Better Safe Than Sorry

Imagine spending an entire week working on a critically important music project. You toil day and night orchestrating, programming, and recording. You
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Imagine spending an entire week working on a critically important music project. You toil day and night orchestrating, programming, and recording. You
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Imagine spending an entire week working on a critically important music project. You toil day and night orchestrating, programming, and recording. You bring in other musicians and singers to overdub, and everything is sounding killer. Then, on the day before your deadline, when you're getting ready to mix, the external drive that you record your audio to from your DAW doesn't show up when you start your computer. You try rebooting, but no luck. With a growing sense of dread, you try running your disk utility software, but still no sign of your drive. It's now clear that your drive has suffered a major crash. Your deadline is looming, and you're back to square one. “If only I'd backed up!” you cry, as you pound the desk in frustration.

Most computer users don't think about backing up until after they've suffered a catastrophic data loss. If you're serious about protecting your recording data, you need to develop a systematic backup strategy and stick to it. If you don't, chances are the data-loss gremlin will eventually get you.

To help shed light on the subject of backup, I spoke with a number of working pro musicians and engineers to find out how they safeguard their data. I also interviewed data-recovery specialists and disc manufacturers to get their opinions and advice on the subject.

Data Dangers

One of the most common hazards that your recording data can face is hard-drive failure. Hard drives are precision devices filled with moving parts, and they are vulnerable to both mechanical and electrical failure.

“Every drive has a Mean Time Between Failure [MTBF] rating that is given to it by the manufacturer,” says John Christopher, a data-recovery engineer at DriveSavers (, one of the largest hard-drive-recovery firms in the United States. “And it's anything from 50 to 100 years, or something absurd like that. But it's not a real number; it doesn't apply in the real world.”

So what's a more realistic life expectancy for a hard drive? Jay Vilanova, a data-recovery expert at a large Macintosh repair and retail outfit called Tekserve ( in New York City, says, “You should expect several years. But as with any curve, you'll have some that drop out earlier, and some that last way longer. We see drives from vintage machines that are still running. We also see drives from machines that shipped yesterday that are bad. Every drive inherently will fail.”

In other words, each time you trust your data to your hard drive, you are engaging in a crapshoot. There are, however, some steps you can take to lessen the possibility of a drive failure. One is to keep your drive away from extreme temperatures and direct sunlight. Another is to handle it gingerly, because a drive has a relatively delicate mechanism inside. Finally, never move your hard drive while it's powered up.

Drive crashes can be brought on by software-related causes as well as through hardware failure (although software problems are often symptoms of hardware problems). You might also experience a situation in which your drive keeps working but individual files become damaged. “Typically, files get damaged because the directory on the drive is messed up,” says Christopher. “The pointers in the directory are incorrect to the file fragments, and then a file fragment overwrites or overlaps another file fragment, and you get corruption.”

Oops, Wrong Button

Human error is also a major cause of data loss. Christopher recalls a case involving a well-known Bay Area band, which he declines to identify. “They finished doing their final mixdown and everything was mastered, and I guess a second engineer came in after the session and mistakenly wiped out the drive. So they brought it in to us and fortunately we were able to get everything back.”

Fires, floods, or other natural disasters are also potential dangers to your drive. For that reason, experts recommend keeping off-site backups of crucial data. “Stow them in different locations, like a safety-deposit box at a bank,” suggests Christopher.

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FIG. 1: Hard-drive recovery is a complicated and expensive process, requiring clean rooms, skilled technicians, and lots of spare parts.

If your drive does fail, or if a really important file gets erased and you don't have a backup, chances are good that a firm such as DriveSavers or Tekserve (or others around the country) can recover your data. It's likely to be quite expensive, though, because data recovery is a specialized, labor-intensive process (see Fig. 1). According to Christopher, the average price for recovering a failed drive at DriveSavers is about $1,000.

