Want to speed up the feel of your DAW computer? This will do it
By Phil O'Keefe
I recently rebuilt my main DAW PC. It was actually long overdue - I last did so in 2006. While I could have built something even more powerful, the new configuration is no slouch in that regard, with a quad core 3.5 GHz i7 processor and 16GB of RAM. Most DAW users know how important a fast CPU and lots of RAM are to overall system performance. The faster and more powerful your CPU is, the more plugins and processing it can run simultaneously. Having plenty of RAM is important for plugins, audio caching and virtual instruments, and adding more RAM to your system is often one of the best upgrades you can make to it. Without enough RAM to hold everything in memory, your system is forced to shuttle data back and forth from one of your hard drives, which are considerably slower than RAM memory is.
Of course, it's always a good idea to have at least two hard drives - one for your operating system and programs, and at least one more for audio data - and a third if possible for sample data and other library related stuff from any virtual instruments you may have. My new computer system initially had two drives, and while it is capable of "doing more" than the old system, in some respects it didn't really feel much faster. Part of that is responsiveness - how fast the computer responds to what you ask it to do, and how long it takes to complete the task - and that's not just a matter of CPU and RAM. For example, when you power up the computer, how long does it take to boot up and load everything before it's ready to go? Another example: I have quite a few plugins, and when I launch Pro Tools, it can take a while to load them all. That means that every time I need to either relaunch the program or worse, reboot the computer, I'm going to have at least a few minutes of sitting around waiting for the computer to get ready in store for me. With Solid State Drives (SSD) having started to come down in price, and with their promise of much faster read and write speeds, I decided to give one a try - so I ordered and installed a 120GB M500 mSATA drive from Crucial into my computer as the new system (C:\) drive.
What You Need To Know
- The Crucial M500 series is available in mSATA as well as the more commonly used 2.5" SATA drive formats. If your board doesn't support mSATA (and many/most do not), you should opt for the more traditional 2.5" drive format. Performance and prices should be the same regardless of which format you use.
- The Crucial M500 series Solid-State Drives are available in sizes ranging from 120GB all the way up to 1TB.
- The Crucial M500 series Solid-State Drives have a maximum sequential read speed of up to 500MB/s, and maximum sequential write speeds of up to 130MB/s.
- The M500 mSATA drives support SATA 6Gb/s speeds, and are also compatible with SATA 3Gb/s interfaces. While the drive supports 6Gb/s speeds, the mSATA slot on my JetWay JNAF93-Q77 motherboard only supports 3Gb/s, so your speeds could potentially be even faster than the test system.
- Compared to many other Solid-State Drives, the Crucial M500 series compares favorably in terms of reliability, performance, and price per gigabyte of storage.
- Installation was relatively simple - just a matter of plugging the mSATA drive into the slot on the motherboard and then using the two supplied screws to secure it in place. Rather than using a disk mirroring program to move the operating system on to the new drive, I started fresh, with a completely new install of the OS (Windows 7 64 bit, Service Pack 1) and all programs.
- Operating system and program files are ideally suited for storage on a SSD. Due to the way a SSD works, and their relatively limited number of read / write cycles compared to mechanical disks, you should try to avoid large files that are often re-written, or anything that will do heavy writing to the drive. Once my operating system was installed on the SSD, I moved my temp folders, download folder and other directories of that nature to a mechanical hard drive to minimize the amount of writing the system does to the SSD.
- The drive makes the subjective speed of the entire system "feel" much faster. Some programs now load practically instantaneously, while even large programs like Pro Tools and my large plugin collection now load in seconds, as opposed to the several minutes that used to be required.
- One big benefit of a SSD is the lack of noise. As in "none" - this drive is dead quiet, without the whirling noise and clicks that are common with mechanical / magnetic disk drives.
- The Crucial M500 series of SSDs carry a limited three year warranty.
- While improvements have been made in terms of longevity, most SSDs have shorter lifespans than their magnetic cousins. This is most important when it comes to writing to the drive - the more you do, the shorter the remaining lifespan. The write performance of the Crucial M500 series is quite good, with the 120GB version expected to provide up to 72TB of total bytes written over the course of its projected lifespan.
