When was the last time you backed up your work? It’s time to talk backup solutions.
As music producers we produce a lot of data. From initial track ideas and sketches, to full mixes and masters, to folders and folders of samples and presets. Our data is precious, it’s who we are and defines us as artists.
So why do so many producers fail to backup their work? Worse still, why do so many people lose their priceless projects? Is it carelessness, or simply lack of knowledge?
A little background
“If you don’t have it three times, you don’t have it.”
That was the advice from my university lecturers when I was starting out in the world of production. In other words, you should always have at least two additional copies of your work. Whenever I’ve promoted this mantra to others, I’m often met with rolling eyes and comments along the lines of this approach being way too excessive.
My response to this attitude, though, is why the hell wouldn’t you keep a backup of your precious work in this day and age? With the price of external hard drives it’s so affordable now, and the whole process can be frigging automated! There are literally ZERO excuses. Not time, not money, not nothing.
I have never lost a single file throughout the entirety of my digital life.
This is not because I’m a robot (far from it), it’s more so the direct result of some early close calls and learning from the unfortunate mistakes of others.
When I was 17 I had managed to save up enough money over the years, together with my weekend job, to buy my very first iMac. I was so excited. I knew this machine would be my gateway into music production and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Immediately I started using Logic Express (an early budget version of Logic Pro) to sequence my A-Level music compositions…and it was revolutionary. Especially compared to using Reason, Sibelius…and even a 6-track record Yamaha keyboard!
Sweet and sour
However, one night, after shutting down the Mac, I thought I’d double check that everything had been saved. I turned on the machine again and my heart was immediately in my chest. Bizarrely, the iMac seemed to have almost completely reset to default factory settings. I felt sick, I had cold sweats. All the work and hours I had put in, all lost…surely not?!
I couldn’t find the work anywhere. After staying up late searching through every folder I could find, I finally gave up.
The next day I called Apple Support (after all, I was a total newb) as a last straw. Luckily I got through to a really helpful assistant who managed to navigate me to the relevant folder architecture and I was able to recover all of my files. No admin mode, no route folders, no bespoke hard drive recovery. Phew.
I was fortunate to learn this valuable lesson early in my journey. After that experience, I immediately ordered an external hard drive from eBay and began backing up my data. Well over a decade later, I still have that old drive. It makes a hell of a noise when starting up and I stopped relying on it a number of years back, but it still clunks away if needed and marks the start of my foray into backup solutions.
Lost for words
As a long-time member of many of the Facebook groups and online music production companies, I’m always shocked at how many people complain about losing files. I’ve also been astonished when gathering tracks for playlists when producers inform me that they’ve lost the original WAV or deleted the project file.
Revelation to education
At first I was really disappointed that people would be that careless with their art and found it difficult to relate. But then I realised, maybe they just haven’t developed efficient, robust systems for keeping their data secure. Maybe they haven’t had similar experiences to me, that triggered me to create these backup protocols.
Therefore, I thought it might be beneficial to break down my backup method to prevent others from going through these issues again and again.
My backup system
First of all, it’s really simple. It’s not complicated, and it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to set up. It just takes some initial preparation and setting aside a few hours (potentially even less, I just have a lot of data!), and then it’s literally ‘set and forget’. You won’t have to worry about it again.
I adopted this approach as a necessity when working as an engineer at a recording studio, where I would record multiple sessions each week. In this scenario, it was no longer just my own work at stake, it was the work of paying clients. Work ranged from passion projects and live events, to radio and TV.
It was therefore essential that this data was kept safe, and that it could be recalled at any time in the future. It was my duty and responsibility to ensure that our clients’ work would not be lost. This forced some good habits, and I’m happy to say that I never lost anyone’s work.
Prevention is better than a cure
However, I’ve seen things go very wrong for others. Whatever industry you’re in, there are always horror stories of data loss, sometimes on an epic scale. Don’t let this be you! Besides, it’s easily avoided – that’s precisely why it’s so inexcusable when it happens.
In this post I’m going to outline my thoughts on storage, provide a detailed breakdown of my entire backup process, and also highlight some bonus features that offer a fun addition to improve your quality of tech life.
Step 1: Storage
How much storage do you need? Storage is cheaper than ever nowadays, and the question is how much do you value your work? As boring as it seems to buy hard drives, I would argue that they’re the most critical pieces of equipment to invest in, above soft synths, samples…everything. Don’t see it as spending your hard earned money simply on silicon – see it as investing in yourself, your work and your future.
I prefer to purchase external storage equal to the capacity of my computer’s local drive (for me, this means 3TB). But in reality, if you can’t afford the extra storage right now, you need only backup what you’re using.
