This is a concept that has been a little fuzzy for a lot of home studio owners. Whenever you’re getting into multi-track recording, it’s important to have a dedicated hard drive for streaming all your audio.

What do you mean dedicated?

Recording music to a computer can be a pretty intense process, especially when you start recording and playing back ten or twenty individual tracks of music or more. Each of those audio files has to be streamed in real time from your hard drive.

The system hard drive on your computer (the one that came with your computer) will technically work as your audio drive, but it’s not the best idea. For one thing, your operating system and all the software you own is installed on the system drive. Before you even fire up Pro Tools or Garage Band, the system drive is already working pretty hard. It has a full-time job of simply running the operating system.

Now to ask that drive to handle all of your audio streaming is just too much. What that means in the real world is you will start to get freezes and error messages in your recording software.

For this reason I (along with every DAW software manufacturer out there) recommend using a dedicated hard drive for recording. This means you want to use a second hard drive that does nothing but stream your audio to and from the computer.

Internal or External?

There are basically two ways to add a second drive to your system.

  • If you’re using a desktop computer, install a second hard drive inside the computer.
  • If you’re using a laptop, or if you simply don’t want to bother installing a hard drive on your desktop, you need an external drive.

Internal drives technically give you more speed, since they communicate directly with your motherboard. However, I’ve exclusively used external drives, and they’ve worked wonderfully. The reason I have used external is that I’ve always run a laptop setup, which doesn’t allow for you to install a second internal drive. Also, external drives are convenient for when I want to take my sessions to another studio and work on them there. I just unplug the drive and head out the door.

As of today, there are basically two types of external drives – USB and firewire (although Thunderbolt is making its way into mainstream). USB 2.0 drives are just fine and are plenty fast, but one big difference is that firewire drives can be daisy-chained. If you’re new to computers, that basically means that you can plug several firewire devices into each other (since they all usually have two firewire ports on them) and then run one firewire cable from the last device into the firewire port on your computer.

External drives are great because they’re hot-swappable, meaning you can plug and unplug them from your computer without having to restart the computer every time. (However, you need to make sure you “eject” the drive from your system before yanking the cord out.)

What I Use

At the time of this article, my studio is based around an Apple iMac, which only has one firewire port on it.

I run a firewire cable to my Presonus StudioLive firewire mixer. While I normally prefer firewire hard drives, I’ve found that the StudioLive doesn’t play nicely with drives daisy-chained from it. So I’ve been using a handful of USB drives (like this one from OWC). They work just fine.

A Little Geek Speak

Make sure you get a hard drive that is 7200 rpm and has an appropriate chipset (like the Oxford 911 chipset) for the recording program you’re planning to use. All the manufacturers spec this out on their websites, so check those out.

One final thing. You may be wondering how exactly you use the external drive with your DAW. Basically, all you do is save your session to the external drive. When you first create a session for a song, it will give you an option to choose a hard drive where you want that session and all its corresponding audio to reside. You don’t need to install your DAW or your operating system on your external drives. They simply hold your audio.

Install software on the system drive. Save your audio sessions to your external drive.

Hopefully this shed some light on the whole “recording hard drive” mystery. If you have questions, ask!

  • Zach Cool

    Would a G-Tech 1TB G-DRIVE mobile Thunderbolt/USB 3.0 Hard Drive be suitable?

    • Joe Gilder

      Sorry, I don’t know all the hard drives in the world. Do your homework, read reviews, you’ll have a good idea if it’s the right one for you.

  • djtorchMusic

    If you have a SSD drive for your system drive, is this theory still viable?

    • Joe Gilder

      I would think so, yeah.

  • Dylan

    Would it be ok to install ALL of my music things (DAW, samples, vsts etc) on one hd and use the other for the operating system and everything else? Or do I just use the second hd for samples and audio files only?

  • Alex

    how come it needs to be 7200rpm? i have a 5400rpm would that work at all?

