You are here

Q. Is it safe to defragment hard drives containing audio?

Norton Speed Disk, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting hard drive and round up scattered file fragments.Norton Speed Disk, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting hard drive and round up scattered file fragments.

What is the situation with defragmenting audio drives? I don't generally use long streams of audio for multitrack recording, preferring to drop samples into my sequencer (if you see what I mean). I'm sure that defragging would speed up audio access, but I want to make sure before I attempt anything.

Paul Damian

Martin Walker replies: All hard drives get fragmented, simply because we all have occasion to delete files. Once there is a gap in the drive where a file used to be stored, the next time you save any file it may use this gap to store part of its data, and then store the remainder in another empty part of the drive. In time, the contents of the drive can therefore become extremely 'fragmented', and individual files may end up split into small chunks scattered about on the disk. It can take noticeably longer to read and write files on a badly fragmented drive, simply because the read/write heads have to jump about between the individual fragments, rather than smoothly moving through a single contiguous file.

If you run a defragmentation utility program, it simply finds every fragmented file on the drive, and then reorders and rewrites all the data more neatly. This ensures that existing files can be read in the shortest time possible, and that there are no gaps in the existing data to slow down future saves. In the case of multitrack audio recording a fully defragmented drive will not only be faster, but may let you squeeze another track or two out of your audio sequencer. The only difference between long continuous audio takes and shorter sample loops as far as fragmentation is concerned is that the longer your files are, the more potential they have to become fragmented.

You need have no worries about defragmenting any hard drive (audio or not), since many safeguards are built in to ensure that even in the event of a computer crash or power cut during the defragmentation process, no data will be lost. Since hard‑drive performance is degraded if there are any fragmented files, some musicians take defragmentation to ridiculous extremes, running utilities after each and every audio take (just to make sure). This is taking things a bit too far, and once a week or even once a month is normally quite sufficient (depending on how many files you save of course, and how full your drive is). Using a separate drive (or a separate partition on the same drive) makes it quicker and easier to defragment your audio data on a regular basis without involving the operating system and application files too (although these will also benefit from occasional 'defragging' as well).

Various defragmentation utilities are available: if you have a PC you will already have the Microsoft one (in the System Tools folder of Accessories). The Windows 98 version not only defragments the files, but keeps a log of how often files are accessed, so that it can also re‑order the files as well. The ones that are most frequently accessed are placed towards the outside of the drive, so that they can be read even more quickly. Files that are frequently modified need to be placed on the inside: this is because the drive fills up from the outside in, and therefore modifying a file stored near the outside will always cause a gap and future fragmentation.

The only disadvantage of reordering every file on a drive is that it takes much longer than simply defragmenting the files themselves. If your drive has never been defragmented it may take an hour or more to move the data, depending on how many gigabytes of data you have already stored on it. This is why many people use the excellent Speed Disk utility supplied as part of Norton Utilities, which works much faster. I 'defrag' my drives about once a week, and it never takes longer than about 10 to 15 minutes.