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Preventative Maintenance In The Studio

Tips & Tricks By Paul White
Published April 2000

Removable cartridges like Iomega Zip and Jaz disks are very convenient for studio use, but require careful handling despite their rugged cases. They are especially susceptible to shock caused by dropping.Removable cartridges like Iomega Zip and Jaz disks are very convenient for studio use, but require careful handling despite their rugged cases. They are especially susceptible to shock caused by dropping.

Audio equipment is expensive, so it pays to keep it in good condition and forestall potential problems. Paul White provides a few tips.

Most of today's studio equipment features solid‑state circuitry that requires no direct maintenance, and even digital tape machines need little attention other than running the odd head‑cleaning tape, plus regular routine servicing. However, there are still simple things you can do to extend your equipment's life. You can also keep your gear looking good, which is important if you come to resell it.

Clean Machine

When fitting studio gear that runs hot into your rack, like this Studio Electronics SE1 analogue synth, it's a good idea to leave at least 1U of rack space above it for ventilation, preferably with a blanking panel (as shown here)..When fitting studio gear that runs hot into your rack, like this Studio Electronics SE1 analogue synth, it's a good idea to leave at least 1U of rack space above it for ventilation, preferably with a blanking panel (as shown here)..

No matter what you buy, the first page of the manual usually advises against using your new purchase in wet conditions or cleaning it with solvents. If you do need to clean it, they generally suggest a damp cloth. Now, successful cleaning with a damp cloth is about as improbable as being able to wipe away the baked‑on remains of yesterday's curry from your supposedly 'stainless' steel gas hob with the latest miracle kitchen cleaner. You're far more likely to make an impression on grubby gear if you use an all‑surface domestic spray polish such as Mister Sheen. It works on paint, plastic and LCD windows, and will also dissolve sticky build‑up from labels or gaffa tape — though you may need to leave such build‑up to 'soak' for a few minutes before using a cloth to wipe it off. Don't spray polish into faders or jack sockets, though, especially if the polish contains silicon. It is usually safest to spray polish onto your cleaning cloth rather than directly onto the gear.

One thing you can spray into sockets is Deoxit D5 — I know I keep plugging the stuff, but it really does make a difference to contact reliability. It's also useful to spray a little onto a cloth for wiping your patch‑lead plugs from time to time. Beware of cleaning sprays that also contain lubricants, such as WD40 and many other proprietary electrical contact cleaners. These are not suitable for routine maintenance of audio contacts, as the lubricant can actually cause dust to stick to the contact surface, building up over time into a serious layer of semi‑conductive grime. Before I leave the subject of sockets, I'll just mention that you can significantly improve the reliability and general cleanliness of your equipment by putting a cloth over it when you're not using it. Dust is the enemy of electrical contacts and faders, but studios always seem to attract more than their fair share of the stuff! Cigarette smoke is also extremely bad news for switches, faders and tape heads — not to mention engineers. For routine dusting, I use one of those anti‑static, fluffy 'duster‑on a‑stick' things, as they can generally get between most controls and faders. A clean, dry paintbrush can be useful for getting into even smaller spaces, such as between the controls on a compact mixer or rack unit.

If you've just bought a second‑hand bit of gear, you'll probably want to clean it up before putting it into your rack (after which you'll probably never clean it again). Black rackmount units sometimes pick up a few chips or scratches around the mounting holes and along the panel edges, but a fine indelible black felt marker pen can be used to touch up minor scratches. Slight scratches on plastic parts or LCD windows can often be improved by polishing with toothpaste — it's a mild abrasive, rather like mint‑flavoured T‑Cut. If you use plastic or fibre washers when rackmounting equipment you'll avoid marking the panel, which can influence the selling price of the gear when you want to trade up.

Power Points

Caig Laboratories' Deoxit is invaluable for cleaning electrical contacts and sockets.Caig Laboratories' Deoxit is invaluable for cleaning electrical contacts and sockets.

