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Dissin’ Disaster
Make your own luck and save a fortune...
By Elizabeth Papapetrou

So I'm recording tracks for a singer/guitar player on my old Pro Tools system. Everything’s going really well and we finish the session with way more accomplished than we expected. The session had gone so smoothly that I didn’t want to stop to back up the tracks—I started the backup process late and figured I could better organize everything on one CD-R anyway. I didn’t even worry when something I clicked on too quickly caused a Pro Tools crash and I had to reboot the Mac. Happens all the time. However, the start-up sequence ends with

And a puce-and-lime-green feeling of dread ices my solar plexus, flushes my face and drains into my shoes. Yep—it’s the audio files partition I’ve been recording to: All gone—every track, every song.

Now, all this shook me up pretty badly, but I was fortunate in that the client was a friend I was recording for nothing. It could have been a whole lot worse, and I decided there and then to get organized so that this could never happen again.

Setup

Signal loss or degeneration that cannot be traced and fixed is a major disaster. Plan out how to logically connect all your gear, by type groups and with ergonomics in mind, and test out all signal paths and functions with temporary connections before installation.

Be aware of heat build-up, and leave space between equipment and/or fit audio-quality rack “muffin” fans for cooling. Make sure all your equipment is working correctly and is appropriately adjusted, cleaned and serviced by someone who is qualified to do so. This may be you, but it’s more likely to be a trained technician. Be sure you know which.

Take a look at the set-up of DAWs. People add complex digital audio applications to an already overworked computer system and are surprised when they get constant system crashes. It’s recommended that DAWs use computer systems dedicated to their use only. However, it might be impractical to have two completely separate hardware systems. My solution for this is to set up two sets of system software—one for the DAW and the other for everything else—on separate drives in one computer. This works well for both Mac and PC systems; to switch from one to the other I merely restart the machine under the other system.

To enable Windows 95/98 to run separate systems software you have to use a utility called a boot manager. Several are available, including some that are free to download. Just search the Web using the keywords “boot manager.” Up until recently, I was using SAWPro under NT4 and recently changed over to Windows 2000. Both these operating systems feature a built-in boot manager. I’ve found NT4 and 2000 to be much more stable for audio use than other Windows operating systems, which bodes well for the largely NT-based Windows XP.

Backup

Whatever medium you record with, make sure you have appropriate ways to copy what you’ve recorded. Full back-up of multitrack analog masters can be expensive and time-consuming. A much less expensive option is to backup to ADAT at the end of a session. However, digital systems, particularly DAWs, require comprehensive back-up facilities that should be used frequently. There are countless ways to back up digital media—DAT, tape cartridge, removable disk, CD-R, CD-RW, extra hard drives (with or without swap caddies), etc. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Just pick the system most suitable for your data, speed and cost requirements.

I favor using CD-Rs, which are so inexpensive these days that it’s worth considering a general backup to CD-R several times a session, as well as mirror drives. Mirroring drives means using software, or a special card, that saves all data to two different but identical drives. Consequently, all your sound files are automatically backed up as you record them. It’s as simple as that.

Mirroring is one type of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) data storage on multiple hard drives—it’s designated RAID 1. Other RAID types save data in forms that may be faster to access or provide some mix of reliability and speed, but mirroring is the simplest and safest RAID type for audio backup.

Traditionally, mirroring has been done with SCSI RAID 1 systems, but they are very expensive. However, there have been fairly recent developments in IDE RAID mirroring devices and software at low cost. For Windows users, one low-cost option (currently $225) is a DupliDisk IDE RAID 1 disk mirroring controller from Arco Computer Products Inc. (www.arcoide.com). Mac aficionados have the option of using something called SoftRAID (www.softraid.com). SoftRAID currently costs $149 and is even bundled with some two-drive Apple systems and PCI SCSI cards.

One thing to be aware of, though, is that when RAID 1 is running you’re doubling the amount of data moving over the computer’s IDE bus. You will have to recheck your system to see how many audio tracks you can handle while running RAID 1.

Wiring & Cables

Use the best digital and analog cable you can afford and make your installations as permanent, yet accessible, as your situation will allow. For audio cable, fit good connectors (Switchcraft or Neutrik, for example) and always use the strain-relief facilities; you won’t regret it. I use two-conductor shielded cable for balanced and unbalanced lines. For unbalanced cables, I either leave the shield “floating,” i.e. unconnected at either end, or connect the shield to ground at one end. Make sure everything is soldered/crimped correctly and labeled clearly. Use heatshrink tubing or special cable labels—at a pinch, electrician’s tape will do, but not gaffer’s, duct or masking tape, as they come off too easily. I use different color heatshrink tubing and label each cable with numbers and/or names using permanent markers.

Keep cable runs tidy and away from walkways and other areas where people or equipment might snag them. If cable has to cross walkways, tape it to the floor or, preferably, use cable bridges. I loom runs of audio cables together with secure, but easily removable, hook-and-loop tape, plastic ties or split plastic tubing. I also keep audio and power cables apart and/or running parallel unless there’s absolutely no way for them not to cross close together, in which case I make sure they cross at 90 degrees, to minimize any possibility of EMI (Electro-Magnetic Interference) from the power cables.

