Back it Up: External Hard Drives for Photo, Video, and Audio Production


If you work with libraries of large image files, or in audio or video production, you need to be selective about your external hard drive. Writing files directly to an external drive can incur some hefty performance demands, so it's best to determine your needs before you buy a drive. With the ever-increasing data-transfer demands brought on by more megapixels, higher audio bit rates, and higher-resolution video—keeping up with all of that data can be a burden.

The first thing to determine must be how much overall storage space you need and, then, what data-transfer speed your projects will require. Each medium is different, as is every user. To break it down, we'll discuss the writing of data to an external hard drive while editing video, for use in photo editing, and running audio projects.

Drives for Video Production

No one creates a greater need for media storage than a videographer, especially those working in 4K. To prevent getting bogged down by a sluggish external hard drive, you need fast drives. These days, the default spin rate is 7200 rpm, though even faster drives are available for a premium.

Next, you need to consider your interface. Are you using FireWire, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, or possibly the newer Thunderbolt 2? Do you intend to use eSATA or set up a RAID array because a single drive can't handle your output, so you need multiple drives?

Interface Speeds: USB, Thunderbolt, and Beyond

The latest in high-definition video requires a whopping 106MB/s of bandwidth. But if you aren't working in the latest ProRes HQ 4K codec, you can get by with less speed. By contrast, AVCHD 1080p video at 30 fps requires just 3MB/s. But your hard drive's maximum write speed should exceed this by as much as is comfortable for your budget, because other issues, such as caching, also can impact performance.

 LaCie 4TB d2 USB 3.0 Professional Desktop Storage Drive

With any external hard drive interface, keep in mind that you will only achieve its maximum data transfer rate if your computer—and the external hard drive—support it. USB 3.0 is capable of 625MB/s. However, check the rated speed of the external drive (it likely can't move data that fast). For example, the Lacie 4TB d2 USB 3.0 Professional Storage Drive is rated at up to 180 MB/s. The G-Technology 6TB G-Drive G1 USB 3.0 Hard Drive is rated at up to 226MB/s. Note that, in both cases, these speeds exceed the 106MB/s requirement of ProRes HQ 4K video at 24 fps. That can only be a good thing.

 G-Technology 6TB G-DRIVE G1 USB 3.0 Hard Drive

Faster still is Thunderbolt. Version 1 can transfer at speeds up to 1,250MB/s, and the newer Thunderbolt 2, up to 2,500MB/s. But you'll pay more for the interface, which may not be worth it for all that speed: None of today's drives are that fast. But if you need a RAID array or plan to use external solid-state drives (SSDs), you might want the Autobahn of interfaces.

RAID Arrays

A RAID array offers voluminous storage beyond what one drive can offer. And, using multiple drives can speed up data transfer, depending on the configuration. To set up a well-performing RAID, all of the drives should be the same speed and capacity. Now, let's choose a RAID configuration.

A popular option for video editors is RAID 5, which can suffer the loss of a drive without losing any data. The downside is that it's more expensive to set up a RAID 5 array because it requires at least four drives.

You can use just two drives to set up a RAID 1 configuration, but the goal here is data redundancy, not speed. The second drive is a copy of the first, so it's got you covered, should the other drive fail. Peace of mind.

 G-Technology 12TB G-Speed Q 4-Bay Storage Array

If you're after speed, it's hard to argue against RAID 0. All drives in this array are striped together, so they read and write simultaneously, which essentially doubles your speed whenever you double the number of drives. Here's the math: Two 2TB drives that write at 200MB/s add up to 4TB of storage writing at 400MB/s. Hot dog! But—here's the rub—you don't have data redundancy, so if one drive goes kaput, you lose all of the data in the RAID. Ach!

One of the big kahunas in this category is the G-Technology 12TB G-Speed Q 4-Bay Storage Array, which offers lots of connectivity options: USB 3.0, eSATA, and two FireWire 800 ports. The hot-swappable drives can be configured in RAID 0 or RAID 5.

Solid-State Drives

SSDs use flash technology, so they have no moving parts. This could be critical if you are recording video in a studio or other enclosed location where the video camera must be near the external hard drive. Having the whirring sounds of a writing disk and spinning fan show up in your audio will become annoying quickly.

For example, the Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 from LaCie offers 1TB of storage. This SSD is rated to transfer data at up to 1,375MB/s—perfect for 4K video. It has two Thunderbolt 2 ports so you can daisy-chain additional drives.

 LaCie 1TB Little Big Disk Thunderbolt-2 Solid State Drive

But SSDs charge a premium that's many times per TB compared to a RAID array. If price is not your issue, they do provide quiet performance and lightning-quick data transfer.

Older Interfaces

If your computer only has USB 2.0, and you're trying to edit video, you should consider an upgrade. The old USB interface has a maximum speed of just 60MB/s.

