Quest for silence: Quiet SATA notebook hard drives

When using a notebook computer for audio applications, unfortunately it isn’t simply a matter of buying the most reliable big hard drive. Using a notebook with either a Software Defined Radio (SDR) or as a playback device when recording from external components (such as a tuner) means noise matters. Hard drives produce noise which affects concentration in critical listening applications where the signal to noise ratios are critical… especially with ‘compromised audio’, which is often characteristic of weak radio signals or old recordings.

Noise Factory © 2010 Alexander Marco

Noise Factory © 2010 Alexander Marco

Hard drive evolution

The differences in hard drive technology are often quite obvious. Even within the last 15 years, the average person can readily compare old 3.5″ IDE hard drives to modern ones and notice the mammoth difference in audible noise, even with the software inactive (idle mode). More recently, there is often a noticeable difference between SATA drives with their increasingly rare IDE counterparts.

A decade ago, New York inventor Neil Singer suggested:

The level of noise in a disk drive is due to vibrations at particular frequencies, such as 6.6 KHz, 6.0 KHz, 5.0 KHz, 4.2 KHz, and 1.3 KHz. On the other hand, mechanical vibrations, which reduce seek time, result from vibrations at different frequencies, such as 3.3 KHz.

Today, Solid State Drives (SSDs) are generally considered to be ‘silent’ storage technologies. Problem solved, right? Perhaps, provided one has inordinate wealth! The cost associated with buying a huge SSD means these aren’t necessarily cost effective choices for radio DX applications where uncompressed audio demands may be onerous; a 6.14 MHz ‘spectrum chunk’ may consume as much as 120 GB of data per hour.

Research aids

For specific needs, the Silent PC Review (SPCR) test articles and forums are an invaluable, simple to understand resource in the quest for finding quiet hard drives, whether external, internal, desktop or laptop variants. Further, hard drive manufacturer Western Digital (whose part reliability is top notch) provides acoustic specifications in dBA on their website. Other manufacturers such as Hitachi & Seagate may also provide this data.

Much of this information (sadly, including this article!!!) becomes redundant quickly after publication. Before committing to recommended drives, it is prudent to check with manufacturers that there are not better performers that may have just been released.

Eventually the cost of SSD technology may become so affordable that it is foreseeable that there will be negligible demand for acoustic tests on the subject matter of this article. The reality is that SATA drives are older, less efficient performing drives but for now, remain perfectly appropriate choices. Drew Riley of Tom’s Hardware portal suggests:

Even though SSDs only account for 10% of the total market, growth over the next few years is expected to be explosive.

WD 2.5" SATA drive © 2011 Matt Kieffer

WD 2.5″ SATA drive © 2011 Matt Kieffer

Needs analysis

This blogger wanted to buy a 2 TB hard drive for a new notebook which is already furnished with a single 1TB (5400 rpm) drive, which incorporates a second bay for a secondary hard drive. SSD drives were not considered due to cost; a typical 1 TB drive costs over $600 and over half that for 0.5 TB. Although fast, external USB 3.0 drives were also not considered due to already congested desk space. Hell, there’s enough crap lying around!

Whilst affordable, those desirable 2TB SATA drives are typically considerably noisier than their smaller capacity counterparts. So significant was the increase in noise (based on the dBA specifications) this prompted a reassessment as to whether bigger was necessarily critical for the particular SDR application. If the noise is problematic, even if there are two internal bays, it’s not so easy to switch internal drives off unlike an external drive. Therefore it’s probably worthwhile to research the most appropriate internal drive, rather than be forced to tolerate a noisy drive by judicious use of headphones or a proportionate increase in playback volume!

Three top candidates

Priced from $45 including domestic shipping:
Western Digital Scorpio Blue 0.5 TB with SATA 6 Gb/s interface (WD5000LPVX)
Manufacturer specifications (dBA): idle 17, average seek 22.

Priced from $62 including international shipping:
Western Digital Scorpio Blue 0.5 TB with SATA 3 Gb/s interface (WD5000LPVT)
Manufacturer specifications (dBA): idle 17, average seek 22.
This drive won the Editor’s Choice at SPCR.

Priced from $125 including domestic shipping:
Western Digital Blue 1 TB (WD10SPCX)
Manufacturer specifications (dBA): idle 20, average seek 21.

One of the quietest 0.5 GB drives, the WD5000MPCK (idle: 15, seek: 17) was unfortunately no longer readily available. Obviously, when reading the dBA specification, lower is quieter. To convert between acoustic units please use the calculator below. It seems that manufacturer Seagate for example, cites noise measurements using bel units rather than dBA.