Audio files can be particularly tricky to recover, says Christopher. “If the files are large, like AIFF files, then they can be fragmented on the drive — that is, broken up into pieces and scattered around on the media. And that can make for a challenging recovery, because sometimes we can get complete files, and sometimes we can't.” He suggests defragmenting your drives periodically.

Another potential cause of data loss is a computer virus. Luckily, viruses are less likely to infect dedicated recording drives because they're usually designed to go after files on your system drive. Mac users are less likely to face virus threats than PC users are.

Finally, you can lose data as a result of theft or loss. If you have a laptop-based rig that you travel with, backing up is especially critical, because you always run the risk that your computer will be stolen or lost while you're on the road. Even a home-based personal studio can be broken into and have a computer stolen.

Get Backup

Although there are numerous ways to approach the backup conundrum, it's crucial to come up with a system that's affordable and easy to implement and maintain. If it requires too much work, you'll be less likely to stick with it over the long run.

All the pros I interviewed for this story have a backup routine that they execute regularly. Their systems generally involve secondary hard drives upon which recording data is copied at the end of every session.

“I have another drive on my system, which is a 250 GB drive that I use as a working backup drive,” says Jeremiah Moore (, a sound designer from the Bay Area. “I drag folders over to it at the end of the day. Whatever was done that day gets dragged over. That's the running backup,” he says.

Kathie Talbot (, a Los Angeles — based film and TV composer, follows a similar routine. “Every day, at the end of the day, I back up everything I've done on another hard drive,” she says. “I have learned from terrible past mistakes. I lost stuff that I'll never be able to retrieve.”

Gil Morales is a busy freelance engineer and project-studio owner, also in the L.A. area, who has worked with artists such as Little Feat and Linda Ronstadt. “It's part of the rhythm of how I do sessions. That last half hour that I'm in front of the computer is spent backing up data,” he says. “I make it part of the flow of my work.”

So the first part of your backup strategy should involve a daily or postsession backup of your recording drive to a dedicated backup drive. That can be done either manually or automatically with backup software (see the section “Soft Solutions”). If, however, you really want to safeguard your data, you need to do more.

Safety in Numbers

“You want to have multiple copies of critical data,” says Vilanova. Although that might seem like overkill, there are plenty of scenarios in which having only one backup could be problematic. “If you have, say, a synchronized backup that happens periodically,” explains Moore, “that can carry a corrupt file into an uncorrupt copy, and that can propagate corruption.”

A power surge could knock out your recording drive and your backup drive at the same time. Or your primary drive could fail while the copy is being made, thus rendering both copies useless.

The most economical way to ensure against most of those problems is to make an additional backup to a recordable DVD (see the section “Noah's Archive”). Ideally, you'd make one after every session, but if that's too time-consuming or expensive, at least make sure to burn a DVD after any session in which critical audio has been recorded or mixed.

Snazzy Work-arounds

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In his work recovering hard drives for DriveSavers, John Christopher has seen many musicians and groups who needed to retrieve irreplaceable data from crashed or accidentally erased recording drives that weren''t backed up.

One technique that will make a single backup safer is to partition your backup drive and rotate your regular backups between different partitions. That will be possible, however, only if your backup drive has enough space to accommodate multiple versions of the data on your recording drive. If a file becomes corrupt and gets backed up over the backup copy on one of the partitions, you can restore from one of the other partitions. If your recording drive dies, you can restore from the partition that has been backed up most recently. In most cases (save for the catastrophic power-surge scenario that affects both drives), you're covered.

Another way to protect your files is to Save As your work multiple times throughout a session. “I constantly save versions of a file,” says Moore. He saves “any time I reach a certain milestone, be it finishing the sound design on a certain section, finishing the dialog edit, setting up the basic mix, or importing an OMF.”

