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Leader: Simple Solutions

Paul White
By Paul White

Most of us are constantly on the lookout for new gear, not just because we like to have new toys (which we obviously do!), but also because we're constantly trying to make our studios work better. However, what we perceive as equipment problems can often be down to other causes. For example, until recently, I'd been experiencing the odd click and pop on my monitoring system. It sounded like 'something digital' not being as happy with life as it might once have been, and I was worried that my faithful old MOTU 828 audio interface might be starting to fail me. I tried everything — resetting the buffer sizes, reinstalling the driver, and swapping the Firewire cable, but all to no avail. Every few minutes, there would be a tick or a pop, and occasionally audio I was recording would end up with a fuzzy little glitch in the middle of it.

Paul White sat at his mixing desk.When the Apple G5 arrived for review last month, I used my 828 to test it, and still got the same noises, so I became even more convinced that the interface was to blame. However, I decided to have one last look for outside causes, and so set about checking for loose mains connections, as any fizzing inside a mains plug is likely to upset digital devices. Again, no luck — all my mains leads and adaptors were fine, although I did discover that my computer and interface were plugged into separate wall sockets about six feet apart. This got me thinking that maybe there was a ground loop completed by the Firewire cable screen that was causing jitter or some other form of interference, so I plugged both the computer and interface into the same filtered mains distribution board. This new strategy not only fixed the clicking and glitching problem completely, it also improved the overall sound of the audio. I'd been on the verge of spending hundreds of pounds on a new interface, when all I needed to do was move a few cables around!

Another frustrating electrical problem that occurred over roughly the same period was that the house mains supply would trip out every few days for no apparent reason. I suspected that something plugged in somewhere must be faulty, and traced the problem to the downstairs wall sockets by a process of elimination using the individual circuit breakers.

I went around unplugging everything until I reached the hall socket where my wife insists on plugging in one of those electrical air fresheners. I noticed a wet patch on the tiles beneath this device, but on closer inspection, discovered that the main socket was also wet. Had the perfume leaked and somehow caused a partial short circuit? How do you confirm this? You sniff it, of course! Aroma of the Everglades, alpine meadows or honeysuckle on a summer evening? No — one of our cats, which had clearly taken exception to the smell of these air fresheners, and had apparently been making regular visits to this socket and then peeing on it in protest! Some of this 'protest' had found its way down the back of the socket, and when I removed it from the wall (after first scrubbing my hands with bleach!), I saw the electrical parts were all quite badly corroded and carbonised. I'd found my current leak! Luckily I had a spare socket, and so five minutes later it was changed and the power restored. So far, touch wood, the problem has not recurred — though I am keeping a very close eye on that cat!

The moral of the story is that solutions to hi-tech problems can sometimes be very simple, and may not involve expensive upgrades or equipment repairs. In particular, we tend to take mains wiring for granted, but in both these cases, that's exactly where the fault was. Take a little time out to check all your mains plugs and mains wiring schemes — it might be just the inexpensive upgrade you need!

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published February 2004