  • suren

    hi Joe…is it faster if we use a hard drive with external power?? I will be using it for the Vst’s for logic on my iMac.

    • Joe Gilder

      Not faster, but generally a good idea. You can’t always trust bus power.

  • Max

    Hi, can you update this with the new SSD information ? An external SSD drive on Thunderbolt or USB 3 is expensive but an excellent solution.Max

  • Minormoods

    What is the best way to formate an external hdd for recording – MacBook pro, usb 2.0/3.0? encrypted…..?

    • Joe Gilder

      I’d say do whatever your DAW company recommends.

  • Erik Seyferth


    I have recently bought a Seagate Expansion 2TB for this purpose but I get Noise and pops on some tracks instead of the recorded sound. When I play the sound in media player form the disk the sound is ok. This happens on multiple systems with different versions of cubase.

    I also have a smaller usb harddrive and that one works fine. Any Idea what could cause this?


    • Joe Gilder

      Might be a computer issue instead of a hard drive issue? Might wanna call somebody in tech support or something.

  • Danny
  • Johann

    Thanks a lot for this explanation. I have some Kontakt samples and, according to the manufacture’s advice, I should install them on a separate drive. Would you suggest to do so? And if so, would they have to be installed on the same external drive where the recordings will be saved?

  • Simon Mackay

    Without doubt, this is the best explanation of why to use an external hard drive with a SAW that I have found. This was EXTREMELY helpful! Thank you very much :)

  • Saguifer
    • Joe Gilder

      Yep! Glyph makes great stuff.

  • Saguifer

    All your drives have to be of 7200 rpm or only your recording drive?

    • Joe Gilder

      Recording drive primarily. Although it doesn’t hurt to have a faster internal drive.

    • Saguifer

      Thanks Joe.

  • ando

    hey joe, i’m new to home recording, have logic express 9 in my Imac, which is a few years old…is there any difference between using a USB port or firewire to connect to the external drive? it sounds like my Imac has 1 firewire port? which do you recommend? i probably will use logic express for a while to learn on…thanks…

    • Joe Gilder

      There’s not really a difference. Firewire can be daisy-chained, meaning you can plug in a bunch of external devices on the one FW port.
      It’s really just up to you.

  • Brenda Brewer

    this article rocked…can’t wait to get another external firewire drive

  • blue man

    What works better to record audio on a mac, a 7200 Rpm or an ssd

  • nachoga

    Hello, Joe. Here from Spain to improve my little home studio.

    About the external drive, I have a couple of songs started and primary saved at the system drive. So I tried to put them in the external. Good. But when I open them in Protools and try to record, it gives me a couple of error messages. It doesn’t occur if I open from the system drive.

    And other question: does working with the external drive give any benefit about releasing RAM capacity?

    Thank you.


    • Joe Gilder

      Hey Nacho. I don’t think it affects RAM at all. As far as the error message, I really don’t know. It could be an inferior external drive, perhaps. Just because it’s external doesn’t mean it’s good. It still needs to be fast enough, etc.

  • Louise

    Hi Joe, thanks for your knowledge. I am total novice with all things technical, so sorry if you have already spoken on this and I “didnt get it”. I have just installed Pro tools express onto my laptop ( i have the Avid “fast track Solo”interface). I run Windows 7 and I gather I need an external hard drive….but not one with firewire?….so could you recommend an external hard drive for me? thanks

  • Jeremy Roman

    So Happy to have found this article! Will this work?

    Its a LaCie Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drive (500GB, 7200rpm)

  • DJ Thrillride

    Other people have said it… I would just like to reiterate… SOLID STATE DRIVE…. that is all… lol

    • DJ Thrillride

      Im not a tech guy but they are stupid fast… they do tend to get hot though.

      • Joe Gilder

        I’m sure they’ll be the mainstream choice in another couple years. Right now they’re just so much more expensive.

