You die. I mean heaven forbid, but say you die. And you leave behind? Bills, a few t-shirts and daresay a legacy of somewhat significant musical art? Yup, a rich treasure trove of great musical art. Well, yeah, either this or a worthless pile of drop-out riddled tapes, corrupted CDs, and crashed hard drives.
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You see, ultimately, there are two primary questions when considering how to backup and archive:

1) media and

2) compatibility.

With regard to the first, the issue of backup has become easier to deal with as hard drive prices — particularly external FireWire hard drive prices — have dropped. Many engineers simply copy data to a second drive for a quick and easy backup. And it’s common to put the backup drive on the shelf for long-term archival as well, although it remains to be seen how long those drives will last.

So while data tape backups, AIT, DLT, and others of that ilk, remain common, CD-R and DVD-R are definitely the leaders in the backup and archive media races. Writeable optical discs are cheap, plentiful, durable, and reasonably fast. Again, the long-term viability of the media remains to be seen, but some engineers are partially hedging their bets by making duplicates to discs manufactured by different companies in hopes that one company’s disc might last longer than the other.

For safest archiving though, the best bet is to make multiple copies of anything you don’t want to have to re-create on multiple media, and store the backups in different locations as protection against fire, flood or other disaster.

A bigger issue though is future compatibility. What happens if the program you need to open a file no longer exists in the future? What if a file format is no longer supported? What if your operating system can’t run older soft synths, preventing you from playing back virtual MIDI tracks? What will you do with all those ADAT tapes if you don’t keep an ADAT around to play them?

One solution is to “archive” the old machines and programs — and computers that can run them — along with the data. But there are problems here too: Space becomes an issue, and you must maintain the old machines and programs in working order if you want to access your work.

Check out my Art of Recording article in the August 2004 issue for one solution to limited gear/software longevity: rendering all files — with effects, processing, automation, and virtual MIDI tracks — to full-length audio tracks stored in a “standard” file format such as AIFF or Broadcast WAV. While there are no guarantees, odds are there will be something in the future that can access those file formats.

So how are engineers and producers approaching backup and archiving in the real world? I checked with seven busy pros to find out how each handles preserving their work for the future.

Craig Anderton — EQ Editor At Large, engineer/producer/musician/sound designer
I have a 3-tier back-up strategy. For small projects, I back up to CD-R. I create two copies using media from different companies. For large projects, I take a similar approach: two copies to DVD-R, using media from different manufacturers. The final tier is long-term archival storage/general computer backup in case things die. For this I copy to a large, removable hard drive.

Duane Decker — game composer, DDMusic
There are a couple of ways that I back up files. Each time a music cue is completed, I transfer the finished WAV file from the Mac G5 audio drive to Mac G4 and PC hard drives (via in-house network) so they can be uploaded to various FTP sites. The files remain on those drives so there are now three copies of the finished file on three separate computers.

Once a week, I copy my current Digital Performer project folder to a FireWire drive and the G5 root drive for quick backups. Once a month I burn an archive DVD (or CD) of all current files. Archive discs are then logged into Disk List, boxed up, and put in a big plastic storage container that sits in the studio for protection from extreme temperature, light, and moisture.

Once a small project is complete, it gets burned to disc and also stays on the hard drive until I know the client won’t come back and ask for changes or additional cues or edits.

On big projects, there are usually multiple drives that contain DP and Pro Tools files, audio files, project documents, and so on. All files get burned to DVD, and, if possible, copied onto a FireWire drive for archival.

While it may sound like I have it all together, I have been caught by corrupted archive discs and software/hardware changes in the studio. If you are in the business long enough, this is inevitable. MOTU’s MachFive sampler — and hoarding old gear ��� has helped in some situations. But the tedious job of rendering audio stems of MIDI/virtual tracks is a better way to go as the audio format is more likely to outlive your software/hardware.

