DJ / Producer Tools: SSDs (Solid State Drives) – Wave of the Future? Should You Get One?

Seagate Pulsar solid state drive

Electronic musicians have always been at the forefront of the push for faster and more reliable computer systems. Live audio processing in particular pushes a system to its limits, and musicians are always looking for cost-effective ways to get better performance. However, there are a number of different factors involved, including CPU speed, RAM, hard drive speed, OS and software versions, and so on. Where can we best spend our money in order to get the best performance?

One option for improving your general system performance for relatively little money is to replace your main system hard disk drive (HDD) with a solid state drive (SSD) instead. SSDs have become more and more common in recent years as their prices have decreased, and they now come standard in some PC laptops and are available as an upgrade for just about any PC or Mac.

It seems clear that an SSD can give significant benefits in overall system performance, but it does seem to benefit some types of operations much more than others. Observers agree that rebooting your OS and launching new applications are both many times faster on an SSD-based system, but there is little specific information available about SSDs and audio performance. Is it a good idea for your computer music system? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons and see how the situation has changed most recently.

Price and capacity:

The first difference you’ll notice between SSDs and HDDs is the cost. Although they have become significantly cheaper in recent years, SSDs are still much more expensive on a per-gigabyte basis. For this reason, most people don’t try to replace their 500GB or 1TB internal hard drive with an SSD of the same size. Instead, they will buy a 128GB or 256GB SSD, which has plenty of room for operating system files and applications, and continue storing their user files and data on their HDD, which they may relocate to another drive bay, an external USB or FireWire case, or even to the optical bay of their laptop, replacing their internal CD/DVD drive. This setup allows you to benefit from the performance gains of having your apps and OS run from the SSD, while still having plenty of storage on the HDD for your projects.

Of course you should expect even better system performance if you simply install a 1TB SSD in our system and keep ALL of your files on there, but at the moment a 1TB SSD for your laptop is still well over US$1000 so some people probably won’t go that route until prices come down a bit more (although it should be noted that SSD prices have already dropped a LOT in the past few years). However, you won’t realize all the potential benefits of an SSD-equipped system with a smaller drive.What are those benefits exactly? That brings to our next topic…

Speed and performance:

There is no doubt that SSD drives are much faster than any HDD, somewhere between 50 and 100 times faster for many operations. The question is, how does this speed advantage translate into performance gains for your computer system?

If you install your OS and applications onto an SSD and use this as your boot drive, you will immediately notice a dramatic improvement in bootup times/loading the OS, as well as near-instantaneous launching of most applications. How are common audio tasks impacted though? It’s great if Traktor, Ableton, Logic, or whatever software you use starts up faster, but how much difference does that really make once you get going with your work?

For example, digital DJing is a fairly intensive task for most computers to handle, depending on how many tracks you’re playing, how many effects you’re using, and so on. However, a little research in the Serato support forums uncovered this from one of their support reps (posted March 2011):

Most internal hard drives are fast enough to handle normal audio playback, especially if you opt for 7200rpm drives for laptops. The advantage of SSD is the speed. But this would only really come into play in a DJ sense when you are running video files. However, SSD drives are so small that you would very quickly run out of space and need to get an external drive, which then defeats the purpose of having the fast drive. We’ve not seen much real world advantage yet with these drives. When the size of these drives goes over 500Gb then I assume this will change (although by then we may all be using higher quality/size files too, so it may be problematic).

So in summary, if you are DJing with MP3s or WAVs, go for a normal drive (try to get a 7200rpm if you can). If you are DJing with video – then be aware that you may find you run out of room very quickly with an SSD drive, and you may not even get any real advantage.

So the Serato team has seen no real performance gains from using SSDs for DJing it seems. I also checked with Native Instruments support in Berlin and got a similar response from them: they have seen no noticeable performance gains running Traktor and/or your music files from an SSD. (They also told me that they hadn’t seen any unexpected audio problems with SSDs yet, which was somewhat reassuring.)

