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When Defragmenting Really Helps
May 2008

The Problem
The other night I was using Band In A Box (PG Music), ForteDXi Soft Synthesizer (Coyote Electronics) and Digidesign Mbox on a PC to write some songs. After an hour of two of numerous song changes and auditioning many styles a few audio glitches started (clicks and pauses on play). A little while later the bass disappeared altogether while all the other instruments played on. Then the middle chorus soloist track I was working on refused to play at all. A few minutes later other instruments started disappearing and all I could hear was a faint reverb sound.

The Solution
It was definitely time to defragment my disk drives. The programs and songs are stored on one drive and a large library of sound samples (including Band In A Box Real Drums and Instruments) are on a second drive. After 4 hours the 2 disks were defragmented and hey presto all the instruments returned to normal and I was back to work with perfectly smooth audio performance.

Why Defragment?
When Windows is writing a file to the disk, it looks for a suitable piece of free space in which to store it. What happens, then, when you copy a 50MB audio file to the disk and the biggest slice of free space is only 30MB? To accommodate the file, Windows writes the first part of the file in one section of the disk and then scouts around for other places to store the rest of the file. The end result is that a single file may be stored in several chunks scattered about the disk.
Defragmenting, is the process of reorganizing all data on a hard-disk drive so that each file (e.g. an audio track) is arranged into a single uninterrupted, or contiguous, location on the disk.
Many believe that modern PC’s don’t need defragging and for the majority of home and office computer applications this may be true. However if you use your PC for creating music or video then in my experience frequent defragging is essential for 2 reasons:
1. Smooth Audio - Music files are typically at least 50 MB (4 minute bass guitar track at 44.1 Khz) whereas a two page Word document may be only around 50 KB (a thousandth of the size). When the sequencer on a PC plays a complete song with say 15 simultaneous tracks (a total of around 750 MB) then this huge amount of data must be easily and instantaneously accessed by the PC processor otherwise audio glitches or worse will be heard.
2. Disk failure - should a hard drive fail, the likelihood of successfully recovering data from the dead or damaged drive improves significantly if the data is contiguous rather than randomly scattered about the drive platters.

Defragging your Disk Drive
Before you use the Defragger – it is good idea to first clean your browser's temporary file cache and empty the Recycle Bin. The standard Windows XP Disk Defragmenter program is stored under programs\accessories\system tools.

Disk Defragmenter 1

When you select a volume (disk drive) and then click on the Analyze button this program will assess your disk drive’s degree of fragmentation and then show you a colored picture bar with red stripes indicating the degree of fragmentation. It also pops up a box saying whether you should defragment your disk or not. In the above example the disk is significantly fragmented. Even if Windows indicates that you don’t need to defragment the disk – if there are many red lines on this diagram or many white lines (indicating blank space where files have been deleted) then in my experience it still pays to defragment. Defragmentation cannot harm your music computer – it can only improve its performance.
If you are recording live musicians and typically recording many takes of the each instrument and deleting aborted takes then you may consider defragging your disks every day. Before every recording session it always pays to defragment all drives regardless of how recently the job was done. You simply cannot afford (professionally or practically) to stop an artist half way through a recording session because the audio starts glitching in their headphones.

Disk Defragmenter 2

In the above example I have clicked on the Defragment button and Windows pops up another message saying that I have only 4% free space left on the disk and it needs at least 15% free space to fully defragment the disk. This is because Windows uses this free space as a sorting area during defragmentation.
However this message does not take into consideration the size of your hard drive – it is just a standard Windows message. Fifteen percent of a 100 GB disk drive is definitely more useful in this process than 15% of a 30 GB disk drive. Therefore you are given the option to run the defragmenter yes or no. In most cases I choose Yes to go ahead because Windows will still defragment the disk and partial defragmentation is still of benefit. In this particular example 4% free disk space is probably asking too much of Windows so I would probably abort the process, free up more space by deleting unwanted files, empty the Recycle Bin and then restart the Defragmenter. I regularly defragment 80 GB disk drives with around 12% free space with very good results.

There is also a range of third party defragmentation programs available for the PC and they typically feature faster defragmenting and in some cases claims of “improved” defragmentation. A free one that has been recommended is Auslogics.

Apple Mac and Linux computers do not need defragmentation, or not nearly as often as PC’s, because they apparently have a different file handling system which avoids fragmenting files.

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