It just occurred to me that — if you’ve been following along in some kind of order as I’ve rattled on about trudging the road to happy musical destiny —I have left out a pretty important subject.
Now, I don’t mean not getting run over by a truck on the way to a gig. But, in a way, this is about gigs —“gigs” as in the gigabytes of data on your computer that represent your musical self (or your band’s or client’s) in a complex pattern of 0’s and 1’s. This time around we’ll talk to you Macsters about surviving a crash and/or a dead or dying disk; next time, it’s all about the PCs.
If you’ve worked on a Mac for any length of time, you know, at a visceral and almost animal-intelligence-non-thinking level, what is going on with your computer just by the sounds it makes. It starts with a chime (that’s an F# major, by the way), has a drive-head sound distinct from PCs even using the same hard drive (because of the acoustic properties of the case and materials), and composes its own little concertos of mouse clicks and “Platinum” system sounds for windows opening and closing. That whole symphony represents the proper “run state” of your Mac, the way it should sound and feel and act when everything is okay (rather, okay enough to keep going, since it does tolerate a lot of faults and faux pas on the part of users).
But what do you do if your Mac doesn’t start up one day, or crashes hard, or blinks that @$%#! question mark at you? There are a number of different start-up methods that you need to try as you troubleshoot the situation — much of the time it will be an OS problem solved by reinstalling the system software. If it’s something else, or something you can’t figure out, you still need to get the files onto another machine and get to work, so it’s all about getting into that drive. Finally, you need to learn how to safeguard your work, so this article will certainly lead to yet another back-up reminder (you can’t get too many).
Some of the following methods will also allow you to get around simple 'admin' password protection, in the event that a departing employee changes the password on you (this has happened to two studio owners I know). Assuming there's no fancy third-party software running that will defeat most or all of the following workarounds, you can solve that problem with this article too. I am not offering this advice so you can go break into someone’s Mac, okay? Jeez! Go to some nefarious hacker site for that stuff — or better yet, don’t, and act right!
None of these methods are completely painless or free, but you have to decide how important it is for you to have the contents of that drive on that unbootable machine. Now, let me break the methods down for you one at a time. For simplicity’s sake, let’s deal with modern Macs, the particular G3 models and up (through G4, G5, and the Intel processors) that are running OS X. In our example here, we’re running OS X 10.3.9 on a G4 Mac (Mac mini, tower model, PowerBook); despite the OS currently being at 10.4.6, 10.3.x still has the largest installed base. There won’t be many differences between this example and anything happening one version up or down, anyway.
By holding the 'c' key during startup, you can boot from most any CD with a valid Mac System folder. If you have your installation disc, or a start-up repair CD from Norton or TechTool or Drive10, boot up that way and see what’s up. The utility software can repair most of the directory and structural problems for you and get you running in no time.
If you don’t have an installation or repair CD, you can download items from the Internet to make one, but this is iffy. If you have a G3 or G4 that will boot into either OS 9 or OS X, so 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 (10.4.x) setting you back $100 or so. But you don't need the newest version of OS X, so you can buy 10.3 or even 10.2, which will cost about $50 or $20, respectively. Frankly, if you are not a “Mac fanatic” and don't need the latest and greatest of everything, then you can do just fine with 10.3, and if you have one of the more recent Macs (anything after the dual-processor 867Mhz model, I believe, but look it up) then you have to have OS X.
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 Mac OS X and some utilities installed, attached to the G4. Although the Mac also has USB ports, you cannot start-up from an external USB drive; don't believe anyone who says otherwise, just 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.
A slightly more geeky approach is to hold down 'Option-s' while starting up, so that OS X boots into 'super user mode.' No password is required to muck around with essentially '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 geeknoid sources online to learn how to seek out and disable the password protection scheme. If you are not a 'computer guy,' though, this is probably not a realistic option for you. This is a free option, money-wise, but you can do untold damage dorking around in the G4's mind (the processor and RAM are the brain, if you will) if you're not sure about what you're doing. And, of course, if the drive is completely hosed, you won’t get in at all.
Finally, you could start up while holding the 't' key down, and turn the G4 into a 'Firewire target disk.' What this means is that you could simply plug the G4 into another Mac, and that other Mac will see the G4 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. This option, like #2 above, requires coming up with some equipment from somewhere, and of course you want to beg or borrow it, not steal it — or buy it, of course, unless you have to. 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 an iMac, a G4, or a G5 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). Once again, this will work with some drive problems, and not others.
This is what you are up against. It can seem hopeless at times, but it's not. In the Old Days, Macs were fairy easy to troubleshoot and maintain. Not so any longer with the Unix-based OS and more sophisticated hardware. But, with a little help, which I am happy to provide here and many others provide all over the Internet, you can do it.
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.