  • Jordan

    Hi Joe,

    I have an ACER PC lapto, using a Seagate drive. A 5,400 RPM for now, but will probably upgrade. Should I be keeping my Ableton recorded/music/audio files onto BOTH my laptop’s built-in drive AND my Seagate external drive? Or should saving it solely on the external drive be sufficient?

    Also, is it safe to use the external drive for storing other files (photos, videos, word files, etc) AS WELL AS the Ableton recorded/music/audio? At least until I can get another drive solely for music use…



    • Joe Gilder

      Hey Jordan,

      All software has to be installed on the system drive, then save all your sessions/files to the external drive.

      Having videos/photos on the external isn’t a problem

  • Miki

    Thank you Joe, happy to find this article! I have been looking for PC notebook with SSD but this means this is not a necessary feature. So i just get a fast processor machine and attach 7200rpm external HDD with USB 3.0. It’s just strange because all the DAW related internet forum topics emphasise the necessity of a notebook with SSD. Or is it necessary to have SSD for the operating system too? Can the OS slow down the processes if it works on a standard 5400rpm HDD even if recording happens to a dedicated external USB3.0 HDD? Do I have to look for some other special feature on the notebook or the HDD? You mention for example appropriate chipset like Oxford 911 relating to HDD. How can I find out is there an appropriate chipset on the HDD? How about for example this one:


    • Joe Gilder

      Hi Miki,

      I don’t know much about SSD. It can’t hurt to have a nice, fast internal drive, but as it pertains to actually streaming the audio, it won’t matter, since you need to use an external, dedicated drive.
      As far as your other questions, I’m sorry I don’t know. You’ll have to contact somebody in tech support for one of the companies you’re asking about.

      • Miki

        Thanks Joe!


  • Rohan

    Thanks so much for clearing this up! Great write up.

    I’ve also read somewhere else, that you should try and use drives that are not “green” or “energy saving”. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I feel that it is related to how often the drive goes to sleep. Is this true? If so, how do we figure out this spec? And what drive would you recommend in that case?

    Also, do you use a similar drive for TimeMachine backups or something with a different spec?

    • Joe Gilder

      Hey Rohan,

      I don’t know about the “green” stuff, sorry.

      And I don’t use Time Machine. Most of my files are saved to my Dropbox Pro folder, so I’ve got backup there.


  • Alfonso

    The drive dedicated to audio should receive all the bounced mixes too?. Or it could be done on the system drive. I mean does it affect the speed of the bounce?.

    • Joe Gilder

      I like to keep everything on the same drive.

  • Rob Loomis

    So this week I was blessed with a brand new iMac (27) from Apple because my current 2010 model kept crapping out on me. Can’t tell you how stoked I am about that.

    With that said, I have a RAID system (Newer Tech), 2 OWC Mercury drives and a smaller G Force drive all daisy-chained to the FW800 port on my old system. The new iMac has 4 USB 3.0 ports and 2 Thuderbolt ports. CRAP! So, I had to buy a FW800 to Thunderbolt adapter online last night (Apple is the only manufacturer so far). Only thing is, the smaller bus powered drive (G Force) will not work in daisy’d config with the adapter. So, probably going to donate it to the church and buy myself a similar OWC version but USB 3.0.

    Thought it pretty weird that the new iMac didn’t have at minimum a FW800 port.

    • Joe Gilder

      Yup. Thunderbolt is the new thing. I imagine FW will go away soonish.

  • Elijah Gibson

    So these are just normal external hard drives that you should save your recording to??? I dont really understand like if the softwares on your macintosh HD wont it try to stream it all from there??
    Sorry im a bit lost here

    • Joe Gilder

      Yes, you certainly can record and stream from your system drive. The problem is that the drive is usually not fast enough AND it has to run the operating system AND stream the audio. The end result is that the audio doesn’t play back smoothly. Get a dedicated drive, and ALL it will do is stream audio. Nothing else.

  • Nikos Tsakas Jr.

    Hello, thanks for your post. I’m thinking of buying a 1TB HDD and an SSD, I’m not sure of the capacity yet. Which one should contain the OS and programs, and which one should the recorded files be written on?

