This post is going to focus on the always fun task of managing backups of your creative material and software assets.
Long before I was ever professionally into music I was a computer nerd. I started programming computers when I was in 3rd grade. As a result, the fact that music production is largely synonymous with working on computers doesn’t bother me a whole lot. But with this integration with computers comes many extra things to watch out for and learn. As far as analog tape and hardware equipment is concerned, it is either physically present and working or it isn’t. These things could get damaged or lost, but they won’t just disappear for no good reason or instantly stop functioning to the point where they can’t be repaired somehow. But these are the sorts of situations that creative people have to deal with when working in the digital realm. I have had at least two friends contact me, absolutely despondent, when the the lone hard drive containing five years of their creative output kicked the bucket. Without any other location for these irreplaceable resources, all of our hard work can be gone in an instant. This is why we make backups.
Not only can our creative work be lost, but we can actually loose our tools as well. It takes a long time to get a computer set up the way we like to work. Think about all the time we spend configuring our DAW, installing the software, authenticating the plugins, creating a workspace in which we feel comfortable. Having to recreate this environment in the event of a disaster is wasted time. This is yet another case for backups.
There are a lot of options for backups these days. And, like most things, there are good and bad habits to have when producing backups.
How is our special data going to be stored? Not all media is alike and different kinds of media are better for different circumstances.
(DVD, CD-R) – This is probably the most common backup media for your average music producer. It has advantages and disadvantages. It’s cheap! You can get a big stack of CD-Rs or DVD-Rs for very little money. But, increasingly, it doesn’t have the storage capacity needed to store the sort of data we would need to store. If I want to make a backup of one particular client’s entire album multitracks, it comes to a grand 14GB worth of material. That’s a lot of CD-Rs and still an inconvenient number of DVDs. In addition, optical media is usually rated to last, if stored perfectly, for around 10 years. Beyond that the dyes used in the writeable media start to decompose. Cheap media can fall apart much sooner. While a single DVD is compact, a box full of old projects gets awkward quickly. In general, I recommend against using optical media for your primary backup.
Hard drives also have advantages and disadvantages. They’re big! Increasingly you can fit a lot of data on a single hard drive. The prices are dropping every week. My previously mentioned 14GB album would be a piece of cake to store on a newer drive. But, they’re magnetic and can be fussy. Don’t get them too close to powerful magnets like you might find in a speaker cabinet. Treat drives with respect – don’t knock them around or get them wet. I think that hard drives currently are the most logical backup media for the modern music producer.
I’m not talking analog tape here, I’m talking about data stored on magnetic tape much like cassettes. While tape might seem incredibly old school (and it kinda is), it’s also one of most trusted backup media there is. While still magnetic, tape is very hearty and isn’t as fragile as hard drive. Tape might be a good option if your #1 concern is making sure that your data is secure . The downside? While the media isn’t too expensive, it’s expensive to get the larger capacity tape drives themselves. Tape is also slow to write to and read from and is mostly for long-term storage. You probably won’t find friends who use the same tape format as you, either… they’re largely proprietary. Tape, while very secure and reliable, is probably too much of a commitment for your average producer.
As bandwidth for internet connections increases, we’ll find more and more people choose to have their data backed up over the internet. Some larger facilities that have fast connections and high-profile clients may want to go this route. One of the benefits is that, by its nature, the data is always going to be at a different location, making local disasters like fire or flooding a non-issue. At the moment, the thought of transferring a 14GB album over a consumer-level broadband connection kinda makes me gag. Give it a few years and it may be the best overall option, until then use off-site stored magnetic or optical media.
Now that I’ve covered some of the media options, we’ll take some time to talk about the various ways one can go about making backups.
Drag and Drop
Probably the easiest way to make a copy of your data is to plug in your media and drag the contents of the folder over. This works well as long as you are organized and know what folders and files need to be backed up in a given batch, at a given moment. One other benefit is that you can have multiple versions of the same material stored on the same media (just rename the folder and append the date or something to that effect). That way, if you bungle something up in a future copy, you can recover the older copy when things were still working as they should.
I have a soft spot for drive imaging. Making an image of a drive is essentially like taking a snapshot of the drive at a given moment. Generally these images are stored in files on your media. Mac OSX actually includes an imaging program, Disk Utility, in their more recent versions. Linux also has built-in imaging capabilities. The benefit of these options are that, not only do you have access to individual projects, but you can restore an entire drive back to its exact state as if nothing ever happened. For Windows imaging, I whole-heartedly recommend Acronis TrueImage. I used it for years when I still used Windows (and it supports Linux, too). For Linux there is a free utility called PartImage, which works very similarly to TrueImage. You can download it for free. Another BIG benefit of disk imaging is that you can make an image of your computer’s system drive, allowing you to restore your OS to the state it was at. This works great if you install something that makes things less stable, if you get a virus, or if your primary drive fails. Having an image of your computer when it’s pristine can save you days of effort.
- Store your backups somewhere safe! Rent a safety deposit box and bring your drive there after making your backup. Or, if that’s too hard, buy a fireproof safety box and store it in a secure place in your building – or give it to a coworker to take to their home. Essentially, if your backups are stored in the same place as your primary data storage, an event like a fire can destroy both. Keep all optical media in a moderate temperature, low humidity area.
- Organize your backups well! This is especially important if you’re using optical media. Label your media clearly with a date and record of all the material stored. Remember – this is you and your client’s assets!
- Have a schedule! Backup the current project after every major session. Backup your system every week or just have a solid image available in case something happens. If you forget to make a backup, it doesn’t do you any good.
Things I Grumble About
Whenever I buy expensive software, I make an image of the installation media. Should I ever lose the original CD or DVD, I can burn a copy of the disc and use the copy as if it were the original media. I’ve done this with my OSX install discs and my Cubase disc. But many software manufacturers are using dongles, which cannot be backed up. I find it somewhat disturbing that if I lose this tiny little key I will effectively lose my only access point to my work environment. This is by far the weak link in my backup contingency plans. I wish there were some way to accomodate for this unreproduceable authentication method, but at the moment there isn’t. So it’s like free health insurance here in the United States: don’t get sick. Don’t lose your dongles!
I don’t have much sympathy to give for people who lose five years of work when their hard drive crashes anymore. Backups are becoming a way of life and should be an integral part of having a business that deals with digital assets. Don’t be caught with your pants down! Start backing your stuff up today.