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5 Tips for Audio Recording Hard Drives

Hard drives are hard.

hard disk drive with Pro Tools logo as the platter

You want to record audio in the modern age? You don’t have a Zildjillion dollars to be able to record to tape? Even so, it all ends up digital. You need some hard drives.

Five Audio Recording Hard Disk Drive Tips

Hard disk drives aren’t all the same. Picking out the right one can be tough. Here are some things I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way.

1. Heed the DAW makers’ suggestions.

If AVID says that Pro Tools doesn’t support it, don’t expect it to work. Legit DAW makers will post the system requirements for their software/hardware. Look them up. Follow their recommendations and instructions. Spoiler: You’re probably going to have to spend more than you had planned for.

2. Faster is better.

A faster drive means it read/writes faster. And faster read/writes means more tracks and/or higher quality.

Traditional hard disk drives have platters that spin. A hard disk drive that spins at 5200 rpm really isn’t fast enough — it’s like red-lining a Geo Metro. 7200 rpm is better. 10,000 rpm better still.

And then there’s flash drives, which are way faster than hard disk drives.

There are also seek times to consider, for which lower numbers are better. Seek time is the baseline amount of time in milliseconds that it takes for a drive to fetch data.

I have found that drive manufacturers don’t always make these stats readily available. When in doubt, assume the drive doesn’t meet spec (because it likely doesn’t).

3. Data interfaces matter.

Hard drives have come with lots of data interface flavors: PATA, SATA, USB (1, 2, 3), FireWire (400, 800), Thunderbolt, Ethernet, and some are even wireless. The data interface dictates bandwidth, which roughly translates to how many tracks you can record at once and how much latency your playback will suffer. More bandwidth is better, which translates into better recording and mixing experiences. Again, check your DAW maker’s system requirements and choose the drive with the fastest and most forward-compatible data interface.

Also make sure your computer can handle the data interface type you’re choosing. And find out if the data port you intend to use on your computer is sharing a bus with any other peripherals in your computer. That can adversely affect your bandwidth, causing a data bottleneck.

4. Bigger isn’t better.

For tracking and mixing, you don’t necessarily need a 3 TB drive. (Unless, of course, you’re recording a 10-piece prog-rock group with 40 minute “works” at 32-bit 192kHz.) Save the big, slow drives for backups and archiving. Use smaller, faster drives for works in progress. If you have more than one project going at a time, consider using a small drive for each project, so the different project files are not interleaved with each other on the drive. This will speed up read/write times, as the drive will not be jumping around on the platters trying to find the files for the current session. This also saves money, since really fast and really big drives are expensive.

5. Always have a backup.

Have a backup plan, because hard drives fail. All the time. More so than any other part of a computer. Make sure to always backup your work after every session, whether recording, editing, or mixing. And make sure you have an extra drive ready in case one goes down during a session. I can’t stress this enough. Millions of ones and zeros (i.e. your priceless recordings) can go poof at any time — and there’s never a right time for that. Buy more hard drives. Make backups like a chronic. Sleep well.

Coda

So there you have it: my top five hard drive tips. Comment below to let me know what you would add to the list.

And enjoy some “Tainted Love” made with old hard disk and floppy disk drives…

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FIX: Pro Tools Audio Device Buffer Underflowed

How to get a Pro Tools rig up and running when the error message “The audio device buffer underflowed…” won’t go away.

The Error Message

Screen captured image of Pro Tools error

The audio device buffer underflowed. If this occurs frequently, try decreasing the “H/W Buffer Size” in the Playback Engine panel or remove other devices from the audio firewire bus. (-6085)

Occasionally this error pops up in Pro Tools, usually after I return from a meal in the middle of a long recording or mixing session. The session file will only playback audio for 1 second or less and then the error message pops up. Apparently, Pro Tools 9 is a workaholic and doesn’t like taking lunch breaks, at least when running on the particular combination of MacBook Pro, Mbox 2 Pro, and Western Digital hard drive that I’m using.

