Audio file storage: USB flash drive vs USB external drive vs PCI

When I started with Cubase VST5 everyone was urging users to store all the project files on a separate HD. My Thinkpad laptop had a bay which could be used for CDs as well as a HD in a caddy. That setup solved most all of my problems then.
Now that I am moving to another laptop, a Lenovo x230 Thinkpad with an ultrabay for adding an additonal drive, I have been moving projects via a usb flash drive. What I have found out is that the projects load and perform perfectly from the usb drive! Keep in mind that I do not normally use more than 12 audio tracks and maybe 3 or 4 VST instruments.
I really like the thought of having multiple usb flash drives for the different individuals that work in my studio. I guess that might at least be a backup option, but how about security?

Since I have the ultrabay and the option to add a second HD, I suppose it might be better than using a usb flash drive or a usb external drive. Could anyone tell me what the advantages and disadvantages are on each? What is the most common practice today?

With modern interfaces, as long as everything works dependably, there’s really not a lot of difference whether an audio drive is connected via USB, SATA or PCIe. Many of the portable SSDs are in fact mSATA with a USB interface.

When we work on projects with the laptop instead of in the studio, we use a Samsung T7 Shield for that. Each project gets its own T7. I haven’t noticed anything negative yet. And we work with big Atmos projects in Nuendo. The drives are connected via USB-C (SuperSpeed+) and everything works smoothly.

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Using a 2nd internal drive as a backup is a bit more convenient (than a USB key that can be lost), but it’s not a good backup per se, because you loose everything if your laptop gets stolen, catches fire, or is rolled over by a truck.

Most recent quality USB keys are fast enough to be quite convenient for backups and archiving, as long as you label them properly and store in a safe and cool place. Preferably in a different building as were your laptop usually is, again to avoid loosing everything in a fire, etc. All depends on your level of paranoia and how important is the data on the key.

An external SDD (NVMe over USB3/USB4 pref.) will be (usually) faster and somewhat more cost-effective for large data.

None of these however can be trusted for archiving more than a few years.
Few people realize that the data retention of USB drives, or any SSD, are not rated for more than a few years, or even a few months in many cases (when un-powered).
The best (safest) long-term solution is storing “in the cloud”… but it comes with monthly fees…
M-Disks are a cheaper option, but less convenient.
There’s no perfect solution…

You did not mention hard drives. I have several old laptops with physical hard drives that are well over ten years old, not for backup but for the main system. I know all mechanical storage systems have a limited lifetime, but I would prefer them as long as they meet my needs and last longer than a few years.

My laptop will not likely leave the house. But to clarify, I was referring to the earlier concept that Cubase will operate better if the working project files are stored on a second drive. I can add either a hard drive or an SDD to the case with the ultrabay I use to add usb ports and a cd/dvd drive. Is this concept of keeping the audio files on the second drive still valid today?

As far as backup convenience, I have several usb hard drives for that purpose. I do appreciate the suggestion of M-disks. They would definitely be a good option after a project is basically finished.

Mechanical hard drives have better (10+) data retention than flash drives, in the sens that the physical bits will not fade out over time as quickly, but they are much more fragile/less reliable. I have a few HDD over 10yr old still working fine, but I use them in a RAID array and expect one to fail any day.

Mechanical drives must be protected from shocks and thermal swings, but also from electromagnetic fields, i.e. any form of magnets (like speaker coils, motors, CRTs…). And the more time you use them (even if just spinning idle), the more they will fail.

Flash drives, to the contrary, must be used frequently (let’s say min. every 12 months or so) to retain their data. If you keep them powered-on, they will take care in the background to refresh the charges on “old” bits auto-magically… (good quality ssd will have implemented this automatic housekeeping).

The data from an SSD that you keep in a drawer should be recopied every year or so, if you care about this data.

To answer your earlier question: I don’t see the point of splitting your Cubase projects files on a separate drive from the program files. But I do recommend a clean workflow of keeping them in a separate folder that you can backup and cleanup to keep sufficient spare space on your drive.

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Thanks for the clarification. I found conflicting information on the internet that did not take into account the different aspects. For my purpose of saving space on the system drive and being able to move the files between 2 different laptops, I can’t see a practical difference in reliability. The laptop does not leave the studio, so a mechanical drive will not be in anymore risk than what I have been using. On the other hand, the flash drive will get at least weekly use and has the speed advantage.

As the price of the SSD’s are dropping, they are looking much better now.

We need to be careful not to confuse suitability for audio performance with backup reliability.

Any SSD these days is more than capable of providing adequate performance for even the most ambitious audio project, so if there’s any issue, it’s not down to SSD performance; in fact, most regular hard drives (“spinners”) are also more than adequate for DAW requirements.

Backup strategy – or more correctly, restore strategy – is a whole other topic.