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Hard Disks & Hard Facts

Systems programmer and musician David Hughes reveals the hard facts about hard disks.


Catastrophes come in many forms and, in most cases, they are definitely bad. However, just occasionally catastrophes can be very good things. In fact, they can be very good indeed. Of course, there's nothing quite like the feeling of total and utter stupidity which comes over you when, for instance, you accidentally erase the final mixdown of a collection of songs or switch on the wrong light in your darkroom just as the roll of film emerges from the developing tank. It is a deeply underwhelming sensation. And, since we're all members of the same species, it's also a very common sensation.

But what's good about a total disaster? Well, apart from possibly expanding the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary of your parents, neighbours or any small children who just happen to be in earshot at the time, such total and utter disasters usually result in a semi-magical transformation. I don't mean that the good fairy suddenly appears, waves her magic wand and then restores everything to its former glory. What normally happens when disaster strikes is that it causes 'changes', and these changes influence the way you work or possibly force you to re-think your particular view of the world.

What happened to me wasn't particularly surprising. It's a very common occurrence when simple, carbon-based, ape-descended life-forms attempt to interface with silicon-based inanimate objects commonly referred to as 'computers'. I became a bit careless. And what was my great sin? I simply re-formatted a floppy disk. Nothing wrong in that, except that in this instance it was the wrong floppy disk!

What I learned from this episode was that computers are very good at doing exactly what they are told to do. I also discovered that they are very bad at spotting human-type errors. Time for a change.

I started to ask myself why it was that such a problem had developed in the first instance. The answer was obvious. I'd spent so much time moving data between disk drives that I'd forgotten which was the source disk and which was the destination. Now, copying one or two files between disks isn't really all that complicated. It is very easy to accomplish using an Atari ST - my adopted silicon-based life-form. It was simply a question of the amount of data involved and, consequently, the amount of time taken up which was excessive. Another factor which complicated the issue was the number of floppy disks that I'd managed, somehow, to gather around me. There were a number of other contributing factors: I had a couple of other jobs that required attention, all of which were infinitely more interesting than copying data between two floppy disks. Consequently, I goofed up!

The fundamental problem was caused by the need to move quickly from one program (my trusty Steinberg Pro24 sequencer) to another (a D110 voice editor) and then back again, or possibly over to the word processor or maybe to another program entirely (Space Invaders perhaps!). All that takes time, and it was the time factor that was the problem. So how do you get around this problem of time, or rather, the lack of it?

At first sight, there were a number of interesting options available. The first solution that I looked at was a 'switcher' program, which allows two or more programs to reside in memory at the same instant and you can jump between them using a so-called 'hot key'. 'Switcher' programs are, theoretically, wonderful. However, in my experience, they simply don't work.

The next option I investigated was a RAM disk, a clever little program that manages to convince the operating system of the computer that there is another (very fast) disk drive connected to the disk interface. In fact, as the name suggests, the 'RAM disk' sits somewhere in the machine's memory. Although this method does improve the situation, it isn't really an effective solution since, in practice, you spend just as much time creating the RAM disk in the first instance and subsequently copying data over to it ready for later operations. Also, any data saved to the RAM disk is lost forever as soon as the power is switched off.

The best solution seemed to be to opt for some kind of mass storage device, like a hard disk drive. This option had the speed and performance that I wanted but unfortunately carried the penalty of a fairly hefty price tag.

Hard disks have been appearing on studio equipment for some time now. In the IBM PC world, hard disks are extremely well established. Most serious users wouldn't be without one. However, in the world of the Atari ST, a hard disk is a comparatively rare beast due partly to the fact that, in the computing community at large, the ST is still regarded as a rather upmarket games machine.

After a considerable amount of procrastination, I decided to ignore the cost and plump for a hard disk.

So what is a hard disk anyway? Well, physically, the device is an aluminium platter coated with a ferrous material and is housed in an airtight chamber. This disk is then spun at tremendous speeds, upwards of 3600 rpm. A pair of read/write heads then float a few microns above the surface of the disk on a cushion of air, rather like a hovercraft on water. It's these factors which give the hard disk such a tremendous speed advantage over standard floppy disks.

Now, as soon as a dolphin is born, it's able to swim, eat and fool around the way dolphins usually do. The same is true of the Atari ST. OK, so an ST can't actually swim, but they are fully equipped with a hard disk port as soon as they roll off the production line. There's no need to open the thing up at all. Connecting the hard disk is child's play. If you can chain a couple of MIDI devices together, you can connect up an ST hard disk.

Setting up a hard disk can, at first, appear to be a daunting process. But, thanks to the Atari manuals, it is quite easy once you've read about it. Once the thing is up and running, it really is a revelation. It's almost like having a new machine - the difference is enormous.

Once you get over the initial shock, you need to settle down into a more disciplined frame of mind and start a bit of forward planning. How you arrange the disk is critical if you're intent on making life easier for yourself in the long run.

If you've used an ST before you'll probably be familiar with the concept of an 'applications folder'. What I did - and this is highly recommended - was to create an applications folder for each program that I wanted on the system in the top level. After that, I simply copied each of the required programs plus their support files from a standard floppy into the relevant folder. As a result, you can practically zip up and down directories to retrieve any amount of data very rapidly. A definite plus.

But where the machine really scores is in the ideas department. 'Ideas' are what make working in a studio so much fun. An idea can come from any source at any time. However, they are usually very short-lived. Very short-lived indeed. And when the average lifetime of an idea may be less than the time it takes to load a program - for example, a sequencer-from a standard floppy disk, the speed and flexibility of the hard disk begins to shine through.

What I've been attempting to say is that although accidents and disasters are an inevitable part of daily life, due simply to the very nature of the human spirit, they need not be a total loss on every occasion. I just hope that, in the years to come, all my other mistakes and goof-ups, gaffs and blunders, arrive at such a fortunate conclusion.



David Hughes is a systems programmer by day, and a musician, writer, and trainee kamikaze pilot by night.



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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Jun 1989

Donated by: Rob Hodder

Opinion by David Hughes

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