Such multiversion saving has two major benefits. First, if your current file becomes damaged and then gets backed up (thus erasing the previous good backup of that file) or accidentally gets erased before you've backed it up, you can go to a previous version from that same day's session. Second, you can go back to an earlier version if you've made musical changes that, on later reflection, you or your client don't like.

One caveat regarding the Save As method if you're saving copies of only your session file and not of your audio files: if an audio file gets damaged and is then backed up over the good one, it's history. Although it takes a lot more disk space, occasionally duplicating the audio files when you invoke the Save As command is a wise thing to do.

Soft Solutions

If you're manually backing up (dragging files) from one drive to another, be careful that you're copying to the backup drive, not from it. If you get mixed up, you'll wipe away everything except your last backup. Talbot recalls such an occurrence. “I was working on a song for the movie Halloween Resurrection,” she says. “My cowriter and I had finished the session, and I was exhausted. So I said, ‘Okay, I'm now going to back everything up.’ And I backed up the old file over the new file, and we had to start over.” Fortunately for Talbot, there was a silver lining to redoing the song. “The new version turned into a better song than we ever imagined,” she says.

Running scheduled, automated backups using backup software removes the possibility of backing up in the wrong direction. It also makes it easy to back up only newly created files, while leaving unchanged files alone. And since the backup is scheduled, you don't have to remember to initiate it.

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FIG. 2: The Mac application ChronoSync, from Econ Technologies, is one of a number of full-featured, inexpensive backup programs available.

Backup software lets you automate what gets backed up and when, and lets you compress your backup. Such programs are typically inexpensive. Some Mac examples include shareware programs such as Shirt Pocket SuperDuper and Econ Technologies ChronoSync (see Fig. 2), and Bombich Software Carbon Copy Cloner, which is freeware. EMC Dantz's cross-platform program Retrospect Express is often bundled with hard drives for Mac and PC. For PC, Symantec Norton Ghost gives you robust backup capabilities at a low price, and even WinZip Computing's WinZip Pro 10, a compression utility, offers backup features. There are lots of options, so look around for the program that best meets your backup and budget needs.

Depending on how much data is on your drive, backing up could take several hours the first time you do it, due to the sheer volume of files to be copied. But once that's done, set your backup software so that the only files from the source drive that get backed up are the ones that have been altered since the previous backup (that is sometimes called an incremental backup or a one-way synchronization). Because the other files on the backup drive remain unchanged, the backup process goes much faster. Furthermore, incremental backups ensure that files that have already been successfully backed up won't get overwritten by damaged files.

Should you choose to compress your files upon backup, you'll save space on your backup drive. The downside is that you'll need the backup software to restore the files. I keep the compression off so that I can easily retrieve files without having to expand them first.

One important point about automated backups: periodically check the logs that the software generates to see that the backups have been done successfully. “I also recommend occasionally restoring a few critical files as a test to ensure the backup is working properly,” recommends Christopher. “Sometimes log files only reveal that the backup software ran but don't truly confirm that the data was written to the device.”

Not everyone has complete faith in backup software. “I just don't trust backup programs,” says Morales. “I've lost Pro Tools sessions. Stuff didn't get backed up for some reason — that one file that was needed. I use backup software when necessary, like at the end of a tracking date when there are so many files to back up.”

Keep It Together

The success of your backup strategy depends on your ability to organize your files so that you can easily find and back up the desired files. It's helpful to make a folder for each song, within which reside the folders for your audio files and for the other file types your sequencer produces (fade files, for example).

Be systematic about how you name your projects and the audio files created with them. Make sure your audio files have specific file names that reference each particular instrument and take. For example, label the second take of a guitar track “Guitar 1, tk 2,” rather than just the generic “Audio 1.”

Film and TV composer Josh Mobley ( tells of a musician he knew who used a very risky method to store his audio and session files. “He had all of his songs in the same folder and put all the audio files in that folder as well, so he had about 100 songs with all of the audio in there. I said to this guy, ‘You're insane. If something happens, you're done for.’”

