Does Your Western Digital Hard Drive Drop Notes?

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Maximum performance, unless it gets bored with you.

After enduring months of seemingly random dropped notes in virtual instrument sample players like Kontakt and Vienna Instruments, I finally tracked down the source of the problem: narcoleptic Western Digital hard drives.

The bad news is that many modern Western Digital hard drives, even “maximum performance” drives like the Caviar Black series, automatically go to sleep after only eight seconds of inactivity. The good news is that they can be adjusted.

Testing for Dropped Notes

If you own a Western Digital hard drive like an RE2-GP or a Caviar Green, Blue or Black, it wouldn’t be misguided to assume it’s guilty until proven innocent. Here’s how to put it on trial:

  • Reboot your computer to clear your disk cache.
  • Quit all programs that could access your hard drive.
  • Load the standalone version of a sampler, like Kontakt, Vienna Instruments, or something similar. This will eliminate any interference from your DAW.
  • Load an instrument that can play sustained notes (e.g., a violin). Wait until it’s fully loaded and your hard drive stops making noises.
  • Wait ten more seconds.
  • Play a sustained note. If it starts to play, then abruptly stops, congratulations! You own a hard drive that thinks your music is boring and falls asleep when you try to play it.

If you suspect something accessed your hard drive during those ten seconds, try waiting ten more seconds and playing another note. Playing the same note won’t do, because it’s probably cached in RAM.

If no notes drop, and you’re pretty sure nothing accessed your hard drive during those ten seconds, your hard drive is probably fine. Go on your merry way and compose an opus. If you have one of the affected hard drive models, though, you might want to keep reading anyway.

What’s Going On?

Samplers like Kontakt and Vienna Instuments load the first part of each sample into memory. This gives your hard drive time, typically 400 milliseconds or so, to find and load the rest of the sample and continue to play it from the hard drive. Since most hard drives have seek times around 10-30 milliseconds, this is normally a leisurely buffer.

But many modern Western Digital hard drives have an aggressive power-saving feature called Intellipark, or “Idle 3 mode.” If the drive isn’t used for eight seconds, it parks its heads and spins down. This is great for saving the planet when you’re surfing the Web or checking email, but if you’re composing music, it’s beyond frustrating.

If you play a note while the hard drive is asleep, it will take about 500 milliseconds to wake up, but by that time the sampler will have exhausted its 400-millisecond buffer. You’ll hear the note stop playing, then silence.

Full Note vs. Dropped Note

Full note vs. dropped note
Listen to Sample

You might think that if you pick up the pace and never wait more than eight seconds between notes, you’ll be OK, but if you play the same notes over and over, your disk cache could prevent your hard drive from being used for eight seconds, allowing it to fall asleep. The next new note you play will then get dropped.

Faster Is Sometimes Slower

When I built my computer with music in mind, I gave it plenty of RAM, a fast SSD to run my operating system and my programs, and a roomy hard drive to store sample libraries.

But having lots of RAM and a dedicated sample hard drive actually make this problem worse, because the hard drive has more of an opportunity take a nap while the RAM and SSD have all the fun.

If I had built a computer with one hard drive and a minimum of RAM, my hard drive might never have had eight seconds of peace and quiet, and I might never have encountered this problem.

Turning Off Western Digital’s Idle 3 Mode

Western Digital provides a tool to extend or disable the Idle 3 sleep timeout. To run it, you need to boot into a DOS-like operating system while the hard drive is connected through SATA or eSATA. Note that the tool will adjust Idle 3 settings on all Western Digital drives connected through SATA, so if you only want to affect one drive, disconnect others. The tool ignores non-Western-Digital drives.

DISCLAIMER: Western Digital claims this tool will work only on a short list of hard drive models. But since many more models use Idle 3, and can safely be adjusted with this tool, I think it’s worth ignoring their claim. If your hard drive catches on fire and vaporizes all your files, though, don’t blame me if you forgot to backup first.

Installing WDIDLE3 on a Bootable USB Thumb Drive (for PC)

  • Format a USB thumb drive as FAT32 if it isn’t already.
  • Download fbasecd.iso from FreeDOS.
  • Download unetbootin.
  • Download wdidle3.zip from Western Digital.
  • Run unetbootin. Select FreeDOS, the .iso file you downloaded, and your USB drive as the destination.
  • Unzip wdidle3.zip into the root folder of the USB thumb drive.
  • Reboot. You may need to argue with your BIOS to get it to boot off your USB thumb drive. Try pressing F2, F10, Del, or whatever key you need to get into the BIOS menu to check your boot options.
  • After the USB thumb drive boots, select “fdos” from the boot menu.
  • Select “2. FreeDOS safe mode”.
  • Type C: and press Enter (C: isn’t your hard drive, it’s the USB thumb drive)
  • Enter wdidle3 /? to see the options.
  • Enter wdidle3 /D to disable the timer, or wdidle3 /Snnn to set it to nnn seconds.
  • Turn off your computer (a reboot is not always enough for the hard drive to reload its Idle 3 settings), and remove the USB thumb drive.

Installing WDIDLE3 on a Bootable CD (for Mac)

I received this feedback from Tal Zana, who successfully modified this technique for use on a Mac:

The problem, on a Mac, is that you can’t boot a Mac Pro (at least a 2009 model) from a USB drive holding a DOS partition. You need to have it on a CD. But creating a CD image from an ISO image file while adding to it the essential Western Digital utility is not an easy thing to do. Fortunately, Acclerate Your Mac has published an informative article about disabling head parking on a WD Drive, which you should follow using the Ultimate Boot CD instead of the FreeDOS ISO.

The steps it describes have changed slightly from last year, due to a modification in the Ultimate Boot CD file layout. The good news is that you can still do everything from a virtual Windows machine running on your Mac. Just make sure you manage to send backslashes to your virtual host if you’re on a foreign (read “non-English”) keyboard. Here are the two DOS commands modified to work with the current UBCD distribution (click to enlarge).

The Accelerate Your Mac article mentions something that Phytopep doesn’t: “This will DISABLE all parking on ALL attached WD drives on your system (Via SATA of course). It will skip any Non WD drives.” [I added this above – Phytopep] So, just for safety, I removed all the internal drives on the Mac Pro, including the boot drive, and left the Caviar Black where it was. Note that, as the article above mentions, you need to move into your “T:” (not “C:”) partition to access the WD tools.

This has solved the notes-dropping problem for me, and my Caviar Black drive model (WD2001FASS-00W2B0) isn’t even on the WD compatibility list, so Phytopep is right in assuming that it’s safe to ignore it. After restarting the Mac there might be a moment of two of sheer panic as all the drives appear on the Desktop except the one that has just been flashed. It seems OSX has to interrogate the drive in a bit more detail before deciding it’s partitioned properly, or it might be related to the fact that the drive in question had two partitions on it. YMMV.

Tested on Mac Pro 2009 (4,1) 2.66 Ghz Quad-Xeon w/ 16GB RAM, Snow Leopard 10.6.8 and a Western Digital Caviar Black WD2001FASS-00W2B0.

After you’ve made your change, try the sampler test again to make sure you’ve solved the note-dropping problem.

If it worked, congratulations! You now own a hard drive that thinks your music sounds wonderful and stays awake for the entire performance.

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One Response to Does Your Western Digital Hard Drive Drop Notes?

  1. Anon says:

    Thanks a lot! I had the same problem and didn’t find any other answers to it, frustrating as hell.

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