“Dad, the graphic equalizer’s on fire!”
The teenager vaulting up the basement steps had to be playing an elaborate practical joke. The graphic equalizer was the least likely link in the signal chain to burst into flames.
Well, “smoldering” would have been more descriptive than “on fire,” but it was clearly the source of the smoke and smell that quickly filled the house.
The hodgepodge sound system my son and his bandmates had cobbled together with help from an indulgent dad was good enough for their high school newspaper to dub them “the best-equipped garage band in town.” The graphic equalizer was an afterthought, a $10 piece from a music store’s used equipment pile to provide some rudimentary feedback control. I knew it might be 15 or more years old, because I had one just like it before I met his mother.
Opening the EQ box for a post mortem exposed a charred power transformer. There wasn’t much other internal damage, but curiously, the chassis featured an extra set of transformer mounting holes, apparently the originals. Someone had replaced that transformer before! And a little research revealed the replacement was considerably less beefy than the manufacturer’s specified part. Apparently when the kids tried to pull too much current through it, it burned itself up in protest.
That implausible equipment fire brings a chuckle now, but it reminds me of some of the lessons learned from years of small-time sound reinforcement. Here are several of those lessons, particularly for those of us who practice our craft, usually part-time – and often for free – with local musicians and other performers at churches, schools, bars, and community picnics.
5) Beware Used Equipment
Here in the small time, it’s common to pursue your dream by purchasing the remains of someone else’s. But be skeptical. You don’t know how long that item sat in the seller’s basement or garage. Insist on testing the gear before buying it. Ask about any obvious damage or repair, then remove at least one cover and look around inside the unit with the aid of a flashlight. Are there any corroded parts, burn marks, or evidence of re-soldering on the circuit boards?
Even if the equipment works fine, you might be able to negotiate a better price if you can point out that it was damaged or repaired at some time in the past. And if disaster strikes after the purchase, you might be able to pop in the correct replacement transformer and resell that equalizer for more than you invested in it.
4) Don’t Trust The House AC Power
We never know whether the club owner’s brother-in-law is a competent electrician. We certainly don’t want his work to generate a hum, turn a tube amp into an AM radio receiver, damage any equipment, or electrocute somebody. (See Mike Sokol’s excellent but frightening article here.)
Carry a non-contact voltage tester in your tool box and check each outlet before plugging any gear into it. If the tester indicates an outlet is wired improperly, don’t use it. Tactfully report the problem to a responsible venue representative, and put a strip of tape over the bad outlet for the benefit and protection of others. Chances are, when you come back for the next gig, the tape will still be there.
3) It’s Usually The Simplest Problem
For some reason, humans tend to jump to the most complex, expensive, and unlikely conclusions when we’re in panic mode. And nothing causes panic like an unexpected problem immediately before or during a performance. Logical, methodical troubleshooting can make you a big hero to the performers and the audience.
Most sound system failures are attributable to three simple causes: A) An audio cable is connected to the wrong jack or not connected at all; B) A power cord is unplugged; and C) A switch is in the wrong position. Start at the stage and carefully walk through the entire system (or at least the portion that has failed), checking these three items and you’ll almost always discover the problem.
Musicians and techs often start troubleshooting with the assumption that a cable is defective, but it’s far more likely that someone has accidentally unplugged something or bumped a switch. Nevertheless, if you suspect a cable, replace it with another one. Once. If the second cable doesn’t solve the problem, go back to the three most common issues.
A footnote about bad cables: I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “Oh, yeah, that cable has always been bad,” or “That cable didn’t work last time either.” For heaven’s sake, if you know – or even suspect – that a cable is bad, don’t put it back in the cable box! Coil it up, tie off the coil with black electrical tape, and keep the cable somewhere else until there’s an opportunity to repair or replace it.
Incidentally, by my tally the next most common problem (considerably less prevalent than bad cables) is thermal protection shutting down an overheated amplifier. You know it’s an overheating problem when it’s late in the gig and an amp has quit. But check the power cord anyway just in case someone kicked it.
2) It’s Not About You
I’m amazed to hear of technicians who are insulting, condescending, or rude to performers, venue staff, and the public. Hey, we’re there to help create a pleasant experience for everyone else – not the other way around. Civility, courtesy, and tact are important in all human interactions, but they’re crucial here in the small time, where presumably we all do what we do because we love to do it.
There’s nothing wrong with tipping the wait staff even if your drinks are free.And route your cables where nobody will trip over them. Overhead is best; around the perimeter and over doorways works well, too.
1) Never Frown During Sound Check
I learned this, my number 1 rule, as a very young audio technician decades ago. During a sound check, I overheard a couple of musicians whispering to each other. “I don’t know what’s wrong, but he doesn’t like what he’s hearing.” The serious look of intense listening and studied concentration on my youthful face was mistaken for frustration.
Turns out the talent gets nervous if you seem to be unhappy about what you hear during the sound check. And the individual who is most disturbed will always be the one who trusts you the least. He was overruled when the others decided to hire a sound tech in the first place (and he is probably the one who used to run the PA from the stage).
Since that day long ago, my mantra is, “Never frown during a sound check.” It’s one of the first things I teach young techs, right after “output to input” and the proper way to coil a cable (loops hanging loosely from one hand; never wrapped around your elbow).
If you see me running a sound check, I will always have a pleasant, confident smile plastered on my face. Even if the graphic equalizer is on fire.