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Hard Truths About Hardware

On his Continuing Adventures in Software, Rich Tozzoli gets reminded of the reality of that software can’t exist in isolation.

Rule #1—hard drives fail. Rule #2—see rule #1. Remember that all of our software runs on hardware. For the most part, that hardware has moving parts that eventually stop moving. Recently, I had a drive full of data stop working on me. Luckily, I had taken preventative steps just in case, two years earlier, that saved my bacon. Read on if you have that uncomfortable feeling that not all your data is backed up.

My home studio is a personal production room, and I have numerous audio systems, including a Pro Tools HD rig, a Mac Book Pro laptop setup and a second Pro Tools 9/ Logic/Live/Reason PowerMac for additional composition. On my HD rig, I have (had) a FW 800 hard drive that contained all my sample data for large programs, ranging from East West Hollywood Strings and Vienna Symphonic Library to Spectrasonics Stylus RMX and DrumCore from Sonoma Wire Works. Point is, this is where all the data resided for any plug-in that would stream audio into my session.

So during a session last week, the drive (which was several years old by now) stopped showing up on my desktop. First, I swapped FW 800 cables, just in case one had gone bad. No go. When I plugged it back in again, it made a mechanical noise that I had never heard—not a good thing to hear. I then launched Disk Utilities on my Mac, and noted that the computer saw it, but couldn’t mount it. I tried to repair it several times and got data error messages. OK, so that drive, full of hundreds of GB of data, had just s#&* the bed.

Of course, I had mixes due, and (as usual) time was not a luxury. Luckily, I had started using Carbon Copy Cloner ( software several years ago and had most (but not all) of the data on that drive backed up to another FW800 drive. So I went into my drive closet, dusted it off, plugged it in and fired it up. With a few mouse clicks telling the relevant plugs-ins where to find their new data, I was back up and running. Maybe I had lost 20 minutes in total. Whew, am I glad I had spent the money on that drive! More importantly, that I had taken the time to back my data up for just such an emergency. But it wasn’t totally current, due to the fact that I got lazy. Shame on me.

It got me thinking that I should remind all of you to learn from my experience and remember that drives stop working, probably when you least need them to. It also got me asking a few friends how they deal with all of their data. Paul Antonell, Grammy-nominated engineer/producer and owner of Clubhouse Studios in Rhinebeck, NY, has a different method of backing up data. As a commercial facility, the amount of information he deals with on a weekly basis would be quite a bit more than I generate from a personal production studio.

“I just finished working with Sypro Gyra,” he noted. “We tracked through the Neve into Pro Tools at 88.2 kHz. That turns out to be a lot of data, and the files are big. What we do is record to an internal drive on the Mac, then transfer it off the computer.”

Antonell then explained the reason for tracking to the internal drive. “With that method, we take away the equation of the FireWire connection not being fast enough, and so on. Also, everybody brings in a different drive, with different speeds. We want to remove as many variables as possible”

“Our policy is if you don’t have your project on three drives, you don’t have a project,” he continued. “We use Synchronize! Pro X, and typically drag and drop after each song. So we have a master and a safety that we back up to continuously through the project. One stays here, and the two others go with the client. Antonell also had one additional piece of good advice: “Besides just backing your data up, it’s important that you open those backup sessions and check them.”

Brian Mackewich, of BAM Media in New York City, has a different set of problems when it comes to data. Aside from having an audio room, the facility does video and graphic production. “One of the greatest challenges in our world of digital workflow is data archiving,” he explained. “Tape delivery is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The name of the game is files in, files out and post it up on the FTP.”

He added, “I’ve been using a variety of backup software and drives since the early 1990s. Most clients don’t think about the media once a project is approved. But if we wipe the file off the drives, the assets may not exist anywhere else. That could be a nightmare if a mix, element or final render is needed in the future, or needs to be repurposed for an additional delivery.

“We use Retrospect archiving software, with both LTO3 and DLT drives,” he continued. “Since we have literally hundreds of legacy archive tapes from over the years, we also keep an Exabyte drive around just in case a client requests a project restored from many years past. As we produce audio, video and graphic files, as well as DVD and Blu-ray projects, the amount of data is crazy. For example, we just finished South Park: The Complete 14th Season. We have huge HD files for graphics and video, and a lot of audio files (as there were stereo and 5.1 mixes for every episode and bonus feature). This particular project has about 4 TB of files needing to be archived. While it will use about 8-10 LTO3 tapes, it is well worth it to have everything available for the future if and when needed.”

OK, so now that you’ve read this, I hope you will stop whatever you are doing and take the time right now to back up your data. It will be worth the effort.