Take care of your gear, and it will take care of you
Maintenance is a necessary part of life. Sure, it’s more fun to spend time creating than maintaining, but paradoxically, a well-maintained studio will let you create more effortlessly because it will run smoothly, and cause fewer interruptions. A wonderful studio doesn’t seem so wonderful when there’s an equipment breakdown—it’s frustrating, costly, and can stomp on inspiration faster than just about anything else.
Some aspects of maintenance are obvious, like making sure the battery in your uninterruptible power supply can still hold a charge.
But preventive maintenance is perhaps the most important maintenance of all, because the best way to avoid having to repair equipment is not to have anything break down in the first place. Although most people seem to feel that equipment breakdowns are like the weather—namely, you can’t do anything about it—this is not always true. Sure, random failures will crop up, but there are many steps you can take to insure that down time is the exception, not the rule. For example, way too many people overlook that having a drink where it can spill on your gear (does the picture above look familiar?) can mean the end of the gear, or at least an expensive repair bill.
So, let’s look at tips designed to help you prevent problems before they happen, as well as ways to keep your workspace well-maintained.
BURN IN YOUR GEAR
Many electronic component failures occur within the first 72 hours of operation. This problem, called infant mortality, can be minimized by “burning in” electronic devices for at least 72 hours. However, burning in is a time-consuming process, and not many companies burn in gear prior to it leaving the factory. Instead, they offer a 90-day warranty so that you can do the quality control. When you first get a new piece of equipment, run it continuously for a few days to weed out any failures before the warranty period is up.
REDUCE STATIC ELECTRICITY
One day, after walking across the carpet, I touched my computer keyboard and—oooops, instant file delete! Apparently, the static electricity charge had been sufficient to alter the computer’s data (luckily, no chips were blown in the process).
There are a number of accessories that prevent static build-up, including anti-static floor mats on which you can place your chair as you mix, and spray-on anti-static chemicals (check studio supply houses). Use them!
MAINTAIN YOUR CONTROLS
Your gear likes to be used. About once a month flip all the switches, press each pushbutton, play each key on a synth, rotate any controls, and slide any sliders over their full travel several times. These parts often have self-wiping contacts, and exercising them prevents oxidation. The one exception is membrane keyboards (e.g., as in the original DX7 keyboard synthesizer). These have a tendency to fail by shorting out, and are rated at a certain number of operations. Because they are hermetically sealed and usually use conductive plastic, they are not as subject to oxidation problems.
Jack contacts also need to be “worked,” as many jacks use switching contacts that can oxidize. Plug and unplug plugs several times into all jacks not just for the benefit of switching contacts, but also to keep the various pins and contacts free of corrosion. This tip applies to patchbays as well.
Hopefully your gear has covers that are made out of a non-porous material, such as plastic. Even so, it’s a good idea to occasionally vacuum out the insides of equipment. I generally take the device outside and blow air into it, thus scattering the dust. You can use a regular vacuum cleaner with the hose plugged into the blower, if you run it for a while to clean any dust out of the tube; but compressed air is preferable.
Endust for Electronics is a product that’s designed specifically for electronic gear, and it works. As an experiment I got a can and wiped one keyboard in my stack with Endust for Electronics, and another keyboard with a soft, damp cloth. After a week, the keyboard treated with Endust was still pretty dust-free, whereas the untreated keyboard had a layer thick enough to write “wash me.” That was enough to convince me as to the product’s efficacy—and it’s also good for touch screens, TVs, and yes, even vinyl records. Studio supply places should bundle this with a Dustbuster for those who want to keep dust to a minimum.
One other dust tip: If you’ve just finished building a studio space, take a rubber mallet and whack the ceilings and walls. It will shake loose a bunch of dust that would take months to float down otherwise.
READ THE MANUAL!
Most manuals will include tips on how to prolong the life of a piece of equipment. For example, did you know that hard disk drives don’t like to be moved around? I still have some ancient keyboards with floppy disk drives, and I held on to the cardboard or plastic shipping material that was inserted in the drive when the unit was first unpacked. When I’ve had to move, those inserts have gone into the drives and so far, they still work (knock on plastic). A good manual will be filled with advice on preventive maintenance, so read it carefully.
Whenever possible, I seek out PDF versions of manuals. I like that they’re searchable, and include hyperlinks. They live in an iPad, so they’re always available.
