Back That Sh*t Up: Success and Horror Stories

Early audio recordings were first printed and played back on reel-to-reel tape. Then DAT tape made an appearance. Compact discs were the next form of recording and distributing audio. Now, aside from rare exceptions, sound designers and audio engineers are working with digital audio files. Modern lighting and sound consoles also store digital files. The luxury of saving shows to a file empowers us to switch from one band’s settings to another faster than you can say, “Check 1, 2.”

There is a downside to this (not so new) digital landscape. Intangible work can make you forgetful about storing backup copies. I must confess that when I was still very green in my career, digital files seemed safer. I learned my lesson the hard way when I was designing sound for a theater production ten years ago. Someone broke into my friend’s car, where my laptop was and stole my computer with all of the sound files on it! I scraped together all of the files from email attachments with my director, but a lot of effects and music had to be recut. Not my proudest moment. Ever since then, everything gets backed up to a drive while I am working, and that drive gets backed up to a cloud. Like many sound professionals, I operate under the convention that if I have one copy of a file, then the file does not exist.

As my experience above illustrates, developing a file redundancy workflow often happens through the hard lesson of losing work. So I’m here to (hopefully) save some readers later pains.

I asked a few colleagues to exchange stories of lessons in the importance of backing up that they learned the hard way. Here are the lessons they shamelessly shared with me.

“ I was designing sound for a play. My sessions were all synced to Dropbox. I sat down for tech and opened my laptop, which proceeded to make that awful ‘crunching’ sound of end-of-life. I ran to the Apple Store, bought a new laptop, downloaded LogicPro, and had my show sessions up and running within an hour – in time for tech! Now, all of my document files live on DropBox. Projects live on synched drives, but I’ll still push to DropBox as an extra layer, namely if it’s something that would take me more than 5 minutes to redo.”

        — Veronika Vorel, sound designer
    “While I was studying Music Production and Technology at the Hartt School of Music, I had a project of recording a band. I asked my musician friends and completed recording the whole song including all instruments and vocals. Then, I tried to back up the work at the end of the day because ‘one file means the file doesn’t exist.’ So I backed it up. BUT, I found out that instead of rewriting from the new one to the old one, I did it opposite… replaced the entire new folder with older folder so I lost all my new work. I even used some programs to mirror the folder and stuff. It wasn’t just dragging and drop. I tried to find a way to save the file but it was all gone… I had to redo all the work the next day. Thank you to all my friends who came back the next day. Ever since then, I have become extra careful about the backup process.”
        — Gahyae Ryu, sound designer

“These days, I have gotten into the good habit of backing up projects after every session, both cloud and external. Technology constantly evolves, but technology can also fail, without explanation and at the worst time. But let’s say for example if a theatre director decided that they prefer the sound cue sequence from a previous rehearsal day, I can easily pull that from the archive of multiple backups and save precious production time.

    I save every 5-10 minutes because you never know when you can all of a sudden lose power. A worst-case scenario occurred when building cues for a particularly complex sequence in a play. The computer froze, and upon reboot, the progress was not saved. Then the next thing you know, everyone is waiting on you as you redo the building process all over again. You definitely don’t want to find yourself doing that while working on a play like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.”

        — Jess Mandapat, sound designer & composer

    “ I have a weird story where I had a backup of my laptop and console files and had my backpack stolen at a gig with my laptop and my backup hard drive and all my console thumb drives all in the backpack. I literally lost everything in one shot. So I learned the hard way that now I carry a thumb drive that stays with my console, a hard drive at home and I keep my backpack with me everywhere I go! “

        — Beckie Campbell, front-of-house engineer and owner of  B4Media Production.
    “Never delete a project until you’ve verified it’s backed up to one (if not two) places. I once deleted a session from my laptop because I assumed it was backed up. Turns out, my nightly backup failed, and I didn’t have it on another computer like I thought I did. Luckily it was just a personal project and I only lost a couple of afternoons of work, but that was nearly 10 years ago, and it still bothers me.”

        — April Tucker, re-recording mixer

    “I have a good story about when I blanked a console moments AFTER soundcheck, and someone showed me the history feature and bailed me out!” 

        — Becca Kessin, theatrical sound designer & educator

“There was the time I was designing a play, and the night before tech my FX drive decided to pine for the fjords. No worries…I’ll grab the backup drive. Which…had an empty folder called “FX Backup” where the backup had failed to sync.

