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Keeping the Tigers Away
An Ounce of prevention beats a ton of angry clients.
By Paul Stamler

Once upon a time, a New York policeman, riding on a city bus, noticed that the gentleman sitting across from him was behaving oddly. Every block or so, the man would pull a salt-shaker out of his pocket and sprinkle a few shakes of salt out the window. The policeman watched for several blocks, until finally his constabular curiosity got the best of him

“Excuse me, sir, but why are you shaking salt out the window?”

“Keeps the tigers away.”

“But, sir, there are no tigers in New York City!”

“Pretty effective, ain’t it?”

Well, we each have our methods. In this article, I’ll outline a few of the ways I’ve found to keep the tigers of calamity from making my studio life miserable.

The main principle is that you should try to make studio down time happen when you want it, not when the disaster demons will it. It’s much better to spend an hour cleaning your patch bay, alone with a record playing, than to trace down an intermittent while a client sits tapping his foot and wondering what he’s paying for, or while that fabulous violin player (who’s only free for two hours on Sunday before she flies to Brazil) noodles Coltrane riffs to herself.

First, don’t die

Or, Thou Shalt Not Kill. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: that wonderful old tubed guitar amp from 1958 has tone like nobody’s business; cranked, it puts you on 35th St. jamming with Muddy himself. But it’s also a lethal weapon, because back then most houses didn’t come with grounded outlets, and none of these amps had grounding plugs.

The better ones had a grounding switch, which you would set to whichever position gave less buzz; on the real cheapies, you just reversed the plug (they weren’t polarized back then either). Either way, you had a 50% chance of being wrong. At best, that meant a 117V AC potential on the amp chassis, and every metal part of the electric guitar, because they’re all connected to ground (even the strings).

If you complete the circuit between that potential and ground (perhaps by touching a microphone with one hand or your lips while holding the guitar in the other), 117V AC flows through you, and under the right [wrong?—Ed.] circumstances that’s quite enough to kill you deader’n a mackerel. Hand-to-hand is particularly bad, as the current flows right through the part of your body containing your heart.

I’m paranoid

Worse, though, is when the power transformer built into your amplifier (you weren’t damfool enough to buy an “AC/DC” amp with no power transformer, were you?) has leakage from its secondary to ground. Under those circumstances, you could get, not 117V, but 350V AC running through your body, and brothers and sisters, you don’t want that.

The solution is relatively simple: replace the two-wire cord on your amplifier with a modern three-wire cord, making sure the ground wire is well-connected to the chassis. Unless you’re really conversant with the inner workings of amplifiers, though, DON’T DO THIS YOURSELF. Instead, have your local amp repair tech do it; you might even have them recap the amp while they’re at it.

(I’m paranoid enough about this that, even though my amps are all grounded, I still use a voltmeter to check the voltage between the amp and ground. Never found anything wrong yet, but I keep checking.)

If you think I’m being alarmist...well, there have been enough guitar players who managed to kill themselves to show that this isn’t just theory. Les Harvey of Stone The Crows departed this mortal coil in just such a fashion, right in front of a horrified audience in a ro ck club in Wales in 1972, and former Yardbird Keith Relf was killed this way in his basement studio in 1976. And they’re just the famous ones. So don’t sign yourself up for the Darwin Awards; get that amp grounded. Now.

3, 2, 1—contact

Everyone likes to make laws. Stamler’s First Law: more audio problems are caused by something not making good contact with something else than by anything else.

Cables are usually the worst. Microphone cables get handled, plugged, unplugged, wrapped, twirled, stepped on, run over and generally messed with. The same things happen to interconnect cables, but perhaps not as often.

The wires in cables sometimes break internally, but more often they come unsoldered from the plugs, or break right at the termination point inside the plug. This causes intermittents, silence, or obnoxious buzzing; in the worst circumstance, when one of the errant wires touches ground, it can ruin a microphone’s output transformer by causing phantom power to flow through its secondary, permanently magnetizing the core.

How do you preserve your cables? Certain steps are obvious: try to avoid running them where people walk, don’t let someone roll amps over them. But the most important thing is something much simpler: how cables are wrapped.

