Here's a note Tom Rodeheaver of Park Slope, Brooklyn, sent in after reading my first column (“A Stranger in a Strange Land,” Live Design, December 2005, p. 84) [Editor's Note: You may also have read this letter in the “Letter's” section of the February issue, p. 14]:

I didn't see it listed in the items [Zak] purchased for the new computer, but I hope he invests in some sort of external storage (an actual stand-alone hard drive or a Gigabyte of memory stick) to back up his show files. Early in my career, I learned to backup files early and often because of static electricity. Now, it's the ‘I don't know, it just happens’ syndrome or bloated programs that crash because of lack of RAM. Better safe than sorry.

To back up or not to back up? That is the question. And the answer should be a no-brainer for all of us: Of course, back up often!

There are many ways to archive your work as a project progresses. Thankfully, hard disc storage has become an affordable medium for backing up a project. And with the advent of FireWire and USB 2.0, moving large amounts of data takes only a few minutes, rather than being an overnight project. Not too long ago, we had to figure out how to split our multi-megabytes of data into pieces in order to squeeze them onto 700MB CD-ROMs, or even worse, 100MB Zip disks, or really even worse, a tape drive.

Nowadays, it is pretty easy to just dump an entire project — show file and content — right onto a FireWire or USB 2.0 external hard drive and put it on the shelf for safe keeping. I usually use a two-hard drive method: I have a small portable FireWire hard drive that I work off as the project is progressing and a big external FireWire hard drive that I back the files up on to at the end of each day.

The beauty of the small, portable drive is that it is also a “shuttle” of sorts, meaning I can use it to bring a file in from my studio or pass it to someone else while we are working. Small FireWire and USB 2.0 drives are more expensive than their larger, power adapter-requiring big brothers, but a good one, like the Porsche-designed LaCie mobile hard drive (available in 40-100GB), starts at around $120. You can even buy the drive and the case separately and build your own for less. FireWire is the speedy flavor of choice for me as a Mac user, but I use USB 2.0 with my PC. Many drives, like the LaCie, actually offer both ports on the same drive.

Here's a little secret about portable FireWire hard drives for Mac users: you can install OS X onto the hard drive and boot your computer directly from the external drive by holding down the option key at startup and choosing the external drive. This way, if your OS ever stops working correctly, you have another option for booting up, and it is also a great way to repair the OS, since most disk utilities do not let you repair the internal hard drive if it is the startup disk.

Another great way to store or shuttle smaller files around is USB key drives. My little USB key drive has transferred many a file between my laptop and a show computer on various theatre projects. In fact, I even keep a complete backup of my entire website on my 512MB Sandisk keydrive (formatted in Disk Utility as MS-DOS Fat32, so it will work on PCs and Macs).

As far as long-term archiving is concerned, I am a firm believer that if you can save the project in its entirety, then you are better off. If you can pull a 120GB desktop hard drive off the shelf, plug it in, and be ready to display your show, then you are going to be much better off than having to rebuild it from a bunch of DVD backups. Desktop drives, like the LaCie 250 desktop drive, are even cheaper, at less than a dollar a gigabyte. You can put multiple projects on a single drive. Now I'm no shill for LaCie, but I just think that it is a good, solid company. Its products are also very Mac friendly, although they also work just as well with Windows.

One last thought is that you should always keep at least one version of any storage medium you use throughout the years. Although Zip disks are no longer en vogue, I have some projects that are stored on them from back in the day. You never know when you might need to go back to them (or when someone who is not as up-to-date as you will present you with something), so I always try to hang on to a working legacy device.

So save early and often. Invest in good high-capacity storage. Backing up is something that never goes out of style. I still remember my $4,000 20MB external hard drive from my original Mac 512… ahh, beige.

Found a cool trick that you'd like to share? Need a recommendation on a piece of hardware or software? Comments? Drop me a line at


USB 2.0:
LaCie Mobile Hard Drive & 250 Desktop Drive:
Sandisk Keydrive: