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Digital audio workstation back up strategies for musicians

I think most of us have been there, one day your computer simply does not switch on or it switches off in the middle of a session and will come back on. Fact is when it comes to computers and especially their hard drives it is a case of when, not if, the hard drive is going to break. A hard disk drive is made of spinning plates and this requires a motor, this motor has a finite number of mechanical spins before it stops spinning.As such back ups make a lot of sense, the man hours that are lost when a computer breaks can be colossal. Not to mention the potential loss of a lot of work and creative ideas which could hold significant monetary and personal value. There are a number of solutions available. There are 2 things you need to back up on a typical digital audio workstation computer.  Audio data, your recordings and samples, these files are constantly being increased in number. Then we have the system drive which holds your operating system and software installations. For this I recommend 1 of 2 methods,  software cloning/imaging of the drive or hardware cloning.

Let’s look at audio data first which most people will have on a separate hard drive these days. (be it internal or external USB/Firewire/eSATA). Be wary about your computers sole drive having a partition which is not an actual physical drive. In this event it is 1 physical drive which has been effectively split into 2 by the operating system. A quick look inside your machine will confirm is this is the case or not. If 1 physical drive is present but there are 2 drives listed in your OS you must back the contents up on both the system and the audio partition, because if the drive breaks you will lose both.

Audio drives:

1) Manual back ups, for this you need to be organized and have an additional external drives, simply a matter of dragging and dropping your audio projects and associated audio on a daily or weekly basis to an external drive. In the event of drive breakage you can get the majority of your work back. The data on this drive changes often and will be getting filled on a daily basis so hardware cloning of the drive does not make much sense as drive contents will change daily. I use manual back ups when I know it would be disastrous to lose a complex project in mid progress.

2) A software solution may suit you if you feel you can trust it to do the job, a couple of options are Norton Ghost and Acronis True Image. These applications clone drives as they are and creates proprietary file types and a boot disk (for system drives). There is often a “auto function” which schedules incremental updates to the created images. These images are also recommended to be burnt to DVD-R so you have disks to insert in the DVD drive in the event of failure. These solutions often use the DVD installer to boot the machine from . My opinion is they can be great but you must keep the software updated as I have been caught out with one of these softwares and ended up with a machine I could not get booted due to not having the latest software version installed. So do be meticulous with software updates with this method.

Operating system drives:

The software solutions above can work well for system drives however I recently I discovered the Integral SATA copy station, this is a small device which mounts 2 SATA drives and simply copies one to the other, the packaging suggests maximum drive sizes of 1TB although this has not been tested as I have only copied to a 500GB drive so far. Very simple to use, you just double click a button and one drive copies to the other. (4 Green LED’s show the drive copying progress at 25, 50, 75, and 100 pct) This unit is SATA only so will not work with older Parallel ATA drives (PATA). The unit also doubles as a unit which can be connected by USB to a computer and it will read a drive that is inserted much like an external USB drive.This solution is slightly more costly as you need to buy a new drive for copying the old one onto. You must pay 100pct attention that you insert the drives into the correct bays. This is a great solution when you have an audio pc/mac with all your software authorizations, OS and software tweaks installed and working on a system drive.Recovering this is easily a days work to reinstall for most people even with modestly loaded audio PC’s. Do remember it is worth periodically spinning up a back up drive to ensure that the bearings in the drive remain lubricated and do not seize up.

It remains to be seen how reliable SSD (solid state) hard drives are and they currently remain expensive to buy. The price is however coming down so it may well be worth considering an SSD system or working drive. In theory these drives should be reliable as there are no moving parts to wear. However it is a  relatively new technology and you should keep up to date on developments with it.

So back that computer up today. There is so much to lose and a lot of time to gain by doing so. Sure it will cost some money but the time and headaches caused by computers breaking makes it a really unpleasant and stressful time for musicians, studios and artists so is a very sensible thing to do. 

Barry Gardner is chief mastering engineer at SafeandSound online mastering

Reader Comments (1)

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September 6 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Monroe

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