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!

163 Responses to “12 Home Studio Necessities #7 – External/Dedicated Hard Drive”

  1. pianoman

    I’ve never understood the reasoning that hdd’s should be 7200rpm to handle audio recording. That is not true at all. There are many reasons there can be troubles with a DAW, but hard drive speed is usually at the very bottom of the list.

    My current main DAW is an Asus i7 laptop, running Windows 10, with 16GB of ram, and a 1TB Western Digital Blue 5400rpm hdd. That one drive handles everything with no issues at all, (OS overhead + audio). The only thing I did, (mostly for my own sanity), was split the drive into three partitions – OS/Software/Audio project folders. I’m able to stress test the system to a max of 48 audio tracks at 48/24 before I start getting any hiccups at all.

    The key to setting up a good DAW is learning to “fine tune” the OS, (both Windows and macOS), so the focus is on AUDIO processing. A very common mistake beginners make is thinking their DAW can also be used for gaming, or web browsing, or whatever. A DAW has *one* job, and *one* job only – Recording and Processing audio. Everything else should be shunted to a second computer. It’s amazing how much can be done with just about any “mainstream” hardware when the OS is properly configured.

    • Howie Lambert

      Computer and hard drive circuits have gotten so fast, even one internal 5400 drive can now be used for a DAW.

      However, before the mid-2000s, most “off the rack” desktop computers used as a DAW weren’t fast enough to use anything under 7200 rpm drives and, even then, an external 7200 rpm drive was recommended to maximize your software’s capabilities.

      Laptops were exponentially worse. I don’t think 2.5″ 7200 rpm HDDs were available back then, so they all came stock with a 5400 rpm drive. I had a respectable laptop for the time. It only had one RAM slot and the biggest stick I could buy was 540 MB. Even with WinXP optimized for DAW and a 911 Oxford external Firewire 7200 rpm drive exclusively for my project files, I could still only get maybe 8 minimally processed tracks before getting playback glitches.

  2. Freddie Bleeko

    Great info, I’ve been seriously considering this concept !!..

    How much pressure (or “CPU stress”) do you think is actually going to be relieved from the Host’s duties?.. In my case the host will be an HP-2000 laptop with AMD E2-3000 1.65GHz x 8GB Ram x 5400rpm’s & I’m going to be running with Reaper as my first DAW..

    Streaming all my audio from an external drive rather than straining my already “middle of the road” laptop makes perfect sense to me.. However, I’m hearing a lot of the “Forum Guru’s” say that it doesn’t really take that much heat off of your host/laptop..
    Can you clear this debate up for me!!?.. I just can’t feature how shifting the streaming duties from my HP’s 5400rpm drive to a 7200rpm external drive “wouldn’t” make at least a slightly noticeable difference that benefitted the host !?.. =P

    Thx & Cheers..

    • Joe Gilder

      Sorry. I already spelled it out in the article. It’s the way every single audio engineer I know does it. I think you should stop debating, buy a drive, and start making music! 🙂

    • pianoman

      Honestly, your biggest issue will be the CPU of that laptop… The E2-3000 is an “entry level” “System on a Chip” CPU, equivalent to at best a low end Intel i3… That class of CPU is not really made for use in a DAW. While you should be able to record with it, don’t expect stellar performance, and if possible you really should think about stepping up to at least a ‘midrange” system, (with either an Intel i5 or perhaps an AMD A10), with an external Audio interface.

  3. thomas

    I’m sure this has been answered time and time before but I can’t find the answer anywhere. I have a mac mini which I put 16GB of ram in. I also have a 2TB Glyph Studio External HD. I use the old duet firewire inter face, Logic as my DAW, Maschine Mikro and the Komplete 64 key keyboard as my controllers. I don’t know how to configure everything. Should i just use logic on my mac mini and all of Native Instruments on my glyph? Do I keep maschine, kontakt, massive, komplete kontrol, etc. on my mac mini but put all samples and plug ins on glyph?

  4. MF

    Thanks! Great vid!

    Something I don’t understand….I’ve always thought that a HARD DRIVE is JUST storage and has no actual processing in it? When audio is being streamed in a session isn’t that now housed on your RAM for quicker access? Why does an external/dedicated STORAGE drive affect your processor/computer workload? Just a little confused how it works….Thanks!

  5. Rami Hayyat

    Hi, a friend has a glyph studio ext drive 7200 rpm firewire connected to laptop. When recording to external drive he hears cracking sound like a bad cable but doesnt hear it when recording to internal drive. He replaced the cables but same results. Any ideas?

    • Joe Gilder

      Sorry, not sure what that is. Could be bad power supply. Running on bus power isn’t usually recommended. Can cause noises.

