Your computer informs you that an OS update is available for your operating system. What is your first reaction?
The prospect of an update for our operating systems can be all too tempting and tantalisingly attractive. "A fresh new set of wallpapers you say? The promise of security updates and 'bug fixes'? Oh, go on then."
Many people succumb to temptation and dive right in, without any thought about the consequences. I, however, would urge you to wait at all costs, and I'll explain why.
OS update or wait?
With the release of Mac OS Sierra, it reminded me once more of a big problem that many producers and artists face. [If you're reading this at a later date, simply replace 'Sierra' with the relevant OS.] Unfortunately I see this issue over and over AND OVER again.
This year was no different. I saw the same trail of manic updates pouring through my social feeds that I see every year. These statuses consistently fall into one of two categories:
"Should I upgrade to OS [blank]? Anyone had any problems?"
"Mac OS [blank] looks awesome, anyone updated yet?"
"I use Serum, should I update to OS [blank]? Any bugs?"
"Upgraded to Mac OS [blank], audio interface not working, help me!"
"Whatever you do, DO NOT update to OS [blank]...Logic keeps crashing!"
"Just upgraded to OS [blank] and none of my third party plugins are working...help?!"
There are those who want to upgrade, but hang fire, and there are those who jump in with two feet regardless of any warnings, completely ignoring the advice of others.
However, I must also point out that it's not always a conscious decision to upgrade. Automatic updates can leave new users in a frustrating position where they weren't aware of an update being initiated.
Someone new to Mac or Windows may be surprised to be greeted with a fresh new OS update and, sadly, the potential bugs that frequently go along with it. More on this later.
Is it worth it?
It's a valid question. Is it worth the upgrade to the next operating system or version of your DAW right this second? Are the latest features worth the risk of losing access to certain plugins, or even your whole DAW?
Although some people may disagree with me, my answer to this is always a firm no. Why? There's no need to take the risk, there are other ways to test the water without risking downtime, and no feature update should outweigh your music.
If it does, you need to ask yourself how serious you really are about your craft, and how much you really care about your work.
If you're still curious, I'd advise you to at least be scientific about it. It's useful to weigh up all of the potential positive and negative outcomes.
It's really all about risk management. I know that sounds dramatic, but I'll ask again: do you really want to potentially risk weeks of production downtime all for some GUI tweaks and a new notification pane? I know I don't.
General advantages of software updates include:
- Security upgrades
- Performance improvements
- Bug fixes (ironically)
- Fresh GUI
- Feature upgrades e.g. notifications, messaging etc.
Potential issues include:
- Overall performance issues e.g. slow speed (contrary to the above)
- DAW becomes buggy, exhibits anomalies or crashes seemingly randomly
- Third-party plugins lose functionality
- Having to downgrade your OS to a previous version
- Being unable to downgrade and forced into downtime indefinitely
The third-party dilemma
Of all of these outcomes, losing functionality or access to third-party plugins is one of the most frequent occurrences. This happens because the features of an OS update are often kept secret until release, not only from the public, but from many developers outside of Apple and Microsoft.
This results in a scramble during the first few weeks after a release date while third-party developers are forced to play catch-up and figure out any bugs. Sadly, for smaller companies (which is common in the audio world), this can sometimes mean that a product is even brought to an end, where the level of recoding required is higher than the ROI of the product.
It's good to be aware of this before you contribute to the mass of complaints that developers are inundated with during an upgrade period. Third-party companies are often small, hardworking teams (or even individuals) who are passionate about the industry and are burning the midnight oil to fix the problems.
There are a number of steps you can take to prevent as many potential problems from happening as you can.
1) Turn off automatic updates
I see it time and time again. As mentioned already, unfortunately many people fall foul of automatic updates being enabled on their system, be it Mac or PC.
As soon as a new OS or version of their DAW is released, it's automatically downloaded and replaces the previous version. They jump into their software and find that plugins aren't working and their projects are plagued with bugs and glitches. It's not fun.
Disable automatic updates on your machine to ensure that this doesn't happen. You can still receive notifications when the update is available, and then review it as and when is best using the steps below.
2) Be patient
There's always one! Somebody will jump straight in ignoring all of the advice and all of the warnings. This is inevitable so, as harsh as it sounds, these overly keen folk form unaware guinea pigs. Wait for the unknowing 'testers' to dive in and let them report the errors so that you don't have to.
I would advise waiting at least 2-3 months for an OS update after release. I know many producers will often wait longer, perhaps 6 months to a year - I think this is very wise.
There are also those who never upgrade, and others who even go to such extremes as to never connect their studio machines to the internet. You'll find plenty of these guys on production forums.
While I think this is a little extreme, I certainly understand where they're coming from! After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Check the relevant forums for reports from both users and developers. Apple's Logic forums are normally filled with warnings and cries for help after the release of an update.
If you absolutely cannot wait and you have the option, test the update on an alternative machine first. For example, I have a MacBook Air that is predominantly an admin machine and for editing on the go. I'm happy to test updates on this machine if needed as I still have a working desktop at my studio.
Too little, too late
I can hear some readers wondering, "Thanks Luke, this is great and all, but what if I've already updated?! Is there any going back?"
I get it, it happens. Particularly if you've been caught out by an auto update that you never agreed to.
Thankfully, there are ways to go back in time, as it were, and to reinstate your previous operating system or application as it was before the update was implemented. This is known as downgrading.
I will give an advance warning though, as it can be more complicated to downgrade nowadays than it used to be.
Back in the day, when you received a copy of your operating system on disc, you had the option to reinstall your system after the fact. Today, however, it can be tricky to locate digital installs of previous operating systems online.
Fortunately, charitable folk sometimes generate disk images using applications such as Toast, and provide them online for free.
It is, however, sometimes possible to revert to the previous OS update by implementing some lengthy workarounds.
Everything I've said up to this point has been intended to dissuade you from potentially putting yourself in this situation in the first place, and with good reason. But if you're stuck with a new OS update and a buggy system, there is a way back.
I'll take the current Mac example i.e. downgrading from macOS Sierra to El Capitan. The solution is outside of the scope of this article, but Macworld created a detailed guide on how to do this. It involves backups, some Terminal code and some knowledge of Disk Utility, but apparently it can be done.
If you were about to hit the red button and go ahead with that OS update, I hope this post was useful for you. Even if you decide to go ahead, hopefully it helped you to make an informed decision.
After all, it's totally up to you, and the risks associated with one particular update may not apply to your setup.
The main take-home from all of this is that it absolutely sucks to be forced into a period of unintended downtime. Whether it's caused by a hardware failure or a rushed update, I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
Making music is the most important thing, and it can be very frustrating if you're plunged into creative darkness, albeit temporarily.
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I'd love to know if you found this article useful or if it helped you out. If you have a question about anything discussed, feel free to let me know in the comments and I'll be happy to help.
If you have an OS update story that you'd like to share, please leave a comment below - it may be just the story or solution that someone is looking for!