    • Joe Gilder

      Hm…I don’t think it really matters. I don’t think SSD’s have been tested too much for audio, so I’d probably make the HDD the recording drive and the SSD the system drive.

  • Carlos

    Hi, and if I have a 3tg Hdd and make 2 particion, one for os and programs and the other for audio, should it work?

    • Joe Gilder

      Nope. That’s still one hard drive. You need two.

  • Dwhavens

    Man, I just have to thank you for putting this site together.  You would not believe how many have fuzzy conceptions of very basic principles.  Thanks for sharing. 

    • Joe Gilder

      You’re most welcome. Thanks Dwhavens!

  • Dave
    • Joe Gilder

      Nope. Needs to be at least 7200 rpm, like it states in the article. This one is 5400.

      • Joshuwa48

        If like Im using solid stake drive+ 4GB ram

      • Finn

        Hi Joe, pretty sure you’ve solved my query with this so thanks! Just want to make sure I have this right though. If I have a small SSD mainly for my OS and some apps, can I install pro/tools/ ableton live etc. to it, and then save the session audio to a larger HDD? And also, instead of having two HDDs, would paritioning one large one suffice? One section purely for audio, and the other for everything else. Anyway thanks :)

        • Joe Gilder

          Partitioning won’t help. It’s still one drive. You need a separate drive, with a separate physical “head” going and finding the data. On a partition, the same “head” is searching on all parts of the drive, so there’s no real benefit to partitioning for audio.

  • Jorwel

    What if using an ssd?

    • Joe Gilder

      Hmm…I honestly don’t know much about SSD. I hear they’re really fast, but I don’t know if you should still use a secondary drive.

      • CameronN

        The fact that “Before you even fire up Pro Tools or Garage Band, the system drive is already working pretty hard” remains the same with a SSD.  You can buy an external HDD and get more storage, as well as portability.

        • Joe Gilder

          Ah, good to know. Thanks!

  • John M

    I am getting an imac, with a T-byte internal drive, and an mbox pro with pro tools 9. It would be a shame if I couldn’t use any of hard drive for file storage. What if I partition it?

    • Joe Gilder

      The size of the drive and partitioning won’t change the fact that you’re asking the drive to run your operating system AND simultaneously stream multiple tracks of high-resolution audio. It’s just not recommended. I always record to an external drive.

  • don

    I recently bought a pro tools mp9 bundle w/m-audio mobile pre interface and can only record in short segments of time ( 30 sec, minute, minute and a half) in between severe white noise static (“tv snow”). Tech support hasn’t helped. I’m being told to try an external hard drive but don’t want to spend the money on that yet because I don’t believe that is my static problem. Have you ever heard of this? What could it be? My computer meets all the requirements for pro tools and we’ve optimized and tweeked the crud out of it with no luck. Help!

    • Joe Gilder

      Sorry Don, I don’t know. I always record to an external drive. I don’t know if that’s really the problem. Sorry man.

  • Daniel M

    so what exactly will happen if I were to use a 5,400 rpm drive instead of 7,200? is it just slower? or will it not want to play back and record correctly?

    • Daniel M

      also is it probably best for the external drive to use AC adaptor instead of just running from bus power?

      • Joe Gilder

        Not necessarily.

    • Joe Gilder

      Because it’s slower, it might be able to play back the audio without glitches or error messages.

    • Ben

      Higher RPM drives have lower seek times, meaning that the faster the platters spin the faster the head will find what it needs. Think of it this way – if the drive is in mid-spin and the data it wants is half a turn away, but the head is already lined up to read it, the higher RPM drive will get the data to the head faster. It’s a couple milliseconds here and there, and most DAWs are pretty good about reading ahead, but the more it’s able to buffer, faster, the better for you and the less hard your computer has to work – less waiting.