Following the directions to decrease the “H/W Buffer Size” in the Playback Engine panel doesn’t seem to help. In fact, not only does decreasing the buffer size seems contrary to the suggested way to solve a buffer underrun, but it then sometimes throws this error message:

Screen captured image of Pro Tools error

A CPU overload occured. If this happens often, try increasing the “H/W Buffer Size” in the Playback Engine Dialog, or removing some plug-ins. (-6101)

The Fix

I’ve tried a lot of things and the problem seems to be related to the hard drive and firewire ports. Here’s how I fix it.

  1. Save and Close the session.
  2. Quit Pro Tools.
  3. Eject the hard drive used for recording audio.
  4. Unplug the audio hard drive and Mbox 2 Pro (or the audio interface you’re using).
  5. Wait 10 seconds.
  6. Reconnect the audio hard drive and audio interface.
  7. Restart Pro Tools.
  8. Reopen the session and press Play.

If the session plays back without stopping, then it worked. If not, then I don’t know what to tell you, which reminds me of a “Deep Thought” by Jack Handey.

If you ever crawl inside an old hollow log and go to sleep, and while you’re in there some guys come and seal up both ends and then put it on a truck and take it to another city, boy, I don’t know what to tell you.

Hopefully this solution worked for you. Let me know if you’ve had the same problem, what hardware you are running and if this solved the problem.

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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.

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The Western Digital (WD) SmartWare Problem

Modern recording takes lots of hard drive space. It’s easy to eat up several GB on a song of average length and track depth. I’ve filled a drive or two already with various recording sessions, Photoshop files, and media. Over the weekend I had to pick up another drive just so I can finish my […]

Image of the WD 2 TB My Book Studio LXModern recording takes lots of hard drive space. It’s easy to eat up several GB on a song of average length and track depth. I’ve filled a drive or two already with various recording sessions, Photoshop files, and media. Over the weekend I had to pick up another drive just so I can finish my upcoming album. I went to the nearest big box electronics shop and picked up the the biggest drive with the best price. What I found was the Western Digital 2 TB My Book Studio LX. The size should be enough for the next year or so (let’s hope!) and the simple grey metal design suits my preference for the minimalist Mac aesthetic. Surprisingly, this is the first drive I’ve purchased that came preformatted for Mac OS. I know that some drives come advertised as such, but this was just a standard off-the-shelf one-kind-fits-all drive. Maybe this indicates a shift in the Apple/PC market share?

Western Digital enjoys the largest market share of consumer hard drive sales and is probably the most visible hard drive manufacturer in retail stores. They make affordable drives that work well. I’ve not had any issues with the WD drives I’ve owned (five and counting), so I feel good about purchasing from them.

The only thing that bothers me about WD is their pre-installed SmartWare software. It’s a huge can of donkey sauce. This multi-function bloatware takes up over half a GB of space, is loaded into the drive firmware (so it cannot just be formatted away), appears as a separate VCD that pops up everytime you connect to the drive, and cannot be completely removed without voiding the warranty. The only option WD gives the user is to download two more software packages, one that updates the firmware so you can run the second package that allows you to hide the VCD. Blehhhh…

The whole point I want to make is this:

Dear Western Digital,

I like you and your drives. I like the design, reliability, and affordability of your drives. I can’t stand your SmartWare. Please stop making it. If you can’t do that, then please make it an opt-in thing. If you feel you really, truly, just absolutely must preinstall it (instead of offering it available as a free download), then at least make it easy to permanently remove with just one or two clicks. I do not want to download more software to remove software I already don’t want. Thank you.

A regular and loyal customer,

Scott

Removing SmartWare

While removing the the VCD completely is possible and would be my preferred solution, doing so voids the warranty, which is extremely valuable should the drive ever fail. So in my opinion, doing something to void the warranty on the device that stores my invaluable data is a bad idea. Until WD decides that such action no longer voids the warranty, I cannot recommend this.

How to Hide SmartWare

WD doesn’t make it easy to hide the VCD. There are two major steps. You’ll need to download the firmware update for your particular drive and the VCD Manager. Visit the WD Product Updates page to find out how to hide the VCD for your specific device and OS.

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