From the Department of “Write What You Know” comes this issue’s tale of woe: the unexpected setback known as computer failure. No, I’m not talking about a laptop deciding not to work at a gig, but the backbone of our home base: our studio and office computers. First, I’ll tell you my sad tale, and then the many ways you can avoid being in the same position.
NOT SO HAPPY HOLIDAY
It all began a few weeks before Christmas… Working with my studio computer, which had been referred to as “Bigass Pentium” since it was built in the late ’90s due to its enormous bulk, I decided to cap off the workday with some maintenance: software updates, an antivirus scan and a quick restart. It was at this point that the “fun” began: boot failure. Not only did it refuse to boot, but would not even go into safe mode. Something very big was very wrong.
To be honest, although it was very inconvenient timing- wise, I saw this as a bit of an opportunity. The old beast had been having its parts swapped out for decades, and the putty-colored ATX housing looked like a relic, despite updated drives and other hardware. It was time for an upgrade. So, to keep this story short, my tech guy and I took a trip to the computer geek HQ known as Micro-Center, picked up a more modern chip, motherboard, RAM cards, a much smaller, yet feature-packed case, then headed back to my home studio to build us a new beast…with as many drives from the old computer as we could filch. A new solid state drive is now the boot drive for this new bad boy, and we were able to rescue all of the data from the couple of drives that would no longer fit into the box. Mission accomplished! Little did I know, this would be a prelude to the real disaster.
Contrary to popular lore, Michigan winters have been fairly tame over the past few years. This year has been about the most docile one yet! So when the night of the ice storm happened, I wasn’t too worried. It looked like it was going to pass without incident. That night, I finished my work and headed off to watch some TV, and that’s when the lights went out for the first time. It was brief, with power returning in less than five minutes. Neither computer was on an uninterruptible power supply, because my old ones had failed and I hadn’t yet replaced them. (It was in my budget and on the calendar!) I really wasn’t worried, because the new computer was programmed to stay shut down. It performed as advertised. My office computer was another story. While it sits maybe a foot or two away from Lucy, my studio computer (it glows a sinister red, so I named it after Mr. Deity’s sidekick), the office box is programmed to come right back on when power is restored. From the next room, I heard it play the familiar login music. My TV program was back on, so I ignored it. Then the power cut a second time. This time was going to be a bit more traumatic! Note to Windows 10 users: If your power goes out while parked on the login screen, it could mean trouble. For me, it meant a corrupted boot sector. Déjà vu! No boot sequence, none of the automatic repair features working, system restore points all failed—and no safe mode. After trying every- thing in my extremely limited arsenal of tricks (“I’m a DJ, not a computer nerd!”), I contacted my amazing duo of IT pros: Monty Boleyn of New Concepts Software, and my aforementioned tech guy, DJ colleague and friend, David “Scary Guy” McMahon.
Back in the Windows 98 and XP days, we routinely would respond to such a crisis by taking any old copy of Windows, inserting it into the disk drive and selecting “system repair” in safe mode. No, it doesn’t always work, so I’m told, but for me it did, many times. This is why I brought my disk of Windows 10, from the new computer, along with the ailing computer, to Monty’s bench. Things, however, did not go as planned. Despite near-heroic efforts, there was no way to repair the system. The drive appeared healthy, but the files were in such a state that only a fresh install would do. Monty was able to boot off of the DVD-ROM, and we moved all of the files from the disk onto an external HD. Then, using that same disc we loaded into the studio computer, put the OS on the office box. We’ve got a pulse! The files restored overnight. Now it was just a matter of putting all the pieces back together.
Back at the office, I was very relieved the next day when Scary Guy was able to restore most of the settings and program functionality to the thing. Next came the battle with Microsoft to get a fresh activation key. (It’s a bit hard to explain all of this to a guy on the phone who barely speaks English!) In any case, here’s your predictable payoff for reading this terrible tech tale: back-up is ESSENTIAL!
BACK DAT [DATA] UP!
With these two repairs, the difference between minor inconvience and near-disaster was my almost complete lack of backup and lack of a UPS. An uninterruptable power supply will keep your machines running during a power outage for long enough to properly shut them down. (There’s even software that will shut down any running programs and properly shut down your computer hands-free.) The one we’ve just installed will keep our entire network (both computers, modem, monitor and printers) powered up for a full 45 minutes before needing to be shut down. This step alone would’ve prevented the whole SNAFU. Another thing we’re now implementing is Drobo, a rather clever, redundant file back-up system that should handle both computers, and possibly my wife’s video editing network, rather nicely. Considering how maniacal I am about onsite backups at gigs, I now know firsthand that backups are every bit as vital in the studio and in the office! That is, unless you have a couple spare days to devote to data recovery.
Now it looks like the studio is ready for the rest of 2016. Over the coming months, the final phase of the rebuild and relaunch of my DJ business, Stu & His Crew, will play out, and I hope you’ll join me on that hopefully more pleasant journey right here in Mobile Beat. Until next time, safe spinnin’!
By Stu Chisholm
Originally published in Mobile Beat issue #169 – link to http://www.mobilebeat.com/emagscurrent/169