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Hard Drives for Digital Recording

A couple of weeks ago, my friend David, a young and very talented musician/singer/songwriter, asked me the following question. Hi Scott! Hey, how many GB of hard drive space do you recommend for recording on a laptop? Thanks, David To which I responded: Hey David, The recommended practice for digital recording is to record to […]

Image: Hard disk drive with vinyl platter

A couple of weeks ago, my friend David, a young and very talented musician/singer/songwriter, asked me the following question.

Hi Scott!
Hey, how many GB of hard drive space do you recommend for recording on a laptop?
Thanks,
David

To which I responded:

Hey David,

The recommended practice for digital recording is to record to an external hard drive instead of the internal drive. This is done for performance reasons. Recording to an external drive keeps your data separate from the rest of your computer data, allowing the computer to use the internal drive for the dedicated purpose of running the operating system. This also makes your recording data more portable for taking it to a studio and prevents trouble if you ever need to send your computer in for service (the recording data stays with you).

It is also recommended to use an additional external drive that serves as a backup so if anything goes wrong with a drive you won’t lose everything. So ideally, you would have two identical drives. They can be any size, but should be the same size. A typical song (2-5 min with 4-5 instruments with multiple takes for each instrument/voice) at 24 bit resolution and 48k sample rate will take up approximately 1-3 GB. If you’re lacking hard drive space, after the tracks are finalized the unused takes can be deleted, which reduces the file size of the song, thus giving you more room for additional songs. But as cheap as hard drives are these days, getting a decent sized drive shouldn’t be a problem.

The cost of external drives for computer-based recording is much cheaper than the cost of memory cards for hard disk recorders.

With all that in mind, I recommend buying 2 of the largest hard drives you can get within the budget you have. Remember, these drives should be the same size and used ONLY for your recordings.

Western Digital has good drives for reasonable prices.*

—Scott

*Though I recommend WD drives for data storage, see my post The Western Digital (WD) SmartWare Problem for more about them.

5 Comments >

5 Comments

  1. 1 Josh Wright 9:13 pm Feb 1, 2011

    I’m not sure I understand the logic of using an external drive for performance reasons (the portability and backup benefits certainly make sense).

    Any files used regularly by the operating system are going to be cached long before you start recording, so the OS won’t be hitting the disk for any significant number of reads. In any case, it would take a _lot_ of ‘extra’ traffic to approach the same performance hit you’ll take from using USB or Firewire.

  2. 2 Scott 10:32 pm Feb 1, 2011

    Hey Josh,

    You know a lot more than me regarding the specifics of how pc’s work. I have only my “it crashed and I lost data when I tried that” experiences with these things. Would you happen to have any hard specs or stats on this sort of thing? I’m curious what kind of hits the CPU and RAM take via both methods of data writing/reading. Are there bottleneck issues with SATA, USB, and/or Firewire?

    I should clarify one thing. Internal drives are indeed great and arguably better than external drives when it comes to performance, but:

    1. Whether internal or external, hard drives used for recording audio really should be dedicated for audio data only.
    2. When working on a laptop, in most cases there’s not a good option for quickly swapping out an internal drive.

    Like the overwhelming majority of audio recording artists and engineers, I use Pro Tools for my audio production. AVID (formerly Digidesign), the makers of Pro Tools, recommend/require dedicated audio drives. Out of necessity and thinking I knew better than the manufacturer, I have resorted to recording straight to my internal drive. I tried this on a sufficiently powerful machine (it met all of AVID’s other requirements), but indeed there were performance issues. Of course maybe this could be chalked up to poor programming that they could fix. But code problems or not, the industry and I rely heavily upon Pro Tools for audio recording and the best practice is still to record to external or separate internal drives.

    I’ve seen very powerful machines (8 core towers loaded to the gills with RAM) choke. I’ve seen it happen with dedicated internal and external drives alike. A typical session very quickly can reach a dizzying number of tracks, real-time effects plugins, and audio edits. Most modern sessions are being tracked at 24-bit/48K or better; some are running at 96K or even 128K (that’s 8 times CD quality sampling rate). It’s not uncommon for a normal 4 piece band to record a song where the track depth hits the high 30’s very early on. Data really starts to add up, creating huge amounts of ‘extra’ traffic, as you put it. 😉 Audio production can be a very taxing load that challenges even the best of machines.

    Regardless, with storage being so cheap and keeping in mind the importance of drive portability and data safety, there’s hardly reason to try to record to an internal drive. For me those reasons are reason enough, even if performance wasn’t an issue. I can baby my data (I keep it in a hard molded waterproof Pelican case) and take it in to any studio or switch computers with much less hassle. My only concern is whether one working drive and one backup drive are sufficient insurance. I’ve been contemplating a 3 drive rotational backup plan, but I can’t afford that third drive just yet, nor the rental for a lock box in an underground vault deep in the Swiss alps. 😀

  3. 3 Scott Troyer » Blog » FIX: Pro Tools Audio Device Buffer Underflowed 1:50 pm Aug 2, 2011

    […] at least when running on the particular combination of MacBook Pro, Mbox 2 Pro, and Western Digital hard drive that I’m […]

  4. 4 Dezzy 1:09 am Mar 23, 2013

    I’m new to recording and taling about using an external hard drive I just wanted to ask this question; Do I instal my DAW to my external hard drive together with all my plugins or how do I record using my external hardrive? Thanks very much.

  5. 5 Scott Troyer 9:21 am Mar 23, 2013

    Typically the DAW is installed on the internal system boot drive. Most software developers actually require that it be installed there instead of an external drive. They do this for performance reasons and to ensure software licensing and DRM.

    So, in short, DAW on the boot drive, recorded audio on an external drive.

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