We’ve all been there. It’s 11pm on Friday, and the deadline to deliver the finished mix is noon on Saturday. You settle into your studio cockpit, and your computer greets you with “cannot find the audio files for this session.” Or maybe you’re in the middle of recording the most awesome vocal performance that this planet has ever heard… and there’s a power failure. Or, heaven forbid, you walk into your studio only to find that the computer, your 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst guitar, a dozen bottles from the wine cellar, and the emergency cash are all missing.
You can never be 100% safe from all possible disasters. For example, if the zombie apocalypse starts tonight, I wouldn’t sweat the string arrangement for tomorrow’s session. But as a professional you owe it to your clients to be prepared for the most common kinds of disaster.
1. Back up your data.
I bet you saw this one coming. You do back up your data, right? No? Then go do it right now. Seriously. Even if you don’t come back and read the rest of this article, I’ve done my job.
Back up often. Back up everything. At the very least, just connect an external hard drive, and copy all your data to it once a week. These days, external hard drives cost only $40 per TB. Each time you do this, create a new folder with today’s date. When you eventually run out of space on the external hard drive, then just delete the oldest backup folder to make room for the newest one each week. With this simple manual solution you won’t lose more than a week’s worth of data. If you’re paranoid, then back up more often. You can also do daily partial backups (back up just the projects that you worked on since the previous backup), and do a full backup once a week.
There are also online backup services. Probably the best known is Carbonite, but there are others. Modern operating systems come with their own backup utilities, so you probably don’t even need to buy additional software or subscribe to an online service unless you want more control over the backup process: If you use a Mac, you already have Time Machine; if you use Windows, you already have the built-in Windows backup utility.
2. Save often.
Software sometimes crashes. It’s a fact of life. And here’s a theory based on personal experience: When software crashes, it’s usually right when you’re doing something important and haven’t saved your work in a while.
So get in the habit of saving your work often. When (not if) your software crashes, you’ll only lose the work that you’ve done since the last time you saved it. People notice that the “S” is wearing off my computer keyboard; that’s because I use the key command to save my work so often. I don’t even do it consciously anymore; it’s not like a timer goes off inside my head every 5 minutes that says “time to save your work.” I just do it without even thinking about it. Save immediately after you’ve done an important edit, or right after you’ve recorded something, or right after you’ve typed a sentence. (Yes, I just saved my work after typing that.)
Depending on what software you’re using, it might even have an “auto-save” feature, which saves your work at regular intervals. It might be wise to enable that feature, but be aware that it could interfere with audio functions that access the hard drive. If you save your work manually (but frequently) you can make sure that you only save when doing so doesn’t interfere with something else.
3. Use a UPS.
That’s “uninterruptible power supply,” not “United Parcel Service.” A UPS is basically a big battery that goes between your equipment and the AC outlet. If the electricity shuts off (for example, a tornado knocks down the telephone pole in front of your house, or you forgot to pay your utility bill), the battery keeps your equipment running for a few minutes. How long depends on the size of the battery and how much you have plugged into it, but it means you’ll have time to shut everything down gracefully before the UPS battery runs out.
This is important because otherwise equipment can be damaged, or data can be lost.
4. Have extras of everything.
There are things that you can’t have too many of: batteries, pens and pencils, blank recordable CDs, cables (audio, power, data), bottled water, business cards, etc. Keep a good supply on hand.
In situations where you need to provide a certain number of something, add one or two beyond the number that you need. For example, last year I was in charge of the PA system for a friend’s outdoor wedding. When I asked him how many mics they would need, he said “just one.” To his surprise, I said “OK, I’ll bring 3 mics, 3 mic stands, and 3 mic cables.” When we got to the wedding site and started to set up, it became apparent that the bride and groom couldn’t share the mic with the singer, because the singer was standing quite a distance from the couple, and it would have looked terrible to have the mic move back and forth between the two locations. And then, sure enough, the pianist arrived and
came up to me and said “I’ll be singing harmony; do you have another mic?” So we used all three of the mics, stands, and cables that I brought.
