Save Your Music: The Basics of Hard Drives for Audio

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You don't need to have a deep understanding of computing in order to record, edit, mix, and master music on your computer. However, knowing some basics is definitely necessary. Often overlooked, but of high importance, is the role hard drives play in the process. Knowing what to choose for your specific applications, and the importance of backing up your work (which can never be over-stressed) can save you countless hours of time and heartache.

There are four main hard-drive applications most producers and home studio owners employ, namely your operating disc, your write disc, your sample library, and your back-up drive. Let’s break them down, and talk about what you should look for in each.

The Operating Disc

In simple terms, the operating drive is where your operating system, DAW, plug-ins, samples, and virtual instruments live. It's also where every other program on your computer runs. Obviously, this drive is installed internally in either your laptop or desktop computer. While you can record directly to your operating disc (and many laptop-based producers do), it's generally recommended that you use this drive only for your system operations. By doing so, you can reduce the risk of drive errors, as a single drive is not being overly taxed by being read from and written to simultaneously.

"Historically, Pro Tools has not supported RAID arrays, but since Pro Tools 10, it has joined most other DAWs in supporting hardware RAID."

With operating drives, speed and reliability are key, and it's becoming increasingly common to run a solid-state drive (SSD) for this purpose. SSDs work on the same flash memory principle as USB thumb drives, and offer both speed and reliable performance, thanks to their lack of moving parts. Coming from a traditional hard drive to an SSD, the speed in which your computer boots and launches programs can be nothing short of astounding. Due to their price-to-capacity ratio, if you plan on installing an SSD as your operating drive, you will likely install one with lower storage capacity and rely on external drives for media storage, such as sample libraries.

While SSDs can provide speed, they do come with an increased price tag in comparison to their hard-disk counterparts. When looking at a traditional hard drive, you’ll want to shoot for one with at least 7200 rpm, though there is no shortage of 10,000 rpm available. A major benefit of non-SSD drives is their capacity range, which would allow you to store things such as sample libraries and other media on your operating drive, freeing up a USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt port.

The Write Disc

A dedicated write disc is a drive to which you write your data directly. If you're working with a desktop computer that can house multiple drives, you can store it internally, and benefit from PCIe speeds. If, as is often the case, you require portability so you can work from multiple computers, or work with a laptop that can only support one internal drive, you will need an external hard drive. If you work collaboratively with others, an external drive can greatly simplify the sharing of sessions.

There are countless external hard drives available, and they come in just about any size, capacity, and connectivity configuration you could imagine. To maximize data transfer speeds, you will want to find an external drive that supports the fastest available connection on your computer. Just a few years ago, FireWire 800 was king for external connectivity, so if your machine is a few years old, this might be the route to take. However, most current production computers come equipped with USB 3.0 ports, or, in the case of Apple’s MacBooks, iMacs, and Mac Pros—Thunderbolt. Take a look at your machine, see what the fastest connectivity option is, and make sure the external drive you select can support that protocol.

For a long time, Glyph Technologies has been a favorite of many professional audio (and video) professionals because of its reliable designs, and the company's three-year warranty and anytime data recovery (should the drives fail). Another standard choice the is the Mercury Elite Pro from OWC. It offers USB 3.0, FireWire 800, and SATA drive interface ports, and is Pro Tools tested and certified.

While writing to RAID arrays isn't necessary for successful recording sessions, they can offer increased speed and performance, and are the preferred write discs for many professionals and hobbyists. Historically, Pro Tools has not supported RAID arrays, but since Pro Tools 10, it has joined most other DAWs in supporting hardware RAID.

Sample Libraries

Storing your sample libraries can be a bit of a gray area, and depends on the size of your library and your computer. If you're working with a desktop or laptop that sports a large-capacity write drive, and your sample library is not particularly large, you may feel comfortable leaving it right on your operating drive.

However, as many producers know, some of the most sought-after virtual instruments have massive sample libraries whose size can easily be in the hundreds of gigabytes. Additionally, many producers pride themselves on their unique libraries of kicks, snares, and other self-produced sounds that they like to bring to collaborative sessions with other writers. If this is the case, you may benefit from using an external hard drive, be it your write drive, or a second external drive dedicated to storing your samples.

If having a dedicated drive for your sample library is the route for you, you have a few considerations. As with your external write drive, check out which ports you have on your computer. If you only have a single port (be it USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt) available, you should look for a drive that can be daisy-chained to your external write drive.

Back-Up Drives

The most important thing you can do with your work (and this advice is universal to all digital fields, not just audio) is back it up, and do so multiple times. For clarification, this is a drive separate from your write drive, where you keep redundancies of your sessions. It is advisable to back up your work daily when working on an active project. There are many recording engineers who keep up to a month's work of unique daily backups, allowing them to go back to a version of a session from three weeks earlier. The ability to have this kind of access is a comfort and a failsafe in case of drive failures or recording errors. The price you pay for that access comes in the form of large-capacity drives.

“...your work is not backed up until it is backed up in three places.”

Since you will not be working from these drives while recording or programming, they don't have to follow the same strict speed recommendations as your operating or write drives. However, at the end of a long session, the last thing you want to do is deal with a slow back-up process, so you will want to find something in a large capacity that is at least equivalent to the specs of your write drive. RAID configurations also become immensely appealing in this application and, depending on which Raid configuration you're using, offer increased speed and redundancy within a single backup.

There's an adage regarding backups that states: “...your work is not backed up until it is backed up in three places.” For important sessions, you can also make use of cloud storage, as well as burn DVD copies of your sessions to err on the side of caution.

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WHILE SOME OF THE ITEMS MENTIONED WERE INSTRUCTIVE, THIS TUTORIAL WAS ONLY FOR TECH SAVY COMPUTER TYPES. MOST OF THE TIME ARTICLES LIKE THIS COULD BE USEFUL, BUT ARE WRITTEN BY TECHS WHO ARE TALKING TO PEOPLE WHO ARE ALREADY FAMILIAR WITH THE SUBJECT AND REALLY LEARN LITTLE NEW.

I'm looking to play sounds in the field on an MP-3 or similar.  Also, portably record sound in the field.  Any suggestions?

Hi Sandy -

A portable audio recorder should fill the bill. 

The silver DR-40 4-Track Handheld Digital Audio Recorder from Tascam provides professional-level features and flexibility in a compact and durable design that's ideal for use in the field. The unit can record high-quality WAV/BWF or MP3 files to readily-available SD or SDHC flash memory cards, allowing you to record hours of material and share it easily. A 2GB card is included so you can get started recording right away.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com

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