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Are you hard on your hard disk? Is the way you record damaging your system?

A post by David Mellor
Friday January 29, 2010
An RP reader asks whether freezing tracks that use plug-ins is bad for your hard disk? Would it be better to bounce them?
Are you hard on your hard disk? Is the way you record damaging your system?

Here's a question from an Audio Masterclass reader...

"Actually, this is a response to your article about using as many plug-ins as you like. I'd heard about using this function in Logic. Experienced producers have said to me that this technique is extremely bad for the internal hard drive. The drive has to work that much harder that it won't last very long. I think that Ableton also has a freeze function. I have been advised to actually bounce the tracks instead of freezing them. Does anyone agree?"

Thanks, John, Amsterdam, Holland.

First let's recap on the freezing technique...

Imagine you have a song that uses loads of software instruments and plug-ins. You try to add another plug-in, but your computer is already working to its maximum so everything grinds to a halt. Some DAWs have a function where you can 'freeze' a track, which records the audio on that track to disk, complete with all effects, so that the system doesn't have to run the instrument or plug-ins on that track. You can unfreeze if you need to later on.

Freezing can allow you to get more from your system, but apparently it's bad for the hard disk. Can this be true?

Well we would have to say that only a well-conducted test would give a reliable answer to this. But we can certainly speculate what the outcome would be.

Let's think about what the hard disk is doing when you play your song...

Your song consists of a number of audio files playing simultaneously. Each file could be a continuous string of binary digits on the disk. However since all the files have to play at the same time, the heads of the disk drive have to skip about to pick up a bit of one track, a bit of another etc.

This is absolutely normal behavior for a hard disk. It's what you bought it for.

If you are playing by the rules and reserve a separate disk for audio, then software instruments and plug-ins don't affect that disk at all. They run from the system disk, and in fact hardly make any demands on that since they are loaded into the computer's memory.

But what if you freeze a track, what difference does that make to your audio disk?

Well, since freezing a track means recording it to disk complete with instrument and/or plug-ins, there's another track on the disk that needs to be played.

In theory, this should mean that the original track does not now need to be played, but you will find that in some DAWs even muted tracks consume system resources. Still, it's only one more track and this will hardly make any difference unless you really have a lot of tracks in your song.

So freezing shouldn't give the hard disk much more work to do, if any. What about bouncing?

Well bouncing is what you would have to do if your DAW didn't have a freeze function. And once you had bounced a track complete with instrument and/or plug-ins, it wouldn't be any different to if you had frozen it.

So our opinion is that neither freezing nor bouncing will affect the disk in any significant way.

What will affect your disk however is editing...

When you edit a track, you create a discontinuity in the data and the heads of the disk will have to skip about more than they did previously.

If you edit many tracks into a lot of short segments and shuffle them about, then the disk will have much more work to do.

Even so, that's what a hard disk is designed for. It is difficult to overload a hard disk with work because the manufacturer would have to be pretty stupid to allow that to happen. The disk will simply reach its maximum work rate then go no faster.

All that skipping about of the heads could shorten the life of the disk, but disks are cheap these days and as long as you have a backup or your data, it doesn't really matter if you have the occasional failure, say once every few months or so.

But...

Different people have different experiences. It is quite possible that we have overlooked something that is affecting the disk in an unexpected way.

We would love to hear your thoughts on whether the way you use your DAW can stress or damage the hard disk. Discussion below...

A post by David Mellor
Friday January 29, 2010 ARCHIVE
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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