Save Your Music: The Basics of Hard Drives for Audio


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.


Hi there,

Im currently using a Macbook Pro (Late 2011) which I upgraded with 16GB RAM and a Samsung EVO 850 Pro internal SSD. I've been running Pro Tools sessions from my system drive, however I occasionally get playback errors when my track count/pluin usage gets too large. I wanted to optimize my workflow by using an external drive for sessions to free up my system drive and I tried using my old SSD (OCZ Vertex II SSD 240GB) in an external enclosure with a firewire 800 connection, which seemed to be working fine yet it kept throwing this error code "can't get audio from the drive(s) fast enough. Your drive may be too show or fragmented, or firewire drive could be having trouble due to the firewire bandwith or CPU load. (AAE -9073)" Please let me know why I'm getting errors/possible reasons why a really fast SSD connected by reasonably fast firewire800 is even worse than trying to record on my system drive. The goal was to have faster/more optimized workflow and this has only slowed things down/made it a bigger problem. Please help!

Hi, Thanks for the detail explanation! Great article!

Would a USB Tumb drive like SANDISK EXTREME®  USB 3.0 FLASH DRIVE with Read Speed: up to 245 MB/s & Write Speed: up to 190 MB/s 

Or even a

JetDrive™ Lite with read speeds of up to 95MB/s and write speeds of up to 60MB/s. 

work as an external write drive + Sample Library?

I'm trying to free some CPU usage and internal memories on my logic pro production.

Thanks in advance :)

Hi William - 

Flash/thumb drives are not designed for the heavy lifting tasks that spinning hard drives  or SSD's are.  For occasional use - just fine! The constant read/write activity  of editing would just about destroy flash/thumb drives in short order. Bear in mind that since this article was written 2 years ago, drive capacity has increased while their prices have dropped.

Hey Mark,

Thanks for the GREAT article! Very informative!

I, like others mentiones, am in the process of building an A/V workstation for a home studio. I have something put together that I would love to get a professional's opinion on. Is there a way somebody could look at my setup and give me some advice (specifically when it comes to drives). Anyway I can contact you? Email?

Also, question on this topic that I guess could be helpful for anybody reading this: what's your take on using Dropbox to backup? Everything I currently do is backed up on Dropbox (however, the dropbox folder itself is onmy main operating drive so it somewhat defeats the purpose). Would you recommend a dropbox account (i have a pro account) with the dropbox folder itself stored on a high capacity, high speed, backup drive - that way, this drive itself is the equivalent of 2 backups. If the backup drive crashes, it itself is backed up in the cloud.

Any thoughts or input? Let me know if anyone can help me with my setup. Thanks!!!

Hi Mendy -

Dropbox is a convenience and best used for collaboration.Sign up for an account if you collaborate or share your work or for the convenience of accessing your files from just about anywhere without having to carry a portable drive with you.   I would not recommend it for any kind of serious back-up workflow however.

You may send any questions you may have to us at: [email protected]

Thanks! Why would you not recommend it for any kind of serious back-up workflow? What cloud service WOULD you recommend?


Hi Mendy -

Just saying it should not be your primary back-up method.  I use iCloud.

Hi,  Great article.  Can you recommend a back up and write drive for a Mac book? (Logic Pro X)


Thank you!

Hi Richard -

I like the  4TB Studio S4000 External Drive from Glyph Technologies featuring a hard drive that spins at 7200 rpm and a capacity of 4TB for storing data such as videos, images, music and more. The Studio S4000 has USB 3.0, eSATA, FireWire 800 ports to connect to either Windows or Mac systems. Using either one of these connections, you can expect up to 184 Mb/s data transfer rates to access your content. Glyph Technologies also supports content creation products such as AVID, Pro Tools, Logic, Nuendo, Cubase, DP, Adobe CC, and more. Included with the Studio are USB, FireWire, and power cables.


The OWC / Other World Computing 1TB Mercury Elite Pro Mini USB 3.0 External Hard Drive offers 1TB of storage capacity so you can back up important information from your computer or provide additional digital space to store your photos, songs, and videos. With eSATA and USB 3.0 connections, the Mercury Elite Pro mini delivers greater compatibility with a variety of systems when compared to an external drive offering a single interface.


I am currently having my new studio pc built so i am looking for some aditional internal or external backup hdds for my projects and my large sample library and anything else i may download and wish to keep safe.

Am i correct in thinking its best to have the hdds inside rather than a black box sat on the desk, i think i would like 2 extra 2tb or 3tb reliable drives for this purpose. there are so many external solutions with good and bad reviews.....i have been looking for a week or so and my head is going to pop with all the mixed reviews on hdds.

I have been looking a WD external usb3 2 or 3 tb options and various other makes, dual hdds, mirrored back up etc.....ahhhh BUT after stumbling accross your article maybe i will use internal hdds which will make the transfer quicker and possibly a little cheaper ??

Would love some solid advice as not sure what way to turn.

I have 1 tb portable drive for sharing content with my mates just simply copying files over when needed, so i just need a solid back up solution.

look forward to hearing your advice.

kind regards


Hi Graham -

For external drives we like and recommend those by G-Tech.  They are extremely reliable and trusted by film and audio professionals world-wide for their mission critical work.  For internal drives the best bang for the buck are either Western Digital or Seagate internal rotational hard drives.

G-Tech Tabletop External Drives

WD & Seagate Internal Rotational Hard Drives

If you need more help selecting appropriate drives for your computer and application: 

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  [email protected]


Let us know via e-mail what information you need.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  [email protected]

it like really cool and could go some were!!!!

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:  [email protected]

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