Your Questions: Is It OK To DJ Off Of An External Hard Drive?

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Last updated 23 March, 2018

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Digital DJ Tips reader Jack messaged in: “I’m looking for advice regarding using external hard drives to DJ with. I am currently using a MacBook Pro and I am running out of storage space (I only have about 4GB free). I am unsure about upgrading to a larger internal SSD due to expense, but I am also unsure about using external hard drives in a live performance environment. What are your thoughts on this?”

Digital DJ Tips says…

It’s possible to play tunes from an external hard drive, but it introduces a number of potential issues: First, external hard drives can be yanked in a crowded and cramped DJ booth, which of course means playback grinds to a halt (I should know, because this has happened to me a few times when I first started DJing with a laptop). It’s embarrassing, and the worst part is it takes a while for your DJ software to recognise the external drive again when you plug it back in. That’s dead air and additional stress you wouldn’t want to deal with at a gig.

Second, since external hard drives are portable, they do get mishandled, either accidentally or when they get thrown around in your DJ bag. As a result, their reliability can be compromised over time. I have a 500GB external from 2014 that now refuses to work because its USB socket has got wobbly, and while it does power up, it’s no longer recognised by my MacBook Pro. Ouch – good thing I have a back up.

Third, external hard drives may have performance bottlenecks – older (or cheaper) hard drives have slower read / write speeds, and that sometimes results in slower track searches or analyses. Even newer USB 3.0 hard disks can suffer from slower track loading times – Joey uses Rekordbox DJ and he says there is a slight lag when loading a track from his external drive compared to loading from his internal drive.

You may be wondering: if DJing with external drives is so risky, then why do club DJs spin with thumb drives on CDJs? DJing with a USB stick in a media player is a different thing – gear like the CDJ-2000NXS2 / XDJ-RX2 / Denon DJ SC5000 Prime are built and tuned with software onboard that are made to specifically perform a single task: to play music from media like thumb drives, SD cards and CDs, nothing more. That’s why they are “specialist” tools.

With multi-tasking laptops that are used for a variety of different processes including Facebook, checking your mail, and clearing last week’s spreadsheet with your boss, it’s a different story, and that’s where things can potentially get a bit wonky.

Also, some thumb drives are hardier than others – the Corsair Flash Survivor Stealth is an example of a sturdy USB stick that can take a beating, or at least certainly more of a beating than your standard external hard drive.

The most foolproof solution is to have your DJ library on your laptop’s internal hard drive – this reduces the chances of your drive from failing due to poor treatment and handling, and it completely eliminates the “yanked USB drive” accident from ever happening. You also gain the benefit of the fastest possible read / write speed for your computer.

An external hard drive is good for storing your entire music collection, though. Since you won’t be DJing with all of the music in this collection, we advise that you keep your DJ library and music collection separate. Let’s say you’re a techno DJ: your DJ library, which should only consist of music that you spin with (eg tech house, minimal, obscure German techno 12″ rips) should exist on your DJ laptop. Your music collection, which consists of all of your music regardless of whether you spin with them or not (that includes your trap / future bass tunes and your Engelbert Humperdinck discography) can then exist on an external hard drive that you keep in a safe place.

This keeps your DJ laptop lean and reduces the chances of something going wrong if you were just reading data from your external drive.

Any hard drive failure stories to share? What external drive do you use to store or back up your collection in? Let us know in the comments below…

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