      Incidentally that’s also what makes SSDs highly desirable. Multiple lanes of near-zero-latency data. So much of what a computer does is “random” i.e. not serialized, not sequential all in a row, so the faster it can jump from one area to the next the better performance. Since there are no platters spinning or heads waiting to read, the data gets pulled unbelievably fast. Ever seen a computer boot in 5 seconds? Booting from an SSD will do that for you.

      And dedicated recording drives don’t have to be absolutely enormous. I record to a 500GB 7200RPM hard drive in my machine. The external drive then just backs all that stuff up. Stuff I’m done with comes off the dedicated audio drive and lives on the backup drive (and also gets backed up to my cloud storage, incidentally), making plenty of room for the next wave of genius.

      edit: wall of text crits you for 32768 damage. You die. Sorry about that.

      • Joe Gilder

        Great stuff. Thanks Ben.

  • joshbaezmusic

    Hey Joe,
    First off, awesome, awesome site! Now, I heard from a few friends that I should order my recording gear like this:

    Computer > Interface > External 1 (main) > External 2 (backup)


    • Joe Gilder

      That’s usually how I do it. You may want to play around with it, though. See which works best.

  • Roger

    I have a 5400 rpm internal drive in my Sony laptop with Win 7 Pro and recently got a WD 500gb Scorpio Black 7200 w/16mb cache to upgrade to. I was thinking of making that the system drive but after reading your article I am wondering if I should use the 7200 as an external and just leave the 5400 in as the system drive. Or would I have better results overall with the faster drive set as system and the slower as a dedicated. Thanks for your help!

    • Joe Gilder

      I wouldn’t bother changing the internal, just record to a 7200 rpm external.

  • Joe Gilder

    No, you load all software on your system drive. Then you save your projects/samples to external drives.

  • Joe Gilder

    Get the largest you can afford. You will inevitably fill it up and need another one, so go big! :-)

  • Deskie
  • Wellington Ribeiro

    Does the LaCie d2 Quadra Drive has the “right chipset” to work in my Macbook Pro running Pro Tools HD?

    Thank you for all your tutorials!

    • Joe Gilder

      You probably need to check the Pro Tools website on that. I really don’t know. If it’s got an Oxford 911 (I think) chipset, it should work…but check Digi’s site first.

      • Wellington Ribeiro

        Ok Joe, Thank You !

        • Wellington Ribeiro

          I’ll buy a Glyph Hard Drive like you, What model do you use? I’ll buy the Glyph GT 050Q 500GB

          • Joe Gilder

            I’ve got one of the GT 050’s…it’s an older 80GB model. They don’t make ‘em anymore, but that one is a great choice.

  • Harimander Khalsa

    There are some Windows laptops that have two hard drives.

    • Joe Gilder

      Very cool. I hadn’t heard of them. I bet they get hot! ;-)

  • Joseph Lyons

    Are you using a powered USB hub? I know you recently got an imac which has loads of usb ports, but you had a macbook white at one time. I have a full terabyte on a western digital (i know its not the best) that I was going to partition for my audio in pro tools, but i have to have my interface plugged in, my ilok, and my hard drive. Problem is, I have a Macbook white with 2 ports. I do have a cheap old usb hub, but its not powered and so nothing runs quite fast enough with it.

    • Joseph Lyons

      Just read the firewire section, I realize you dont use much usb. I’m hoping to figure out a way to use my terabyte for audio. I bought it for storage and so I wasn’t worried about speed, but I can’t seem to find my rpm, but I believe its 7200.

  • Craig Fish

    Great site Joe. I have found a lot of useful info. I am just getting ready to start recording at home on my laptop and you have given me a lot of useful ideas on how to do it successfully. Thank you for posting all the information.

    • Joe Gilder

      You’re welcome Craig. Glad you’re here! Good luck!

  • Randall

    Awesome site Joe! Just discovered it. Gotta question, which I think I’ve answered by looking around on here, but wanted to run it by the guru himself first.

