The upgrade path – From here to eternity

/July 28, 2014
Upgrading your software is like a trip to the dentist – it leaves you wide open to pain and suffering that you really didn’t deserve. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Upgrading to a world of improved features, faster performance and better mixes shouldn’t be met with a brick wall of negativity, surely?

I don’t know about you but I’m always on the fence about upgrading my software. Actually, I’m more a fence jumper than a fence sitter. I leap back and forth, cursing upgrades one minute, embracing them the next… which is nuts basically.

In this blog I’d like to point out a few things about upgrades that might make you a little more certain about what to do the next time that new version of your favourite piece of software goes on the market. And you know it always will… as sure as night follows day, it will.


I’ll use DAW software as an example here because a more important piece of studio software there arguably is not. For myself, and many others in the studio business, this of course means ProTools.

I use this ubiquitous program every day of my life basically, but always struggle with the idea of upgrading it for one reason above all others – reliability.

When it comes to computers and studios, reliability is king. It keeps you working day in and day out and gives you confidence that there will always be a successful outcome every time the studio is turned on. Without reliability, creative flow goes out the window, not to mention your earnings!

So every time I hear about a ProTools upgrade I feel like Neo from the Matrix looking at all that code streaming by me, and the thousands of errors therein. If I organise a meeting with someone from Avid, or if I’m at a trade show looking at the new ProTools software, most of what is said to me is received as “Blah, blah, blah…” until I hear the magic word – reliability. Only then do I really start to listen.

Problem is, there’s not much point talking to designers or salesmen about reliability anyway. What else are they likely to say besides: “Yeah Andy, this new version is rock solid…” I’d be a naïve fool to think they’d say anything different. The marketplace determines whether a software upgrade has proved its reliability.



So how does one ever embrace new software with confidence, particularly if they’re always trotting out my age-old excuse: “I just have to finish off a few project and then I’ll be free to upgrade”?

Well, first up, let’s start by making a few things clear. We all want things to be better in our lives don’t we? We all like newer things, better, more reliable things that offer more facility – things with better resolution, faster performance – don’t we? And new software is no different surely? Upgrading software per se, isn’t the problem then really is it? I, for one, would love to get a new version of ProTools practically every week if it offered fancy new features and improved my ability to do my job. But I don’t, under any circumstances, want to have to risk my studio’s basic ability to function to do it. That’s it in a nutshell.

The problem all DAW users face – apart from cost, which we’ll look at in a moment – is the basic concern that if installing the new, subjectively ‘better’ software has the potential to soak up hours (and sometimes days) of install time (depending upon how many knock-on effects there are, like upgrading the OS or plug-ins etc), then upgrading simply isn’t worth the grief. And let’s face it, no-one ever tells you that the upgrade process will occasionally take three days, involve 10 phone calls to your mate up the road who went through this nightmare last week, internet problems, some new RAM or possibly even a new computer!

But mostly it’s not like this at all. For all my fear of upgrades, most of the time – though not every time – the process has been relatively painless, and afterwards I’ve sat there wondering why I’d been so fearful of the change.



There is, however, a simple way around all of this – build a second system drive that contains the upgraded software. Most people know this trick of course, but many – and I included myself in this category for many years – fail to take advantage of it. Why, I’m not too sure. Maybe it’s fear, maybe mistrust… or a bit of both. Whatever it is, I strongly urge anyone running a studio to get over this fear now, and sort things out. It’s only holding you back, believe me.

A second system drive takes away all the stress and risk (perceived or otherwise) that you may associate with the software switchover, and clarifies several other issues into the bargain.

You get the best of both worlds: the software you (probably) want, but none of the associated risk. Sure, there will still be some relatively small costs involved – a new drive if you don’t have a spare handy (although you can also partition an existing drive), possibly some new RAM or some other unforseen parts – and the new software itself may cost zero or many hundreds of dollars, depending on the circumstances. But installing the upgraded software onto a second system drive at least means your studio won’t suffer some unforseen meltdown during a session in front of clients. As we all know, the cost to both your reputation and bank balance of this occurring is far greater than the cost of the upgrade itself.



At The Mill I run Macs. The main studio computer is a MacPro, which houses four internal drives (somewhat confusingly, if you’re an audio guy, called ‘Volumes’). These days I simply have a volume in there labelled ‘Upgraded Drive’, which has everything required to run my upgraded software: primarily the ProTools software and relevant Mac OS). I can boot from this by simply holding down the Option key while the computer is starting up. After a few seconds, the Startup Manager appears, and from there I just toggle across and select ‘Upgrade Drive’. (The almost identical procedure on a PC involves simply selecting a drive from the boot options menu.) It’s painless, but more importantly, frees me from my upgrade phobia and allows me to weigh up the costs and benefits of any future installations based on features and cost alone, rather than through the myopic lens of irrational bias and mistrust. Now all I have to consider is whether I like the new features on offer.

But of course, no-one wants a program that crashes every time you scratch your left ear, and let’s not kid ourselves here; there are many upgrades to software of all kinds that prove unreliable when they hit the market. There are still benefits to resisting the temptation of getting the latest software every time it’s released – especially X.0 versions. Crashes are crashes in the end. They still waste everyone’s time and disrupt sessions when they occur. Even if you do have a fall-back drive that you can revert to, crashes are never a good look.



To avoid this embarrassment, my process these days is to get comfortable with new software on a separate drive in private first. That way I can tweak things before it’s out there trying to earn me money: upgrade the small patches that inevitably follow version X.0; re-build my plug-in folder if that’s required; import new soft-synths; get to know the new features etc. Only once things seem fine – stable, reliable, comprehensive and trustworthy – do I start working with the upgrade in front of clients.



If you’re primarily concerned about reliability when it comes to upgrading software, you’ll always find a reason to avoid new versions like the plague if you don’t have a method to isolate any problems it might possess.

Resisting upgrades for too long, however, not only means you’re missing out on much that is new and interesting – and in this fast moving world, that’s potentially the difference between looking cutting edge or blunter than a marshmallow razor – it can make you incompatible with your clients (technically speaking). But hey, if you simply don’t like forking out over and over for the same basic program that’s cool too!