Banish the elbow-wrap

Judging by what I see after concerts, almost no one knows how to wrap cables properly. Most roadies “elbow-wrap”: they hold the end of the cable in one hand, and wrap the cable tightly between their elbow and their palm, twisting their hand at the end to free the loop. Sometimes — most of the time — these same folks will fasten the cable by tying the last few inches in a loop around the rest of the cables and knotting it.

This is a disaster. There are two reasons, both of which can be deduced by looking at the shape of the cable when the operation is finished. It’s a funny, skewed shape, three dimensional, rather than a flat loop. This is caused by the fact that the elbow-wrap technique puts a half-twist into the wire on every turn.

The half-twist has two consequences. First, metal has memory; a cable that’s left in that multiply-twisted configuration gets entrained to it, and will never lie flat again. This makes for a messy studio or stage. More important, those half-twists put a powerful strain on the many fine strands that make up the cable, a strain that is multiplied when the cables is stored twisted. Sooner or later, with enough strain in different places, those strands will break, and your cable is shot.

Safe wrap

Here’s how to wrap microphone cables safely. (I’m right-handed; if you’re a lefty, do this in mirror-image.) Hold the end of the cable in your left hand, with the XLR connector facing toward you. Take the cable in your right hand, rolling it between your thumb and forefinger until it forms a natural loop about a foot in diameter. Grasp the top of that loop in your left hand (along with the XLR) and repeat. Each time, you should roll the cable just enough to form a smooth loop, with no kinks; if there are kinks, you’ve rolled too much or not enough; roll a little more and see if they get better or worse. There will be one magic point where the cable almost coils itself; you’ll soon get good at recognizing it.

Toward the end of a long cable, you’ll find the unwound portion is developing a lot of twists, and is getting harder to coil; you can usually gently shake the twists out, or put the coil down for a moment and untwist the rest of the cable on your own. For really messy ones, I find it helpful to dangle the cable over the edge of a stairwell, so that it hangs freely and doesn’t kink. It also sometimes helps to run the cable through your hands once before winding, to get kinks out.

When you’re done, please don’t tie the end of the cable around the loop. Instead, you can get Velcro® tie-wraps at most music stores (or any hardware store, but the music store ones are nicer); these can attach permanently to the cable, so you won’t lose them.

Next to godliness

The other thing that goes wrong with cables is that, even unbroken, sometimes the connection they make is less than perfect. Ditto microphones and every piece of electronic gear in the universe: the gozintas and gozoutas gunk up.

Why? Unlike on fancy gear, most jacks and plugs do not use gold contacts, but plebeian metals. These oxidize (including silver, which isn’t really plebeian, but let it go), thanks to the oxygen in the air and the chemicals we industrious humans pump out, like sulfur dioxide.

Oxide films aren’t quite insulators, but they aren’t quite conductors either. They’re semiconductors, in fact (the popular MOSFET transistor is a Metal Oxide–Silicon Field Effect Tran-sistor) and their pattern of conduction can be quite nonlinear. The nonlinear conduction of metal oxide can generate significant distortion. It also acts as an excellent detector for radio signals; that unintentional diode does a dandy job at demodulation, and you get radio stations leaking into your audio...usually the worst station in town.

So you should clean everything—everything—that conducts electricity. Clean the cable plugs. Clean the sockets. Clean the multipin connectors between your components. Clean your electric guitar’s cord, and sockets, maybe even open it up and clean the switch. Clean your stompboxes; they use cheap jacks, mostly, and need all the help they can get. (I remember seeing Richard Thompson in downtown St. Louis, and hearing a powerful AM station with a nearby transmitter leaking into his pedalboard.) Speakers and speaker wires, too. And don’t neglect the AC cords.

Cleansing matters

How do you clean connectors? There are a lot of products available at most electronics stores, but let me point you at a line of chemicals that do an exceptional job. These come from the Caig Corporation (www.caig.com), and include DeoxIT® (cleaner), PreservIT® (oxidation preventer) and ProGold® (for treating gold contacts that aren’t always pure gold—since pure gold is soft—and so can oxidize too). They do a fabulous job.

