This very useful article used to be available on Keyboard magazine's website; but as it's no longer available there, I thought I'd archive it here—in Keyboard magazine's forum—for future reference:

Just when you thought your data was safe
by Craig Anderton
Keyboard, August 2003

You're not like most musicians: You practice safe data by regularly backing up your hard disk projects, and dutifully burning them to a CD- or DVD-ROM. And you think you're safe — but unfortunately, you're not.

In digital-land, nothing lasts forever. Let's say five years from now, you need to remix a tune you created just yesterday. Then you find out the plug-in that was essential to your trademark "Pipe Organ of Doom" sound was made by a company that went out of business in 2005. You still have the original distribution CD, but you changed hard drives, and you can't get an authorization number for a re-install. And, the DAW (digital audio workstation) manufacturer changed file formats. You finally find an ancient copy of your old DAW software, and amazingly enough, it installs; but whenever you load the file, the program crashes because it can't find the missing plug-in. Ouch.

What got me thinking about this was Roger Nichols' excellent column on the need to document sessions in the May 2003 EQ.

The key to ironclad backup is not to save complete projects, even in a "universal" format like OMF, but to save each track of a project individually. A WAV or AIFF file will likely be readable by the DAWs of tomorrow, even if you need to import each track one at a time.

Let's start with soft synths. If you're using any in your projects, bounce the audio output to a hard disk track. Make sure this track, like all other tracks you export, extends for the entire length of the song (or at least, from the very beginning to past the point where the instrument stops playing). All tracks must have a common starting point so you can time-align them when you import them into a DAW.

As to tracks with signal processing plug-ins, do one bounce without plug-ins, and one with. That way, if you upgrade your plug-ins someday, you can use them but still have your old track for comparison. If there are a lot of automation moves on a track, consider bouncing versions with and without automation.

When bouncing, make sure that any track you don't want to bounce is muted or otherwise disabled, and that no clipping or overly-low levels occur. For example, with Sonar the signal that's bounced comes off the bus to which the track is assigned, because sometimes you may want to bounce a premix of bused tracks. However, you need to optimize the track and bus levels.

Finally, be aware of any "trick" ways to save tracks. For example, in Sonar you can save a track's file by dragging it out of a project to the desktop or another folder, which automatically names and saves it. Furthermore, you can grab multiple files and do this, which makes backing up tracks really easy.

However, if you "drag-save" a slip-edited clip from Sonar, the entire unedited clip will be saved. If several slip-edited clips co-exist on the same track and you want to save them as a single track file, select them all, then invoke "Bounce to Clip(s)." If after you do this the first clip doesn't start at the tune's beginning, drag its start point leftward until it hits the start of the song, then drag-save or bounce to track.

Also note that bouncing to clip renders any clip automation (gain or pan) to the bounced file, but not track automation. If you want to save versions of the file with and without clip automation, delete the clip automation, then drag the file to the desktop or folder. Undo the deletion(s), bounce to clip, then save the bounced file.

Also save any MIDI data (notes driving the soft synths, MIDI controller information embedded in a track, etc.) as a Standard MIDI File. This type of file doesn't take up much space, so export it as both Type 0 and Type 1 formats just in case. When it's time to resurrect a file from the past, you may be able to replace the wheezy soft synth you always hated with something new and wonderful — but only if you saved the MIDI part that tells the synth what to do.

And while you're at it, save the song in whatever your native project format might be. Anything's possible, including the ability of programs in the future to read file formats of today.

Exporting and saving all these files translates into a fair amount of material. Let's say you've done a 4-minute pop tune with 32 tracks, using 16-bit resolution at 44.1kHz. Each track will take about 40MB (60MB for 24-bit files). 32 tracks equals 1,280MB, and if you save alternate versions of the tracks (e.g., with or without automation), you can double or triple that. Where are you going to save all this stuff?

You have five main options:
DVD+R or DVD-R. These formats hold a little under 5GB, so you can hold all your material on a single disc (I advise one song per disc anyway — that way if there's a catastrophic physical problem with the media, you've lost only one song).

CD-R. At 700MB, you may need two or more of these to back up your material. But they're cheap, proven, and it's likely you can find something that can read them a few years from now.

Data tape. This deserves a column in itself, but I'm not too big a fan of tape backup. It's cost-effective and reliable, but I have concerns about finding devices that can play back those tapes a decade from now.

Big hard drive. Put a removable drive bay in your computer, buy a 120GB drive, and make it a removable backup drive. A drive like this can cost a little over $100, and stores a lot of tunes.

Red Book audio CD. Should all else fail, if you back up each track as its own song, you can always play the audio output into something.

But don't back up to just one medium: For example, back up to both DVD+R and hard disk, with Red Book audio just to be safe. Keep the hard drive or DVD+R in a safe deposit box, and every few years, "refresh" them to new media (I just saved all my DAT tapes to CD-R).

Yes, it's a lot to store (but think about 2" reels of analog tape, and you won't feel so bad!). Is it really worth saving all this data? Only you can decide. But I've been in this business long enough to see a lot of music get resurrected, so when in doubt, it pays to save.


Craig Anderton's latest sample loop CDs are Technoid Guitars (Steinberg/ Wizoo) featuring dance/techno oriented guitar, and Turbulent Filth Monsters (Discrete Drums).

Enthusiasm powers the world.

Craig Anderton's Archiving Article