TAL HERZBERG — engineer/producer
I always have two hard drives mounted while I work — a master and a clone. I record/edit/mix using the master, and a few times a day I update the clone using data backup software (QDEA Synchronize! Pro). It mirrors the clone with the exact data that’s on the master, only copying files created since the last backup.

As an additional safety net I have a data tape drive connected to my computer (Sony AIT), and following the same procedure I do with the clone drive; I mirror the master drive onto a digital data tape using Dantz Retrospect backup software.

At the end of the project I submit everything to the client for them to store/archive.

Phil O’Keefe — EQ contributor, engineer, Sound Sanctuary Recording
I record to internal IDE drives. Every day, at the completion of the session, I back up the day’s work to external FireWire

drives so I have two copies of the work in progress. Because I’m running Pro Tools on Windows, I always click on “enforce Mac/PC-compatibility” when creating new sessions. The FireWire drives are formatted FAT32, so transferring to a Mac-based Pro Tools system is simple, should the need arise.

I use Broadcast WAV files, which means anyone who can handle time-stamped BWFs on any DAW platform should be able to import the raw files. I also save a copy of my plug-in settings to the backup disks.

At the completion of the project, I do backups — including the board layout and setting data from my Yamaha digital mixers — to DVD-Rs before wiping it from my internal drive. When the client walks away, they have two copies on two media types — DVD-R and FireWire drive. I think dual-format backups offer the best compatibility and insurance that the data can be retrieved at a later date.

Mike Coates — engineer, Raptor Studios/Barking Dog Records
All my stereo mixes are archived to Apogee gold CDs with one or two cheaper backups. I still do some mixing to DAT so I have a closet full of hundreds of DAT masters from the last decade, and gold master CDs from the last three or four years.

As for tracking, I basically use a 20 or 30GB IDE hard drive for one or two projects on our Mackie HDR 24/96. So I now have a closet full of hundreds of Hi-8 tapes (I keep every track) from the MDM days, and have started a new closet for the IDE drives. Having an onboard internal drive and an external drive provides me an additional working backup.

As I see it, the archiving dilemma is simply one of having to keep equipment on-line to play the older media. To that end, I still have two working DA-88s, two DA-78s, three DAT decks, and a quality cassette deck. Clearly, I will have to maintain the HDR 24/96 as well when that unit is obsolete — or make the incredible effort to transfer those tracks to a new medium. I feel much more secure about the CD and hard drive masters surviving over time than I do about the DAT and Hi-8 masters.

Lynn Fuston — EQ contributor, engineer
I used data DATs for backups for years, then AIT data tapes for several years, but the proliferation of DVD drives has made that format my backup option of choice now. AIT is easier to use because of its single-volume storage capacity, which means I don’t have to segment the data. But the affordability of DVD media makes it cheaper to make duplicate backups. And the client can have their archive in a standard format they can open most anywhere. It’s still slower and requires 4.4GB partitions, but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

Gary Mraz — Studio Voodoo
In my opinion, digital doesn’t really exist unless you have three copies in three separate places. My recording medium is FireWire drives. That’s Copy 1, Place 1. When I’m done with projects, I transfer the data to another FireWire drive. When it’s full, I place it in a safety deposit box at my local bank: Copy 2, Place 2. Finally, I back up the projects on DVD. These are stored in a fireproof safe that was built into the floor of my house: Copy 3, Place 3.

It may sound as if the value of these digital bricks and shiny discs warranted the protection of Fort Knox, but I’ve learned the hard way. There are digital voodoo demons lurking at each mouse-click, waiting diabolically to delete. There’s a reason we’re called Studio Voodoo!

I have to tell you about the time I assisted in archiving Barbara Streisand’s library on Synclaviar 12" optical disks, which claimed a 300-year shelf life. When we were finished, she needed a safe place to put them. Eureka — an abandoned nuclear missile silo! But wait, after Armageddon and the alien arrival, how will anyone listen to them? Solution: Put a Synclavier playback system in the silo, too! “People Who Need People” playing on every stop on the hitchhiker’s guide to the galactic jukebox. . . .