First Take: Be Redundant

Read Gino Robair September 2008 EM Editors Note, Where He Writes About Backing Up Musicians' Hard Drives
Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

“More storage equals more opportunity to lose precious memories” read a headline about disk-drive capacity at CNET's Crave Web site. The point being made was that with high-capacity drives becoming the norm in cameras and camcorders, it's easy to keep filling that drive or card to the max before off-loading the data. But by waiting until the disk is full before making a backup, you run the risk of losing everything if the drive gets corrupted, if the camera or card gets lost, or if everything falls into a lake.

Of course, musicians are in a similar situation of relying too much on onboard storage, whether they're using portable digital recorders or computers. If your entire project is on one drive and nothing is backed up, you're flirting with disaster. Although you may not have the time or resources to be sure that all of your data exists in three different places (“or it doesn't exist at all” goes the adage), at least back up your most important work. And be sure to annotate the backup so you'll know what's on it later.

But being prepared for problems goes beyond backing up your data. At a recent gig, one of my stompboxes died during sound check. At first it took a bit of trial and error to locate the trouble: was it a cable that failed? Or a bad wall wart, perhaps? The good news is that I had the extra cables and some batteries to test with. But once I figured out it was the echo pedal at the end of the signal chain that died, I didn't have a choice but to do without it that night.

For most people, having a completely redundant system, such as a fully stocked pedalboard waiting in the wings, is impractical. Yet how many of you keep spares of the little things in your studio or in your tour van? Do you have an extra FireWire cable? How about spare USB cables with each type of connector (the small one for your pocket recorder as well as the bigger one for your audio interface)?

Many of you are probably rolling your eyes at this point because this is so obvious, right? But let me ask the laptop performers reading this: do you carry a spare cable to connect your controller or interface, along with a spare power supply for your computer? You have not known frustration until you've accidentally dropped and broken your power supply in some remote town on a Saturday night, far from any Best Buy or Apple store. (Your cleverly designed Max patch sits quietly on your dormant computer as you weep.)

So let's look at some obvious backup items that most of us seem to shrug off. (To save space, I will list only the things that I have personally seen people forget, both at gigs and when they visit a studio.)

  • Cables. Whatever you use most, have an extra. That goes for ¼-inch, ⅛-inch, RCA/coaxial, XLR, BNC, all manner of digital cables, and even an IEC power connector.
  • Strings. Guitarists must have an extra set with them, no matter where they are (stage or studio) or who they are (even famous players). Same goes for bass, banjo, mandolin, and so on.
  • Batteries. Or better yet, get a modular power system for your stompboxes. But have a 9V or two around for emergencies.
  • Power strip. Electronic musicians can never have too many of these. If you travel with it, put your name on it or it will walk.
  • Blank media. How hard is it to keep a blank CD-R and DVD-R with you when you travel, as well as a 1 GB USB thumb drive? Always have a spool of writable media available in your studio.
  • Drummers should never be too far from a drum key and an extra hi-hat clutch, snare drum head, and bass drum pedal.

You get the point.

The bottom line is that you should think ahead and prepare for the worst-case scenarios of any upcoming projects or tours. Dropping some cash on a second USB cable might seem like a dumb idea now, but you'll change your tune when it saves your late-night session or gig.