The session started with high hopes and the best of intentions. I had introduced Jason Lytle of the late, great band Grandaddy, to engineer Thom Monahan. They were mixing a record together at The Hangar that Jason had recorded in France for the band Maarten. I picked up Jason at the airport on Monday morning, and we had a nice Mexican breakfast at Nopalitos. Back at the studio though, things quickly turned to shit.
Jason brought two hard drives in a padded carrying case. I joked with him that he needed a handcuff between him and the case because he was being so careful with it. I hooked up the main drive to our Pro Tools computer and nothing showed up on the desktop. I knew Jason was using PT 5.xx and OS9, so I thought there might be driver issues and I figured I'd just try the backup drive. It mounted fine, so I thought I'd open up a song and make sure everything loaded fine while we were waiting for Thom, who was driving up from L.A. I opened up a song and got the dreaded "84 audio and fade files missing, do you want to start crying now?" dialog box. Thom showed up and we spent the next hour or so confirming our worst fears: The backup drive was incomplete and we were missing lots of the overdubs and processed audio tracks that Jason had been working on for the past few weeks. At this point we split up our tasks. Thom stayed super calm and went about opening up every song to determine whether or not any of them could be mixed with what we had on hand. He came up with an ingenious method of using screen shots of the different mix windows of each song version to determine exactly what was needed. By the end of the day they had determined that of the twelve songs, they could mix two. While Thom and Jason assessed the damage, I went about trying to resurrect the dead drive. I've had a fair amount of success in the past rescuing bad drives that had lost their catalog or experienced similar problems, but both Thom and I — along with a friend of his who had offered some help — struck out completely with this drive. It was mechanically dead, making the dreaded rhythmic head crash sound.
I'd heard about catastrophic drive repair, but had never had a drive with critical data crash this badly. I started calling around to drive recovery places and got hugely varied responses and prices. I talked to one guy with an office down the street from the studio. "Oh yeah, sure bring it on over. I can probably fix it." I asked him if he had experience with drives that had suffered mechanical failure. "Oh yeah, I can take them apart and fix 'em." The next guy I talked to locally was a little more cautious. "I've been doing this for 20 years now, and let me tell you if the drive itself is bad, it has to go into a clean room. Anybody who tells you otherwise is full of shit and will only screw up the drive even more. Once that drive is opened up in a non- sterile environment, it's toast." He gave me a number of a place in nearby Marin County that had a clean room and could probably help us out. They were very friendly and sounded utterly confident that they could recover the drive, but the cost was just too high: $2500-$8000 depending on how quickly we needed it. Then we got the number of a place in Wisconsin — Gillware, Inc. — from the guy who had sold the drive to Jason. I spoke with them and they seemed to be confident that they could recover the data, and the price was much more reasonable: $1000, with no fee at all if they were unsuccessful. With no time left to debate any other course of action, I boxed up the drive and rushed it down to FedEx. We would have an answer in 48 hours.
I'm gonna pause here to reflect a little on the what and why of this scenario and ask a question. Who among us all hasn't had a similar issue or known someone in the same situation, especially those who are new to computer recording? I have seen this same scenario (thankfully with less harsh consequences) many, many times. Even amongst veteran engineers with years of experience working on tape, but new to computer recording, I have had to explain how Pro Tools has a file that points to audio files within the audio files folder. Nobody had ever explained this to Jason. Trying to ease Jason's feelings of self- flagellation, I tried to locate where in the Pro Tools and Getting Started manuals this was explained. We couldn't find it, and the section on making a backup copy was buried in the last third or so of the main manual. Nowhere was there a warning right up front on backing up your files and a simplified how-to section on making backups. Not to solely blame Digidesign on this matter — I doubt you'll find anything to this effect from any DAW manufacturer in their manual. By chance, Dave Amels from Bomb Factory was in town the night this happened, and we were having dinner with writer Mark Vail, discussing the day's events. Dave's point of view was that DAW users should have a certain level of experience and professionalism. I had to disagree with him though. The professional audio industry is no longer populated with professionals, because the audio equipment industry — especially affordable DAW manufacturers — has been very successful in marketing their products to vast numbers of people with minimal recording experience. The gist of the marketing for DAWs is how easy they are to use, with photos of people recording music in their living rooms and the subway station. The industry has been very successful at selling computer recording to the masses. I know quite a few musicians who've bought their first computer in order to use a DAW with it. Marketing to and profiting from inexperienced recordists begs a certain amount of responsibility. I would suggest that when you buy a DAW, it should come with a warning sticker (like the one explaining your software license that you can't miss) explaining the hazards and fragility of digital data and pointing to the place in the manual where the data structure and backup procedures are clearly explained in a simple, step-by-step process. But this isn't usually done. My guess is that warning people of how fragile digital data can be is counter-productive to marketing the DAW as an easy, intuitive recording solution. The truth, as any professional will tell you, is that backing up your data is tedious, time-consuming and anything but simple. I realize the complexities involved here, but I would hope the DAW manufacturers take some steps in this direction. I'm not saying this as some studio owner who wishes we could go back to two-inch tape and eliminate home recording. I think Pro Tools, DAWs and home recording are great and here to stay. I just hate to see my clients (and the DAW industry's customers) unhappy.
So, we muddled through the first three days of the session, but by Thursday, Gillware had recovered the drive and was able to FTP us enough files to keep us working. Yay Gillware!! By Friday we had the entire drive back, although FedEx managed to lose it for a few hours (that's another rant, but I'll be using UPS in the future) and we were back in business.
So, what have we learned from this?
1. Make multiple backups!! Gillware thought the vibration from the plane probably took out Jason's drive. Backup to different media, such as multiple hard drives and DVDs.
2. Make sure you understand your DAW's file structure and that you backup all the files for your tracks. The actual audio files may be in a separate place other than the song or session file.
3. Make sure you can open your backups with your main drive disconnected and turned off. Jason had checked his files on his backup drive, but Pro Tools referenced his main drive, which was still connected — so the backups seemed okay, even though they weren't. This brings up another point of ensuring you really understand how and where your DAW puts audio files. I have seen quite a few fairly experienced engineers make this exact same mistake because they didn't realize where the DAW software was putting the audio files.
4. Gillware rocks!! Every time I called them they were knowledgeable and helpful. They would put me on hold very briefly and then get back to me with the status of the recovery. Their communication and customer service was fantastic and their relatively inexpensive, flat rate pricing is a boon to musicians on a budget. In this case, they saved us several thousand dollars!! I hope you follow points 1-3 above and never need to deal with a catastrophic drive failure, but if you do, go to www.gillware.com and they'll take excellent care of you.
So in the end, the mixes came out great, but none of us had a great week. Here's hoping others can avoid similar problems.