You don’t believe me? You think this is all a bunch of audiophile hooha? Try this, if you have a receiver with an FM antenna that attaches to screw terminals in the back: treat the terminals and the lugs on the antenna with a small amount of DeoxIT, wait five minutes, clean them off with a Q-Tip, then apply a little PreservIT and re-attach. I predict you will suddenly discover stations on your dial you didn’t know were there.

I apply these chemicals very sparingly, usually using the liquid form from the “Electronic Maintenance Kit” rather than the aerosol, and I usually use a Q-Tip rather than the brush included. For female XLR or RCA connectors, I break the Q-tip in half (I prefer the cardboard ones, not plastic or wood) and use the shaft as applicator and cleaner. I also find it useful, when cleaning the sockets of vacuum tubes, to use the tube itself as an applicator; put DeoxIT on the tube pins and insert it in the socket two or three times, then remove it and wait five minutes. Clean the pins, insert again, clean again, then apply PreservIT and replace the tube.

Caution advised

Be very cautious in using these chemicals near microphones. They have strong capillary action; I once destroyed the capsule of a Neumann KM 84 by treating its connectors (the needle and the screw threads). Seems the chemicals crept up into the capsule, and that was goodbye $240.

The Caig folks have also introduced a new product, CaiLube MCL®, designed for cleaning faders and other controls. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds like a good idea.

Full Disclosure: I have no connection with Caig, have never been on their payroll, etc. etc. etc.. (After I mentioned them in print one time, they did send me a packet of ProGold Wipes, but I lost it before I could try them.)

How often should you clean contacts? I try to give the whole system a good going-over at least twice a year, and if I’m about to do an important session I’ll do the most important pieces and the cables that go with them.

If you own a patchbay, it has special cleaning needs. The jacks themselves can be cleaned with a Q-Tip, but it’s more effective to use special burnishing tools designed for the purpose. There are also swinging (normalling) contacts inside the jacks that are hard to reach, even with a spray nozzle; for that, you need a special solvent injector device. The injector goes in the hole, then your spray tube goes in the injector. You can get these patchbay cleaning tools from Markertek (www.markertek.com). They sell Caig products, too, as do many electronics stores and stereo shops.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to clean out your computer (dust breeds heat and occasionally short circuits). If you use tape, clean your heads carefully before every important session. And don’t ever smoke in your studio or control room, or let any one else smoke there; what tobacco residue does to microphone diaphragms, faders and tape heads is not pretty, or cheap to fix.

Clean juice

There isn’t room here to go into the finer details of keeping crud out of the AC power that runs everything in your studio; besides, I’ve already done that in some detail elsewhere (“Shut Up!”, Recording June–August 1997). But it’s really important to keep the jungle of radio frequency interference (RFI) out of your system; even if you don’t hear disc jockeys yammering over your dulcimer solo, the radio-frequency signals can intermodulate with desired audio, causing high-frequency distortion that makes things sound inexplicably hard and glassy. That’s already enough of an issue with digital recordings, especially using lower-priced electronics; don’t make it worse.

Now that I don’t work for the Speaker And Stereo Store any more—they ceased retail operations, another mom-and-pop stereo shop done in by the big-box stores and the Internet—I can tell you without fear of conflict-of-interest that Monster Cable’s line-filtering products do an excellent job of blocking RFI. Your Home Depot or computer-store surge absorber can’t hold a candle to a device specifically designed for audio-video use; I use a couple of HTS-800 absorbers/power strips, and they have given yeoman service.

Oh, while we’re at it—you have turned off every dimmer and fluorescent light in the house, right, including the one on the fish tank? Just checking.

Save, back up, document

No matter how you record, you should save and back up everything you do as quickly as possible. If you’re on digital tape, budget in the requisite amount of time (and money) at the end of a session for making clones of every tape you work on. If possible, store those clones somewhere off-site, in case your basement floods (I don’t know where you live, but this has been the wettest spring in years for me, and my nose tells me so every time I go downstairs.) Analog tape? Make copies, or load into a DAW.

