Monday, January 8, 2018

Keeping Reliable Backups Of Your Music Projects And Audio Files

I've been in the I.T. business for many years, in fact since around 2001 when I started working as a network administrator for my local Government offices after finishing college with a networking degree. Building backup infrastructure was one of my main ongoing tasks at the time, and I've also done some for my current (and awesome) employer,
Acoustica. Additionally, here in my recording studio in Michigan, I have around 6 computers running on my local network that all talk to and back up to a local file server which I built.

I cannot tell you how many times over the years I've had people come to me with dead hard drives that contained the only jpg copy of their winning lottery ticket, or something just as valuable. It's amazing to me that anyone would have only one copy of anything digital, knowing that drives break down, tablets and laptops get stolen, cloud services go down or defunct, etc.

Here in the studio, we've had the main recording PC give up the ghost on us twice in the past 5 years. It took as long as reinstalling Windows on a new drive to get back up and running. Basically one day and then time to bring back all the backed up stuff from backup sources.

Setting up a regular backup plan doesn't have to be a pain in the booty, and doesn't need to be expensive either. I thought I would outline and give some pros, cons and resources to different choices as far as backing up your music projects, audio files, vst plugins, and anything else you want to back up.

Backup Media Choices

With some of the information listed here, I hope you'll be able to make the right choice for your recording pc setup.

USB Memory Stick

I've never been a fan of these for backing up anything of importance. Now transferring an mp3 from one computer to another, yes they work great for that.
The only pro of the memory stick is that it's so small and easy to take with you.

  • Usually not big enough: Space
  • Volatile, will most likely and suddenly decide it doesn't want to work anymore at a critical point in time.
  • Low qualty, dime-a-dozen (many)
  • The file system on them is usually FAT16 or FAT32 rather than the more modern and reliable NTFS (just trust me on this one ;-)
  • Read/Write speed is limited by the USB port and stick R/W speed capability

The Cloud

Google drive, DropBox, GMX, One Drive, are all popular and useful cloud services and certainly aren't the only ones available. They are great for backing up photos from your android based phone automatically, or uploading files to share with your buddies and other things like that. However, for a PC hard drive backup, it would be quicker to take out the hard drive and drive it Google HQ and ask the guy at the water cooler to hold on to it until tomorrow.

Cloud services are 100% at the mercy of your Internet connection status and upload speed. Do you know what your upload speed is? Most people when asked what their connection speed is will either say "I dunno" or give a specified (and promised by the ISP) download speed. The upload speed is usually much slower. For example, my connection here (and keep in mind I am out in the boonies!) is 10 meg, or 10 Megabits per second.  But that is the download speed, my upload speed is less than  1 meg. Which means if I try to keep a real time sync or nightly backup of my entire hard drive, it would take 400 years and 63 seconds to complete. That's a rough calculation of course :-)

The only two pros I can think of for the cloud is that is off-site, so if your house burns down and takes your studio with it, your backups are still safe. Secondly, you can access the data from any device, anywhere at any time.

Despite the two strong pros, it's a no for the cloud services being used as backup for audio production computers.

External USB Drive

External USB connected drives are a good choice for laptops because the laptop rarely stays in one spot for long and it's not possible to install a second drive into a laptop unless it has a place for one. Not to mention if the laptop is destroyed or stolen, both drives go away with it.

As for using an external drive with a stationary PC, it works but I prefer other means for this type of machine. I'll get to those later in the article

External drives come in all sizes, speeds and qualities. You can get a large, good quality drive for just a small investment

Multiple Internal Drives

This is one of my two backup devices of choice. The con is that if you use a laptop for your studio projects, this method is pretty much out of the question. Oh and another con is that if the PC is stolen, both drives are gone.

Since I have no plans on letting anyone in my studio to steal my computers (I am a home security guy too ;-) I use this method along with the network storage method mentioned below.

A second drive in your computer is great because it's fast, great I/O, particularly if it's solid state. If not solid state, get a 7200 rpm drive. Mine is a 1TB 7200 rpm Seagate drive.

I use this drive for an incremental sync type backup of my entire hard drive every time I shut down the computer. So when I am done working at the end of the day (or 2am), I just shut it down and the backup happens while I sleep. The software I use for that is called SyncBack and I'll go over that in the software section below.

LAN Backup (Local File Server)

Do you have a router/modem in your home? Then you have a LAN. It stands for local are network and simply refers to the small network inside your home or office where all the devices are connected to the Internet, and potentially each other.

If you've got an extra PC that will still run fine with a fairly modern OS, then you have a potential file and backup server. I am not going to go into how to do all that in this blog post, but I will say that it's a great choice for backing up anything.

The only con is that you have a pc running 24/7 on your network, so if you are worried about electricity consumption cost, maybe go with something else. Though the cost isn't much if you turn off the monitor.

With this type of backup you can access your files from any device in your home and also setup your own cloud to access it while you are away. LAN speeds are generally GB (Gigabit) these days with typical Cat5E cabling so file transfers are quick and painless.

Note: Do not expect to do this with wireless connections, they are too slow for huge amounts of data like this.

Backup Software

Here are some products I have used or currently use and my opinion of them and their capabilities/uses.

This is my product of choice for most backup types. They've got a free version that is way too functional in my opinion, I never saw a reason to buy the big brother version until recently I needed a couple extra functions. I have incremental sync jobs set up with this software that check the destination drives for files that have not been backed up yet (new files) and pushes them over. Creating a quick and complete running backup of my drive or whatever files and folder I choose.
Syncback has always been the techie product of choice, so maybe I am just used to it, but it works.

This is a product I used for years to make scheduled clones of entire drives. I've used it on servers at my local Government job as well as at home and early Acoustica. I've also installed the home version for many family and friends. The con with this is that it runs in the background constantly, and I am a big proponent of having as little running as possible on any given pc. If that doesn't bother you ,then this may be your solution.

This one is very similar to Paragon, with many of the same features and functions. I've used Easus products many times and they always perform well. I believe it even comes with a bootable cd maker that allows you to copy hard drives bit for bit without the OS running. There's also a free version but it's less functional.

This is another favorite of the tech community. The company is less commercial and flashy and the software is a little more difficult to setup and use. However, it works great.

I could list a dozen other products but they'd be variations of these in one way or another.
I tend not to use software that comes bundled with external drives or sticks, or with windows. It's all going to be bloated (intrusive and full of junk you don't need). That is why I always choose something I've hunted down and researched myself.

Happy backups people, you've now got no reason to lose your data!

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