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Whether you're installing a new operating system or just repairing one, heed these tips


by Craig Anderton



Windows+Mac.pngWhat do the Mac's Snow Leopard and Microsoft's Windows 7 operating systems have in common? Answer: both came out over three years ago. I'm not sure what that is in dog years, but it's about 60 in computer years. And whether you like it or not, at some point you'll have to upgrade if you want to run particular programs that are available only on the latest and (hopefully) greatest operating system.

But there's more to the story, because sometimes you'll need to re-install an existing operating system. You'll know you need to do it because one day, you might be unlucky enough to turn on your computer to boot up your DAW or play a soft synth, and get an error message that goes something like:

0234890 Bad F-Line Trap KernalSanders 0002:VX:RTFM:BURP:666

Translated into English, this means:

You’re screwed.

This type of catastrophe tends to be more of a problem with Windows operating systems thanks to the legacy of DOS (acronym for “Dumb Operating System”), where the phenomenon is known as the “Blue Screen of Death.” For the Mac, the equivalent is the multilanguage gray screen that tells you that you're hosed, you need to reset, and you probably lost some data.

Without getting into a Windows vs. Mac debate (remember, I use and love/hate both), my experience is that my Mac OS X machine crashes/freezes more often than my Windows 7 machine, but Windows is more likely to die a slow death that renders a computer useless. (For those brave enough to have upgraded to Windows 8, we'll see how that holds up over time.)

Most of my serious Mac problems have been hardware-related (although I’ve had to do the ever-popular “clean install” a couple times), but Windows can go psychotic from software glitches. This is because Mac developers operate under a fairly strict set of standards imposed by the Mac OS, which runs only on Mac hardware. With Windows, there are so many possible hardware/OS combinations that programs that work fine with one set of hardware and software can have unpredictable operation with others.



Someday you’ll install a new OS or re-install and old one, for any one of several reasons:


  • You want to upgrade to a new and improved OS, like moving from Windows 7 to Windows 8, or to the 64-bit world of Mac OS 10.8 (Mountain Lion).
  • Your main drive is as screwed up as Darth Vader on Prozac, and your only hope is to re-format the hard drive and start all over again.
  • You’ve installed and de-installed so many programs that your hard drive is loaded with junk, fragments of uninstalled programs, weird shared files, and so on, leading to unstable (although not necessarily fatal) conditions.

When you do change operating systems, it will be a major pain to re-create your previous environment – particularly if a long time has elapsed since you first installed the system, and a zillion updates and tweaks have occurred since then. But there are some ways to make the process go a lot more smoothly.



The best time to prepare for installing a new OS is well before you need (or want) to do the install.


  • Use separate hard drives for programs and data. Okay, you knew this. But note that quite a few hard disk recording programs have a default location for storing files that leads back to the drive holding the program.
  • After transferring any necessary data to the data drive, check any Preferences or Options menus for audio storage, and point them to the folder on the data drive.
  • Organize downloaded files and updates. A new OS means re-installing programs. Doing this from a distribution CD is not difficult, but these days, it’s likely that at least some of your programs were purchased online. And you’ve almost certainly downloaded updates and patches.
  • Follow two steps toward organization. To organize distribution CDs and DVDs, buy a disc storage “briefcase.” Store each disc in a paper disc envelope; write any serial numbers, version numbers, passwords to private user web sites, and other useful info on the back.
  • To organize downloaded programs, create a folder on your data drive specifically for downloaded programs and updates. Create a sub-folder for each program, and use it to hold the original downloaded file (usually Zip format for Windows, Stuffit for Mac), and read.me files, updates, serial numbers, unlock codes, etc.
  • Write down any system tweaks you’ve done. You're probably going to have to do them again.
  • Before you install the new OS (or replace the OS that went crazy from too many installations/deinstallations), re-format the hard drive. This erases everything, but then again, you backed up all your data already - right? Besides, this gives you a great opportunity to scan your hard disk for errors and bad sectors (you don’t want those puppies showing up after you have the new OS in place), and partition the drive if desired. Even better, copy your hard drive to another hard drive, just in case you forgot to transfer a file or two.
  • Make sure you have all necessary installation discs, files, and and product codes in hand before you start installing the new OS. You don’t want to re-format the drive, then realize you can’t install your OS over it because you lost some serial number.
  • Start the re-loading process. After installing the OS, immediately install a way to go online so you can check for any operating system updates. Yes, it’s a drag to use a music computer for surfing the net, but these days, it’s not really possible to keep on top of programs without downloadable updates and purchases.



I strongly recommend hedging your bets, particularly if your existing setup is working, and you want to move over to a new OS. You’ll often find that certain programs aren’t compatible with the new OS for some reason, or need a fix that hasn’t been released yet. There are two main options for dealing with this.

With the Mac, you can just change the Startup disk and boot from that. Nice. With Windows, you can set up dual-boot systems. For example, you can install Windows 8 and start migrating programs over to that; if you run into snags, then boot into your existing OS instead. Dual-booting is a common procedure, and it's not hard to find programs designed for partitioning and dual-booting.

Another option is to install a removable drive bay so you can just swap out hard drives as needed. If your previous OS and suite of programs was working okay, everything will remain on the disk, and you can just plug that disk into the bay should you need to access it again (always make sure power is off when swapping drives – they are not hot-swappable). You can even create different boot drives optimized for different work environments and situations.



But there’s one problem with multiple drives: copy protection routines that require “authorizing” a single hard drive. Because I use only legal software, during a recent OS flush I had a crash course on which types of copy protection were easiest to deal with.

If you’ve been diligent about organizing your distribution discs and downloaded programs/updates, entering a serial number or inserting the original distribution disc is not a problem. And although some people really don’t like hardware dongles, I've been won over - they can be a transparent solution that's neither computer- nor drive-specific, and allows you to back up your program.

In some cases, you'll need to request a re-authorization from the manufacturer. Usually they err on the side of the customer, assuming you’ve registered your software and don’t request re-authorizations too often.



Acronis and Norton offer programs that can image your main drive. Once you've installed your operating system, image the drive. After installing your main programs and verifying that eeverything works properly, image it again. In fact, it's a good idea to image your drive periodically when your computer is happy and working well, because they you can always rreturn to that state.

And here’s one final piece of advice: Allow plenty of time to re-create your system. This is another reason to keep your old system around, whether via removable drive or dual booting. That way you can get Real Work done as you debug your new OS. Good luck!


CraigGuitarVertical.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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