  6. David Biton

    is it ok to use EHD that have other data stored in it and not only the audio projects ?i was attempting few years ago when i got it to run garageband project directly from EHD and it was less reliable than the iMac internal drive.i am starting to get the “disk to slow” thing…if i will move all the project to EHD and keep only the file i am working on in the iMac drive will help?

    • Joe Gilder

      Yeah it’s fine as long a the hard drive isn’t close to being full. My guess is you just used a slow hard drive when you were getting the slow hard drive message.

      • David Biton

        HD is 7200 rpm,i was thinking maybe when the projects adds up to 30 or more in the projects folder at the computer hard drive it can make it slow,it happened lately when i was using plugins for mastering, maybe it is the 4gb RAM that can’t keep up

  7. Boo Bidy Bop

    what if i wanted to use a hard drive from an old computer as an external? how would i go about prepping and installing it?

  8. Kerrie Garside

    Thanks for this info – I’m a novice recorder – generally putting down guides for my songs before the studio but I’ve been struggling with all sorts of freezes and I think this is my answer. I use a MacBook pro (a few years old) and am getting a lot of projects happening.
    So to be clear (I’m not especially geeky): I buy a external HD, plug it in and when the project asks me where to save it to, I choose the EHD, then work away as normal?

    • Joe Gilder

      You can STORE them on flash drives, but I wouldn’t run your sessions from a flash drive. Not really fast enough for streaming multiple tracks of audio.

  9. Pablo Ferrigno


    I have two external Thunderbolt SSD’s that I use for Sample streaming (one for Komplete and one for East West), and a Thunderbolt audio interface. There are only 2 Thunderbolt ports on my Macbook, but fortunately my audio interface has an extra port for daisy chaining so I have one of my SSD’s on that.

    I’m all covered as far as streaming but not for handling the Audio Projects… I currently stream them from my internal SSD (the OS hard drive), so eventually this is probably going to give me trouble. I would like to get an additional SSD for my projects but I’m all out of Thunderbolt Ports.

    Would you recommend (based solely on the best performance):

    a) Getting a Thunderbolt Hub with a couple more ports, or:

    b) doing a partition on one of my SSD’s for Projects? I have a lot of extra space on one of them (up to 300 GB), so I could use that extra space for streaming Audio Projects.

    c) getting a USB 3.0 SSD and use that for recording.

    The Thunderbolt Hub is about $200-300… of course I would like to save money but not if it’s not going to be the best solution.

  10. CH82

    Hello, first of all great article! Thank You!
    My question is:
    I’m Running Logic X from my Computer. I was wondering if I could keep my NI Komplete Ultimate 9 on the External HD where I would store my Recordings? Reason being, my MacBookAir doesn’t have enough Storage space for the NI Software alone. I’m just not sure how to set this up so it will function smoothly. Any suggestions for how I should set this up? Am I on the right track? Thanks for your time and knowledge.

    My Computer:
    I have a MacBookAir (mid 2013)
    Memory: 4GB 1600MHz DDR3,
    Processor: 1.3GHz Intel Core i5

    Storage Capacity: 121GB

  11. Angelo Mante

    Hey man! So, what about virtual instruments? The way I’m now setup, I actually have my DAWs on my system drives AND I save my sessions to my system drive. But I use my external drive for all of my virtual instruments. This is how a friend of mine in the audio industry recommended I set things up, unless I somehow misunderstood. Does this sound like a suitable setup?

    • Angelo Mante

      More specifically, I’m running Logic and Maschine from my iMac’s system drive, but I have Komplete and some other VSTs on my external drive. I save both my Maschine and Logic projects on my system drive.

    • Joe Gilder

      Sorry there are thousands of drives on the market. You’ll have to research, etc. I personally use the ones over at

  12. Josh

    Really good article I learned a lot but my question is I am trying to export files from the Presonus capture software from my church to put them on my computer using studio one. Would the external hard drive be a great middleman to Transfer the tracks ?

  13. Thomas Farbon

    Hi Joe, thanks for you article helped me a lot!just about to buy a second hand presonus 16.4.2 (not the new ai) but my laptop only has usb 3.0 …no firewire… can I daisy the mixer to a hard drive via firewire and then the hard drive to computer via usb 3? Or do I need tu buy a new computer.

    • Joe Gilder

      You will need to find a way to get firewire into your computer. There are lots of firewire cards on the market you can get, but it completely depends on your computer and a lot of other factors, so you might want to consult with a computer expert/store.

  14. 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.

  15. 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! 🙂

  16. 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?

  17. 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?


    • Bobby Duracel

      I use Maschine Studio and Komplete 10 Ultimate – so I do very little audio in – and simply moving my project and sample library to an external drive (away from my internal, very fast, SSD) made the projects stream MUCH more smoothly, without the CPU meter spikes and audio dropouts. It helps with “realtime performance”.


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