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Phantom Power: Cleaning House

10/1/2008

Photo: Doug Eisengrein

Photo: Doug Eisengrein

Here are some typical scenarios. The higher-end mixing board you saved up for has a few channels that you can't get the static out of, even — or especially — when you mess with the cables. Or every time you turn it up to really hear your final mix, an annoying hum shows up (perhaps making clients uneasy). Your keyboards, drum machines and DJ mixer may all sound great, but that damn mic sounds like what the neighbor's dog left on the sidewalk. Before chucking your gear out the window in frustration or spending a bundle to replace things that cost you months of bread, a little studio housekeeping may be the trick to restore your sonic sanctuary. And of course, it's a good idea to heed these tips well before your pots and faders sound like you dragged your equipment through a playground sandbox.

PRISTINE POWER

Let's begin from the source of everything in your studio: the electricity. Is your rig plugged into a bunch of typical (consumer-grade) multiple-outlet power strips? Even worse, do you have a string of power strips chained together due to lack of abundant source outlets? Even if your strips provide “surge protection” or are from reputable companies such as Monster or APC, that doesn't mean that they provide true power “conditioning.” Aside from providing typically higher levels of surge protection than your average power strip, professional-grade, rackmountable power conditioners will stabilize the incoming voltage that is powering your equipment, and the best of them will clean up line noise generated from “dirty” power. In outfitting your studio with at least one quality power conditioner (which doesn't have to set back your budget too far), you will go a long way toward eliminating hum and protecting your hard-earned investments in gear. There's plenty more on this topic in the March 2007 Phantom Power article, “No Surge Charge” (http://remixmag.com/issue_20070301).

Whether or not you have power conditioners in your rig, look around the back of your gear, especially in places where several pieces are stacked, such as racks. Do you see a jungle of wires, or neatly bundled ones? The latter is always good practice, but more specifically it's best to bundle audio cables apart from power lines. In addition, keeping your audio wires away from large external power supplies may also help eliminate unwanted hum; these things take some time but don't cost a dime. Finally, unless you've hired a professional electrician to install the power in your studio, there's no telling how clean the electricity coming into your space is, and oftentimes just moving your setup around the room to a different location will work wonders in removing unwanted hum and other artifacts. Try plugging key pieces of gear, especially those with potential noise-generating characteristics such as power amps and instrument amplifiers, into different outlets throughout your studio to find out where the weak spots are. Different circuits may exist in the same room, and one may be better than another. Save the dirtier outlets for nonsound equipment, such as printers or MIDI controllers.

JACKED JACKS

Cables can be a source of noisy grief for a variety of reasons. Since they are like the veins of your studio, it is essential to clean off the old “gunk” every now and again to ensure the maximum throughput of signal. This also applies to the jacks they connect to. One of the cheapest things you can do to improve your studio's sound is perform a jack and cable cleaning and deoxidizing. Caig Laboratories (www.caig.com) specializes in a line of inexpensive products for just this purpose called DeoxIT, which can be used to preserve and improve other points in your studio as well, such as pots and faders, guitar strings, batteries, fuses and fuse housings, speaker jacks — just about any place where metal touches metal.

The next simple step is to ensure that each cable is seated firmly — especially in patch bays. If any lines continue to give you grief, then replace the cables pronto. Next, study your equipment and their corresponding manuals. If you're not using balanced cables wherever you can, make the switch to balanced. TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) jacks are typically designed for two purposes: as send-receive terminals, or to ground a single line to minimize noise. Note, however, that you'll obtain the advantages of this classic noise-reduction scheme only if the connectors on both ends are designed to receive TRS plugs, and that you're using such a cable. Finally, as a general rule (especially with Hi-Z instrument or unbalanced lines), use as short a cable as possible for every connection. The more cable length running through your studio, the more the studio can act like one big antenna, potentially picking up EMI (electromagnetic interference) or RFI (radio frequency interference).

SNUFF IT OUT

While it might seem stupidly obvious, I think it's worth the reminder: Use a “live sound 101” rule, and always keep your microphones out of the direct line of any speakers in the studio. That's what headphones, which don't cause any feedback, are for. In fact, if you don't have an isolation booth, record all mics in another room from your monitors if possible. Aside from eliminating feedback and thus being able to turn up the volume higher, you will also avoid any echoing effects from your mics picking up beats and instruments (and themselves) from the monitors. Alternatively, the session engineer can use headphones while tracking instead of the monitors. Finally, this last tip should become a simple mantra: Don't smoke inside the studio. Brown or green — it doesn't matter. If your friends or clients want to smoke, politely ask them to take five and go outside. Aside from being health conscious to all involved, there's nothing like tar and resin to murk up the interior of your gear and decrease its value on the used market.

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