Roll Your Own Thunderbird

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in July 2001, contributed by then Contributing Editor Pete Leoni. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Once again it’s time to build a new “Roll Your Own” Computer for audio!

A lot has changed since I wrote the last installment of “Roll Your Own”. The price of both CPUs and memory modules has dropped dramatically. So much so that some of the cost cutting measures we used in the past RYO’s aren’t really necessary now. And, while in the past we staunchly supported Intel processors for providing the best performance, we now have an improved AMD Athlon chip which provides substantially better performance than any Intel processor, and at a bargain price.

We will first describe the specification for the new Roll Your Own computer, and then we will provide a detailed, step-by-step instruction for how to build it.

Upgrade It!

An outstanding feature of the RYO computers is the continuing ability for them to be upgraded. In fact, before I get into the new Roll Your Own recipe, I have some good news for those of you who are still running the previous versions. Yet again it has become both viable and financially feasible to upgrade. This time it is simply a matter of flashing the BIOS, plugging in a PIII 1000, adding more memory, making a few adjustments and rebooting the computer. If you have a first or second generation RYO and want to upgrade, here’s how to do it.

If you have a RYO computer then you are using the ABIT BH6 motherboard. First go here: http://www.aBIOS.com/abit/upgrade.html and carefully read about how to flash your BIOS to the latest version. Note that there are two versions of the BH6 in production. Be sure that you download the correct BIOS for your version of the BH6!

Be very cautious during these next steps, as it is possible to erase your BIOS chip and render your computer unbootable, at least till you acquire a new BIOS chip. After you’ve successfully flashed your BIOS, go here: http://www.pricewatch.com/ and do a search for a slot 1, 100 fsb, (1gigahertz) PIII, note that you must use the 100 Mhz FSB, 1 version of the chip, not the 133 FSB PIII “EB” model. I realize there are adapters available but the PIII slot 1at 100 MHz FSB is now very low in cost and still widely available at the time of this writing. Installing the slot 1 CPU is a simple plug and play operation.

While you are at it you may as well add more memory. Unless your are living in Antarctica you must have noticed that memory prices have dropped to an almost obscenely low price. Shame on you if you don’t take advantage of it now! I recommend 384 Megs of name brand PC 133 CAS 2 memory. The folks at http://www.advanceddesignky.com can help you select a good grade of memory or you can do a search at http://www.pricewatch.com. With memory prices at a record low, now is not the time to be stingy.

Once you have flashed the BIOS to the latest version, plugin in the new CPU, lock in your new memory, and re-boot. Hit ‘del’ during the startup screen, go into the BIOS screen and set the FSB speed to 100 mhz and the multiplier to 10 or the highest speed possible under 10. You may notice that upon booting up, you will see something like “Pentium III @ 956xx. Don’t be concerned, your CPU is running @ 1 gigahertz.

In order to prevent overclocking, Intel has a habit of locking the multiplier to the speed they desire the chip to run at. Your computer POST screen may tell you differently, but your CPU will nevertheless be running at 1 gigahertz. With extra memory and more CPU speed (150 MHz more if you are upgrading from a Celeron 850, and a whopping 550 mhz more if you are still using the first RYO at 450 Mhz!) you will notice a definite increase in performance and stability. The total cost of this upgrade will be less than $300, not bad at all for a 1-gigahertz rig with a ton of memory. It goes without saying that this would be an ideal second computer for running GigaStudio and soft synths.

The New Roll Your Own DAW!

I don’t want to seem like I’m an Intel basher, because I am decidedly not! I love Intel products, but lately Intel has developed a strange habit of shooting itself in the foot. In the past that habit has worked in our favor by providing us with the powerful, overclockable and economical Celeron. This time Intel’s self-destruction complex has not helped us to build a reasonably priced DAW nor has it helped Intel to make a profit. Because of a premature and legally binding agreement with a the memory manufacturer RAMBUS, Intel was forced into designing a new chip and chipset to take advantage of the higher bandwidth memory bus that these RAMBUS modules would require. To make a long and sad story short, things did not work out quite the way that Intel intended.

