Catastrophes and catalysts

Data Rescue 3

This reassuring animated graphic lets you know Data Rescue 3 is hard at work.

If you learn one thing from this article it should be back up your data – all of it, frequently and redundantly.

Or maybe, if you find life kind of boring, and you have lots of spare time on your hands, don’t. Be like Inspector Clouseau, waiting for your man Kato to jump you when you get home, just to keep yourself sharp.

You may already be thinking to yourself, “Wow, Steve struck me as the kind of guy who would always back up his data,” and you’d be pretty much correct. Everything on my boot drive is covered by Time Machine, and every scrap of data that is relevant to my clients’ business is also backed up securely to the cloud the instant it is created and every time it is modified.

Do you think I have salvaged my clients’ faith in me? So do I. Let’s proceed.

You know where this is headed. I had about 250 GB of audio material, sample archives, compositional sketches and so forth, which I’d been carrying around for quite some time, transferring them en masse from one drive to another as the collection gradually increased in size like a digital snowball. And this archive finally landed on a drive which, at some point in the past, I had instructed Time Machine not to back up. And there it died sometime last week.

What do you do when you notice one of your drives isn’t showing up on your desktop? You power cycle it, you listen to that awful clicking noise, you pop it into the freezer for a few hours, you scan in vain for a backup or even a directory listing, because you’ve largely forgotten what’s on it. Then you panic just a little bit.

I took it to my local computer guys, who advertise data recovery services on their website. When I told them the drive wan’t mounting, they admitted it was already beyond their abilities to restore (in retrospect their abilities are likely on par with my own, details to follow) and handed me a pamphlet for a California-based service they recommend.

California seemed like a bit of a hike, so I found a promising-looking outfit in Vaughan, filled out a ticket, packaged the drive up and sent it their way. And while I waited for their assessment and estimate, I tried to attribute a value to this chunk of data I’d been dragging around for years, in expectation of a representative from Memofix asking me if I was willing to spend $X to retrieve it.

I decided that it was worth no more than $500, and even that may be a little high. As a composer who has settled pretty comfortably – too comfortably – into the realm of found sound, or acquired sample, compositions, I had been obsessively collecting instruments and sounds, creating meandering (though momentarily engaging) loops and sketches from them, and setting them aside for rediscovery at some undefined later time. A very pragmatic voice in my brain told me that if there was anything of musical value on that drive, it would have already found its way into a composition. In fact, having this vast quantity of sonic resources at my disposal might have actually been making me a less effective composer, as I sifted through patches, samples and loops looking for inspiration, and fooling myself into thinking this was a productive use of my time, rather than focusing on starting with the real hard work – creating harmonic, melodic and formal ideas from scratch.

I’m not a fatalist, or much of an anything-ist lately. But the creative mind loves to make connections, and mine was straining to draw some “the universe is trying to tell you something” connection among the various aspects of this catastrophe. Every holiday season I tell myself I’m going to spend some of my time off writing new music, but usually I don’t get past a few dozen measures before I get distracted. Is this a sign that I should clean up my act, divest myself of the baggage of my old, faulty methods, and start fresh? No. It’s a quasi-random catalyst for my own navel-gazing and lateral thinking. But the end result is the same.

The estimate for drive recovery came in somewhere north of $1600 and the prognosis was not encouraging even at that price. Recalling that this lump of files had been moved around several times, I managed to track down the drive on which it was previously housed, and run a scan for deleted files with a newly-purchased copy of Data Rescue 3. And thanks to my impatience, and my satisfaction with the quickest formatting option when I last re-formatted the drive, much of my data was recovered intact. Ironically, the directory structure, along with most of the file names, was obliterated. So where I once had a very organized and clearly indexed library of samples, songs, and patches for various instruments, I now have a collection of folders organized by file type, containing up to 10,000 files each, identified only by a number and a file extension. Included were 27,662 AIFF files, named File-00001.aif through File-27662.aif. It’s as though I took 250 GB of files and ran them through a gravel sifter.

In the interests of starting the new year off on a positive note, I’m calling all this a good result. I still have most of those files that have been a digital equivalent of Linus’s safety blanket for me for God knows how long, but I have a strong incentive to attempt to create new ideas without them – finding the file I think I’m looking for could now take weeks rather than hours. I have a brand, shiny new 2TB drive that will henceforth back up every single bit of data I create until it too, inevitably, ceases to function. And I have a data recovery application which I hope I will never need again. But if sometime this year you realize you have accidentally erased your only copy of a vital file, bring the drive over to my place.

Bring a nice bottle of wine with you and I might not even charge you.

Happy new year.