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Bypassing Mr. Murphy: The Top 10 Ways To Get — And Stay — Connected

A step-by-step guide to successfully dealing with intermittent sound system cable and connector problems.

Few things are more frustrating in a sound system than an intermittent electrical connection. You all know the drill: everything seems to be working fine, and then it’s not.

These failures can range from an occasional crackle, to lowered volume levels, to even complete failure of a mixing bus or output connection with a total loss of sound. Sometimes the quick fix is to bang on the mixing console or jiggle the wires, but at best that’s just a temporary solution and the problem will likely rear its ugly head soon enough again.

Further, thanks to Murphy’s Law, the failure will likely occur during the most important moment in your worship service. What to do? Well, connection maintenance, of course.

Step 1: Have A Plan

Create a procedure to deal with intermittent cables and connectors. If there’s a microphone cutting out or crackling during a service, and replacing the XLR cable fixes it, do not let that suspect XLR cable migrate back into your inventory until it’s been repaired and tested.

I always put a piece of gaff tape over each end and throw it into a box with a label that says “Fix Me.” In addition, a sad smiley face on the label can be applied as well for that “pleading” look.

Step 2: Log It

Make a failure log to note when something goes wrong during a service. Many churches rely on volunteers who might do one worship service a month. If there’s not a way to pass on failure documentation to the next week’s crew, then you’re just kicking the can down the road.

The log can be as simple as a lined sheet hanging on a hook that you date, write in the failure information (i.e., channel 6 had a hum) and initial it. Even writing with a Sharpie on a piece of board tape and sticking it on the console goes a long way towards alerting other techs as to what to expect.

Step 3: Fix It

Don’t just fill up the box of cables that need to be fixed, make a date to deal with them at least once a month. That is, schedule a night where one or two sound team members go through the box and fix the problems.

This is also the time to look over the failure log carefully to see if there’s any patterns. For instance, one church I worked at would consistently have problems with the XLR cable feeding the lectern microphone. The male end connector, located in the floor, would have its wire pulled out and broken at least a few times every year.

It turns out that the stage crew would move the lectern out of place for the musical praise part of the service while forgetting to first disconnect the cable from the floor pocket. Using a long cable for this application instead of one just long enough, plus educating the stage crew with a sign asking them to “Disconnect Cable Before Moving” eliminated the problem.

Step 4: Test It

Any cable that’s been repaired needs to be tested before it’s put back into service. This requires a quality cable tester. My favorite is the Ebtech Swizz-Army 6-in-1 tester. Not only does it check XLR cables for mis-wiring, opens, and shorts, it can also be used to test instrument cables, MIDI cables, RCA cables, and any kind of adapters that might be in use.

Ebtech Swizz-Army tester.

It also tests for a grounded XLR shield, one of the primary reasons you can’t break a ground loop hum from a direct (DI) box pin-1 lift.

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Step 5: Check It

In my shop we do a thorough check of all cables and connections at least once a year. That is, we pull everything out of inventory and use Simple Green to clean the exterior of the cables while also looking for any cuts or abrasions in the cable jacket.

Small cuts can be dealt with by using a few wraps of electrical tape, but cables with deep cuts that expose copper need to be completely reworked. For example, we usually turn damaged mic cables into several shorter adapter cables (turnarounds, TRS to XLR, and so on).

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