For example, you may only have 100GB of data occupied on your local hard drive, in which case I would advise at least 1.5x that for your backup i.e. 150GB. That way, all your data is backed up, and you also have space for additional files to be added in the next few months.
If you’re dealing with video, however, this is a whole different ball game, as you’ll obviously need a lot more space (we audio guys are pretty darn lucky in that respect).
I’ve used a variety of hard drives and brands over the years. A lot of people claim that “hard drives are hard drives”, but I only agree to a certain extent. A quick Amazon search will reveal a whole range of products with an even greater range of reviews, from positive to outraged.
You can get some insanely cheap deals on storage but I would highly recommend going with a reputable brand. Ultimately, all hard drives have a limited lifespan (and none should be fully trusted, hence the purpose of this post), but investing in a proven brand and model is the wisest move in the long term.
Above all, reliability is king. Check the reviews and ratings and go with the all-round most reliable, cost effective drive you can find. Here are some brands that I have personally used and would recommend:
I also advise checking Amazon’s offers regularly for the latest deals as and when you’re in the market, as they often have sales on hard drives where you can grab a bargain.
Network and cloud solutions
Before I go on to explain the backup process, it’s worth noting some other factors that may play into your decision. You may be looking to invest a little extra to get a device that can do more than simply store local files.
NAS or Network Attached Storage devices have become more and more affordable in recent years, as well as a lot less clunky. Essentially, a NAS sits on your network to allow access to your files throughout the home (or studio) and many also enable remote access over the internet. Rather than sharing access to a drive via a computer, it works independently, allowing direct connection to your router via an ethernet cable.
This can be super handy in a number of scenarios. If you’re anything like me you may have accumulated a substantial amount of music over the years, as well as movies, photos and other media files. Many network attached drives allow you to access these files through the network using other devices, such as additional computers, smart TVs, tablets and smart phones.
In addition, if they allow internet access you can access your files from anywhere on the planet, so long as your hard drive and router are connected and switched on!
My personal choice
As a self-confessed nerd, I couldn’t resist going the extra mile to try this out, and I must say I haven’t looked back. I bought a Western Digital MyCloud as it’s small (it’s literally hiding behind my speakers, you can’t even see it), convenient, affordable and WD seem to have ironed out some of the obstacles that have plagued home NAS solutions up until recent years.
It offers Time Machine compatibility, so I’m able to use it to back up all of my data automatically. I also store all of my entertainment media on it to allow access around the house. I can now drag and drop data onto the MyCloud from any of my devices, as well as view any of my files, wherever I am.
Whether I’m on my studio computer, phone, tablet or smart TV, I can get access to the system. It also has a handy feature that can backup your phone’s photos the moment it connects to your WiFi network – great if you’re sick of manual backups (or hate iCloud).
A personal cloud
In addition, I can also access any of this data while I’m away from home. For example, I can edit files on the go, or stream my library of movies and music from anywhere in the world…it’s pretty darn elegant if I do say so myself. Imagine a personal, customised Dropbox but with a ridiculous amount of storage and more control, and you’ve got a good idea of where I’m coming from.
I appreciate that this may be overboard for most, but I didn’t want to go without mentioning it as I know there are a lot of people out there with a similar compulsion to mess with tech!
Step 2: Automation – set and forget
Now that you have your external hard drive at the ready, it’s time to put it to work.
I will admit that I spent many years manually backing up individual files and folders. At first it was because automated backups weren’t widely available (and because I didn’t know better), and then it was because I just didn’t want to put my trust into an automated system.
However, not only can this become complicated, it can also become tiring. Human nature dictates that one will either (1) make a mistake such as overwriting (backing up is often the last thing we do at the end of the day when we’re feeling drained), (2) forget to backup or (3) get too lazy and take the risk that one missed backup won’t cause any issues. We all know this is NOT the way to go.
A flawed system
I was always pretty good at backing up frequently, but it definitely wasn’t every day. I’ve been super fortunate that I’ve never lost a file, but I’ve had some lucky escapes and it’s definitely not a fun experience.
I will note that I’ve never risked it with client files – this is unacceptable and there are no excuses for taking risks with other (paying) people’s files.
My preferred way of backing up data nowadays is keeping things fully automated. As all of my music production is done on Macs, my backup software of choice is Apple’s Time Machine and, I have to say, it’s pretty awesome. What I like about it is the simplicity and the fact that it’s truly ‘set and forget’. In other words, after an initial setup, I don’t have to think about it, which I personally value incredibly highly!
Setting up Time Machine is really straightforward, so I won’t go into it here. In fact, your Mac will usually prompt you with a dialogue box whenever you connect an external drive, asking whether you’d like to configure it for Time Machine. Apple have some handy information here and a quick YouTube search will pull up a ridiculous number of tutorials if you get stuck.
