Back It Up

Back It Up


A local newspaper story caught my eye recently. According to the article, a woman sitting at a sidewalk café table had her laptop snatched by a couple of thugs on a motorbike. This was traumatic enough for the victim, but worst of all, the report went on to say, was that she lost four years’ worth of work on her second novel, the only copy of which was stored on a memory stick, which was plugged into the laptop.  Being the subject of a robbery is a pretty painful experience, and losing four years’ worth of writing must be devastating, but what bothered me about the story was why on earth there was no backup for this irreplaceable material at all, over the course of four years. The laptop was an Apple MacBook Air, probably one of the simplest machines to back up, either to an external drive or to one of the many cloud services available, and a text file, even one containing a novel, is small enough to drop onto a second USB stick in a minute or two. It’s a lesson hard learned for this particular lady, but I’m willing to bet that she won’t make the same mistake when she finally gets around to rewriting the book.

Back in the days of reel-to-reel show tapes, I tended to make backups of any show that I thought ought to be preserved, and a copy would be made for the archive, along with cue sheets and anything else germane to the sound design of the show, but I certainly didn’t archive everything. Apart from the time factor, space was a major problem: There simply wasn’t room to store extra copies of every single show that I worked on, and the theatre’s sound budget could barely afford the tape stock that we needed for making up new show tapes. Mind you, 20 years after I’d left my original theatre, the one-time artistic director called me up out of the blue, and the conversation went something like this: “Hello John, Val here. Remember that production of The Taming Of The Shrew that we toured back in 1970? [This call came in 1995, by the way.] Have you still got the tapes? I’m remounting the show.” And I was able to call the theatre and get them to check the archive, and there, gathering dust on a shelf, were the show tapes and their backups. Luckily, the tapes had been stored tail out and recorded on tape-stock that predated the change in formulation of the binder that led to the notorious “sticky-shed” problem that rendered many stored tapes unplayable. A careful transfer to DAT and then to CD followed, and the soundtrack lived again.

With the coming of digital recording, backing up became something rather different. In the early days, the only real option for large amounts of data storage was to use specialist DAT-based data storage units like the Hewlett Packard SureStore, offering 8GB storage and a maximum (using hardware data compression) transfer speed over SCSI of 3.6GB an hour. This kind of thing was meant for office networks and was certainly beyond my reach. External hard drives were big, heavy, and expensive. I paid about $600 for my first 40MB Seagate (yes, that’s 40 megabytes, enough to store about eight minutes of audio at 44.1/16 bit) back in the late 1980s and used it for audio editing on my Amiga A2000, since upwards of $6K for a Mac-based Sound Tools system was a bit out of my price range back then. I got through boxes of 3.5'' floppy disks, using various software backup tools, then even more boxes when Akai samplers came along. Eventually, I was able to afford a SyQuest 44MB drive, and instead of boxes of floppies, shelves began to fill with Syquest cartridges.

The need for storage space increased as I needed to free up space on the hard drives in both my laptop and my studio machine, but I never quite graduated to the 88MB version before the cheaper and rather more compact 100MB removable cartridge Zip drive from Iomega came along, and for a while, that became the backup solution of choice. SyQuest’s competing system, the EZ-135 drive, offered SCSI connectivity and a higher capacity but was soon outstripped by Iomega’s 1 and 2GB Jaz Drives, which more or less put paid to SyQuest’s challengers, the EZ-Flyer 230, the 1GB SparQ, and the 1.5GB SyJet, the latter two with fairly serious quality control issues. SyQuest went bankrupt in 1998, with Iomega picking up some of the pieces, although Iomega also went into a decline shortly afterward, as CD-RW drives became the de facto standard for most computer users.

Endless Archives

In the sampler world, there were also assorted flavors of rewritable magneto-optical (MO) drives, using various sizes of cartridge, both physical and in terms of data capacity, which were favored for their small size and high capacity. Akai offered a version of its S3200 sampler, with a built-in MO drive, but too often, proprietary disk formats led to incompatibilities, and, although MO drives still flourish in some parts of the data-storage industry, they are rarely seen in the audio world today. Life got a bit easier and certainly tidier with the advent of affordable CD-R and DVD writers, but backing up for archiving was still a time-consuming chore, and using proprietary encoding systems could be fraught with danger, as hardware and software changes could easily make archives made under older systems unreadable.

Having experienced the pleasure and the pain of many of the above, I now have a bunch of boxes at my storage unit that contain backups in almost all of those formats, including some made on a totally obscure MO drive that one major theatre company here in the UK standardized on, shortly before the manufacturer went out of business, and the format became instantly defunct. I know that hidden in those boxes somewhere are recordings that I really should resurrect if, some day, I can amass a working collection of all the various drives and find some way to hook them up to a current computer.

When the price of large capacity hard drives reduced to a generally affordable level, I standardized on the use of an eSATA dock and bare drives, using a mixture of incremental backups, cloud storage, and disk-cloning software for most of my archiving. Apple’s Time Machine does the day-to-day (laptop) and hour-to-hour (studio) wired heavy lifting on my system and active audio drives, with the cloud helping out on the current working drives. Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper looks after entire disk clones, and Synkron keeps my music and sound effects backups synchronized. My Mac Pro tower has five internal drives, courtesy of OWC’s MultiMount, two of which are designated for audio work in progress: one 7,200 RPM 2TB for everyday recording and editing and a 10,000 RPM Western Digital 600GB VelociRaptor for high sample-rate multichannel files. Important work and completed show files get transferred to an external archive drive, which is itself backed up to another external drive, and a neat little program called DiskTracker does an excellent job of keeping a record of what’s on which drive from the stack of around 40 cased 3.5'' bare drives that now form my rather more compact archive. A second drive dock simplifies retrieving data once I’ve found it.

Cloud storage is useful but brings a number of other problems with it, such as uncertainty about what happens if your storage company of choice suddenly goes belly-up, plus the fact that, unless you have a very fast Internet connection, uploading can be a long, slow process. For example, backing up my 2TB working audio drive to the BackBlaze cloud storage facility took almost a month of continuous uploading in the days before fiber optic broadband arrived in our area, and replacing the hard drive on my laptop caused an insoluble problem that led to me having to delete the cloud backup and start all over again.

As the price of solid-state drives comes down and capacity goes up, I suspect that my first-line backup strategy will move to SSD, but I’ll still keep backups of important material in different formats and in different places, although I think it may be time to consign some of those 40-year-old show tapes to the dustbin of history, once I’ve found the time to back them up, of course. And yes, I still have a reel-to-reel tape machine, a decent compact cassette machine, a DAT machine, a MiniDisc player, and a record deck (which can play 78 rpm disks, as well) for archiving all the material that I’ve amassed over the years. All I need now is a couple of years’ worth of free time.

Incidentally, as I’ve been writing this, the backup drive for the studio computer has announced that it’s near capacity, so I’ve replaced it and moved the full one to the shelf along with its fellows. It’s got me out of trouble a couple of times when I accidentally deleted a couple of effects recordings from the desktop that I was working on and failed to remember that I hadn’t copied them across to the working audio drive. Let’s face it, even Homer nods.

John Leonard is an award-winning designer who has been working in theatre sound for over 40 years. In his spare time, he records anything that makes an interesting noise in high-definition surround sound. He is also almost certainly the only sound designer in the world to have piloted a Spitfire. His sound effects libraries are available online at

For more, download the October issue of Live Design for free onto your iPad or iPhone from the Apple App Store, and onto your Android smartphone and tablet from Google Play.

TAGS: Theatre
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