In these times, many of us have found ourselves off the road and unable to perform at live events. While we may have been using this time to sharpen our skills or pursue new interests, for the most part, our audio gear has been silent. As surprising as it may sound, your audio equipment is most vulnerable not while you are using it, but while you are not using it! In order to have gear that will be in perfect shape for your next event and last for years to come, it is important to understand how to take care of it and how to store it safely and responsibly.
After all, you have put significant investments into purchasing it, so you should focus on preserving this investment for as long as possible. Here are a few tips on the basics of keeping audio gear in good shape.
Nowadays laptops, hard disks or personal media players are entirely part of most audio systems. Hopefully, before you moved your gear into storage, you made a backup of each device. Either way, now would be a good time to check that your backup is still in good working condition or if you do not have a backup, do it now! Remember – no music, no dance.
Dust is the Enemy
Dust and electronics do not mix well. Excessive dust can possibly cause solder contacts to weaken and potentiometers to become noisy. As a preventive measure, always cover your audio equipment or store them in cases and remove regularly accumulated dust. A vacuum cleaner with a dusting brush attachment does a good job removing loose dust and lint.
If you need to clean your gear, use some slightly damp, soft cloth with a mild detergent to wipe the dust. The best choices for cloths are gentle, non-abrasive material like microfiber cloths or soft rags.
You might think that using a specialized cleaning product would be effective, but in the vast majority of situations, a slightly damp cloth is the best option. Soaps or cleansers can damage the finish of sensitive equipment.
Despite the regular removal of dust, some solder points may eventually need cleaning to maintain proper contact. Oxidation can render a contact useless, even while the equipment is sitting in a bag. Before your next gig, you need to check every cable and every connection on your gear for full and clear contact. If you notice evidence of intermittent connections within an electronic circuit, you might want to use a contact cleaner, which is a very fast-drying chemical spray designed for sensitive electronics like circuit boards. It will remove any surface debris that might be contributing to poor circuit closure between soldered components.
Some audio equipment components have a limited lifespan, by design. Vacuum tubes, fuses, guitar strings, audio cables and others should be replaced before they start to fail. Tubes suddenly becoming microphonic in a guitar amp or mic preamp can be pretty unsettling! Similar to contacts discussed previously, these components can fail just sitting in storage, so it is a good idea to fire everything up and make sure everything sounds great. And just like cables, strings, connectors and batteries, it’s a good idea to always have backup tubes and fuses available at hand.
Batteries must also be regularly replaced but before doing that, as a general practice, batteries should not be left inside devices for a long period (please tell me you didn’t do that). Eventually any type of battery will begin to leak corrosive materials that can easily damage audio equipment. This is especially common in vintage synthesizers that use watch-sized batteries to power LED displays or other design elements. Hence, audio equipment that will go into storage for a while should have their batteries removed. Before your next gig, it is strongly recommended that you change all your batteries for a fresh start.
A Dry Place
Obviously, moisture is the enemy of electrical and audio equipment. When not used, audio equipment should always be kept in a dry place,which implies no leaking or standing water. Running a dehumidifier may be necessary in certain part of the world. Damp surroundings and consistently high humidity cause electric contact surfaces to be covered by a thin film of corrosion, and the more moisture there is in the air, the faster this film builds up to a point where it will cause poor contacts.
Therefore, if you plan to store your electronic equipment for any length of time, be sure to use a dry place and apply a film of protective material (WD-40 type) on all plugs and sockets before you put them in storage. The aim is to slow down any corrosion or oxidization process.
A specific note here on microphones. Excessive moisture inside a microphone can interfere with the free motion of its diaphragm, causing the voice to sound unnatural. A microphone stored in a very damp place may show this symptom. In fact, a microphone with inadequate filtering may even develop this problem while in use from the moisture in the user’s breath. In either case, the problem will probably disappear once the microphone is dry again.