First, due to royalty issues the new RAMBUS RDRAM memory turned out to be a lot more expensive than the standard SDRAM that is nearly universal now. Second and even worse, Intel’s new P4 chip turns out to be slower “clock for clock” than Intel’s own PIII and AMD’s Athlon, both older chips! Thirdly and most important for us, the floating-point performance of the P4 is not good. So where does this leave us? If we want to go faster than the current 1000 MHz limit of the PIII, it leaves us with the decision to go with AMD’s Athlon Thunderbird.

Why the Thunderbird?

Some of you may recall the compatibility issues that I had with the Athlon chips in the last RYO article. Although the Athlon has decidedly superior floating point performance when compared the PIII, the original Athlon CPU’s and associated chipsets simply refused to work with some soundcards. Other cards such as EMU’s Paris absolutely loved the Athlon. The Athlons excellent floating-point capability provided greatly increased effects performance. Still, the compatibility issues were enough of a worry to keep a lot of DAW users away from AMD Athlons.

Now I am happy to report that for the vast majority of all hardware, these compatibility problems are a thing of the past. The Athlon has become the platform of choice for audio / video work. Athlon T-birds are available in clock speeds from 1 to 1.4 Gigahertz and soon to be much higher. Prices currently range from less than $100 for a 1-gigahertz chip, to around $200 for a 1.4-gigahertz model. These prices will only continue to fall as always. With prices this low, overclocking – although quite easy to do on this RYO system – is really no longer needed. Simply buy the fastest CPU you can afford and get a good heatsink and fan.

The Iwill KK266 Motherboard

For this version of the RYO I am choosing the Iwill KK266 motherboard. Note this is NOT the KK266R “RAID” version. I do not recommend using RAID motherboards: there are many compatibility issues that may arise with a RAID configuration, even when using the RAID simply as an additional IDE controller. Although it is possible to get decent results with RAID boards, a lot of tweaking and trial and error may be necessary. With the RYO we prefer to keep thing simple and reliable. And the bottom line is that when a $120 hard disk will get you 60-80 tracks of 24-bit / 44.1 KHz audio, RAID is simply not needed for any DAW. It’s unnecessary overkill.

Although there are a lot of motherboards using VIA’s KT133a chipset I am recommending the Iwill KK266 for a number of reasons. The VIA KT133a chipset, along with the Athlon Thunderbird has proven itself to be a fine performer and compatibility issues are extremely rare. Iwill, being a relatively small player in the motherboard field, is well aware of competition from the big guys. Their response to this has been to make a product line that is just a bit more solid than the competition. The Iwill KK266 is very similar to the popular ABIT KT7 series mobos, but bit more robust. I have found this board to be extremely stable and reliable. Among many useful feature of the board is the ability to use either 100 FSB or 133 FSB Athlon T-bird chips, along with ability to run PC 100 memory if necessary. Most of these settings are software-configurable in the BIOS, via Iwill’s “Smart Setting”. Very handy if you want to use your older PC 100 memory sticks. The KK266 has the ability to use up to 1.5 gigs of system ram in three slots. The board has 6 PCI slots, 1 AGP slot, and 1 ISA slot.

This motherboard has a built-in sound chip, a feature that perhaps only a few of you will use, and some of you may object to. However I would like to point out a few things that may change your mind.