 

Further reading

Acoustic unit calculator

Advanced PC silencing

Benefits of Solid State Drives

Eight different 2TB hard drives, with dBA measurements

Home Studio construction

Silent Windows laptops?

Things you can do to have older laptops quiet again

Top 5 external A/V-rated drives for audio recording

World’s quietest (desktop) computer

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Dusting off old tech: Setting a daily unattended FM recording

Listeners may have a need for daily recordings of certain desirable FM broadcasts such as music programmes or sporting event calls. The use of online streaming to time shift broadcasts may offer an easy solution, but problems still exist:

  • Potential loss of audio quality, due to artifacts (audio distortion) associated with low bitrate streams
  • Anxiety over burning through the monthly internet data allowance, or the
  • Ever-increasing prevalence of ‘geoblocking’ due to music licensing restrictions.

Perhaps the radio recording app doesn’t permit recording of distant FM stations on the smart phone?

Radio Concierto "Concierto Enfoque" © 2005 Leo Prieto

Radio Concierto “Concierto Enfoque” © 2005 Leo Prieto

Enthusiasts who pursue long distance FM reception may need to monitor a specific vacant frequency every day to check the presence of signals propagated via Sporadic E or tropospheric ducting, especially during summer. This technique is often referred to as recording DX audio.

The ultimate solution to their specialist needs is to purchase a Software Defined Radio (SDR). An SDR probably represents the most efficient way to participate in long distance FM reception, without the often exhausting and time consuming burden of ‘live listening’ when propagation conditions happen to be favourable.

But many FM enthusiasts cannot justify the outlay of approximately $1,400 on a Micro Telecom Perseus Software Defined Receiver (SDR) with an FMplus down converter. And when one takes into account the minimum hardware requirements, their fellow Italian counterparts including the Elad FDM-S1/PDC-FM combination or FDM-S2 are not much cheaper either.

Recording FM broadcasts… on the smell of an oily rag!

By using simple but effective old technology, setting a daily unattended FM recording remains easily within reach for everybody.

There are likely to be numerous ways of achieving this, using an old computer. To implement this blogger’s preferred method, the following equipment is required:

  • Microsoft Windows XP operating system (or above)
  • Leadtek Winfast TV2000XP FM tuner card (or equivalent)
  • Rooftop FM/VHF/UHF antenna connection with ferrite chokes clipped onto cables.

The following equipment (as used in the final step) is desirable:

  • Desktop computer with a Bios that supports Auto Switch On.

The Leadtek Winfast TV2000XP is a sensitive FM tuner card which is readily available for $5 – $15 on the second hand market. The card has software available for Windows 7, Vista, XP and 2000. For simplicity, XP will be used in this guide since the TV2000XP software was optimized for this operating system.

Flexibility

Although the three mandatory steps below might initially look daunting, the beauty of this technique is that performing these steps is generally only required once. Furthermore, the technique is not restricted to unattended software recording tasks. To fully automate another task (such as a virus & malware scan) replace this task into steps one and two.

Old desktop computers © 2009 Brian Landis

Old desktop computers © 2009 Brian Landis

Virtually any old desktop PC (manufactured after 2002) should be a candidate for such ‘old school’ simplicity. It’s perhaps an opportune time to dust off disused Windows XP computers which may not be cost effectively upgraded to Windows 8 operating system after Microsoft’s cessation of support.

FIRST STEP – Setup Winfast FM in Windows Startup

A
Click on START
Search hard drive for WFFM.exe
Note which directory this application file resides in, for example: E:\Program Files\WinFast

B
Click on START
Search hard drive for Startup
In the list of results, there will be Startup next to a folder named something like:
E:\Documents and Settings\joebloggs\Start Menu\Programs
Click on Startup and leave window open.

C
Click on START
Click on RUN
Type in E:\Program Files\WinFast (or whatever directory it is, obtained from step A)
Locate WFFM.exe
Right click CREATE SHORTCUT
Drag the newly created shortcut into the Startup folder left open from step B.

Restart the computer. Please ensure Winfast FM starts up automatically.

Hint: Tuber Guru Fuel has made a video if the author’s approach (above) looks too boring to even contemplate!

SECOND STEP – Setup the timer in Winfast FM

The desired channel, number of hours and recording quality must be chosen in this step. Specific days may be chosen. For example, every Monday between 7-10 pm, Monday night football may be recorded.

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Obviously, please ensure that the chosen frequencies (radio stations or vacant channels) to be recorded have been added in. To do this, click on CONFIGURATION button in Winfast FM and navigate to the CHANNEL LIST on the top centre.

