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A Question Of Trust, Part 1: Can You Trust Your Equipment?

Exploration By David Mellor
Published May 1995

Part 1: Can you trust your equipment? What will you do if it lets you down? David Mellor offers advice.

The human race simply would not function without trust. Generally speaking, we trust our friends, we trust people we meet for the first time, we trust that people we pass on the street bear us no ill will. Occasionally our natural trusting instinct is misplaced, but it is only the very rare occasion when our trust is let down in any significant way.

We also trust 'things'. When we switch on our television, we trust that it will display adequate sound and pictures — and we expect it to do that faultlessly for a period of several years. Once in a while, however, your best friend won't turn up on time for an agreed meeting, and once in a while you'll find the need to call up the TV repair company. But this is expected, it does no harm and we continue to trust.

Some wise folk say that data doesn't exist unless it exists in two places.

Now let's consider sound equipment and the music industry, two topics that are of great importance to every reader of this magazine. Can you trust the people you have to do business with to make progress in your musical career? Can you trust that when you are working with an important artist in your studio, the equipment will function as well as he or she expects?

I'm going to select a number of situations that I and people I know have encountered — situations which all musicians or sound engineers might encounter — and assess how much faith is being placed in people and things. And, more importantly, examine what you can do to protect yourself if the same thing happens to you. This month let's look at the technical aspect, for things are always far less complicated than people!

Good Gear, Bad Gear

These days, it's a rare musical instrument or piece of sound equipment that is actually badly designed or badly made. I encounter a fair amount of equipment in the course of my reviews for Sound On Sound, and in eight years I have never come across any product that wasn't worth owning. Some pieces of equipment are better value for money than others, but the competition between manufacturers is so intense that they have to produce reliable equipment that delivers the goods. Anything less and they would soon go out of business. There are still times when problems occur, however, and it's unwise to assume that they will not. Here is a selection of potential pitfalls...

Will the equipment work straight out of the box?

Almost always it will. Manufacturers have stringent quality control procedures to ensure that faulty equipment is well and truly nipped even before the budding stage. This doesn't mean, however, that you should expect to have a piece of equipment delivered today and be using it on a paying job tomorrow. This is tempting fate just a little too far. There are three ways in which things can go wrong:

  • The first is obviously that the equipment actually is faulty, or that there is just enough wrong with it to make you want to return it. In the latter case, if you use it despite the faults and mar its pristine condition, you risk the supplier refusing to replace it and offering to repair it instead. This could mean a lengthy wait.
  • The second possibility is that the equipment doesn't work in quite the way you expect it to or doesn't interface with your equipment properly. This would apply particularly with computer software, since the technology is far from mature and clashes between particular models of computer and particular software packages are not uncommon. Also, the software you buy may clash with software you already have installed. You'll almost certainly find a solution, but will it be sooner or later?
  • The third possibility is when the equipment or software works properly, it is compatible with everything else, but you've simply under‑estimated the degree of difficulty involved in learning how to use it! I've certainly done this before and I'm sure I'll do it again, but that's a risk we techno junkies take!

Will every feature of a new piece of equipment work?

In the old days when sound and musical equipment was made out of wood, metal, nuts and bolts, you would expect so. It's a rare guitar that doesn't come with all six strings working! But nowadays most equipment is software‑driven; even equipment that comes in a box with no computer involved often has a microprocessor inside which runs on software in ROM. You may not be aware, but even in 1995, five years from the turn of the millennium, it is still not possible to prove that any piece of software will work totally correctly, apart from very simple software that can hardly do anything. Software manufacturers have to test their software to see if it works correctly, and even the most rigorous testing is a long way off being totally foolproof. It is common for software, particularly in its early versions, only to work properly in its more basic functions; once you start stretching it, you may find that great holes appear in the fabric.

One partial solution to this potential problem is never to be the first to buy a new piece of software, or a new major upgrade. Wait a couple of months and early snags (or 'bugs') will probably have been ironed out in response to reports from early users. Of course, if you do hang back then the early birds who gambled and bought first may be catching all the fat juicy worms! This is something you'll have to weigh up; technological advantage against potential problems.

If the equipment works, will it work in every situation?

There is a distinct possibility that you may buy equipment which works properly and does everything the manufacturer claims it can do, but there may be the occasional situation where performance is lacking, or it may not do everything you want it to. Let me give you a few examples...

  • If you buy an unbalanced microphone, which means that it doesn't have a transformer (or equivalent electronics just before the output), it will be prone to picking up electrical interference. In your studio it will probably work fine, but if you take it elsewhere, on a location recording or PA job, then you might find a horrible buzz coming through the speakers or headphones. Fully professional equipment is always balanced, which is a method of electrically cancelling out any interference that gets into the cables. The trouble is that balanced operation pushes up the cost, and in lower price equipment you may find compromises. Even if the mic and line inputs on a mixing console are balanced, then the auxiliary sends and returns may not be, and the insert points on a less expensive console certainly won't be. Take this type of equipment anywhere near a lighting rig and you're in for trouble! Lighting dimmers work by biting large chunks out of the mains waveform, leaving very sharp edges behind which radiate a considerable quantity of radio waves. These will penetrate the screens of the cables, causing a nasty buzz that is very difficult to eliminate or ignore. Better quality lighting dimmers may be OK, but the quality of the dimmers isn't usually within your control.
I have found that 90% or more sound engineering problems are caused by connectors and cables, and usually they are very straightforward to sort out...

Another problem I had recently was with a mixing console that works very well in my studio and on location. I took it over to France and it worked just as well there, even on the lower voltage mains. But when I repeated the experience in a different location, I found myself in an outbuilding where the mains arrived via a very long, probably very thin, cable and was even lower than it should have been. The mixer's power supply couldn't cope and it created a low level but clearly audible hum. Fortunately for me, this was a very 'pure' 50Hz hum and easy to filter out later.

