13

The sound of a floppy drive is iconic. It is burned into the memory of all people in a certain age group. Some smarter ones even made music with them.

But was there ever any effort to quiet them down? After all, in daily usage, it could get somewhat repetitive and annoying. Not to mention working in a place which you want to keep quiet, like late at night at home, or maybe a public library.

I certainly don't remember any quiet floppy drives, and searching google for them also yields nothing. Is the sound really that inevitable? Or was there someone who tried to silence them but it never caught on?

17
  • 5
    This question might be too subjective for RSE, but I recall the original Mac's internal floppy drive as being quieter than the 5.25" drives of the era. Even when PC-compatibles began stocking 3.5" drives in their bays, they still struck me as louder than the Mac's. (The Mac's eject motor, however, was not terribly quiet.)
    – Jim Nelson
    Commented Apr 11 at 17:33
  • 4
    Computers at that time were noisy. Fans, mechanical harddrives, floppies. There was a reason desktop computers usually lived under the table. Commented Apr 11 at 21:51
  • 8
    Re, "burned into the memory of all," I have not used every make and model of floppy drive, but I certainly have used every size of them—8", 5¼", and 3½"—and I've got to say, there's a lot of computer sounds of which I have better recall; The sound of a Printronix line printer, the sound of an 029 card punch, the sound of a QIC tape drive that was almost-but-not-quite streaming, and most vividly, the sound of thirty terminals all simultaneously printing the same message (with embedded BEL characters) followed by a pause, and then the sound of thirty students simultaneously muttering, "Oh Shit!" Commented Apr 11 at 22:00
  • 2
    You mean you could actually hear an RX01 drive over the noise of the machine-room air conditioning?
    – dave
    Commented Apr 12 at 1:08
  • 1
    @SolomonSlow "but I certainly have used every size of them—8", 5¼", and 3½""... pah! I raise you the Amstrad 3" floppy!
    – TripeHound
    Commented Apr 12 at 6:32

7 Answers 7

26

It's Been a Non-Issue

This sounds quite like looking back with today's expectations. Much like expecting clean air in Los Angeles in 1980 or room level conversation in a VW Beetle at 60 mph :))

It Was As It Was.

Floppy sound was back then as essential for micros as disks were for mainframes (*1) and accepted the same way a 1980s car engine sound was accepted when driving. Heck, in most cases it was even part of UI feedback - how else should one know that the machine is really accessing a data record and not crashed again? Personally I can't remember ever thinking of it as loud, not knowing anyone how thought so.

It was the way it was.

It Wasn't a Major Source of Noise

Floppy noise was neglectable compared to other sounds in an office setup. Any printer would, even when covered in a sound box, create a way higher noise level than floppy access. When less noisy printers, like laser or ink jet, became an everyday sight (ca. 1990s), floppies were already replaced by hard drives as main work media (*2)

Improvement Happened Over Time

On the other hand, floppies have become much less noisy over the years. Whoever has experienced an original 8" Shugart or Siemens drive, where head loading alone was like an explosion, will certify any 5.25 as silent. Even more 3.5s. The same was to be seen within each class, a 1990s 1200 KiB drive was low noise compared to a 1982 360 KiB one.


*1 -The noise of a 1980s computer center was often way past 80 dBA, with noone really complaining.

*2 - Which as well made a long way from the humming of a 1980s drive to small and almost silent in 1990. Which in turn seem noisy to today's generation of hard disks - if still used at all.

6
  • 2
    The 8" drive I play with at the moment in addition to the head movement have a rather noisy fan in its powersupply. Well, the 85 Watts need to go to something Commented Apr 11 at 21:53
  • 8
    I'll go with your "not a major source of noise" point. With other equipment, like printers (which saw a lot more use back in the day than today) and the ubiquitous whirlwind fans, hearing only a floppy drive stepping would have been a relief.
    – tofro
    Commented Apr 12 at 8:28
  • 3
    This fits my memory entirely — by the ’90s, all modern 3.5" floppy drives were quiet enough that they faded into background noise (computer fans especially). The “iconic” sound that OP describes is the sound of an earlier generation of drives, the 5.25" drives of the ’80s. Commented Apr 12 at 8:38
  • 2
    While quieter than floppies, hard drives aren't exactly silent. Before switching to SSD it was easy to tell when a backup was going on.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 12 at 14:57
  • 2
    "how else should one know that the machine is really accessing a data record and not crashed again" Or you know the disk's going bad because it keeps making the seek noise over and over again instead of moving on to the read noise. Same with modems. Even without know what the sound actually is, you learn to recognize "this noise goes with this error".
    – Ray
    Commented Apr 15 at 14:53
14

But was there ever any effort to quiet them down?