Audio tasks where we might expect more of a gain include loading and playing DAW projects with many large audio tracks, or loading up many sampled instruments to use at the beginning of a session; these are both common tasks for multimedia composers for example. Even in these cases any performance gains are questionable though, because the hard disk speed is generally not the bottleneck. For example, I tried loading some very large Ableton projects from my HDD and from my SSD and found no difference at all in loading time, contrary to speculations I have heard on some forums and discussion groups. There may be some slight difference if you are loading gigantic projects with dozens of tracks, but I was unable to confirm this with anything I tried.

I also tried copying my Kontakt 5 library to my SSD and loading some large sampled instruments from there, and in this case I did see a measurable performance gain in terms of the amount of time it took to finish loading all the samples. This would be quite noticeable to composers, for example, many of whom load a very large DAW template containing dozens of sampled instruments at the beginning of their workday. However, this improvement in loading times wouldn’t have much impact on your workflow once you’ve loaded all your instruments at the beginning of a session. Also, you would not see a big gain from this unless you had a big enough SSD to hold most/all of your sample libraries, and this gets very expensive very quickly if you have a lot of libraries. (It should also be noted that the most recent version of Kontakt immediately loads and plays any sample that is called by the DAW even if the whole instrument isn’t completely loaded yet, thus making faster sample loading times somewhat irrelevant anyway.)

Overall it seems that the areas where you will see performance gains from installing an SSD are primarily in routine everyday tasks such as opening applications and other common OS operations, while the speed of many common audio processing jobs will remain similar. As the tech from Serato noted, video files are much bigger than audio files and you would potentially experience more benefit in video processing and loading operations, although again, you would need a very large SSD to store any significant amount of video there.

Should I buy one?

Using an SSD as your main/OS hard drive will make your whole system run faster and snappier, there is no doubt about that. And with 128GB SSD drives available now for under $150, it is a very affordable upgrade, perhaps one of the best things you can buy for your computer to enhance general performance. However, at more than $1000 for a 1TB drive, it seems that we haven’t quite reached the point where it makes sense to use SSDs for all audio tasks. A 7200rpm HDD can do just as good a job as your audio drive and is much cheaper. This is not to say that getting an SSD is a mistake, but if you are contemplating spending $1000 or more for a large SSD drive to store all your libraries/projects/DJ tracks, you would probably notice a bigger improvement by adding more RAM to your current setup or spending the money on a computer with a faster CPU.

If you currently have a 5400rpm HDD in your laptop (standard with MacBook Pros and many other laptop computers), you will likely see substantial performance benefits from upgrading it to a 7200rpm drive, and if you’re already taking the trouble to do this, you should at least consider upgrading it to an SSD instead. Just keep in mind the tradeoff between performance and storage space, though. If you get a 128GB SSD for your main drive, you will probably need secondary storage, either via an external drive or by moving your current HDD to your optical bay, using something like the OWC Data Doubler to mount it there.

Also remember that if you do any of these upgrades yourself, you will save a lot of money over having an authorized dealer do it, but you will also potentially void your computer’s warranty. If you are on a Mac, you might want to have a look at the excellent DIY installation videos at Other World Computing.

Special note on Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion:

The new Mac OS update was just released recently so I wanted to include a couple words about this. In general, the most recent versions of the Mac OS (Lion and Mountain Lion) use more RAM and system resources than ever before, so if you are using one of these systems you have a lot to gain by installing an SSD to speed up the OS, you will notice a big improvement in overall performance. However, as Mountain Lion is brand new, there are some potential pitfalls to be aware of. At least one major SSD manufacturer in particular is having issues with installing Mountain Lion on some of their SSD models, so if you are planning to use an SSD as your boot drive under OS 10.8, you should do a bit of Google searching first to determine if there are any potential issues to look out for. This should not be an issue if you are having an official Apple SSD installed.

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