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!

  • dazed and confused

    Hi; I used to do this with my Pro Tools Le 8 (and Mbox 2) on Windows XP Pro (7200 rpm on the desktop and the same with my external drive.) Now I have computer issues and before investing in a new computer or a new DAW I need to know what’s better on at least this issue (if I need 7200 rpms on everything or just the external.) If you can recommend a DAW that is similar to Le 8 but not too complicated that would be great, too.

    • Joe Gilder

      7200 is recommended. I really love Presonus Studio One. They’re all complicated on some level. but they almost have to be…so that they can do all the things we need them to do.

  • Vale

    Oh, and thanks and hello!. (sorry about that)

  • Vale

    First of all, i do not work with soud, music or recording. I landed here
    because i have this question and need it answered. I usually play music
    while working or studying on my laptop. I have most of my files,
    including my really enormous music library on an external drive. I
    launch my favorite music player and load music directly from this drive,
    and i do it practicallly every day, for a good 8 hours. Is this bad for
    my external drive?

    • Joe Gilder

      Nope. Just keep a backup, since it’s a mechanical device and will inevitably fail one day. But you’re using it exactly like it was meant to be used! :)

  • Aquasongster

    What if I’m “all in” on a project with about a dozen tracks, and my system is starting to bog down? What can I do with an external in this case?

    • Joe Gilder

      An external might help. Not sure what you’re asking.

    • TSM

      Try moving your completed tracks and saving any subsequent tracks to your external drive. Freeing up space on your system might help it be less “bogged down”.

      • Aquasongster

        Thanks for the reply.. I’m going to try that.

  • Fintan Larpoon

    Hi. I have a question that I just can’t find an answer for, maybe you could help? I mainly make beats and don’t record that much. I’m wondering if I should buy a external hd dedicated to all my samples and vst sound libraries and a different external hd for my projects. But if I’m not doing multitrack recording ect. Perhaps I don’t need a different external hd for projects. I could just use the same hd for samples and projects? I understand it’s not the best solution because of the same hd reading and writing ect but as I’m not recording I could perhaps get away with it?


    • Joe Gilder

      It’s the same principle really, you’re still streaming a bunch of audio samples, etc.