Q It Up: What happens when your home studio computer crashes? - Part 2

q-it-up-logo2Q It Up: If you’re employed, hopefully your company has someone who can come to your rescue when your studio computer has problems, but what happens when your home studio computer crashes? How much do you know about computer repair? Does someone else do the repair, such as Dell Support or a local computer repair shop, or do you troubleshoot and fix the problem yourself? What steps have you taken to ensure that a crash or failure on your home computer results in minimal disruption of your routine? If you’ve suffered severe data loss in the past due to any kind of computer crisis, what did you learn and what practices did you put into place to prevent such loss in the future? Feel free to add any other thoughts you might have on the subject!

Johnny George [jg[at]johnnygeorge.com], Johnny George Communications Inc.: Since I work out of my home studio, I depend on my past IT guy at the radio station. He has come to my rescue on a number of occasions and his assistant has now made himself invaluable too. Unfortunately, the way today’s radio mucky-mucks make everyone wear several hats, they are working my main guy to the bone. So when my pleas for help are unanswered, his assistant and I have become good friends. They charge accordingly and I’m willing to pay the piper to stay in business.

Yes, I have a back-up system in use and my audio is backed up on a separate drive. So if the computer goes, (PC in the office on WIN7 / MAC in the studio on OS10) my audio is safe. Backup of invoices and accounting is on a flash drive. But no off-site. That is a worry of mine I need to address.

Dave Spiker [davespiker[at]aol.com] Imagination Media: I have had several crashes over the years. With each one, my backup strategy seems to get a little more airtight.

I currently backup everything critical to Carbonite, the on-line backup service. It works invisibly in the background and is constantly updating. I also do routine backups of everything I can think of (and the list grows) once a month, or so.

I recently had a local computer guy build a custom computer for me. My instructions were, “I want it somewhat fast but ultra dependable. I want an upscale Honda, not a Ferrari. I also want it to be as quiet as possible.” I dropped much more coin on that box than I should have, especially since the main hard drive died within 4 months. “Best laid plans...” and all that stuff.

I try to fix things myself. I’m a one-man production company and have no one to turn to -- unless I get out the checkbook. So my regular stack of magazines includes audio and radio trade mags (like RAP) and several computer mags. And I’m very thankful for Google. When problems come up, I can almost always find some recommendations through an internet search.

Dr. Jim Grubbs [jgrub1[at]uis.edu], University of Illinois at Springfield, Springfield, Illinois: What happens when your home studio computer crashes? After engaging in some “creative language” I generally try to be methodical in determining exactly what has crashed. For example, quite recently my main computer appeared to be dead, but in the end, only the video output was affected. Reinstalling the old video card temporarily (saved from an upgrade several years earlier) got me back in business.

There is a tendency to “shotgun” trouble shooting, but I’ve learned that a more deliberate approach and taking notes as you analyze the situation works much better.

How much do you know about computer repair? I am fortunate in that I built (yes, from the ground up) my first digital computer at age 13 (1963). It was far less powerful than the simplest of hand held calculators these days, but it gave me a chance to learn the basics behind computer processing. That said, I have never taken a formal computer class. I do have something of an engineering background, but without the formal training to go with it.

Does someone else do the repair, such as Dell Support or a local computer repair shop, or do you troubleshoot and fix the problem yourself? I have never had to rely on a repair done by others, though on occasion (usually in warranty situations) I have spent time with Dell support on the phone, which I absolutely hated. I have had better experience with obtaining warranty parts through their web interface in the last year or so.

I also have an “ace in the hole.” My brother is a high level engineer for a major telecommunications firm and almost always can “bail me out” if I can’t handle the problem myself.

What steps have you taken to ensure that a crash or failure on your home computer results in minimal disruption of your routine? I probably do a great deal more than 90+ percent of my colleagues and not nearly so much as I should. In one sense I am fortunate enough to have multiple machines that will all get the job done -- perhaps just not as efficiently. So the crash of a single machine is generally not catastrophic.