Moore, who records to Digidesign Pro Tools, concurs on the need for file organization. “You have to be really on top of it all the time and know where your files are being recorded to. When you're importing audio, be careful to know where it's going. Or, if you know that it's gotten messy and you've lost control of it, you can use the Save Session Copy command [in Pro Tools], which basically collects all the media to a new location. And that can be a godsend.”

Any full-featured digital audio sequencer will have a similar command that collects all of your audio files for a given song in a single folder. It's a very useful feature, because if your audio is scattered all over your hard drive, it might not all get backed up.

Noah's Archive

Recordable DVDs can be a key component in a musician's backup strategy. The discs come in many formats, and depending on what type of computer you have, you might be using DVD-R or DVD+R for write-once discs, and DVD-RW, DVD+RW, or DVD-RAM for rewritable discs.

A DVD's ability to store a lot of data, and its relatively low cost, make it ideal for creating secondary backups of ongoing work and for archiving finished projects. Most musicians and engineers that I talked to use DVD recordables for archiving. One big advantage DVDs have is their ready availability.

Brian Foraker, a mastering engineer in Nashville and a former tracking and mix engineer for acts such as Yes, .38 Special, Night Ranger, and John Paul Jones, uses DVDs as his primary daily backup. “At the end of each working day, I always back up to a DVD rewritable,” he says. “At the end of the project, I back up to a data DVD. I also back up using WaveLab 5 with its DVD-Audio capability; I make a 24-bit [audio] version at the highest sampling rate [used on the project] (I always EQ at the highest resolution). I'll make a DVD of, say, 24-bit, 96 kHz [audio] files, so basically I'm making two backups. And then I always make a safety copy of the final CD version.”

Moore explains his reasoning for using DVDs to archive his projects. “If I started to get into tape drives or some other format that's two stages removed from what everybody has on their desktop, there's a danger of it being unreadable. That's why I went with a commodity format, even though it's a pain because a typical project for me is 10 or 20 or 30 GB.”

So what does Moore do when archiving a large project? “I end up having to break it up into several DVDs. I do it painstakingly by hand, which I can't say I recommend, but I haven't found a better way that works for me.” He splits the files up using a simple system. “I usually just go ‘Audio files A through F,’ ‘Audio files G through M,’ or whatever.” You can also use backup software to automate the splitting of files, a process called data spanning.

Get in the habit of checking your DVD backups to make sure that they were successfully executed. “Be certain that a particular burned DVD can be read by another computer,” advises Vilanova. “On occasion, optical drives fail in such a way that they read their own discs just fine, but other computers can't see them. So I am always sure to check my copies on something else.”

A Blu-ray of Light

Many music projects, especially those using multitrack audio, exceed the 4.7 GB limit of conventional DVD recordables. But there are alternatives to splitting up your files. You can get Double Layer (aka Dual-Layer) recordable DVD drives that offer two-sided DVD writing, which gives you up to 8.5 GB on a single disc.

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FIG. 3: This year will see the emergence of two new competing storage technologies: Blu-ray (pictured here) and HD-DVD. They will offer rewritable discs that can hold 25 GB and 15 GB, respectively.

Before you buy such a drive, however, you should know that two new recordable-disc formats will debut this year: Blu-ray (see Fig. 3) and HD-DVD. These formats offer substantially larger storage capacities than even a Double Layer DVD. Blu-ray and HD-DVD are competing to become the market standard.

Blu-ray discs (so named because they use a blue laser to write their data, as does HD-DVD) will be able to store up to 25 GB of data, whereas HD-DVD will hold about 15 GB. You would think that Blu-ray's capacity advantage would make it the clear choice, but both formats were designed primarily for playing high-definition movies, and there are many other economic and political factors involved. An array of technology manufacturers, movie studios, and entertainment conglomerates have lined up behind each format. Which one will win out is an open question.

