Should I Record To An External Hard Drive?


Whether you like it or not, if you are learning how to record music, it is vital that you learn a bit about technology, too. One question many people ask is about recording onto an external hard drive? Are external drives a good idea for recording? Is it better to record on your system drive?

We have decades of experience of recording, and have made all the mistakes in the book. We’ve also got the system perfected, and in this guide, we’re discussing whether or not you should record to an external drive, weighing up the options and giving clear advice.

The Simple Answer

In most cases, it is recommended to record to an external hard drive and not the internal memory of your computer or laptop. The internal drive is the drive that is also used for your operating system, DAW and other software or plugins. It doesn’t make sense to record to this drive, because you are effectively asking more of the system.

This drive is already running a lot of software, asking it to read and write audio too can cause it to slow down, or even crash. It makes a lot more sense to have a drive that is used for recording onto. This way, you’re lowering the requirements on the bandwidth of your computer. It might be helpful to think of this as splitting the workload.

While we recommend recording to a separate drive, the drive does not have to be external. A lot of people will run multiple drives inside their computer. If you are inclined to do this, it is a good solution. However, it takes more tech knowledge and effort. For most, an external drive is fine.

While this rule is simple to follow, and the same or most people, there are always exceptions. We explain more on how to make the right choice for your setup below.

Recording to an External Hard Drive

Let’s go over the justification to recording to an external drive in a little more detail.

It might make sense to think of your computer as having a certain capacity for tasks. If you are old enough to remember early computers running Windows 95, you will see how much that capacity has grown. However, music software or DAWs ask a lot of your computer.

If, on top of running the software, running effects and instruments, you then ask the computer to write the data from recording onto its own hard drive, you are giving it a lot of tasks, and pushing the “bandwidth”.

By recording to a separate drive, you’re taking some of that burden away. The data is being written separately and not interfering.

The Process

The process in terms of setting up your software to record to a hard drive is quite simple. Logic, Pro Tools and most other big DAW makers have a “preferences” or “settings” section that will allow you to tell the software where you wish the recordings to be saved.

By default, you can set the storage location as your external drive. This works with versions of Pro Tools that are newer than version 8, and most other modern software. FL Studio is more restrictive, as it is with a lot of different recording settings.

All of this is dependent on getting a hard drive that can do a decent job. If you are using the latest version of Logic or Pro Tools then you probably don’t want to use the hard drive that has been sitting in your office for the last 8 or 9 years. You will need something that is up to date with modern tech.

Largely, this means an external hard drive needs a good read and write speed. 5400 rpm or 7200 RPM are common speeds. This refers to how quickly the hard disk spins, and how quickly data can be written to the drive, or read from the drive. A 7200 RPM model should give speeds of around 80-160MB/s, plenty for most recording projects.

Keep it Neat

Being organized is not always the strength of a musician. However, it is pretty essential when it comes to recording projects.

If you are using a drive that has been used before, format it correctly for your operating system and file needs, following this guide:

It’s up to you how you organize the files on the external drive, but some sort of organization is key, find what works for you. Each song should have its own folder, each recording session should be dated. It’s vital that you know where to find the files when you need them. 

If you are doing a lot of recording, keeping organized might mean having multiple drives. This means that you can organize them by date, and keep a variety of different hard drives. Luckily, mass storage devices have become a lot cheaper in recent years as technology grows and becomes more affordable to produce.

Does it Matter if I Can’t Record to a Hard Drive?

We should say that it is not utterly essential. There are some people out there who will tell you that you have to record to an external drive. While, undoubtedly, recording to an external drive, or at least a separate drive to your OS, will provide optimal performance, you don’t have to do it in all scenarios.

Think of it this way, if you are taking a mobile kit to record a solo artist with a few microphones, you probably don’t want to take an external drive with you. It can be annoying to have to take extra kit, plus, you might be worried about it getting damaged.

It isn’t the end of the world if you have to record onto your inbuilt hard drive, especially if you aren’t doing it regularly. If you are worried about the space the recording sessions take up on your hard drive after recording, you can transfer the files at a later date, though this will not make it quicker during the actual recording process.

SSD or HDD?

An SSD or solid state drive will usually boast incredibly fast read and write speeds. In the future, there is every chance that SSD’s will become the norm, but at the moment, they cost a lot more.

It’s a matter of personal preference. For optimum performance, it is worth using an SSD. The data will be more reliably written and read from the device. However, it is usually not a problem to use a HDD. 7200 rpm is normally enough.

SSDs can deliver read and write speeds up to 550 MB/s. This is incredibly high, and if you are a sucker for having the very latest and best tech, and don’t mind spending more, this could be a good option.

Get a Second Hard Drive for Backup Storage. 

This is a really important distinction to make. Backups of files need to be made separately. Some people suggest that you should keep three separate backups of your most important files, and that one of these should be away from your studio. This is probably a bit extreme for any amateur musician though. Keeping one hard drive for your main recordings and a second for backup is probably fine unless you are a multi-million dollar artist. 

Backing up the files can be a pain, but you should make sure you don’t just keep them on one hard drive after you have recorded. You can be in big trouble if you lose the files, especially if recording for a client.

Our Recommendations

It is worth spending a little more cash to get an SSD hard drive that is fast, reliable and has plenty of storage. I recommend going for a 1TB one if you can afford it. Music files take up a lot of space and you want the comfort you can record for year without needing a new one. 

The Samsung (MU-PA1T0B/AM) T5 Portable SSD shown below is a great choice. It can transfer data super fast at 540mb/s (4.9x fast than HDD) and most importantly boasts 1TB of storage, and theres even a 2TB version. 

In Summary – We Recommend Recording to an External Hard Drive

So, should you record to a hard drive? The answer is almost always “yes”. Not only does it keep space on your internal hard drive free for important processes, it makes the recording process more efficient, taking the strain away from your computer.

There are exceptions, and in a pinch, if you don’t have the option, a computer with good spec (over 4gb of ram, and plenty of hard drive space) can usually perform recording without a hard drive to write to.

 

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous rock star....but that hasn't stopped him from writing and recording music in his home studio. Rob has over 15 years experience of recording music at home.

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