If you always work in a fixed location, you have it easy. But if you're constantly on the move, problems will crop up on a regular basis. I have found that 90% or more sound engineering problems are caused by connectors and cables, and usually they are very straightforward to sort out and actually not too difficult to prevent. If it's not a cable that's at fault, then the cause of the problem is usually mechanical rather than electrical. The solution to these problems is to use good quality connectors. Decent XLRs are not hard to find, but decent jacks and phonos are a bit more difficult to source, since there are so many dodgy ones about. My advice is to get hold of a catalogue from a professional supplier, such as Studiospares [Tel: 0171 482 1692] or Canford Audio [Tel: 0191 417 0057], and go for quality rather than price. You should be able to solder properly too, or find someone who can, since poor soldering is also a prime cause of faulty cables.

Once you have sorted out these problems, you should rack‑mount as much of your equipment as possible and secure loose, dangling cables before they cause problems. One further piece of advice on this point is to kit yourself out with flightcases. You may get by without them for the occasional job outside your studio, but properly padded cases will prolong the life of your equipment and reduce the possibility of damage.

Will different pieces of equipment always work well together?

The question isn't so much whether they will work, but who do you blame if they don't? This is a particularly tricky point with computers, because the computer and software usually come from different manufacturers, and you may be using yet another piece of hardware, such as a sound card or interface. If these items don't all work properly together you may phone round the various manufacturers and find that they all blame the other company's product! The only real answer to this, apart from only buying equipment that you have actually seen working in its intended application, is to substitute other equipment in order to pin down the problem area.

I can offer you a real‑life example which concerned my computer system. I had a problem with the printer failing halfway through a document. But was the problem in the computer, the software, the printer, or the third‑party memory board I had installed in the printer? Substituting a different computer, different software and removing the memory board didn't solve the problem, so it had to lie with the printer.

Another problem was that I was encountering glitches when making digital transfers between the sound card in my computer and my DAT machine. The glitches only occurred at the 44.1kHz sampling rate, so I was pretty sure it was either the computer or the DAT at fault. I replaced the DAT with my portable machine, which worked fine, so I determined it must the first DAT. But before I sent it away for a potentially expensive repair, by chance I spoke to someone who had been having glitches because of the wiring used for their digital transfers. I took a chance and replaced the high quality audio cable I had been using for the digital signal with £20 worth of high quality digital cable. Problem solved — but I never did find out why it only occurred at 44.1kHz.

Data Safety

Will your data be there for you when you need it?

Major question, this! Some wise folk say that data doesn't exist unless it exists in two places. The easiest way to lose data is to accidentally overwrite a file with another file of the same name. I don't know of any data recovery programs that will help if you do this, although retrieving deleted files is quite possible with the right software [Norton Utilities for PC or Mac can be recommended — Ed.].

The other means of losing data is due to some kind of problem with the storage medium. If you have an important recording stored on magnetic tape, analogue or digital, then you must accept the fact that tape will deteriorate over the course of time. I was sifting through my archive of old recordings recently and I was horrified to find that some of the tapes were suffering from 'sticky tape syndrome' — a fairly well known phenomenon that strikes tapes made in the late '70s and early '80s. The solution to this was to copy about 30 seconds of tape, clean the heads, copy 30 seconds more, and so on. Then I painstakingly spliced all the segments together in a digital editor.

Deterioration of tape is now something that concerns me, both for my music masters and my home camcorder videos. Probably the answer is to make two copies on different brands of tape, store them in a cool, dry environment and hope for the best. I have heard of more sophisticated storage techniques, but personally I'll remain sceptical until they have been proven to stand the test of time. Aside from tape deterioration, there's also the possibility that the tape might be damaged, perhaps by fire, or lost. The solution here is to keep the archive copies at different locations, so if you lose one you haven't lost your only copy.

Digital data is in some ways more robust than analogue data. Digital sound quality itself doesn't decrease over time, but you would expect errors and glitches to increase. The tape or disk medium may gradually deteriorate, but it has to get to a certain point before there is any significant difference to the data retrieved. It would be wise, therefore, to copy digital material every few years before the originals have deteriorated significantly. Don't forget that despite what we have often been told, a digital copy is not always identical to the original, because of the possibility of errors in the data stream, so hang onto the originals as well.

One particular source of annoyance to me has been the data card of my keyboard. One of the advantages of modern keyboards is that, in theory, you don't need to carry the keyboard around with you everywhere you go, just the card containing your stored programs. Putting this theory to the test when I went on tour abroad a couple of years ago (I've learned my lesson on subsequent tours!), I arranged to hire a keyboard identical to mine and I simply slipped the data card into my travel bag. Prior to the sound check of the first gig I plugged the card in, switched on the synth and as I naively expected, everything worked fine. I'm always a little suspicious of leaving valuable items lying around unattended, so after the sound check I put the card back in my pocket. Later, when we walked out on stage in front of an expectant audience of 300, I casually plugged in the card, switched on the keyboard and... nothing! No sounds. A real nightmare scenario. I ended up having to play the concert using only the standard keyboard sounds and do without all the special programming for each song. I later discovered the cause of the problem — apparently, any pressure on the card can momentarily break contact with the internal battery. In my book this renders such a card useless, because you cannot rely on it. I now carry my sounds on floppy disk (I also record all the parameters in spoken word form on a cassette tape!) and load them into the keyboard straight away.


Despite these potential difficulties with equipment, it's all worthwhile in the end, so I hope I haven't put you off. Next month I'll cover some of the difficulties you may encounter with people in the music and sound business, either because they let you down without realising it, or because they really intend to rip you off. Until then, watch out!