This last summer, I was playing keyboards for a big show at the Navy Pier in Chicago. The beating heart of the whole thing was my MainStage rig, running off a MacBook Pro laptop. A few minutes before the show started, a little notification popped up in the corner of the screen on my laptop, asking if I wanted to update my software. My mouse was half way across the screen before my brain caught up with it and started screaming, “STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?”

There’s a right and a wrong way to do software updates. Updating minutes before a performance is definitely the wrong way. Here are some guidelines to make sure your team is doing it the right way.

Should we update?
The very first question to ask is, “Do I need this update?” Fight the urge to be the first kid on the block with the new version, and take a minute to figure out what the update does. A working system is a useful tool, so weigh carefully the advantages of the update against the risk of breaking something that you rely on every week.

Updates fall into three groups: security, bug fixes, and new features. If this is a security update, the answer is quick and easy: yes! Do the update. Leaving software vulnerable with a known security risk is asking for trouble, especially if the computer is online. On the other hand, if it’s a bug fix, think about whether or not the bug affects the way you use the software. Not all bugs affect all users. If it’s a features update, pause and consider how important those new features will actually be for your workflow. Having the latest version is nice, but having a working version of the software is even better.

The Updating Checklist
I help manage the music technology lab at Azusa Pacific University, and over the years we’ve developed a set of “Best Practices” for doing software updates—steps that helps us avoid making mistakes. Here’s that list, slightly adapted for the worship environment.

  1. Google it!
    The very first step in the update process is to see how it went for other people. If you can, wait a week or two after the update comes out, and then go poke around the online forums and help sites to see how users are responding to the update A little research might save you a world of hurt.
  2. Timing.
    Give yourself as much time as possible before the next critical use. Plan ahead so that you have enough time to find and solve any problems caused by the update. In our lab, we update on Friday morning so that we have the weekend to solve problems. In your church, that might mean updating on Monday instead.
  3. Backup.
    Before you do anything to your system, do a full backup. Both Apple and Windows operating systems have built-in utilities that allow you to do this. Before you do surgery, make sure you can resuscitate the patient if you need to!
  4. Start small.
    We start by updating software on one computer, then testing it.
    When we know it’s working, we roll the changes out to the rest of the lab. If you’re planning to update software, start with a computer that’s not mission-critical. If it’s going to crash, you want it to crash in the fellowship hall, not on the main sanctuary’s media computer.
  5. Log everything.
    This isn’t just the rule for updates; it’s the rule for anything that gets installed on the machine. Keep a written record of everything you did during the installation, including user names, install locations, license keys, which options were selected, any warnings; everything that happens during the installation should be logged. If something goes wrong, knowing what steps led to the problem will help you figure out how to solve it.
  6. Do a test run.
    This one is obvious, right? Do a test run of the updated system before you take it live. If you have a new version of MainStage or ProPresenter installed, run through a full Thursday night rehearsal before you run a Sunday morning service.

All of these precautions are designed to do one thing: to limit the problems that a new update can cause, and to give you a path back to a working system if problems do show up. Nobody in the congregation will know if you’re using version 7.1 or 7.2 of a program, but they will know if your tools are working for you or against you.

Michael Lee has been active in the professional music industry as a keyboardist, producer, composer, and technical consultant for over 10 years. He has toured and recorded as a keyboardist with a wide range of artists, including the Dove Award-winners Avalon and Grammy Award-winners BeBe Winans, Melissa Etheridge, and Meredith Brooks. In addition to his professional work in the music industry, Mr. Lee serves as the Director of Music Technology for Azusa Pacific University, where he teaches courses in music technology, studio production, and music ethics. He also serves as Worship Leader for his local church.

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