Build Your Own DJ Computer System PART 1/2 By: Richard McCoy

December 6, 2012 by Richard McCoy

146-259This is a follow-up to an earlier article I wrote on laptops versus rackmount computers. Many readers of Mobile Beat have requested more information on the rackmount systems I use. To help those who wish to build a solid rackmount computer system, I will provide all the information required to build a strong DJ computer system. To properly cover the process, this is part one of a two-part series or articles.

As I mentioned in the previous piece, while the ease-ofuse a laptop system may be attractive, the advantages of a rackmount system outweigh most laptops. My view continues to be supported by the examples I’ve witnessed from laptop users throughout the DJ industry. I have no doubts that for many DJs, a laptop is the best solution, based on their computer knowledge and experiences. However, for the high-end, technically savvy DJ, the versatility of a fully equipped rackmount computer outweighs the limited simplicity of a laptop.

In this article, I will describe the procedure for assembling and testing your own rackmount DJ computer. Some basic technical skill and computer knowledge would be very helpful in this procedure. If you’ve assembled a computer system in the past, you should have no problems putting together this computer. It is even possible to purchase a ready-to-use rackmount system if you are lacking the skills necessary to build your own. Either way, you’ll have a very powerful, versatile DJ computer system for all your music, video and karaoke requirements.

SELECTING A CASE

The foundation of our rackmount computer is the case. I suggest using a 2U style case with a depth no greater than 15 inches. This will allow the system to fit in most DJ cases. The
computer case I recommend is sold by Cirotech (model number RM-2254) for about $175. This steel case supports an mATX motherboard (8” x 9.6”), up to four 3.5-inch hard disks, one slim optical drive, two USB front ports and a 300W to 600W power supply. This system accepts only low profile bus cards for additional functions. This case will also accept two “hot swap” hard drive bays to allow the insertion of removable hard drives. A case with only one removable hard drive front slot is available for $130 (model RM-2255). Cases do not include power supplies.

SELECTING A MOTHERBOARD:

The choice of a motherboard will determine the functionality and performance of the entire system. There are many manufacturers with a variety of functions and performance levels to select from.

I suggest a mid-range product that can provide all the functions and performance without breaking the bank. The advancement in processors and motherboard integration has produced very powerful systems with a small footprint. My choice for a motherboard is the model 760GM-P23 from MSI. This board will accommodate an AMD, 64-bit CPU and 16GB of DDR3 Memory. The motherboard also provides 1GB LAN, DVI/VGA Video and SATA3 with RAID 1-6 support. It will also support 7.1 channels audio out. I found this motherboard and CPU kit available for $150. This motherboard can be used without any additional adapter boards. Similar boards may be used, depending on your budget and performance requirements. Most motherboards are capable of accepting a variety of CPUs and memory sizes/speeds configurations. Additional video output capability (second display) can be provided with a video adapter card.

Since the decompression of MP3 audio and MP4 video files requires only a small amount of CPU cycles, a very powerful or fast CPU will not provide a significant performance advantageover, lower-end CPUs. The overhead to process audio/video files depends more upon disc and file access speed than CPU power.

ASSEMBLY

Installation of the power supply, motherboard, CPU, memory, hard drives and optical
drives is straightforward, if you have some basic computer understanding and a few technical skills. The PS2 power supply should be installed first. It is placed in the rear righthand corner and attached with a few screws. The rear I/O bracket is snapped into the place provided. Next, the motherboard is installed; ensure that the rear I/O connectors are mated with the rear bracket. A few screws are then used to secure the motherboard in place. Install the hot swap module next. This case will accept two removable hard drive containers. Additional hard drives may be installed if required. For faster disc access, use 7200RPM SATA6 hard drives. Install up to 16 GB (800 to 1333) of RAM memory in the two available sockets. Plug all the power supply connectors into the motherboard, hard drives and optical drives, plus the SATA data/power cables. Wiring diagrams should be available in the manual that accompanies the motherboard.

The final component to be installed will be the CPU and its cooling fan. Follow all the instructions accompanying the CPU to ensure proper installation! The CPU can only be installed one way, so DO NOT FORCE the CPU into its socket. Be sure to use a thermal paste to facillitate heat transfer to the fan assembly mounted on top of the CPU. The fan assembly should snap on top of the CPU. Different motherboards can use different CPUs and different fans. Connect the front panel switches and indicator lights to the motherboard as indicated.

There may be a few power supply connectors that will not be used and should be moved away to prevent any interference with the motherboard. Once the assembly is completed, the system is ready to have its operating system installed. In most cases, this would be Windows 7, to ensure compatibility with most DJ music/ video software.

OPERATING SYSTEM

Windows 7 Ultimate 64-Bit is my preferred OS. However, this version is twice the price of the Home Premium version, which will still operate satisfactorily. An OEM copy of Windows 7 can be purchased for about $100. Install the OS as per the on-screen instructions after inserting the CD into the optical drive. The default motherboard BIOS setup should work well without modifications. Installing the RAID function may require modification of the BIOS. Read motherboard installation instructions to configure this function. The RAID function will allow two or more hard disks to “image” each other so if one HD fails, then the other will continue system operation. Hot swapping will allow the removal and replacement of a defective HD while power is still on and the system is operating.

It is very important to make sure your OS has the latest updates from the manufacture. Check for updates from the Windows website and install them before any other software or drivers are installed.

Once the OS is installed and updated, DJ software can be installed along with the necessary drivers to accommodate the controller to be used. If you can absolutely guarantee that all music, video and karaoke data transferred to this system is free of viruses and malware, then no virus protection software is required. However, it is still best to have some type of system protection installed for those times when a client may provide a disc or thumb drive for music or videos. I use NOD32 from ESET (Antivirus $30) because it has a low memory allocation and requires few system resources to operate. Other virus programs can interfere with your DJ software and disrupt your show. NOD32, which will scan USB drives and other input sources rapidly and without much computer overhead. Avoid using this system for other computer tasks that may clog up or interfere with your DJ software.

As shown in the accompanying chart, a minimum DJ system can be assembled for about one half the price of the high-end system. Your DJ style and requirements will determine the complexity and performance you need in your system. Either system will do the job; one just a little better than the other. One of the beauties of rackmount systems like these is that as computer technology moves forward, each component of this system can be upgraded as needed. This is something that usually cannot be done with laptops.

Part two of this series will show you how to assemble a complete system including the computer, mixer, controller, keyboard, mouse, display and system case, all in a compact unit.

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Richard McCoy Richard McCoy (3 Posts)

Rich McCoy has been an electronics hardware/software engineer in Silicon Valley for over 45 years, and is listed on several patents. During that same time, he has also been a mobile DJ, doing more than 4000 shows. He has contributed to the design of chips, graphics cards, audio and video systems, computers, and even satellites, as well as DJ lighting and sound equipment, while working for companies like Fairchild, Acer and Atari.


Filed Under: Issue #146, Issues from 2012, Music, Performing, Sound