The Right Temperature
Extreme heat conditions are not good for audio equipment and may cause stress on electronic components. However, if a very hot storage is also very dry, no serious damage should result. As a general rule make sure your storage has good ventilation to avoid excessively high temperatures.
Also, make sure audio equipment that are using built-in fans are working correctly and that no vents or heatsinks are blocked.
If an audio equipment has been kept in a very cold place (car trunk in sub-zero weather), make sure you allow time for it to warm to room temperature before using it. If you do not, a film of water will instantly form on every exposed surface as you bring the equipment in a warm room, causing potential electrical and mechanical problems within your audio equipment. Basically the ideal storage should be at typical room temperature (20°C / 68°F).
Loudspeakers, like any other components of your sound system, should never be dropped or handled roughly. If it has been the case, the loudspeaker may develop a misalignment of the voice coil, which can eventually lead to a “dragging cone.”
To check for this issue, use music content with clean bass and listen very close to the transducer at moderate volume for a kind of rasp on each bass note. The loudspeaker may sound normal at your usual volume and tone settings, but over time, the problem may gradually become worse obliging you to re-cone the transducer or replace the entire loudspeaker. Note that with certain loudspeaker models, especially old ones, it they are stored for too long a time, the cone may dry out or rot and tear, rendering the loudspeaker useless. You definitely want to check this out at home before heading out to your next gig.
Supply the Right Power
Make sure you power all your devices correctly, using the power supply with the correct specification, the best being to always use the manufacturer’s unit. Therefore, it is a good idea to label each power supply you have before putting them into storage.
If you need to replace a power supply, always watch out for the following basic rules:
- Always use a power supply of the exact voltage value specified, unless the manufacturer provides a voltage range. Too high voltages can cause damage.
- You must use a power supply that delivers at least as much current as the device specifies. More current is acceptable, but less will not work.
- Pay utmost attention to the polarity of the power supply and the accompanying device. You must match the polarity or you could risk damage. This configuration is usually labeled on the power supply designating whether either tip or sleeve are positive (+) or negative (-).
Cables, Plugs and Sockets
In general, cables, plugs and sockets take more punishment than any other part of your audio system. Therefore, they should get extra attention, be checked more frequently and be handled with care to prevent failures and to prolong their life. Fortunately, there are a few advance warnings before these components fail.
Wear of plugs and sockets: if plugs slip in and out of their sockets much more easily than when they were new, they are probably worn out and should be replaced before they start to make poor contact.
Corrosion of plugs and sockets: contact surfaces of plugs and sockets may become corroded from moisture in the air, particularly in very humid climates. This corrosion prevents good electrical contact. A tight plug may indicate that there is some corrosion present in it. A simple cure is to apply some cleaning spray (WD-40 type) to remove intermittent contact problems.
Broken strands in cables: cables can be damaged inside their outer insulation from repeated flexing and bending. To check your cables, connect them to your audio system and wiggle each cable along its entire length. If you hear static noise or signal interruption, it may be time to remove the complete faulty section of the cable or replace it entirely.
Remember also that any wire can only be bent so many times before it eventually breaks. To extend the lifespan of your cables, try to always coil them, avoiding sharp bends. This is particularly important for shielded cables. There are a few common techniques for coiling a cable. At QSC, we are particularly fond of the “over/under” technique (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpuutP6Df84).
To make sure to keep your audio equipment safe and secure, it is beneficial to store them in an organized way. As your sound system is made of multiple components, proper storage will prevent them from being mixed-up, tangled and possibly broken. You could use professional flight cases or simple storage bins. The point is to separate and organize all components in protective cases, preferably off the ground, to avoid direct exposition to the environment.
Not only will this method keep your equipment safe, but it will also facilitate searching for the right equipment when you will need it. Also, remember to label everything in order to avoid opening all your cases to figure out what is stored where.
Cleaning and maintaining your audio equipment might sound like the most boring activity in the world. However, a little, regular effort in keeping your gear in shape will pay off in the long run and get you ready to hit the stage again.