear to keep the temperature down.
Some users reported fan noise but on the whole most test reported no issues with the fan noise. However the new Audient ASP880 now has fanless operation, we loved it so much we bought one, it offers awesome sound and fanless operation, you can read our review of it here.
Preamps other audio hardware that use fans for cooling can be kept cooler and therefore reduce the need for the fan to run so often by making sure there is plenty of air moving around them. This may mean that in a rack you keep the slot above free, it might be a small price to pay for the sound of silence.

It might seem trivial to consider the noise level of your computer, drives, interfaces, expansion chassis or other audio hardware, but if you are sitting in the same room as all of them then then the ambient noise in your studio increases. If this is the same room that you record your instruments, voice-over or ADR sessions then you need to do all you can to reduce the noise in your room.
It is good to see some manufacturers appreciating the need to make fanless, low noise equipment for the modern recording studio. As we said at the start of this article fewer recording professionals have the need, or indeed the money, to have anything more than a room to do everything in, so it is essential that more and more manufacturers wake up to this fact. It will be increasingly part of the buying choice so it’s in their interest to address this in their product design.
They say that it’s the small things in life that matter, when it comes to reducing noise in a one-room-studio then this cliche is well worth taking notice of.
What has been your experience of the noise generated by some of your equipment? Is the amount of noise part of your buying decision process? What have been some good and bad experiences that you have had? Let us know.