    I have never really had a problem with processing, even when I used a Dell laptop (Vista) with 3GB of RAM running 50+ tracks with all kinds of Waves plug-ins going and all. An occasional glitch, but really nothing major. Sad, I know, but my old Mac was even less powerful. Now, I have a new iMac with 4GB of RAM and a 3.06 processor.

    Anyway, I am wanting to make the move to an external hard drive. Since I’ve moved to Pro Tools M-Powered (pretty much used ACID and Digital Performer before) I am getting a lot of playback errors telling me to turn off plug-ins, increase buffer, etc. By the way, I am now using higher quality McDSP plug-ins.

    The buffer is set pretty high already, and I get these errors when only running ten tracks with five or so plug-ins; sometimes with all the buffers set as high as possible in the playback engine. It does it constantly with the McDSP Revolver Reverb running. Virtually unplayable, because I get an error every five seconds.

    Okay, finally my question. My iMac has one FW 800 port. My interface in a M-Audio ProjectMix I/O and has one FW 400 port. I am interested in using a Glyph GT 050Q, which has one FW 800 and one FW 400.

    Can I place the Glyph between the ProjectMix and the iMac, using the Glyph to daisy chain the two? And, will this cut down significantly on the errors I am receiving?

    I see that you use a Glyph between your DAW and your 003, so that is pretty much what I am trying to do. So my chain would be:

    iMac FW800 -> Glyph FW 800 -> Glyph FW 400 -> ProjectMix FW 400

    What are your thoughts?

    Thanks! And totally love the site!


    • Joe Gilder

      Hi Randall. You can certainly do it this way. However, you should know that if you have a FW 400 device ANYWHERE in the chain, EVERYTHING will operate at FW400 speed. That’s not a big deal. I’m all FW 400 right now, and that’s fine.

      • Randall

        Thanks Joe! I was sure it would work that way, but I never tried, or seemingly needed, an external hard drive. I actually have a 1TB Seagate laying around and tried it out just as I described above. Works perfectly, and Pro Tools runs 1000 times better with plug-ins and whatnot.

        My only concern with buying a Glyph has been all the complaints from people about using an external hard drive with Snow Leopard. Digi doesn’t support Snow Leopard either.

        Pro Tools seems to run fine with the Snow Leopard 8.0.3 pre-release, but a few things are obviously not right. And my external works fine with it, and it’s a Seagate, which is what Glyphs use. I think I may just invest in a nice Glyph; solely because my Seagate is too loud for my studio setup. I use Glyph at school, and they are silent. I interned in Sweetwater’s newest studio, and they swear by Glyph as well. Just hope there are no issues with Snow Leopard.

        Thanks again Joe!

  • Alex

    Hey Joe. Thanks for all the words of wisdom. I was wondering if you could recommend any alternatives to Glyph drives, for an external firewire drive with an appropriate chipset for Logic.

    • Joe Gilder

      Glyph’s my sole recommendation. I’m sure there are other options that work, but Glyph has been solid for me.

  • Shin

    If I have a big hard drive with space to spare, could I partition this hard drive and use the new partition as a dedicated hard drive, instead of purchasing a new one?

    • Joe Gilder

      Hi Shin, partitioning drive doesn’t do anything for you. You’re still using ONE drive to access all your information. The benefit of a second drive is that you have a separate drive arm, etc. to find all your information. You can cut a single drive into several partitions, but it won’t make the drive any faster.

  • San Diego Band

    Hey Joe,

    I don’t think I will be able to afford a Glyph for now considering everything I still need for my music (starting with a decent AMP). However, I do have a 300GB internal drive from WD. I want to ask you precisely about the chipset; I work with computer as part of my job, and I never heard of “oxford 911″ chipsets. What do you mean by that?

    • Joe Gilder

      The Oxford 911 chipset is specifically referring to the chipset on the firewire hard drive enclosure. If you’re planning to use an internal drive, then this really doesn’t apply to you. Good question!

  • Lia Abrams

    I just bought 1TB from iOmega I have a glyph that I havent touched yet most likely now I will not sell it. Thanks Joe!