Power

Check the state of your power supply. Make sure your studio AC is grounded and protected by a single circuit breaker. For a permanent installation, it’s a good idea to have an electrician run a dedicated ground for that circuit. Other aspects of power supply that are often overlooked are wall sockets. It doesn’t cost much to upgrade low-grade household wall sockets to commercial ones and thereby improve power transfer efficiency.

While a UPS is highly recommended for computer-based hard-disk recording systems, it is also advisable to use a UPS, rated sufficient for your needs, as a single source for equipment in any studio setting. In addition to backup power in the event of an outage, UPSs provide voltage regulation, surge protection and sometimes RFI and EMI filtering. If you don’t feel you require a UPS, make sure you have power strips that offer surge protection, and consider buying a power conditioner.

It’s a good idea to have a voltmeter monitoring your power supply in plain sight as part of your set-up. Some power conditioners have them built in, but if you need a stand-alone version, the meter bridge is a good location for it. Power level changes are often responsible for signal distortion in electronic devices and knowing your voltage level is low, for example, will save a whole bunch of faultfinding. Also, use high-quality power cables rated higher than specified for individual items of equipment. They are relatively inexpensive and will be more durable than something rated right at the power requirements for your gear.

Maintenance

OK, so we’ve got organization, power and signal sorted out. Let’s look at upkeep.

For a start, in every studio situation, dust is your enemy. Anything in my set-up that isn’t being used gets covered with a handy-dandy, non-static plastic cover designed for various pieces of computer equipment. If I can’t find an appropriate cover, I use towels or washcloths. I also vacuum and dust the control room and studio regularly. If you’re skeptical about the damage dust can do, have a chat with your friendly, local electronic repair guy and ask him about pots and faders. He’ll set you right.

Check all pots and faders regularly, even if their settings don’t tend to get changed, and pay particular attention to those on your console/mixer. Have them cleaned/serviced if they’re dirty or noisy in some other way. I’ve developed good relations with local repair facilities and know they will go out of their way to help out if I need something fixed or serviced urgently.

If you’re using analog or digital tape machines, clean the heads and capstans before every session and have them de-gaussed regularly. Use special test tones on tape to check speed, azimuth and bias every 20 hours or so of transport time. Again, have these aspects adjusted by someone who knows what they’re doing. If this is you, you will, of course, already have the specialized non-magnetic tools and equipment to do the job, don’t you?

ADAT machines and the like don’t require regular de-gaussing and it’s only necessary to clean the heads (and change the idler wheel “tire”) every 200 hours or so. Still, ADAT head cleaning is a pretty delicate operation that Alesis (www.alesis.com) advises users to shy away from. However, they do supply a videocassette showing how it’s done, if you’re interested in learning. Otherwise, leave it to a pro.

DAW maintenance mirrors that for other equipment. This includes the need to regularly defrag (short for defragmentation) or optimize your drives, preferably after every session. Defrag/optimization programs re-order the data on a drive, sorting files into contiguous patterns. It prevents the disk from slowing down and coming up with errors. A useful guide is to defrag when fragmentation gets above 2%.

Under Windows 95/98/2K/Me, “Scan-Disk & Defrag” are available as System Tools. For NT4, you must install a utility. Diskeeper is efficient and popular, offers extra disk management tools and is available as restricted-function freeware as well as a full commercial package (www.execsoft.com/coverpage.asp) For Macs, popular hard disk management tools that include disk defragmentation are available from Norton (www.nortonweb.com/home.shtml), among others. If you’re interested in exploring other options, try searching the Web under the keywords “disk defragmentation.”

Tools

Get the tools that may save the day when working with electrical and electronic challenges. And learn how to use them—under the pressure of a gear-failure situation, you’re not likely to have the presence of mind and emotional calmness to figure out how unfamiliar tools and materials work.

Art Whitfield’s ‘Studio Toolbox’ article has an excellent starting list, but I would definitely add one set of items to it— namely, soldering tools. You’ll want to add a pair of soldering irons in 15W and 30W power levels (for different tasks), some rosin-core silver solder (more expensive than standard types but gives better signal transfer efficiency), and a desoldering tool. Wire strippers and electrician’s tape will prove handy as well.

No-residue contact cleaner (from www.blowoff.com—no, honestly!) and lubricating contact cleaner like DeOxit (www.caig.com) are helpful to clean patchbays and freshly soldered cables, and heat shrink tubing and a hair dryer will make your homemade or repaired cables neat and easy to label. Canned air dusters are okay for surfaces but never for electronics—they will cram gunk into switches, faders, and pots. A small computer vacuum cleaner works better. And you can never have too many cable ties!

It’s well worth it to learn to solder skillfully. Get an experienced friend to show you and then practice. If there isn’t anyone around with the necessary skills, take a Community College course. It will be a mighty gift to yourself and your projects that will pay you over and over in time, money and satisfaction.

Elizabeth Papapetrou is a recording engineer in Florida.

 

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