    I spent that tech texting categories of effects to a generous friend who would quickly copy that category from his library to his webserver to let me download them as needed.”

        —  Andy Leviss, audio engineer & sound designer

    I was backing up a ten-hour day’s work of vocal comping and tuning. Fired up the backup drive to make my safety copy when the power went out, flashed on, back off, and then on again five minutes later. A drunk driver had hit a pole in the neighborhood. The power flashed while my drive was spinning and ended up wiping the main drive. Fortunately, the backup was okay, but I lost the entire day’s work. I called the producer, explained what happened, and told him I was going to have a drink and would re-do my work the following day. Bought an uninterrupted power supply first thing the next morning.”

— Josh Newell, audio engineer

    “My story about not backing up involves recording to only one media rather than not backing up to a laptop or hard drive. A little over 2 years ago, I’d use my Sound Devices MixPre 6 to record sound for smaller jobs. It’s a great little mixer, which can definitely handle 1 boom and 3 lav mics. The downside about this recorder is that it’s only recording to one media (SD Card). On one shoot, we downloaded mid-day. The DIT tells me that there are no files on my SD card, which I thought was strange because I specifically remembered recording the episodes. Somehow when he put the SD card into the computer, it formatted the card. We both panicked a little. Luckily someone had the program that recovers deleted files off of media, which found all of my original files. In this moment, I realized how important it was to record on more than one media. If I use a MixPre then I like to send the audio out to an external recorder.” 

        —  Kally Williams, production sound mixer

“Recently, I had a project I was working on that required multiple different session files that were slightly different from each other. My backup procedure is to usually keep every file I create in at least three separate places: two are stored on hard drives, and the last is a cloud backup (I currently use Backblaze). After a pretty exhausting workday where I put in a lot of time and energy into a particular project, I went to do my standard end-of-the-day backup where I drag the session onto the extra drive. Except, there was apparently another folder with the same name that I had not changed, and since it was a large session, I copied it over, hit okay, and walked away. When I came back a little while later, I realized that I had just completely overwritten the folder I had worked on all day. Not to worry, right? I could just use the backup from my cloud storage. Only, I had forgotten that I had temporarily disabled it a few days prior as I switched hard drives. Long story short, I lost everything- a full days work, and I was on a deadline. Let this be a reminder; always, always check your cloud backup before you start working, and make sure to back up your data, for reasons just like this one.”

        —  Christa Giammettei, freelance post-production audio engineer

I have a few stories where backups have saved the day for me. Console backups have been the most needed – twice because of water damage to the console, one of them the day of event for commencement at UCLA where they ran the sprinklers even though we were assured that they were off. Hollywood Sound arrived with new console 2 hours before the event and we were back up and running in about 20 mins after testing everything. At the Hollywood Bowl during the production of Hair in 2014 that Phil Allen designed, we got rained on at a Saturday show and had to replace the console for the Sunday show (which also rained a little). It was a quick switch out of cables, load the file, test and ready to go.

    So mostly I have had positive experiences with being glad for backups. I do think there is a generational difference in thinking about backups. Maybe it comes from more experience (time) and have seen things go down over different media (tapes, MD’s, CDs, etc., and writing down console settings from an analog desk). But I see many current students who live their lives with no backups whatsoever and when you bring it up they say things like “I would die if I lost my computer right now” yet continue without a backup plan. It’s so easy to backup these days, there really isn’t an excuse. Drives are cheap, dropbox and google drive are also relatively cheap and the software to clone (CCC or SuperDuper) work elegantly and are rock solid for recovery. It is just a state of mind to get into to start.”

 Jonathan Burke, sound designer

A recap of all of these lessons:

  • Back up your work to an external hard drive as well as a cloud.
  • Check your backup drives and cloud services to make sure they are actually doing what they are supposed to do.
  • Use obvious and organized file and folder naming conventions.
  • Technology can fail at random — don’t get caught with egg on your face when it does!
  • Back-ups can also serve as a way to revert to a previous state of your work.
  • Things can happen outside of your control, so back up to multiple places.
  • Never delete a backup until it is backed up to one or even two places.
  • Check the undo history.
  • Record to two drives when possible.
  • Save often.

Take your pick of external hard drives, thumb drives, and cloud services. There are many ways that are not too expensive to store and back up your work. Even if you start with a smaller hard drive, a couple of thumb drives, and a free Google Drive account it is better than nothing. Invest in even a small file storage system now to save hours (and lots of headache and trust issues) later!

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