I don't know if it was a deliberate attempt to do so, but the Atari XF551 was described as being so quiet that you could not know if it was running without looking at the LEDs.

That was using a Mitsumi mechanism, and generally speaking, later-model Japanese systems were much quieter than earlier drives.

14

Noise was reduced by voice coil technology, introduced in the mid-90's to increase capacity in the 3.5 inch form factor

In the mid-1990's, the demand for more capacity led to formats that combined hard drive technology with floppies. These included Iomega Zip, Imation LS-120, Caleb UHD144, Sony HiFD, and probably more. In high-capacity mode, all of these relied on a linear voice coil motor following pre-written servo tracks, like contemporaneous hard drives.

Other than Zip, these formats were backwards-compatible with the 1.44 MB floppy, which allowed the voice coil to be used with these disks. The sound was significantly quieter than the legacy stepper motor, and the voice coils could seek much faster, reducing the duration of the noise.

Although it's a little hard to tell, and the drives aren't installed, here is a YouTube video comparing the sounds between a LS-120 and traditional 3.5" drive.

8

Some floppy drives are definitely louder or quieter than others, but the only time any of them would seem objectionably loud for use in a library or other such place unless would be if they run the head against the end stop. The Apple Disk II and Commodore 1541 were both designed to find their home position by running the drive head against the end stop, which was noisy and was often perceived as harmful. I do remember some drives for the Apple and Commodore advertising that they had head-position sensors to eliminate that "banging", and Commodore's later 1571 included such a sensor, but I don't recall any other drives' advertising making reference to how loud or quiet they were.

Incidentally, the Apple Disk II could be programmed to move in increments of 1/4 track rather than 1/2 track, it could seek more quickly when programmed in such fashion, and it was quieter when programmed in that way than when programmed to move in half-track increments. I don't know of any other floppy drive systems that worked that way.

2

Yes, there were drives that were quiet. I don't recall that being a selling feature though. As I recall, 5.25" floppy drives didn't make much noise, while 3.5" drives had a distinct noise, and people have made musical machines out of them. I don't have experience with older or larger floppy drives.

Technology has only recently achieved critical mass where non-technical users' say has a sway on the design and production of a device, which I believe is where the "everything must be SILENT" crowd hails from. Back in those days, the clicks and whirring meant the machine was alive, and the sounds were used to figure out what the machine was, or was not, doing.

But there are a few notable categories of floppy and floppy-like drives that had noticeable sound signatures different than the internal 3.5" drives.

LS-120 drives

These were very quiet compared to the normal ones. These were developed towards the end of the lifespan of the floppy in general, and also allowed you to use a much larger 120mb disk. They retained compatibility with 3.5" floppies as a feature, but I don't recall them advertising that they were quieter.

Laptop drives

Laptop 3.5" floppy drives were often a lot quieter than their desktop counterparts. There were laptop LS-120 and Zip drives as well, and those were very quiet as well.

Zip Drives

Zip drives were not marketed as floppy drives, but were marketed as a replacement, and they are related to the LS-120 drives, so I include them here. These drives were very much quieter than their 3.5" cousins. I don't think they were marketed as quieter though.

USB Floppy drives

I've played around with a few of these, and they are much quieter than the desktop ones. These are marketed for legacy customers, probably old businesses or industrial use, so again, noise was not a valid marketing point.

1

One of the first drives I used was a PerSci (sp) dual 8" drive from a Cromemco system. It weighed many kg and had one motor so both disks spun at the same time. Seeking was a 3" diameter voice coil which moved both drive's heads at once. This was late-70s early-80s technology. As mentioned earlier for other drives, head loading was a fairly loud "clack" but after that seeking was a sort of chug-chug noise, quieter than the steppers and accompanied by the scuffing of two 8" floppies. The first 5" drives I used (brand uncertain) in Cromemco systems also had head load solenoids IIRC, and steppers as a cheaper option than the voice coils. Cromemco CDOS had special handlers for these 8" drives and "knew" that when A: had done a seek, B: wasn't on the same track as previously any more, ditto for C/D. BTW they also had power eject!

0

My Amiga 500 3.5 inch floppy drive is actually very quiet. Actually makes it hard to know if it is active and have to look at the drive light to know. On the other hand the simulated floppy sounds in the Amiga Forever emulator are loud and annoying.

The PC 3.5 inch floppy drive I use which has a Grease Weasle controller in it is silent.

I do remember the Apple 2 floppy drives were quite noisy but part of that was in homing the head it would buzz loudly.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .