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The importance of managing configurations and preferences in professional work

There's a difference between working on your own system, which no-one else uses, and a system that is shared among multiple users. And it could decide the success or failure of your project (or career).

I realise that many readers will have their own DAW system, or any kind of studio setup, which only they use and no-one else uses. Fine - do what you like with my blessing. Optimise your system any way you like.

But when you work in a collaborative environment, things are different. I'm thinking theatre, concerts, live broadcast etc. where it is absolutely vital that all things technical work first time with no ifs, buts or maybes. And high-pressure, or rather I should say efficient, production environments too, particularly for broadcast.

In any of these working environments an employee will be a member of a team. And they won't be the only sound person. There will be others working in shifts or rotas doing exactly the same job using exactly the same equipment and software.

So let's suppose that you are using, say, Pro Tools in a studio that is worked on a rota by several other engineers. The ideal situation would be that each user would have an account on the host computer and be able to set up their own preferences just the way they like things to be (perhaps with limitations or mandatory settings due to company policies).

This way any user can log on to the computer, start up Pro Tools and everything will be exactly as they expect. Pro Tools has a lot of preferences, as do other DAWs and audio or video workstations, so this is important. You wouldn't want to have to reset every preference to your liking every time you started work.

However there are situations where it is useful to have a guest account, so anyone can use the workstation without needing their own account. The problem here is that the preferences are shared among all guest users. So one guest user with unusual preferences could change something that would really baffle the next person to use the system. If you find yourself in the position of often being a guest user then it really is worthwhile to study the system's preferences and configuration options so that you can easily change things to your own requirements.

But...

I've seen it myself on enough occasions to realise that preferences and configuration settings are a significant way things can go wrong in a multi-user environment, resulting in wasted time at best, and a show not starting on time - or going ahead at all - at worst.

This doesn't just apply to audio DAW or video editing software. It applies to any software or equipment that has preference or configuration settings and is used by more than one person. In fact, the DAW or video editor situation is probably the easiest to manage through giving each user their own account.

But other audio equipment, from field recorders through to digital mixing consoles don't commonly have user accounts. So everyone that uses the system has to work with or reset the preferences that were left in place by the previous user, or not change the preferences at all because their employer has banned any changes. Some items of equipment have the ability to save preferences and configurations to a removable medium such as an SD card, which is a distinct advantage. (Internal storage is not as reliable as someone could change it.)

The efficient employer

In a multi-user environment where there are guest users of software, or there is equipment that has preference or configuration settings, then there are a number of approaches that can be taken...

1. Have a free-for-all. Just don't expect to run an efficient operation.
2. Issue an instruction that preferences and configurations are not to be changed.
3. Have technical staff reset all preferences and configurations between each shift, or when equipment is returned from operation.
4. Provide adequate training in setting preferences and configurations.

Option 3 is likely to be the most efficient way of working. Option 4 would be nice, but it is unlikely to be achievable by everyone other than to a basic level of understanding. The rule given in Option 2 is bound to be violated and it is unlikely the culprit will own up.

The efficient employee

When you are working as a guest user of computer software, you should expect that the preferences and configuration will not be entirely to your liking. Ideally you should ask permission to change them so that everyone knows what's happening. You should also develop a good knowledge of the options available in the preferences and configuration settings so that when things don't work as you expect, you can easily put it right.

If it happens that you are invited to work as a guest on someone else's account, then don't change anything unless you really have to, and tell the account's owner or leave a note. Changing someone else's preferences is inconvenient to the point of being perceived as inconsiderate or even rude. And if you have been instructed not to do this, then it could lead to a disciplinary procedure.

Multiple users, multiple workstations

Now here is where things get interesting. Suppose there are a number of employees and a number of workstations and any employee can expect to work on any workstation. How can preferences be managed then?

Well ideally, as a user, you would like your preferences to be the same any time you opened up your account on any workstation. But unless you have a natural talent for self-organisation, this is unlikely to happen if preferences are stored locally on each computer. To synchronise preferences among multiple computers, you would need a computer network specialist to set up symbolic links so that each computer could access a single preference file stored somewhere on the network for each user, or find another effective solution.

In summary

I've seen a lot of evidence in my comings and goings through various establishments that unless preferences and configurations are managed effectively, efficient operation can be severely compromised. By having a policy on these matters, and making sure that everyone sticks to it, workers can open their DAW or video editing software, or switch on their hardware equipment, and get to work straight away. The alternative, which I have seen on enough occasions, is people standing around scratching their heads wondering what's gone wrong. The answer is in the preferences.

P.S. What's the difference between a preference and a configuration? Well these terms are commonly used interchangeably, but often a configuration is a base-level set up, such as selecting an audio interface, which if not done correctly then the system will not function. A preference is something a user would like one way rather than another way that is purely down to personal choice.

By David Mellor Sunday August 6, 2017