If, like most of our readers, you’re heavily committed to computer audio, save, save, save, back up, back up, back up. Make CD-Rs, Exabytes or DVD-Rs of everything, as soon as possible (if necessary, do it during the dinner break) and, again, try to store at least one copy off-site. You back up your computer regularly anyhow, right? Store a copy of that off-site too.

The other part of prudence in the studio is to write down everything you do: what microphone you used, where you put it, where the preamp’s controls were set, what eq you used, everything. Likewise your mixes—yes, even if you mix inside the computer. Store a copy of the documentation off-site, too, preferably with the materials from the session you’re documenting. (After all, you don’t want the Smithsonian Archive to have to figure this all out decades from now, when they’re researching your work for an exhibit.)

How to document? You can keep a running text file open in your computer. Or you can keep a separate laptop sitting on the sideboard, and enter everything that happens into a word processor as you go. Or you can do it the low-tech way, which is what I do: I keep a plain ordinary spiral notebook on hand, and plenty of ballpoint pens.

Do whatever works for you, but don’t neglect the documentation. Someday, I promise, you will need it.

Return to zero

At the end of a session, zero out your equipment. Mute all the channels on your board, turn all the eq pots on your preamp to flat, take out all filters, unpatch your patches. The object is to begin with everything off, everything flat, so you don’t accidentally record something with an eq curve (or, worse, noise) that wasn’t intended.

Obviously, you won’t do this every time; if your session tomorrow is a continuation of today, leave everything as it was. But when you come to a transition point, put things back in standard configuration.

About surprises

This is an ambivalent recommendation; everyone I know, including me, breaks this next rule on a regular basis. But I offer it in the hopes it’ll at least lodge in the back of your mind. The rule is: Never use a piece of equipment for an important session that you haven’t used before.

The reason is obvious: it could jump up and bite you, either by not working or by being singularly inappropriate for the job, in ways you never anticipated when you plunked down your credit card. Bad surprises like that do happen, but you’re better off having them happen when you’re alone in the studio than with other people looking at you like you’re a dimwit.

It’s good to go into a session deeply familiar with every piece of gear you’ll use, but sometimes it’s not practical. I mean, how do you find out what a piece of gear does without using it? And unless you play every possible instrument yourself (hi, Stevie!) and have the leisure to test out your new toy on all of them, how can you possibly know its strengths and weaknesses? Sometimes you need to test new equipment in the crucible of life itself.

So I offer a compromise: If you must use a new piece of gear for an important session, do two things. First, make sure—doubly sure—that the success or failure of that session doesn’t ride on that untried gadget; have at least one backup ready to go on a moment’s notice if the new piece isn’t quite right or, worse, putzes out on you. And second, tell the other people up front that you’re trying something new, and tell them beforehand that you have tried-and-true replacements standing by. At the first hint that things aren’t copacetic, smile cheerfully and say, “Back to the old reliable.” Then do it.

Epilogue

ROOM 6343, BARNES HOSPITAL

I composed this article while lying flat on my back in a hospital bed, listening to the IV drip and wishing I was someplace else. My stomach lining had finally succumbed to the years of bombardment from the anti-inflammatory drugs I took to keep my tendinitis under control so I could keep playing the guitar, and I can tell you that an upper GI bleed is no picnic. (I’m better, thanks, and have sworn to find a non-chemical way to deal with the hand problems.)

But it got me to thinking: the concept of preventive maintenance doesn’t just apply to the studio, but to us. We musicians tend to have pretty unhealthy lifestyles; we eat bad food, drink too much, work under high-stress conditions, and many of us smoke cigarettes, which killed more people in the twentieth century than Hitler and Stalin combined. Listen, folks, getting sick is a worse disaster than any messed up studio session, and you don’t want it to happen. Living fast and dying young sounds real romantic, but trust me—it ain’t. So keep your studio act together, apply a little P.M. to your own self, live long and love happy.

And wrap those cables right.

Paul J. Stamler has been subsisting on cream of wheat, vanilla pudding and Jell-O for the last few weeks. He prefers chicken curry.

 




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