There are more options than ever for storing and backing up your valuable data. That’s good, since musicians have a greater need for storage and archiving as well. As our hard drives increase in size, so too have do our sample libraries, project files, and multi-track sessions. More than ever, we require robust solutions for storing our essential audio. You only need to experience hard drive failure once to realize how much of a showstopper data loss can be.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll go over some of the backup options and services best suited for the needs of musicians.
Digital House Cleaning
Before you go further, carefully consider which files need to be backed up, and which don’t. Spend a day going through your files, deleting redundant data and noting any data that doesn’t need to be archived. Here are some helpful guidelines:
Sample Libraries: Some developers give you limited access to your purchases; if you need to re-download your libraries beyond a certain amount of time, or number of downloads, you may have to purchase another license. Worse still, libraries tied to iLok can be made useless if the iLok is lost, again necessitating another purchase. For these products, you should ensure they’re backed up. On the other hand, if you have the libraries on physical media, you can always copy the data files from the original discs/drives.
Note: Impact Soundworks guarantees permanent access to all of your purchases. You never need to spend your money backing up purchases from us – they’re yours forever!
Another issue is that if you DO restore plugin and application files, some copy protection schemes will require you to re-install anyway in order to reauthorize the software. Your archived copy may also be out-of-date, so it’s worthwhile to check with the developer for the latest version.
Project Files & Sessions: While it is highly advisable to back up your project files, be careful not to archive the same files twice. For example, some DAWs save project files or folders that contain all referenced recordings. You might have those same exact source recordings saved elsewhere on the computer. As long as your DAW did not do any destructive edits (most don’t), there’s no point in backing up the original source material alongside the identical project folder.
Renders & Edits: Keeping all the completed audio you’ve ever done is a great idea. Still, it’s easy to end up with redundant files. You might have compressed (MP3, ZIP, FLAC, RAR) versions of lossless tracks, which you don’t need to keep as long as you still have the originals. Also, any simple edits or conversions, such as a 16/44 version of a 24/96 track, need not be kept… again, provided the original exists!
If your internet connection is stable and fast enough (25mbps upload minimum) you might consider an online backup solution. The significant advantage of cloud backup is reliability. With any large and reputable provider, there is virtually no risk of data loss outside of the most catastrophic of catastrophic scenarios. Another benefit is the ability to access files anywhere, instead of being tied to your own network and devices.
(Note: “Cloud” is a catch-all term used to describe computing services hosted by a large third-party provider like Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. These companies build massive datacenters full of computers and essentially rent out the storage and processing power of these machines for different purposes.)
Cloud backup can be divided into two categories: general cloud storage (or cloud drive) solutions, and backup-specific services.
Cloud storage includes services like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Onedrive. You can expect similar functionality from each: the ability to upload and download files from most any device, and to synchronize your files across multiple devices. Most have desktop & mobile apps that let you push and pull files to your cloud account seamlessly as if you were moving from one hard drive to another. You can also use them to share files and folders with other people.
Backup-specific services include Crashplan and Backblaze, to name just two. These also offer the ability to continuously sync files into the cloud, and tend to have even cheaper pricing. Their desktop apps tend to be more powerful with plenty of options for how and when to sync. However, their sharing features are much more limited, and retrieving your files is not as fast or fluid as a general cloud storage solution.
Which one makes more sense? That depends on your needs. Consider how often you need to access your files. If you won’t be regularly accessing your archived files (i.e. less than once a month) then something like Crashplan will be more economical. On the other hand, if you routinely share your files to and from multiple devices, or you often collaborate with other people, a cloud drive makes more sense.
Crashplan in particular has a fantastic desktop app for keeping your files backed up. It runs continuously and can sync everything on your computer, or just certain folders. Unlike Dropbox (etc) you don’t need to put everything in a single folder for syncing – Crashplan indexes all your drives and folders. It also has unlimited storage for only $5/mo. For files you want to sync routinely, Google Drive or Dropbox both work very well and will give you up to 1TB (1000GB) of storage for $10/mo or less.
For long-term backup, a viable option is archiving to CDs, DVDs, or better yet, Blu-Ray. A decent USB Blu-Ray burner will run you about $100, and 25gb discs cost a little over $1 each. Over a longer time frame, this is a pretty good deal. 1TB of files can be archived for about $40-50. Amortized over the course of 10 years, that’s less than 50 cents a month.
Physical media has the advantage of being highly accessible. Just pop in the disc, copy the files, and you’re golden. It’s also very easy to share with clients, bandmates, and friends. However, it remains to be seen whether Blu-Rays will suffer from long-term degradation like CDs, and it may be inconvenient to sort through dozens of discs to find and copy what you need. It’s also not the most secure, as any on-site backup can be destroyed in a fire or flood.