If you’re not a fan of Time Machine (or you use a PC), I’ve also had great experiences with ChronoSync, which we used to backup projects at the studio. I’ve also heard great things about Carbon Copy Cloner. It doesn’t really matter what software you choose – the main priority is the safety of your files and, if relevant, the files of your clients.
Step 3: Backup the backup
Remember what I said about having two additional copies of your data? Well as you may well know, backups can fail (big time), so it’s a good idea to backup your backup too! I really do recommend this ‘belt and braces’ approach if you want to ensure that the risk of losing your data is reduced.
Now that you have your computer being backed up by Time Machine (or whichever automated system you prefer), it’s a good idea to make a second copy. There are many ways of going about this.
First of all, there’s the standard manual route. As I used to do, you could manually drag and drop all of your essential files and folders onto an additional external drive. While this is a functional backup solution, it’s by no means practical, falling foul of all of the issues listed previously. We can improve this considerably.
Automate. The second option is to purchase an additional external drive and simply create another Time Machine (or equivalent) duplicate of your system. You can create multiple Time Machine backups and it makes sense to utilise this.
You’d simply need to leave this additional drive plugged into your system or, alternatively, you can plug it in at regular intervals and it will happily continue making a fresh backup of your system. If a drive is absent for some time, Time Machine will even warn you that you haven’t made a backup in a while, but it’s still open to your discretion.
Finally, depending on your choice of original backup drive, it may offer it’s own bespoke solution. For example, My WD MyCloud has its own integrated backup feature. The drive itself features a USB input, allowing me to connect an additional external hard drive in a ‘daisy chain’ fashion.
I can then configure this additional drive as a backup system of the MyCloud, meaning that the Time Machine backup (and any other files on the MyCloud) is duplicated and voilà: a backup of the backup. Once again, this is totally automatic, so I never have to worry.
Step 4: Remote backup
While you’ll be in a much better position than most if you follow the advice above, there are additional security measures you can take.
If you really want to dig deep and go the extra mile, you could choose to create an offsite or remote backup. This means making a copy of your data and storing it in a different location, other than your home or studio.
This could be a cloud solution, such as Dropbox, or it could involve making a copy of your data and storing it in a different physical location.
Why would anyone do this? For maximum safety, that’s why. It’s particularly important for businesses or organisations with essential information that they cannot afford lose.
What if, for example, your studio gets flooded, or your home catches fire? While these are extreme scenarios and one hope’s that this never happens, it’s a possibility and we should therefore take it seriously.
Many companies use redundant backup solutions such as RAID (redundant array of independent disks) arrays where data is automatically backed up or stored across multiple drives simultaneously. Many of these systems can be configured to create a spare copy of the data which can be taken off site at the end of the day, just in case the worst should happen.
Option 1: Old school approach
If you work in a studio, separate from your home, it’s fairly straightforward to take home an additional backup at the end of the day. The only issue here is time, so I would recommend Time Machine, ChronoSync or Carbon Copy Cloner so that you’re not waiting around after your session is over for the manual copying to complete.
Option 2: Up in the clouds
If you produce at home, then a cloud-based solution is probably the best way to go. I have to admit, I’ve always avoided paid cloud solutions where possible, as they were relatively expensive when I was starting out. However, in the process of researching for this article I was pleasantly surprised at the current plans on offer.
For example, Dropbox is now offering individual plans for £8.99 per month (or £7.42 per month if you pay yearly). You get 1 TB of data included on this plan so it’s pretty impressive.
I use Google Drive for general files and documents, but it offers some competitive storage plans too. This could also be useful for project files and so on, particularly if you’re already used to the Google ecosystem.
Option 3: Mix it up
If you don’t feel you need that much space at this stage, or money is tight, you could combine both of the above. For example, you could store the majority of your files on an external drive, but utilise a cloud system for your current project files. This way, you don’t need as much space, and all of your work is protected. Google, for example, offers 15 GB of free storage, and it’s worth looking online for potential free storage solutions.
What’s it worth?
That about covers it for my backup process, as well as some added security possibilities for you to explore if you’re looking for a true belt and braces approach.
Ultimately, it’s a question of how much you feel your data is worth. I know that my projects and samples are extremely valuable to me, they represent a lot of time, energy, work, dedication and sacrifice. I would never want to lose them. It’s my art at the end of the day, and what makes me the artist I am.
Moreover, my archives provide a history of my journey in music production, and it’s great to be able to look back on how I’ve developed and what I’ve achieved.
Want to know more?
Although this was a lengthy post, I appreciate that I wasn’t able to go into every detail, so feel free to drop me a line with any questions you have. When it comes to protecting your art I’m happy to help in any way that I can!
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Finally, just one last word of advice…if you haven’t already, go backup your data now! 😉