Similarly, FireWire 800's capability of transferring up to 100MB/s won't earn a recommendation for manipulating high-definition video—newer hard drives are capable of faster speeds. For more information, see the B&H article, Hard-Drive Solutions for Video-Editing Studios.

Picture Perfect

In general, photographers don't need as much hard-drive space for their still images as videographers need for their footage. And, editing a photo on an external hard drive does not require the same bandwidth as editing video. Still, a trigger-happy photographer needs a fast and reliable external hard drive that can seek and display numerous uncompressed RAW files in a jiffy. You don't want your creative time to turn into a wait-and-see game of file-find and transfer.

If you don't need portability—say, in a photography studio—a desktop model will usually get you more terabytes for your money. One drive in this category is the LaCie d2 USB 3.0 Professional Desktop Storage Drive, which comes in three sizes: 3TB, 4TB, and 5TB. It offers up to 180MB/s data transfer and has a single USB 3.0 port.

For a little more space, and more connectivity options, consider the two-drive Glyph Technologies 8TB StudioRAID. This storage array has two 4TB drives, and four ports: one USB 3.0, two FireWire 800, and eSATA. It can be configured in RAID 0 or RAID 1. This array comes with a hard-shell case—a welcome feature if you need your storage to travel with you on occasion. A 6TB model is also available.

 Glyph Technologies SR8000 8TB StudioRAID Storage Array Kit with Studio Hardshell Case

If you need an external hard drive out in the field, you might consider a portable model that's designed to weather a few bumps along the way. One choice is the WD 4TB My Passport Pro, which uses the Thunderbolt interface and hums along at typical data-transfer rates up to 230MB/s.

Another mobile option is the Wireless Plus Mobile from Seagate. Though the 1TB capacity is modest, the drive is battery powered, which can be helpful out in the field. Plus, it offers wireless connectivity and can serve as a Wi-Fi hub, which opens possibilities if you incorporate a tablet or your smartphone into your workflow. The drive also has a USB 3.0 port.

 Seagate 1TB Wireless Plus Mobile HDD with Built-In Wi-Fi

Music to Your Ears

Here's one benchmark for computing the overall capacity the music makers need in an external hard drive: 24 mono tracks recorded at 24-bit/44.1 kHz will eat up about 190MB of hard disk space per minute.

If all you intend to do is write stereo audio onto an external hard drive, you're unlikely to hit a bump in the road. But if you're doing multi-track recording, you may run into data-transfer limitations. This could occur if your projects use a lot of plug-ins that are manipulating the audio tracks on the fly, or if you are triggering multiple virtual instruments with MIDI.

For best performance, it’s widely recommended that your digital audio workstation (DAW) software run on a separate drive from the one to which you write your audio files. That is, your OS and all your applications, including the DAW software, sit on one drive, and there is a dedicated drive for audio files. If you draw upon a lot of samples or virtual instruments, consider having all of these on yet another drive altogether.

For example, in my project studio, recording multi-track sessions to a FireWire 800 drive is not a problem. I can record live the maximum my audio interface will allow simultaneously—eight tracks of audio—without trouble at 24-bit. Mixing with dozens of plug-ins also is no problem—but my sessions rarely exceed 24 tracks. In my case, the maximum of 100MB/s for FireWire 800 is not a bottleneck. Larger sessions, or those using a higher bit rate, would hit the ceiling.

All of the drives I use are 7200 rpm, and it's unlikely anyone would recommend a slower drive. It's possible you could get away with it for very basic audio projects, but why risk it? Whether you can benefit from an even faster drive is debatable. If it's a boost in performance you need, you would likely do as well by adding another 7200 rpm drive than swapping an existing 7200 rpm drive for a faster model.

If you need a drive with the Thunderbolt interface, consider the WD 6TB My Book Thunderbolt Duo, which has two Thunderbolt ports, two removable drives, and is compatible with RAID 0 and RAID 1. In case you aren't looking for the performance boost or data redundancy you get with a RAID array, this drive also supports JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks), a linear configuration. This drive comes in 4TB, 6TB, and 8TB capacities.

 WD 6TB My Book Thunderbolt Duo

If it’s Thunderbolt 2 connectivity you want, consider the d2 Thunderbolt 2 External Hard Drive from LaCie. In addition to two Thunderbolt 2 ports, there is a USB 3.0 port. This drive also offers an SSD upgrade that’s sold separately. And—most important for audiophiles—the drive's aluminum body offers fanless cooling. That's important because fans make noise (see the next section).

Beware of the Noise

As just mentioned, as well as in the videography section, spinning fans make noise, as do spinning hard drives. If you can, you should separate your PC or laptop and external hard drive from the recording room. If you can't accomplish this, or sufficiently isolate the noise with sound damping, you will likely end up with background noise that can get irritating.

If the disk drive must be nearby, consider a solid-state drive (SSD). These are significantly more expensive, but if your pocketbook can handle it, you'll prevent disk and fan noise from marring your pristine audio. For additional information, see the B&H article, Save Your Music: The Basics of Hard Drives for Audio.