The one significant edge of the PC platform is the one it’s always had: wide-open hardware possibilities, whether it’s home-built PCs or the variety of PC makers. That means that when it comes to rack-mounting a PC, your options are quite broad.
There are even multiple vendors for audio-specific PCs. The idea of these machines is to choose specs optimized for audio work, rather than the compromises often made by mainstream PCs. What that means depends on the vendor, but some obvious choices are quieter systems, rack-mounted cases, faster hard drives, and even pre-installed software. The major draw, though, is the systems that are built to be rack-mounted, whether in a studio or on the road.
A new line of rack-mountable and small form-factor audio PCs was just announced by Spectral Computers. I really know nothing about this company, so I’m certainly not endorsing their systems, but they do look nice on paper: slick-looking cases and nice AMD and Intel Core Duo processors. The old standby in this product category is the UK-based Carillon Audio Systems (who also sell here in North America). The rack cases are thoughtfully designed, but the specs look a little stale to me from what I’ve seen. (That said, this isn’t a review: if you’ve got one, let us know about it.)
One company I have been hearing a lot about lately is Rain Recording. Their desktop machines are to me the real draw. One irony of the “audio pro” machines is that they often spec out too conservatively compared to mainstream computers, as if audio pros don’t need performance. Not so with Rain’s Element and 64-bit dual-core Element 64 machines. These are some seriously drool-worthy computers, especially with Windows and Cakewalk now supporting full 64-bit performance and Ableton coming out with a dual-core-optimized version of Live this summer. If you already have a “legacy” Windows PC, in fact, I think there are enough audio drivers for 64-bit operation to make the leap to the 64-bit version of Windows; you can always fall back on your existing PC for that stubborn piece of hardware that hasn’t been updated yet. I already know at least a couple of people with Rain machines, and they love them. (Rain has some nice-looking laptops, too. I may have been wrong to be skeptical of the laptop’s 5400 rpm drives because of some other key specs; more on that in a separate story.)
The best news here is Rain’s Rak Adaptor Kit, a set of rack ears custom-mounted to the case. With them, you can take the whole machine in an SKB road-mount case. (Check out Rain’s road case store, or go with your own SKB fave like the GigRig, shown here.) You’ll still have to decide what to do about a display, but I love this idea: there’s no way you could squeeze this amount of performance out of a laptop. Two caveats: one, of course, is price. This isn’t a cheap solution, with the rack-mounting alone costing over US$500 by the time you buy the ears and the case, not to mention the price of these high-end PCs. Second, make sure you buy the RAK option when you buy your Rain computer, because they’re factory-installed.
Your last option, for budding DIYers: build it yourself. There are plenty of rack-mount cases, like this 4U model sent by CDM’s Adrian Anders. Just prepare for some serious work: for an audio system, you’ll need to think even more carefully about heat, air circulation, and noise. Or, for the truly brave, you could try building your own laptop (yes, you heard that right) and giving it desktop-like characteristics. (Think zero battery life but high performance.) Maximum PC magazine here in the US has a cover story on building your own laptop this month.
Got a rack rig of your own and want to show it off, Mac or PC? Do send us some photos. I expect a fully-modded case design, complete with a neon-lit action figure of Bob Moog.