First of all, you are not stuck with the onboard sound chip, it is easily disabled via a jumper on the motherboard. With the onboard sound chip disabled, it uses absolutely no system resources. And there are a few reasons why you might want to use the onboard sound in addition to your high-dollar card. First, the chip does not use the usual software-based AC97 CODEC that we are used to hearing in “SoundBlaster” type cards, instead it uses a hardware based C-media CMI-8738 sound chip. This chip is quite a bit better than the old AC97 standard, with a significantly higher signal to noise ratio, and support for up to 24 bit files. If not quite up to audiophile standards it is at the very least usable for audio “yeoman” duty. Another great use for the chip is the built in MIDI port. With the addition of a $15 adapter you have a standard MIDI that port may very well come in handy. I have found, for example, that the port works well in Windows 2000, something that a lot of external midi devices are either having a bit of trouble with or lack drivers for. If you set your computer up in a dual-boot configuration, you can boot the computer in “pro audio” mode using your good soundcard, and in “everyday” mode using the onboard sound chip.

The Case and Power Supply

All of the previous roll RYO computers have used tower cases. Tower cases are fine, and are readily available locally, but if you can afford it I would recommend a rack mounted case. Many studios these days have two or more computers. Even more important than the obvious issue of space is the need to control noise levels. A few computers in a control room can at the very least produce enough noise to be irritating if not damaging in a studio environment. Having the ability to rack mount your computers in a soundproof rack case simultaneously solves both issues.

Rackmount cases used to be unreasonably expensive, but now the price of rackmount cases is rapidly falling. You can get a very fine case for less than $140. I purchased mine at http://www.compute-aid.com for the grand total of $138, without power supply. The lack of a power supply is a good thing, though, because it allows us to get a high-performance, whisper-quiet power supply appropriate for studio use. Get at least a 300-watt ATX power supply unit that is approved for use with Athlon CPU’s. Most tower cases today will come with an Athlon approved supply, but it doesn’t hurt to check. For those of you going the rackmount route, you might want to consider one of the quiet Enermax “Whisper” power supplies from http://www.directron.com. I am using four of these and they are extremely quiet. Soundproof racks in which to install the computer are available from http://www.eastcoastmusic.com.

The Memory

Many of you will wonder why I opted NOT to use the new DDR ram. At the time of this writing I have tested several motherboards and either I have not seen an appreciable increase in performance or worse, I have encountered stability and/or compatibility issues. Although DDR ram shows promise, I don’t think it is quite ready for prime time use in our DAWs. Therefore I am sticking to SDRAM @ 133 FSB. 133 Mhz SDRAM (and FSB speed) provides a significant increase in performance over 100 Mhz SDRAM, and is proven and stable technology.

CPU speeds have evolved to the point that memory has became the weak link in the chain. Always buy name brand memory that meets or exceeds the PC 133 spec. In doing so you will ensure that the memory will be fast and reliable enough to keep up with whatever CPU you choose to install. Be aware of the fact that in the future FSB’s are likely to exceed 133 Mhz, so you may want to purchase memory that is rated even higher. I see often PC 166 rated memory for sale. There is no reason not to use high speed rated memory, as all SDRAM memory is backward compatible with regard to speed. With memory prices as low as they are at the time of this writing, cost is not an issue, therefore I would consider 384 Megs to be the minimum. Remember that newer versions of Windows always seem to require more and more memory, not to mention apps like Gigasampler and Halion.

The Hard Drives

Maxtor DiamondMax Plus drives are still the best choice for audio work. The DiamondMax plus series all feature very high-density platters which allow them to achieve maximum sustained transfer rates of 25 Mbs and better. Maxtor drives realize a fine balance between high sustained transfer rate and low CPU usage, a combo hard to beat in a DAW. Many users routinely stream up to 100 24-bit audio tracks from only one of these drives. Also quite worthy are the latest crop of 7200-rpm IBM and Western Digital drives, however, anecdotal evidence suggests a problematic failure rate in the 75 GB IBM deskstar drives (the other IBM drives are OK). Model numbers are becoming irrelevant as all of the latest 7200 RPM drives produced by these manufacturers have excellent audio performance.