Ensure antenna is connected and enter the schedule as follows:

Click on CONFIGURATION button in Winfast FM
Click on SCHEDULE button on the top right

Click on ADD at the bottom left
Under ACTION select RADIO RECORD
Under CHANNEL pick the frequency
Under FORMAT choose a PCM or a compressed format if disk space is tight

Under DAILY tick the applicable days
Under FROM select the Start Time
Under TO select the End Time

Double check details and select OK. Please take note of End Time and Start Time chosen.

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

WinFast Daily Recording Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

For additional information on setting an FM recording schedule please click on the ? button within the software.

Ideally run a test scheduled recording consisting of a few minutes duration. Once complete, please check the contents of the recorded file to ensure it contains the desired broadcast.

THIRD STEP – Setup shutdown in Windows Scheduled Tasks

The aim is to ensure the computer switches off after recording. Blogger the Spinning Donut has a step-by-step guide and video for guidance.

Windows Daily Shutdown Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Windows Daily Shutdown Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Ideally run a test scheduled shutdown for a few minutes into the future. Once the system is shut off, please restart it.

When setting the time for daily shutdown, please use the End Time specified in step two, but add an additional 5 minutes. For example, if the End Time of the radio recording in Winfast FM Schedule is 11:30 please ensure the Windows shutdown is set for 11:35.

This allowance will ensure that the end of the recording is written to the hard drive, meaning that a valid sound file will consequently be playable with all audio software.

Hint: Third party software that will schedule a daily Windows shut down may be used as an alternative.

FOURTH STEP – Setup daily startup in BIOS 

The aim is to ensure the computer switches on before recording, an optional but desirable process.

A PC World Wiki contains a step-by-step guide to Wake System settings with screen shots.

When performing this final (and the simplest) step, please take note of the Time and Date configured in the Bios. Ensure that the WAKE UP TIME / RTC ALARM TIME selected in the Bios is before the Start Time chosen in Step two. For example, if one sets the system to wake 10 minutes prior to the recording Start Time set in the FM recording scheduler, this ‘factors-in’ the starting up delay of Windows.

These screen shots show the settings to configure the computer to wake at 0730 hours every morning. Each Bios may be slightly different, if in doubt please refer to the printed instructions supplied with the motherboard.

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

If Daily is not listed in the Bios facility, ensure the WAKE UP DATE / RTC ALARM DATE is to be set to 0 for daily system wakes. Whilst it is very simple, as always a trial run is recommended to ensure familiarity with the date and time format. Finally, don’t forget to save WAKE SYSTEM / RTC ALARM settings to CMOS when exiting the Bios facility! With this Bios, F10 does the trick.

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

BIOS Daily Wakeup Schedule © 2014 FM DXing

Hint: Obviously when there is no longer any ongoing requirement to automatically start the PC for daily recording etc. it may be convenient to DISABLE the above WAKE SYSTEM / RTC ALARM settings!

Practical considerations

Some computer Bios facilities may not offer a Wake or Alarm System setting where the computer will switch on without intervention, as described in step four. Nonetheless, under those circumstances one can still follow the instructions to schedule recordings to commence and then shutdown, as listed in steps one to three above. Of course, one must be home to physically start the computer or already be using the computer for other tasks. For this reason, the provision for WAKE SYSTEM FROM S5 or similar Auto On facility in the Bios is considered a prerequisite for implementing a fully unattended recording system as proposed in this guide.

Windows Password & Login Settings © 2014 FM DXing

Windows Password & Login Settings © 2014 FM DXing

Step four will not work if the User Accounts in Windows XP (above) are set to require users to enter passwords & / or press Control-Alt-Delete as a security measure on Windows startup to operate software. These logins require user intervention, which is incompatible with the goal of unattended recording. These Windows logins are easily disabled (reference video). Moreover, password protected logins are overkill for old desktop computers that are not connected to the internet, but dedicated to the task of recording!

Alternative Power Management features such as reduced power Hiberation or Standy By modes are beyond the scope of this guide. The method above allows for maximum power saving. Since the computer system is only operational when required, there is also no potentially annoying fan and hard drive mechanism noise; older desktops can indeed be noisy.

Once it has been established that settings are configured properly during a test run, daily recording settings can be implemented. Enjoy the automation and the maintenance of old tech!

Testing: the method has been tested numerous times with several disused single-core CPU (3 GHz) computers using ASRock K7VT6 & Asus P5GZ-MX motherboards. These of course, feature a Bios that supports Auto Switch On.