CHECK YOUR WIRING
Make sure that all electrical outlets are properly wired and grounded; I recently talked to a composer who had a couple of amplifiers break down due to inadequate wiring. The gauge of wire apparently wasn’t thick enough, which caused a voltage drop that simulated brown-out conditions and overstressed the amp. And while we’re on the subject of AC power, keep all cords routed away from foot traffic areas. More than one device has been destroyed because someone tripped over a cord and took down a piece of equipment with it.
HEAT IS THE ENEMY
Many companies with otherwise fine engineers don’t seem to have a good handle on thermal design (even Apple has had problems with this); then again, many people unwittingly defeat what intelligent thermal design there might be. For example, equipment should never be set up where it can receive the full impact of the sun’s rays (even when filtered through window glass), and vent holes should never be obstructed. If there are vent holes in the bottom of a piece of equipment, make sure the device sits on a hard surface—not carpet—where air can flow freely into the holes.
If you have equipment built in a rack cabinet or recessed into a wall, adequate ventilation is a must; adding a small fan (the ones designed for use with computers are generally quiet) can minimize heat build-up. Another consideration with rack mount equipment is to stagger heat-producing equipment. If there’s a hot-running power amp at the bottom of the rack cabinet, leave one rack space above it for air to circulate. Assuming that other heat-producing rack units are sufficiently light, mount them toward the top of the rack so that as the heat rises upwards, it doesn’t “cook” other units in the rack.
But sometimes you don’t need a fan, especially if you’re a do-it-yourself type (if you’re not, skip to the next section). I have one piece of gear that I get along with very well, but it used to be incapable of working above 85 degrees F. So, I did some thermal engineering the company didn’t do. First, I felt around for heat build-up; the whole rear panel of the device would get very warm, so I simply removed it. This allowed plenty of air to circulate around the back.
I then took off the cover and touched the outside of each IC and power transistor package; some of them seemed excessively hot. Not wanting to add a fan (the last thing any studio needs is more devices that make noise), it seemed like a good idea to beef up the heat sinks that help the semiconductors dissipate heat. For the transistors, I added an aluminum plate that carried heat away from the top of the package. (Incidentally, in the process of doing this I found that one of the power transistors had not been screwed down sufficiently to make good contact with its existing heat sink.)
For the ICs, I used thermally conductive epoxy to attach small finned heat sinks (available from electronics supply houses) to the tops of the IC packages. Lo and behold, all thermal problems went away—even when the ambient temperature hit 105 degrees during a recent heat wave. (Yes, I know you shouldn’t run computer-based gear in that kind of heat, but sometimes there are circumstances beyond your control.) Since the capacitors sitting next to these semiconductors are no longer being baked by the heat, their lives should be extended as well.
MAINTAINING YOUR JUICE
An uninterruptible power supply will maintain a constant source of AC power in the face of brownouts, blackouts, lightning storms, and UFOs flying overhead (those pesky little things can cause all sorts of power problems). Seriously, though, if you’ve ever had the power fail during a write operation to a hard drive or while doing a firmware update, you’ll appreciate the protection this type of device affords. Think of it as insurance—iit may be not be cheap (several hundred dollars), but without it, thousands of dollars of gear can be damaged in the event of a serious power problem.
MAINTAINING YOUR SPEAKERS
To prevent speakers from blowing out, insert a fast-blow, low amperage fuse (I use 1/2 Amp types) in series with your speaker’s hot wire. Golden-ear types will tell you that pushing current through that little tiny piece of wire will degrade the sound; tell them that if they’re willing to pay for blown tweeters, you’ll follow their advice. Just remember not to use slow-blow fuses, because they won’t blow until it’s too late. I used to blow a speaker every year or so (ooops, shouldn’t have the effects send turned up on the channel providing the effects return) until I figured out this solution.
WHAT TO DO WHEN GOOD GEAR GOES BAD
Preventive maintenance can only take you so far, and someday you’ll be the victim of equipment failure. The best strategy is to prepare yourself. Write the address, phone, web site, and email of your nearest authorized service center for a given piece of equipment in the unit’s manual, and retain all packing material so that further damage does not occur should you need to ship your gear off for servicing.
Also, keep a log of any previous repairs or modifications which may have been made to a unit; knowing a unit’s history can help expedite the repair process. I also keep a list of non-catastrophic problems (sticking control, burnt-out light, bad switch, rattle, etc.) so that if something major does go wrong, everything can be taken care of at once.
In case you wonder whether being a fanatic on preventive maintenance works, my own experience is very positive. Because I live away from major population areas, equipment breakdowns are a real hassle; fortunately, since instituting my program of total preventive maintenance, breakdowns have been few and far between. Take care of your equipment, and it will take care of you.
Photo by Henry Be