What is clear is that either format will allow musicians to back up or archive much larger projects than before to a single disc, thus minimizing the need for data spanning. When choosing between the two formats, remember that the superior technology doesn't always win out. Remember VHS versus Beta?

How Long?

If you're archiving completed projects, it's useful to know how long your storage format will last. Data discs do not last forever. Rich D'Ambrise of Maxell, a leading maker of media including DVDs, says that the average life span of a recorded DVD is about 50 years.

Of course, the DVDs need to be stored correctly in order to last that long. “Store them in a jewel case,” says D'Ambrise, “store them away from direct sunlight, and store them in a cool, dark place.”

Almost everyone I talked to about archiving to DVD and CD stressed that using quality discs is key to avoiding problems. The general consensus is to stick with name brands. Avoid the urge to buy some off-brand just because you can get it for less. “Get a name brand that says it's safe for backup or long-term storage,” suggests Mobley.

There are even discs available made specifically for archiving purposes (several musicians I spoke with mentioned MAM-A/Mitsui Gold Archival DVDs). The few extra cents per disc that you spend could mean the difference between a disc that lasts and one that doesn't. “It will be worth it,” says Vilanova. “The minor savings are simply not worth it in the long run.”

Systemic Problems

Another part of your strategy should be to have a backup of your main system drive, where all your applications and plug-ins are stored. Although it will require yet another hard drive, doing a periodic system backup will ensure that if your main drive goes down, you won't have to completely rebuild it to get back up and running.

If you use a backup program such as SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner, you can make a backup of your system that allows you to recover from a crashed system drive. Should your main drive go down, you can boot from that drive or copy it back to your main drive. In many cases, you won't need to reinstall all of your software or get new authorizations for your copy-protected music software, which can be a real time drain. If you work on deadlines or have clients coming into your studio, the ability to get up and running quickly after a major crash is essential.

Back and Forth

Although I have by no means exhausted all the aspects of data backup, the information provided here should help you to get started with your own backup strategy or to modify your existing one so it is more comprehensive. Without spending a lot of money or time, you can safeguard your data and gain peace of mind. Remember, the next time your hard drive turns on could be its last.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor. He wishes to thank John Christopher, Rich D'Ambrise, Brian Foraker, Josh Mobley, Jeremiah Moore, Gil Morales, Peter Radsliff, Kathie Talbot, Marsha Vdovin, Jay Vilanova, and Scott Wilkinson for their assistance.

There are hardware solutions available beyond simple hard drives that can help facilitate the backup process. One example is the One Touch series of hard drives by Maxtor. These drives come in a variety of sizes and have backup software and a single hardware button that you push to initiate the backup process.

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FIG. A: You can set the Mirra -Personal Server to -mirror your -recording drive, automatically backing up anything you record.

The Mirra Personal Server (see Fig. A) is available now for PC and soon for the Mac (perhaps by the time you read this). The device plugs into your network and automatically replicates selected files whenever you save them, providing you with an instant backup that requires no user initiation. It saves up to eight versions of a file, offering you additional flexibility and redundancy.

“It's not addressable by typical mapping of the network drive or by browsing to it through the Finder,” says Mirra's Peter Radsliff. “It only interacts on the network with computers that it's attached to through software we provide.”

What's more, the files stored on it can be accessed through the Web. According to Radsliff, the Mirra is impervious to viruses and other Internet shenanigans. “It's got a complex underneath security scheme to prevent any kind of intrusion. So, you can't get any virus attacks on it, spyware won't do anything to it, and nobody can hack into it,” he says.









There are many backup strategies you can employ; here's one that doesn't require a large time investment on your part:

  • Save As several times during each session to create multiple files.
  • Program backup software to make an incremental copy of your data automatically at the end of each day.
  • Make a DVD-R backup of your project after each significant session. Store one copy off-site.
  • Archive finished projects to recordable DVD. Make multiple copies. Store one copy off-site.