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Hard Drives and Audio – Software Considerations

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In our last hard drive tutorial we looked at the various physical aspects, from cables and connections to data transfer speeds. Today we'll dive into the software side of things. Do you know the difference between FAT32 and NTFS? Ever even heard of exFAT? Boot drives vs. media drives? If you are unsure about any of these terms and issues then read on!

Why Formatting Matters

The biggest concern with any hard drive from a software standpoint is how the drive is formatted. For those unaware, the formatting of a drive essentially tells the computer and the drive itself how data should be retrieved and stored. Typically, we never need to think about formatting because everything just works; until it goes wrong of course. With audio and other media focused fields, the formatting of the drive is a huge concern—especially when moving large data files between systems, which will inevitably happen.

The issues start to arise when we need to switch between systems, particularly Mac to PC and vise versa. Certain formatting schemes will simply not work on certain systems. Why? Because unfortunately everyone thinks their system is the best and the other guy should change. Take this scenario for example.

Imagine you did an on-location recording at a friends house on your brand new MacBook Pro. However, for mixing you needed the horse power of your beefy desktop PC. So to get the data to your PC you went and grabbed your old external hard drive that always worked with your Windows PC.

You plug it in to your Mac, and it shows up on the desktop. Perfect! Except when you go to drag your session over to the external drive the Mac says it cannot do it. What gives? Formatting, that's what!

Understanding Different Formats

In order to effectively move hard drives between different operating systems, we need to know how they operate. In this section we'll explore how drives are formatted in Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows.

Mac Formatting

"Yet Another Apple Logo" by Andrew on Flickr"Yet Another Apple Logo" by Andrew on Flickr"Yet Another Apple Logo" by Andrew on Flickr
"Yet Another Apple Logo" by Andrew on Flickr

The Mac OSX system utilizes Mac OS Extended as its primary means of drive formatting. While the formatting can come in different flavors, any drive formated for Mac OS Extended in some form will work on any other Mac without issue. So for those of you moving between various Macs, and not Mac to PC, this is the safest route to take.

Here are some considerations for the various forms of Mac OS Extended:

  • Journaled drives have an additional feature known as "journaling" included on them. This is essentially a record of all happenings on the drive which is used in case of power surges or some other improper system shut down.

    While non-journaled drives will enter a state of limbo on reboot from a power surge, a journaled drive will read the journal file and continue on its merry way. Journaling also eliminates disk scans from improper shut downs.

    Keep in mind however there is a theoretical (although negligible) slow down of disk write speed since the drive must constantly keep writing to the journal as well.

  • Mac drives tend to be case-sensitive, allowing for case sensitive file names. For example, "File.txt" and "file.txt" could be placed in the same folder without one erasing the other. More often than not, you will not need this type of formatting.

PC Formatting

"Installing Windows 7" by Alex W McCabe on Flickr"Installing Windows 7" by Alex W McCabe on Flickr"Installing Windows 7" by Alex W McCabe on Flickr
"Installing Windows 7" by Alex W McCabe on Flickr

The PC (specifically Windows) architecture for hard drive formats varies greatly from the OSX system. Generally, you will almost always see a drive formated for PC using the NTFS formatting. This format originally started with Windows NT and has been the default standard since.

This format will not work on Macs. So if you think you may be switching back and forth between a PC and a Mac, avoid NTFS.

However for those of you in a PC only world, here are some other thoughts:

  • While Mac OS Extended has options for journaling and case sensitivity, the NTFS system does not give such options. Why? Because the choices are already in place by default. A NTFS drive will always be journaled and will always be case sensitive.

    "But wait, I can't make a 'File.txt' and 'file.txt' in the same folder! You said NTFS is case sensitive!" I did because it is true. However Windows makes things case insensitive. If you were using some other system you would actually be able to write case sensitive files.

  • The NTFS system will not work on a Mac period. Er, well not at least for writing files. OSX can read files from a NTFS drive and copy them to its own OS Extended drive. This means you could record on a PC laptop and work on a Mac desktop by coping the files over but do not expect the Mac to put files back onto the NTFS drive.

Hybrid Formatting

So for the rest of you who live in a Mac and PC world (which I imagine is quite a few), what options are there? The most obvious method people try is to partition your drive.

For those unaware, partitioning essentially creates two virtual drives with different file systems on the same physical drive. This way you could have an OS Extended drive and an NTFS drive at the same time. Perfect right? Not so fast!

If you need one Mac and one PC drive, with absolutely no reason to move files between them. Then yes this set up will work. But remember, the file systems are almost completely incompatible (see second bullet point above for exceptions) so your computers will not be able to work effectively with both halves of the drive.

So what options are left? Maybe these:

  • FAT32: This formatting scheme can be read and written to on both Mac and PC. However it does come with some limitations. The FAT32 format only allows for files up to four gigs in size, which for everyday use is not an issue. For audio or video however it's a huge risk.

    Some of you might be thinking, "But my individual audio files are never more than four gigs in a recording session!" and you are probably right. However were you recording at 16/44.1? As soon as you start recording at the higher quality settings (which, by the way, you should be!) you will very quickly pass that four gig file size limit.

    A 24/96 non-stop recording of a orchestra concert will be absolutely huge! Furthermore FAT32 also is a non-journaled file system which means your precious recording data is not safe in the event of a power surge, improper shutdown, early ejection, etc.

  • exFAT: Where FAT32 leaves much to be desired, exFAT answers some of the problems. Unlike FAT32, exFAT is not limited by file size (its theoretical limit is 16 exbibytes) which can allow easy transfer of even the largest sessions between Mac and PC.

    The downside? Just like the other FAT systems, it is a non-journaled setup, and being relatively new, doesn't always work with every hard drive. Some drives play fine while others have trouble maintaining connection.

So What's the Best Option?

While there is no one perfect solution, there are more optimal setups for drive formatting.

  • If you are running only PC or Mac, use the native file systems NTFS or OS Extended and avoid all other kinds of hassle.
  • For hybrid workflows, make sure your work drives (the ones you record to) are formatted for the native operating system. Then setup a transfer drive (either internal or external) that is formatted as exFAT.

    The trick however is to make sure you never start working from the exFAT drive, always record the data to a native drive. While it theoretically should be fine, if you loose all of your hard work on a mix, or worse loose all the data permanently, you are going to be in a sore place really quickly.

  • Another important tip is to make sure your work drive and system drive (the one Windows or OSX is installed on) are separate drives. The computer reads/writes a lot of information from the hard drive to keep the operating system running on its own. When you start recording audio data you do not want that information interrupted in the slightest just because someone put a funny picture in your Dropbox folder. Keep your work drives and operating system drives separate!


While ideally everything should just work, in a Mac and PC based industry that will likely never be the case. The formatting of your hard drives greatly impacts your workflow and what you are able to do and not do.

The last thing you want to happen on a important session is to realize you need to reformat a hard drive to get the data you need. By the time you are done transferring your files and reformatting, it will probably be too late and the client may be long gone and mad.

Save yourself from future headaches and set up your drives now, and always keep a backup just in case.

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