The key thing I do is backup the most critical data in multiple ways. That is, critical files are stored on multiple hard drives (sometimes on the same machine, sometimes on other networked machines). Assuming file size is not an issue, this most critical data also gets burned on to a CD or DVD data disc. And when the data represents an “absolutely must not lose” project, I’ll go so far as to do an “off-site” backup -- that is, have a trusted friend or family member put a copy of the disc in a safe place in their home, or (again if file size is not a big issue) I’ll store data on an off-site server somewhere. I’ve written several technical books where I’ve taken this precaution because the loss would have been devastating. Here I’m trying to mitigate against things like flooding, fires, etc.

What I am not prone to do is to make backups on a scheduled basis. And on occasion that has bitten me in the posterior region :-)

If you’ve suffered severe data loss in the past due to any kind of computer crisis, what did you learn and what practices did you put into place to prevent such loss in the future? Feel free to add any other thoughts you might have on the subject! I think that’s covered above. I’ve got more (removed) hard drives floating around than most with old data on them. Just the other day I ran across the 5.25 inch floppy drives I have in a box in case I ever need to recover data from those discs in my collection. Having an external USB connection kit is also very helpful.

In addition to my home studio, I work as a university professor and as director of the student radio station. In that capacity I have a lab of about 15 digital audio workstations. Our IT department is available to assist, but I find that the front line service is generally staffed by quite minimally qualified students. And the more senior staff is often not available in a timely fashion. In the end, it’s just easier to do the work myself.

The other thing I’m not good at is saving raw session files - or at least not in their various stages of evolution. Far too often I will find myself with a need to recreate something “in the style of...” and wish I had kept the session files themselves and not just the final production. I’m also not as disciplined as I should be about keeping the file paths intact. So sometimes I have to go searching for an element of a production I’m trying to resurrect “from the dead” even though I have the file -- it just isn’t where the session file thinks it should be.

My general advice would be that regardless of your knowledge of computer repair, step up your level of backing up data. It can be as fancy (and expensive) as off site network storage, or as simple as “sneaker net” discs stored at a friend or relative’s house. I also note that hard drives (used externally) are (relatively) cheap these days and may offer a better or more efficient method of backup for large amounts of data

Andrew Frame [andrew[at]bafsoundworks.com], BAFSoundWorks, Lehigh Acres, Florida: We handle all work in house. The last new machine we bought was an Apple iBook in 2005, and before that a Compaq desktop in 2002. Anything else has been built from parts, or refurbished. Since the production business is so poor right now, we also do service work for the public on Windows, Apple, and Linux systems, too.

The main workstation is a Linux-based system, used for everything except the audio editor. Our audio editor is a Windows-only application, and it will not run on Linux, even with a Windows emulator. So, we maintain a Windows XP-SP3 workstation specifically for the editor and supporting systems. We keep this machine fully “patched,” and keep anti-virus, anti-malware, and a firewall updated.

Our Linux workstation carries the load of all other studio work, from office work (e-mail, spreadsheets, billing, word processing, etc.) to internet connection, FTP, website maintenance, DVD burning, and anything else. It’s also the file server for the studio and our home. (No data beyond the job being edited is stored on the Windows machine.)

This workstation was built from parts, any by running Linux, we have zero downtime due to operating system issues. We don’t need virus or malware protection, and only need to use a firewall for online protection. Plus, Linux and all of the applications we use are free for the download, so it helps the finances enormously.

In 2008, we had two catastrophic backup failures that cost us everything we had stored going back to the mid 1990’s. After the first, we did in-house drive recovery and restored much of the data, but shortly after, the new backup drive mechanically failed, and it was all gone for good.

Since then, we use a simple internal backup on the server that insures we have two copies of all data on two separate drives at all times. By maintaining all of our data files on the server, we don’t have to backup multiple machines, only the specific directories that hold our work. Either of those can be offloaded to an external USB hard drive if we need to take anything on the road.

With terabyte external hard drives in the US$100 range now, backing up has not ever been cheaper or easier. But play it doubly safe, and maintain two sets... just in case.

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