By Steve Harvey
Nashville, TN (April 24, 2007)--It's something of a truism that a digital audio recording cannot really be said to exist unless it's backed up to at least one other location on a different piece of media. When John and Martina McBride opened Blackbird Studio in Nashville in late 2002 in order to offer artists cutting edge facilities and technologies, they installed storage and networking technology by Studio Network Solutions to protect against data loss while also ensuring error-free recording of high track counts.
As Blackbird Studio's general manager/chief engineer Vance Powell recollects, things were different five years ago. "We were still living in a world of SCSI drives. FireWire drives were available but they weren't normally fast enough for high track counts."
Some of his Pro Tools sessions were beginning to get too large and unmanageable using available technology, he says. "With data split across three drives it was a nightmare to backup, a nightmare to keep track of, and trying to move sessions between rooms by sneaker-net just sucked."
Powell says that Blackbird chose a storage area network (SAN) from SNS for SNS' grasp of recording studio working methods as much as their technology. "Instead of it being an IT infrastructure mentality it was more of a studio workflow mentality, and that was appealing."
Initially, a tracking area and a mix room plus an edit room were networked. As Blackbird has grown, expanding to now encompass seven rooms, including George Massenburg's technologically advanced Studio C, the SNS network has been significantly scaled up. "At first we had ten 36GB drives. We replaced those with 72GB drives to get more capacity. Now, we have nine seats on our SAN, 30 143GB Cheetah Fibre Channel drives, and three QlogicSAN box fiber switches."
The Fibre Channel SAN has also been expanded with the addition of SNS' X-4 iSCSI SAN. "It's part of the system but lives on our regular TCP/IP network," Powell explains.
The X-4 serves as a transfer device for moving data around, he says, which also has applications when he is testing equipment. "Any machine with an iSCSI initiator setup and a SANmp dongle can get on it, such as my personal workstation at my desk. My office is where I build Pro Tools rigs. I can test any of them with the X-4 because it will push enough data--I have a 64-track, 96k session that has about 1,300 crossfades per minute in the session, which I can push over gigabit Ethernet."
A typical Martina McBride project recorded to the SNS SAN might use between five and nine exclusive drives, says Powell. "John and Martina start recording on one set of drives and their data will live on that throughout the length of the project. They'll have several drives they're tracking to, and they may have a drive that they're doing comped vocals on. They may have a drive or two that they're mixing from. The SNS SANmp [management software] allows you to put all the drives in read or write, and you can pull from the sessions anything that needs to be compiled onto a master drive. It's a really great workflow."
As for backup, he says, "We have redundant systems that are each Hewlett-Packard SSL1016 16-tape LT02 autoloaders--one in one building, one in another. There's a backup script that runs every night on one of the machines that only backs up Martina's folders. That puts it in three places, which is the only way to make it really safe."
For other studio clients, he says, "The beauty is that if they record to the SAN it's backed up every night. We back it up off of our drives onto their drives, and as long as it sits here overnight there's a safety that they don't have to worry about keeping track of."
With the specter of piracy hanging over the industry, some engineers prefer not to use a SAN with a backup function. "But when you have a studio with seven rooms things will get moved around. People will track in A, overdub in B, and mix in F, so it's definitely better than pulling SCSI or Firewire drives out and walking them around the building."
That backup feature was a lifesaver on at least one occasion, he recounts. "We had a very well known client in a little while back; the project was a number one record, in fact. Someone working on the project at another studio plugged a Firewire400 drive in with the connector upside down and blew the bridge board in the drive. The bad part was that the master drive was connected to the slave drive, so it blew both of them."
All was not lost: "It turned out that they were able to get the drives repaired by moving them into new cases, but in that meantime, the producer called and asked if we had a copy of the tracking session--and it was there on the backup tape."
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