Hard drives are indeed becoming more reliable and efficient. A lot has been said about using a separate drive for audio, and it still is a good idea for the very best audio streaming performance, but I feel that these new 7200 RPM drives are fast enough that many users could easily get by using only one of these drives. You can find these drives around the web (and often on special at your local computer super-store) for about $100 for a 20 GB drive to $275 in sizes up to 81 gigs.

Video

I’ll make another recommendation: get a Matrox G450 dual display card. They are capable of high resolution and are very reasonably priced at about $85 or less. Believe me, if you don’t already know, you will soon find you need dual monitors. Matrox cards are quiet, dependable, do not hog up the PCI bus and have more than enough resolution to run 2D audio graphics at any reasonable rate. Moreover they are well known to be compatible with most if not all audio hardware and other devices. Never underestimate the importance of buying hardware that “plays fair.”

Put it All Together

We will provide the following “quick-start” guidelines for the expeienced computer builder. If you haven’t built a computer before, at least have someone on the hook that you can call to bail you out if you get in over your head.

Quick Recipe for the Experienced

1. Attach the motherboard to the case using the standoffs that are included with the case.

2. Insert your memory in the proper slots. The memory is keyed to the slot and will only install one way.

3. Lift the metal locking arm on the CPU socket and drop in the CPU (you will see a notch, which allows the CPU to drop in only in the correct position.) Do not force the chip, it will drop in by itself if properly aligned!

4. After applying a thin coat of thermal paste to the CPU, attach the heatsink across the chip and to the clips on the motherboard. Be very careful! The Athlon Thunderbird chip is a bit more delicate than the Intel chips we have used in the past.

5. Attach the floppy drive (You have one of these laying around right?) to the case and run the cable from the board to the drive, remember the end with the twist in it goes to the floppy drive and the red stripe always goes to pin 1 on both the drive and the motherboard. You may have to look closely, but pin 1 will be indicated somewhere on the drive. On the motherboard pin 1 will be indicated by a mark in the schematic in the motherboard manual as well.

6. Attach your hard drives, remember that your boot drive needs to be set as master (look on the back of your drive for proper jumper settings) on the lowest numbered IDE channel, again per schematic in your manual. Remember that pin 1 always goes to the red stripe. (Note that in many cases this will be determined automatically by keys on the cables, but just in case remember “RED STRIPE TO PIN1”. I have found it is best to place both of hard drives on the lowest numbered IDE channel as master/slave and put my CD devices on the second numbered IDE channel.

7. Install the graphics card in the AGP slot.

8. Squint your eyes (unless you have the those of a hawk) and hook up all of those tiny little connectors that go to the switches and LED’s. On most PC cases, the white wires are the common leads and the multi-colored wires are the positive leads. Polarization does make a difference with LED’s. Consult the schematic in your manual.

9. Assuming that you got this far, and everything is hooked up correctly, it is time to set the BIOS. Plug your keyboard, monitor and mouse in the proper holes, plug in the AC and push the switch. As soon as you see the boot screen, push Del and make the proper adjustments to the Iwill smart setting section of the BIOS. On this motherboard, I found that the automatic settings worked just fine and no initial tweaking was needed. Your mileage may vary. Read the manual.

10. If you are running Windows 98 or 98/2000 in a dual-boot configuration, use a Windows 98 startup disk to boot up F-disk and format. The Win 98 startup disk is a great tool that automates the f-disk and format procedures, and automatically places DOS drivers for your CD-ROM in a virtual hard disk that it creates in memory. Use F-disk partition your drives and format the audio drive using the /z:64 switch so you will get the largest block sizes available. If you’re using Windows 98, you can use the optimization tips listed in Catena’s Virtual Memory and Hard Disk optimization articles. If you’re using Windows 2000, read his latest article on Windows 2000 optimization.

11. Install Windows of your choice from the CD-ROM, install your soundcard, software and get ready to upgrade again in about 6-9 months, because by then we are all going to be running dual CPU machines. Aren’t we?

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