Studio Sense: Upgrade With Solid State Drives

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With a fresh new year upon us and a crippling recession now in our rear view mirrors, what are audio engineers everywhere looking to do? Raise their rig, eliminate their Achilles’s heels and loosen up the bottlenecks. It’s about time for some cost-conscious gear upgrades. I've recently implemented solid state drives (SSD) in my DAW as a simple, inexpensive and efficient way to up my game without pain.

For my Mac Pro tower I replaced my system drive with a 120 GB 6G (meaning up to 6 Gb/s data rate, 3 Gb/s are also available) SSD for only $120. Larger drives are available (up to 480 GB), but I plan to use this drive for OS and apps, so the smaller size is enough for me to still have an adequate amount of unused space (about two-thirds capacity is recommended). I also added another 120 GB SSD to try out for audio data/sessions. My Mac Pro cannot utilize the full 6G speed of the SSD, running at 3G, but rumor has it that next generation Macs will be 6G capable and I can always move the drives.

The little 2.5-inch SSD will not directly fit the Pro’s 3.5-inch SATA drive slots, so a bracket/tray-adapter is required for an additional $20. Even so, installation was still very quick and easy, with the slide-out drive trays of the Pro (there's room for four) being quite ergonomic, nice and snug, with all the pins/connectors lining up just right.

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Once I created a partition on the SSD, I made a clone of my current system drive using third-party software Carbon Copy Cloner (bombich.com). Once I selected the new SSD as my boot-up drive and restarted, I was surprised by sub-par performance the first time around, but that’s because there's lots of background disk activity initially (like Spotlight generating its index). However, upon the next start up, accessing the desktop is much faster than ever before. I now routinely get there in less than 30 seconds.

If there's any problem at all with a new SSD, it will likely be with disk permissions, which may require repairing with Disk Utility. Once that was out of the way, I realized faster data transfers, sessions opened much more quickly and even better DAW performance. When coupled with adequate RAM (which is really affordable these days), I had fewer hiccups, pauses and dropouts even when opening new tracks, instantiating plug-ins, drawing fades and making edits, all while the audio kept rolling without disruption. Sessions open quicker now too; a smallish one GB session (at 44.1 kHz), loaded with Audio Unit plugs and lots of edits/automation opened in about three seconds! Rendering “Bounce to Disc” takes about half the time it did before. No more micro-breaks for me!

The concept seems too good to be true: faster performance (up to 7x faster read and 6x faster write speeds than 5400 RPM HDDs), no moving parts, less noise, less heat, less current usage, more reliable long term storage (up to 100x better data protection than HDDs without exercising), no defragging, smaller size — so what's the catch? Longevity is reportedly limited to about 10,000 erase/write cycles and while some believe that is significant, others disagree. Some manufacturers make drives that accept a TRIM command, that better utilizes disc space than typical deleting. SLC (Single Layer Cell) SSD drives should last much longer than MLC (Multi-Layer Cell) SSD drives. Drives with good Wear Leveling characteristics juggle the use of disc space (avoiding troublesome hotspots) better in the long term. Also, disc defragmenting is not recommended unless it’s performed by a program that is customized for SSDs.

I also picked up a nifty little, in-line, universal drive adapter that allows connecting most any drive (ATA IDE, SATA, 2.5-inch, 3.5-inch, etc.) as an external drive with a USB 3.0 connection, with the necessary power connections and everything. It makes the routine swapping out of drives more like changing media: fast and efficient (just be careful to stay grounded to avoid static electricity discharge which can damage drives). Road warriors might want to check out the handy drive docks that make this app a bit more elegant for bringing large sessions along; they handle 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drives, up to 4 TB in size, hot swappable, with FireWire and USB 3.0 for less than $100.

It's easy to focus solely on sound in the studio, but today we're data wranglers, so check out these recommended products, make sure there’s plenty of horsepower in that computer and preserve that herd like a good cowboy.

Rob Tavaglione is the owner/operator of Charlotte NC’s Catalyst Recording and a regular contributor to PAR.http://www.catalystrecording.com