NAS – Network Attached Storage
A NAS is nothing more than a specialized computer with built-in storage, intended to be used as a network device. Modern NAS options may also offer basic ‘HTPC’ (home theater personal computer) features, such as the ability to stream music or movies, but they’re nowhere near as flexible as a machine running Windows or OSX. The most obvious benefit of NAS is that they’re purpose-built for storage & backup, and are usually very easy-to-access via any computer on your home network. Many are designed to be accessible from the web, so as long as the NAS is powered up and connected to the internet, you can access it from halfway around the world!
NAS solutions are convenient and the built-in software makes the task of backing up, storing, and transferring files much easier than if you were just using a simple external drive. Plus, multi-drive NAS products usually give you the option of a redundant hard drive configuration, so that if one drive fails for whatever reason, your data is not lost.
The downsides here are that NAS products are not cheap. You pay for the custom software and convenient design. For some multi-drive products, you have to purchase the hard drives yourself, adding even more to the cost. Also, many lower-end NAS setups lack processing power & memory, which leads to slower transfer speeds and generally sluggish operation. A highly-optimized, redundant, and fast NAS with lots of storage can cost as much as an actual desktop computer.
Roll-Your-Own Backup Computer
The price of PC components has been on a downward trend for years, making it very economical to build a full-on PC for primary backup & storage purposes. If you aren’t comfortable with assembling a machine yourself, there are computer stores (such as Micro Center and Fry’s in the United States) that will build a computer with parts you provide, at a nominal cost. The advantage of having a PC built this way is that the store can boot it up and test for bad components, swapping damaged ones on the spot for something they have in-store.
A variety of low-profile cases and power supplies are available. You won’t approach the very low power usage of a NAS, but you’ll get close, and it will be not only cheaper but much more flexible too. A custom PC can be filled with inexpensive (but durable) hard drives arranged in a redundant RAID configuration. With a Windows OS installed, it’s easy to run regular sync/backup over the network, as well as stream music, movies, and even games. If you leave the computer on 24/7, it can also be used as a server for various purposes.
Using sites like PCPartPicker will help you to find compatible components at the lowest prices. If you wait for sales, such a computer can be built for $300 or less, not counting hard drives. A comparable NAS might cost $800-1000! Once the computer is up and running, remote access software such as TightVNC can be used to log-in over the network, so you won’t need a separate display, keyboard, and mouse.
You can then use Crashplan (even the free version) to sync files to the backup machine from your main studio computer. This works much the same as Crashplan’s cloud backup, and can even run in parallel. In fact, a parallel backup setup like this is one of the very best options: if your hard drive fails, you can restore quickly from your local backup machine. In a catastrophic event, an exact mirror will also be on the Crashplan cloud. It’s win-win!
External Hard Drives
One of the simplest and cheapest backup options is to attach one or more external hard drives and simply copy files over, either manually or using an application like Crashplan or Time Machine (OSX only). An application is the most hassle-free choice: once your initial configuration is done, it will very rarely need any monitoring. With the price of mechanical hard drives continuing to fall, keeping a collection of them for archival purposes is an all-around solid backup solution.
The biggest downside of using your own hard drives is the possibility of mechanical failure. This is inevitable; most modern drives have a warranty of 3-5 years, but beyond that, it’s not IF but WHEN death will occur. When it does, you will likely lose all the data on that drive. Any physical damage to your studio can also damage mechanical drives, which are much less durable than solid state and flash drives.
While using ONLY external hard drives is not a good idea, you can mitigate the risk of failure by using a hard drive enclosure that supports multiple drives. These multi-drive enclosures, which can connect over USB or Thunderbolt, can be configured to mirror data across multiple drives, much like a NAS. While they have little if any built-in software, the added layer of redundancy is worthwhile protection against the ticking time bomb of hard drive death.
No single storage/backup product is perfect, so the best solution is one that combines multiple methods of keeping your data safe and secure. At a bare minimum, having at least one local and one cloud-based backup is a must. This way, if your studio is swept away in a flood, you can breathe easy knowing that all your stuff can be restored from a remote site. And if you experience a failure and need the files sooner, you’ll have local copies that can be restored even faster.
It’s also important to use software and products that automate the backup sync process. Doing some manual copying and archiving now and again is fine, but even the most diligent of us will slip up once in awhile. Murphy’s Law states that the one time you forget to copy a recent session file will be when you’re under a deadline for your biggest gig!