If you’ve been making music for any length of time, you know that you don’t have to be into recording for computers to be a big help. They help out in every other area of life, so why should your music career — whether it’s full-time or part-time, amateur or pro, singing or drumming — be any different?
Even if you’re not ready, willing, or able to try building a sub-$1000 recording studio (not counting the cost of the computer, which you already have, of course), you can use your PC or Mac to do flyers for gigs, keep the books, tweak digital photos and even movies, pursue some (legal) e-mail campaigns and lots of other things. But if you have jumped off into computer-based digital recording (as opposed to digital recording using a stand-alone, hard-disk-based, all-in-one studio like a Roland V-series or Korg D series), then the computer is more than your bookkeeper or staff artist. It’s your co-producer.
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You’re the boss
Sometimes you might not feel like you are the boss, though, especially when the computer freezes in the middle of a session, crashes during an important up- or download, or does any number of other ungeeky things. When used as the hub of a busily spinning music production environment, it is not uncommon for both Macs and PCs to become occasionally “uncooperative.” It might not start up one day, it might start and freeze at some point, it might just sit there, or it could heave and chug and go “sproing,” too.
Let’s take a look at what to do when the reluctant or troublemaking co-producer is not your human partner (for once) but your computer. This time we’ll look at the dead, die, or dysfunctional Macs, and another time we’ll talk about PCs. We will deal with the most common situations, where you have power and all the pieces are hooked up right (double check your cables anyway), but you get the infamous blinking question mark, a frozen desktop after start-up, or a start-up chime followed by zipping, zero and nada.
Work the problem
Various startup methods allow for getting around simple “admin” password protection, which is what most situations involve; in other words, there’s probably no fancy third-party software running that will defeat most or all of the following workarounds. None of the methods are completely painless or free, but you have to decide how important it is for you to have that drive’s contents on the unbootable machine. Now, let’s break down the methods for you one at a time.
(1) By holding the “c” key during startup, you can boot from a CD or DVD with a valid Mac System on it. Some G4’s (silver-door tower and earlier) will boot into either OS 9 or OS X so that you can get one or the other versions or both. You can buy the final OS 9 package (9.2) for about $50, or you could buy Mac OS X with the latest version (10.5), setting you back $100 or so. If you don’t need the newest version of OS X, you can buy 10.3 or even 10.2, which will cost you significantly less than the latest release. If you do a startup with a Mac OS installer disk, you can go to Reset Password on the Installer or Utility menu (depending on what version of OS X you get). And then you’re in business.
(2) Another startup option is to do just that — meaning hold the “Option” key as you hit the power switch or keyboard button. This allows you to choose a boot volume among any connected drives, including Firewire devices. The only way this will work is if you have an external Firewire drive, with a Mac OS and some utilities installed, attached to your computer. Although the Mac also has USB ports, you cannot start up from an external USB drive; don’t believe anyone who says otherwise, look it up on Apple’s site for yourself. Who knows why they made ’em that way, but they did. If you can beg, borrow or steal an external Firewire drive with a System and some utilities already on it, this will definitely work. Then you can back up whatever you want from the drive before reformatting it. If you cannot borrow such a device, one would cost you about a hundred bucks, plus you’d need the OS to put on it, so this is a potentially pricey option.
(3) A slightly more geeky approach is to hold down “Option C” while starting up so that OS X boots into “superuser mode.” No password is required to muck around with what is called “Root” access. Of course, you would be using Unix commands at this point. If you don’t know Unix at all, you could probably get enough help from Wikipedia and other geeky sources online to learn how to seek out and disable the password protection scheme. If you are not a “computer type,” this is probably not a realistic option. This is a free option, money-wise, but you can do untold damage mucking around in Mac’s brain, if you will, if you’re not sure about what you’re doing.
(4) Finally, you could start up while holding the “t” key down and turn the Mac into a Firewire target disk. This means that you could plug the computer into another Mac and that other Mac will see the first as an external drive. Then you could copy all the files you want to keep to the borrowed Mac or to an external drive that you have also hooked up to it. Like #2 above, this option requires coming up with some equipment from somewhere, and of course, you want to beg or borrow it (not steal) if money is tight. Do you have any friends with a Mac laptop (a third millennium PowerBook, iBook, or new MacBook or MacBook Pro with the Intel chips)? Sure, you could use a newer iMac or a Mac Pro tower, but a laptop sure would be easier. You will also need a Firewire cable (an “A to A” one, meaning both ends are the same size).
You’re not alone
If you have a sad (or konked out) Mac, this is what you are up against. It can seem hopeless at times, but it’s not. In the Old Days, Macs were fairly easy to troubleshoot and maintain. Not so any longer with the Unix-based OS and more sophisticated hardware. But, with a little help, you can do it. If you need more technical assistance, there are literally hundreds of Mac-centered websites where everyone from noobs (beginners) to power users can get hold of the best Mac troubleshooting help and even some freeware or shareware repair utilities.
The Mac community is still a supportive one, so keep asking for assistance and rendering some to others however you can. You may be surprised by the amount and quality of the assistance that other Mac folks offer you. With some help, some persistence, and perhaps a bit of luck, your Mac’s sad startup face — and your own — will be home once again to a smile.