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Fail-Safes and Redundancies for Location Recording

Whilst every recording professional, producer and artist hopes that catastrophic equipment failure never happens to them, unfortunately, the unexpected does sometimes happen. The absolute nightmare scenario would be for one of these issues to occur during a one-off special recorded moment, with the magical performance lost forever. The real question is, how prepared are you for what might happen?

One way to prepare would be to critically analyse the most likely points of failure, and put in a reasonable contingency plan for each. I have listed below some of the best practices I have picked up, and implemented, over the years. The specific equipment used by Roman Sound is also listed below in italics.

1) Power cut at the venue - In a way, this is the worst thing that can happen, rendering the recording dead in the water and potentially causing damage to hard drives. However, running all location electronics through an uninterrupted power supply (APC Back-UPS ES 700VA), can provide up to 1 hour of continuous battery power, should the mains go down. Whether the musicians would play on in darkness is an entirely different matter...

2) Power surges - it's worth protecting electrical equipment from mains power surges, which may also coincide with power cuts. The uninterrupted power supply we use also has anti-surge protection. All our rack equipment runs through a power conditioner (Furman PM8E), for extra protection and mains filtering. Arguably cleaner AC power also means better recordings - but entirely outside the scope of this post!

3) Power conditioner / back-up battery failure - although unlikely that these units should fail, spare power cables and multiplugs should always be brought, to bypass them and go directly into the mains. It's never ideal to bypass a back-up system, but the show must go on.

4) Dodgy or intermittent cables - this is an easy one to prepare for. We bring a cable tester and multiple spare cables, including spare XLR line audio cables, ADAT optical cables, USB / Thunderbolt connectors and power cables. A systematic approach should help to quickly identify the problem connection.

5) No signal from microphones - once dodgy cables or connections are eliminated as a possible reason for lack of signal, it must be considered that the microphone itself is malfunctioning. Hopefully this is even less likely, as microphones tend to be fairly robust. Our microphones are regularly tested, treated and stored very carefully - but having unused spares, and the ability to adapt quickly is the solution. It's important not to panic, and logically assess the most important features of the sound being recorded: we are ready to change the recording approach if needed, e.g. by using another stereo technique. An alternative recording setup is better than no recording.

6) Microphone preamp failure - at this point having extra capacity is the only solution, as 'on the job' repairs may not be possible. We have several, independent preamp units with extra channels (DAV BG, RME, Audient and A Designs). Preamps have slightly different flavours, and normally are selected to be sonically appropriate to the source, but can still be used interchangeably if the first choice preamp is malfunctioning.

7) Audio Interface / A-D converter failure - as this is brain centre of the entire operation, you should use the highest quality and most reliable unit that suits your needs. Our location recording interface is the top-end RME UFX+, which has a fantastic reputation for reliability - however, we also bring a smaller RME Babyface Pro interface for back-up purposes, in the case that the primary unit is malfunctioning. Having another interface also means we could run a separate, fully independent recording station, if needed.

8) Computer failure - this is a scary one to contemplate, but ultimately the answer lies in running separate, concurrent recording rigs. In our case, we achieve two parallel recording systems via RME UFX+ also recording unprocessed audio straight to an external hard disk, using the DuRec function. If the computer recording fails, RME UFX+ will keep on recording the concert without any interruption. If triple redundancy is required, another computer could be connected up at the preamp output stage, to also record independently of the first two systems.

9) Corrupted hard drive - all recorded data is regularly backed up and stored on multiple hard drives. We record sessions straight to the Macbook Pro hard drive, as well as the back-up drive connected directly to the RME UFX+. Macbook Pro session is regularly backed up to second hard drive. The recorded sessions are stored on three separate hard drives.

10) Human error - we keep an intelligent android in the car, ready to take over if the human does something irrational, or silly.

As of 2018, contingency plan 10) is not serious, but the point is that it is impossible to anticipate every potential problem or failure. Indeed, multiple cascade failures could occur, to render several contingency plans useless in one go - but it's all about minimising likely risk within the available resources.

Best practice and a cool head should mean that most situations can be resolved on the spot. As long as the entire chain is not dependent on a single, irreplaceable item then it is likely that an acceptable solution can be found to most on-the-job problems. Now, where's that second Macbook power supply....

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