That’s just one example of why you might need more mics than you thought you did. There’s also the possibility that one of the mics won’t work, and you’ll be glad that you brought an extra.
Other things for which you’ll want to have extras in case something stops working or gets lost right when you need it: your computer mouse, headphones, and whatever is needed for your particular instrument(s) such as strings, picks, rosin, and reeds.
5. Heed the early warning signs.
Sophisticated electronic gadgets sometimes are polite enough to announce their impending demise. A few scattered bright green dots on your monitor might mean a dying video card. A high pitched sound coming from the hard disk might mean all your files are about to go to file-heaven.
If you are fortunate enough to be given a warning, assume the worst. Save your work. Back up your data. Replace that video card or hard disk.
Too often we continue to drive a car, day after day, even though the “check engine” light is on. Then one day, probably in the most inconvenient time and place, the car dies. It’s the same way in the recording studio. I don’t know why, but people will say “that whining sound? Oh, that’s just my hard disk. It’s been doing that for the last month. What did you say? Back up my data? No…why?”
6. Keep your gear in shape.
You know what they say about an “ounce of prevention,” right? Create a studio maintenance checklist. Once a month, run through the checklist and make sure everything is working. Keep your software up to date. Test the odd piece of gear that you only use once a year. Make sure the refrigerator is stocked with bottled water and craft beers.
7. Install a security system.
Part of successfully operating a recording studio is to advertise its existence and location, and to brag about the cool expensive instruments/equipment that live at that location. Unfortunately this also means that you are broadcasting to potential burglars.
So it just makes sense that you should have a good lock on the door, and you should keep it locked. But I also recommend installing a security system. Companies like ADT (www.adt.com) provide video surveillance and 24/7 monitoring. Smartphones and apps provide numerous possibilities for protecting your studio against burglaries, fires, floods, and so on.
And that brings us to a related precaution…
8. Have insurance.
There are two kinds of insurance that you should have: property insurance and liability insurance. Property insurance covers the replacement cost of your equipment if your studio burns down, gets blown over, gets flooded, or is flattened by a stampeding herd of cattle. Liability insurance covers medical and other expenses if someone other than you gets injured while in your studio.
It’s reasonable, and usually not very expensive, to have both kinds of insurance. In the first case you’re probably laughing and saying “Yeah, right, what are the chances that my studio will burn down?” and in the other case you’re probably laughing about improbable scenarios like a singer trying to hit a really high note and suffering a brain aneurysm. To be sure, both kinds of event are very unlikely, which is why the insurance won’t cost much. But if you are extremely unlucky, and one of these things happens, without insurance you might be faced with enormous repair costs or legal fees.
If your studio is in your home or on your property (such as a detached garage), don’t just assume that it is covered under your homeowner’s policy. Consult with your insurance company. It could be, for example, that your homeowner’s policy doesn’t cover your studio if it is being run as a business.
9. Enforce a “no liquid” policy.
One of the lesser known consequences of General Relativity is that the gravitational attraction between a cup of coffee and a piece of equipment is proportional to the replacement cost of that equipment.
I’ve been there on more than one occasion, so let me summarize briefly: cappuccino + laptop = not pretty. So next time you’re tempted to set your cup of coffee, water bottle, glass of wine, or anything else in liquid form next to your mixing console, Steinway grand, or MacBook Air, stop. Instead, put it somewhere that’s at least ten feet away from anything valuable. Consider also posting a sign on the studio door saying “no liquids, please.” Even if no clients ever walk through that door, the sign will serve as a reminder to yourself.
Did I leave anything out? Of course. It’s the unknown unknowns that eventually get us. The zombie apocalypse might even have already started. But if the zombies cut the power lines, at least my UPS will let me save my work before they break down my door.