Getting your gear looking nice is great, but it also has to be safe, so check mains plugs to make sure the cable clamp is holding the mains lead firmly by the outer insulation, not by the individual wires. Fitting a plug with a built‑in automatic cable clamp (the MK plug type) is safest, and you should always leave the earth lead about half an inch longer than the live and neutral, so that if the cable is accidentally pulled out of the plug the earth cable is the last one to become disconnected. Also, don't tin the ends of the wires with solder before fitting a mains plug, as this guarantees the connections will come loose. Before closing the plug, ensure that you have a sensible fuse rating (check the manual for the correct value) and that the wire colours correspond to the correct terminals. Most gear will still work if the brown and blue (live and neutral) wires are swapped over, or if the earth wire (green and yellow) is disconnected, but your safety will be compromised. Also make sure the fuse is gripped tightly by the fuseholder. If it's not, use a pair of pliers to squeeze the contacts together slightly.

Fan Club

Computers, hard drives, power amps and mixer power‑supplies are often fan‑cooled, so ensure that the fans are not obstructed or choked with dust. Try to leave ventilation space around anything that runs noticeably hot, whether it has a fan or not. Anything with valves inside tends to run hotter than normal, so leave an empty rack space above if possible. You can fit a ventilated 1U blanking panel to keep things looking good. It's worth the trouble, since providing proper ventilation will significantly reduce the likelihood of component failure.

Foam fan filters may be removed and washed in soapy water, but make sure they're dry before you put them back. If there's no foam filter and you don't want to dismantle your equipment (always disconnect from the mains first!), a vacuum cleaner with hose attachment will usually shift the worst of the dust.

Computer Love

Computers can suffer problems if the mains supply is 'dirty', so buying a plug‑board with a built‑in filter and spike suppressor will help. Use this just for your computer setup. You should also physically unplug all your equipment (or at least the distribution boards to which they are connected) in severe thunderstorms, as a nearby lightning strike could fry every semiconductor in your studio, even if the mains switch is off. To add insult to injury, both your electricity and insurance companies may well say that this is an act of God, and as such is not their responsibility! Also avoid connecting or disconnecting computer peripherals while the computer is powered up, as this can occasionally produce some nasty (and expensive) faults.

Tape Notes

Most of us are already aware of the importance of tape‑machine cleaning and tape storage. What may not be so obvious is that tapeless media are also prone to damage. Though removable drive cartridges, such as Iomega Jaz disks, may be compact and convenient, they're not very tolerant of being dropped. In fact, many removable cartridges are more susceptible to shock damage than fixed hard drives. Treat all media like eggs (don't fry them!) and you won't go far wrong. Similarly, handle your CD‑Rs by the edges and store them somewhere dark, dust‑free and at room temperature. When they're not in use, keep them in their boxes, as surface abrasions and fingermarks may defeat the CD player's error correction system, rendering them unplayable.

ADAT tapes (and most other cassette‑based tapes, for that matter) also suffer when dropped, as mechanical shock can affect the way in which the tape winds, so treat your ADAT tapes carefully and always rewind them fully before storing them in their library boxes. It's also not a good idea to leave tapes in the recorder overnight, as dust can get into the cassette via the open tape door.

Handle With Care

Summing up, preventative maintenance mainly boils down to this: studio equipment and media don't like dust, excessive heat, or physical shocks. Even the simple act of using a dust sheet to protect your gear when it's not in use can improve its reliability, as can ensuring proper ventilation. It's only common sense not to drop equipment, but this rationale should be extended to all types of computer and audio media. And even something as simple as making regular electrical safety checks on your plugs will reduce the incidence of intermittent splutters and fizzes in your studio, not to mention possibly extending your own life. I know maintenance is boring compared to making music, but if you don't do it, eventually you could find that your studio won't allow you to make any music!

Phantom Power Tips

The more you think about it, the more potential there is for things to go wrong in a typical studio. For example, a fact that few people seem to know is that plugging mics or DI boxes into a mixer whose phantom power is switched on can lead to the gradual (or sometimes not so gradual) breakdown of the mic amp's input circuitry. This also applies to unplugging mics. Most of the time, you'll get away with it but, depending on the mixer design, you may find that the channel gradually becomes noisier than the others. In extreme cases the input devices may fail altogether. Because phantom power takes a while to discharge once you've switched it off, it's sensible to wait at least 15 seconds before connecting or disconnecting a mic.