Learn Production | In Recovery

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The last time I performed a major upgrade of my Mac''s operating system (from Leopard to Snow Leopard), things went horribly awry. I rolled the dice and wrote over my old system—residing on my only bootable drive at the time—with the new OS, rather than installing to a new drive. Unfortunately, the Snow Leopard Install DVD installed a corrupt operating system and fried my monitor. Luckily, I had a second (undamaged) monitor I could use to cure my sudden blindness. But my Mac Pro would only boot partway, and I was left staring dumbfounded at a blue startup screen stuck in Hades.

This would have been a total disaster but for one saving grace: I had backed up my startup drive immediately prior to embarking on my highway to hell. A few hours later, my system and all my assets (150 GB of applications, plug-ins, emails, business documents and so on) were completely restored. Catastrophe averted.

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Fig. 1. Time Machine lets you restore any past configuration of your operating system that you previously backed up.

If you''ve never had a major computer meltdown, make no mistake—it''s only a matter of time. Avoid the heartache of losing precious and irreplaceable data. Use the tips in this article to safeguard your Mac and hard drives and prevent a fatal blow to your musical legacy.

At least once a day, copy any audio projects that have been modified that day to two additional hard drives (thereby storing your data in three places). Make sure that at least one of the two backup drives is external, and use it only for archiving purposes; keep it turned off at all times when you''re not copying your DAW files to it. That way, should your Mac self-destruct and take all connected and booted hard drives with it to the grave, your audio data will be preserved in at least one place. Better yet, keep your archival drive off-premises. If a flood or fire wipes out your studio, hopefully your archival drive''s safe house will survive.

If your sample libraries originally came supplied on DVDs, those are your back-up copies. If you have any libraries that were downloaded from the Internet, however, make extra copies of those—preferably to DVDs (which have a longer lifespan than hard drives). If your only copy of a library were to have a FEMA moment, you''d be crushed to learn the manufacturer discontinued the product or went out of business. Back it up.

If your Mac uses OS X 10.5 or later, you already own excellent backup software: Time Machine (see Fig. 1). Time Machine is a stock Mac utility that makes incremental backups of your drive (or multiple drives, if you wish). Apple recommends you dedicate a hard drive solely to storing Time Machine backups. The drive must be formatted as journaled HFS+ and, obviously, have more storage capacity than the drive or drives you''re backing up.

The great thing about Time Machine is it saves the different configurations of your operating system as it changes over time. If your operating system should become corrupted and you back it up in Time Machine before you realize it, you''re not stuck with using that dysfunctional configuration; you can go back in time to an earlier system that''s not corrupted (as long as you backed it up previously in Time Machine), and restore that instead.

Unfortunately, you can''t use a booting drive for Time Machine. If you ever need to restore your operating system, you''ll have to use your OS X Install DVD to reboot your Mac and access Time Machine. That''s a minor inconvenience—unless your operating system''s trip to the funny farm disabled your optical drive. And God forbid you have any pressing deadlines to meet or you''re in the middle of a recording session: It took Time Machine almost three hours to restore my startup drive after it went south. Sometimes you can''t wait that long to get back to work. Which brings me to my last tip.

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Fig. 2. Carbon Copy Cloner makes an exact copy of your operating system on a bootable drive.

If you can afford to reserve yet another hard drive for backup, dedicate it for use with Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC), shareware software from Bombich Software (see Fig. 2). Unlike Time Machine, CCC can make a bootable backup copy—an exact clone—of your startup drive. Lost your Mac OS X Install DVD? No problem. Power up your Mac while holding down the option key, and select (for rebooting) the drive to which CCC cloned your system. You''ll be back to work in minutes. After you''ve met your deadline or finished your recording session, restore your original startup drive at your leisure using Time Machine.

CCC has one disadvantage compared to Time Machine: For all intents and purposes, it only clones your current system configuration. (You can use it to merge past and present versions of your startup drive, including your operating system, but that''s asking for big trouble.) Time Machine is the more important of the two utilities because it allows you to choose which of your past system configurations to recover and it restores to your original startup drive. But if deadlines or sessions with clients rule your day, you also need CCC.

However you shape it, put a backup regimen in place now. You''ll thank yourself one day, when your Mac''s lunatic alter ego runs free.