- Due to the inclusion of TRIM command functions that immediately delete files from the disk when erased, modern operating systems (Windows 7 / Mac OS X 10.6.8, or later) are recommended, and older operating systems are not ideal for use with a SSD. You'll also need to modify your habits a bit - you should never wipe or defragment a Solid-State Drive. Since there is no mechanical movement required, and a SSD can quickly read from whatever sectors data is written to, there is no improvement from putting the data all in one sequential location on the drive like there is with a mechanical drive. Since multiple read / write cycles are involved with defragmenting, it should be avoided with a SSD.
- Solid State Drives still cost much more per GB than magnetic drives, and only recently have TB-sized SSDs started becoming widely available. If you need to maximize the amount of storage space per dollar, or need very large, multi-terabyte drives, magnetic drives may still be your best option.
- You should leave about 25% of the drive's capacity unused for optimal write performance - as you get closer to full capacity, data write speeds will tend to slow. This is true with any solid state drive, and not just a concern with the Crucial M500 series.
I've waited a long time to dive in to the world of SSD drives. Cost was a consideration that initially held me back, and while costs have come down appreciably in recent months, Solid-State Drives are still significantly more expensive than traditional magnetic platter based hard drives. Now that I've tried a SSD, I can't wait until they refine them to the point where they make mechanical hard disks a thing of the past. Imagine a DAW computer with nearly instant loading of all audio files, and absolutely zero mechanical noise due to the onboard hard drives!
While they're currently not well-suited for use as an audio drive for a DAW system due to the amount of read / write cycles involved, they make a excellent system drive for your programs and operating system, and greatly speed up the overall system performance, while drastically decreasing load times and improving the subjective "feel" of the system's speed and responsiveness. Solid-State Drives like the excellent Crucial M500 series may also be a good choice for some users for use for storing sample libraries, and will greatly increase the speed your data loads into your virtual instruments, although at this time, the cost per GB compared to traditional hard drives makes them quite expensive for this purpose, especially if you have large sample libraries.
Solid-State Drives are still not ideal for everything, but with a little research on your part and careful consideration of their benefits and drawbacks and best uses, adding one to your system can make a considerable difference in speed and performance. After trying the Crucial M500 mSATA drive, I can tell you this much - I won't be using anything else other than Solid-State Drives for my system drives in the future. I eagerly look forward to continued improvements in SSD speed, longevity and cost per gigabyte of storage, and await the day when those improvements make Solid-State Drives a reliable, cost-effective option for use anywhere a hard drive is required. We're not quite there yet, but if the Crucial M500 is any indication, we're getting close, and these drives are definitely worthy of your consideration as a system drive - if you have not tried one yet, you're in for a pleasantly shocking surprise. They really do make a big difference!
Crucial M500 120GB mSATA Solid-State Drive ($123.99 MSRP, about $76.00 "street")
Crucial's M500 Solid-State Drive web page
Capacity (Unformatted): 120GB (240GB, 480GB and 960GB sizes also available)
Interface: SATA 6Gb/s (SATA 3GB/s compatible)
Sustained Sequential Read up to (128k transfer): 500MB/s
Sustained Sequential Write up to (128k transfer): 130MB/s
Random Read up to (4k transfer): 62,000 IOPS
Random Write up to (4k transfer): 35,000 IOPS
Form Factor: 2.5-inch, m-SATA, and M.2
NAND: 20nm Micron MLC NND
Life Expectancy: 1.2 million hours mean time to failure (MTTF)
Warranty: Limited three year warranty
Endurance: 72TB total bytes written (TBW), equal to 40GB per day for 5 years
Operating Temperature: 0°C to 70°C
Compliance: RoHS, CE, FCC, UL, BSMI, C-TICK, KCC RRL, W.E.E.E., TUV VCCI, IC
Firmware: FIeld upgradable firmware
Product Health Monitoring: Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART) commands
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.