The two rules of OS updates for audio

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

If you use your computer for digital audio, there are only two rules about updating your operating system:


Avoid updating your operating system and avoid buying products that require an update.

If you do digital audio you are likely using dozens of different pieces of hardware and software. An update is serious business. Things stop working.

This is particularly hard for Mac OS users, as the other operating systems do not push you to upgrade in such an obnoxious fashion. And the functional differences in Mac OS versions are small. And later OSes are worse for audio in general, so go the rumors, and as of writing this, the current OS has “do not upgrade” warnings out from software companies struggling to catch up.

So resist the pressure. If your system is working nicely, do not change it. Work with what you have and keep it frozen…

Treat updates like brain surgery

Keep the operating system frozen if possible. Sometimes you just can’t. So:

Treat an operating system update like it’s brain surgery on your computer.

It’s a good opportunity to back up anyway. You don’t really have enough backups. Disks are cheap.

And if you plan it in advance, it doesn’t have to take up very much of your valuable time.

Test before you start

First test all your audio hardware and software together. Is it all working? Run a series of tests which you expect to work — bring up a few documents, hook it up to the mixer, run it, listen to the result.

Remember what you did! These are the same tests you want to work after the update. You really want to avoid finding out six months down the line that some key piece of software isn’t working, so try to cover as much as possible.

Now, there have to be two backups — two different sorts of backups if you can. One is not enough.

Incremental backups

You should already have some sort of “incremental backup system” where you back up every day — a program like like Time Machine on the Mac or rsync on Linux or Mac OS (or I assume there’s something just as good on Windows).

Make sure the incremental backup is up-to-date and then put it away. You won’t use it unless two separate things go wrong (which does happen, but rarely).

Clone backups

Now clone your internal drive to another bootable external drive with for example Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac or dd if you are on Linux. You might start this before you go to bed, because it might take a long time.

So now you have two identical bootable drives, representing the pre-upgrade state — your internal bootable drive, and an external bootable drive.

Boot from the external copy

This is a key step. You aren’t going to change this external copy at all so you want to prove that you can boot to it.

So reboot from the external drive (e.g. like this on Mac OS) and run your series of tests. Everything should be the same.

Make sure you really are booting from the external drive here — avoid the classic mistake.

Now you have a frozen snapshot of your perfect working systems, so that if the update goes south and suddenly there’s an urgent call, e.g. “We have to save the reactor!”, you can go back to working immediately.

Photo by Milivoj Kuhar on Unsplash

Run the update on the internal drive

You’re running, booted up on the external drive. Now run the update on the OS on the internal drive.

If this works, then you now reboot on the internal drive.

This is the key moment. Run your tests. Does everything work?

Often you will need to update software or drivers. Sometimes there’s config tweaking.

If this fails, or the update fails, and you can’t debug it, you can copy the clone on the external drive back over the internal drive, or in a pinch you can keep working from the external drive, and clone later.

Keep the clone disk for a few weeks at least

Last tip — you think you tested everything but something else will come to mind. Or you’ll need to do a one-off with someone else’s old software and be glad of the bootable backup into history.

That’s it, and happy updating!




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