By Michael W. Dean, Freedom Feens
I like electronic audio gear. And I like cats. These are a few of my favorite things. We feed our cats the best food possible, and always have. I also feed my electronic gear the purest, safest, best power possible.
My background in electronic gear is that I’ve always been around it. I was interested in ham radio as a kid. I built a radio transmitter when I was 11. I disassembled and reassembled audio amplifiers as a teen. I was a DJ at my college radio station.
And shortly out of college, I started playing in rock bands – Baby Opaque, The Beef People and Bomb. We went into recording studios filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gear (in some cases, millions of dollars’ worth of gear) to make our records. These were world-famous studios with world-respected engineers and producers including Don Zientara’s Inner Ear studio in Arlington, Bill Laswell’s Greenpoint studio in Brooklyn, Coast Recorders in San Francisco with Jason Carmer, and The Record Plant in Sausalito with Michael Rosen.
As hurried as we usually were in these studios, I watched what the engineers were doing. I was always very intrigued with the means of production with any media I’ve been involved in, whether it was music, book publishing, or filmmaking. This is because I always wanted to OWN the means of production, instead of having to pay someone else 75-300 dollars an hour to rent theirs.
Records back then were made with two-inch TAPE, not computers. If those studios had a computer, it was only to do the billing. But around 1995, advances in computers, combined with international trade with China, opened up the possibility of the home studio you didn’t have to take out a bank loan to get. I jumped on it, and used all I’d learned while watching those other guys make my records in their fancy studios.
A lot of people bought that new inexpensive pro-sumer gear (and still do, now more than ever). But they often didn’t have the background I did. The world quickly learned that having the right gear didn’t mean much without the right skill set. I had that skill set. And I do get a kick out of helping teach that skill set to others, even if people think I may get a slight kick out of being more knowledgeable, even to the point of rubbing it in people’s faces.
One thing I noticed back in the 80s and 90s while putting my record companies into debt working in these million-dollar gear rooms is that the studios didn’t spend all that money on gear just to stick the plugs into an ungrounded outlet in the wall. They fed their gear pure gourmet power, for safety AND better sound, and I’m going to tell you how to do that at home on a cat food budget.
The first order of business in this chain is to make sure the outlets in your home are properly grounded. And hire an electrician to come fix it if they’re not. If you rent instead of own, get your landlord to hire an electrician. Tell him “These plugs aren’t properly grounded, and that could kill me. You should take care of it.”
NOTE: ANYTHING DESCRIBED HERE IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. DO NOT ATTEMPT. I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING YOU DO WRONG.
the next step is making sure you use grounded, UL-listed extension cables for everything. This is a safety feature, and also a “keeping noise out of your audio chain” thing. Look for this image on any extension cords or power cables you buy:
It’s good to buy only gear that is UL listed when the option is available. UL-listed means Underwriters Laboratories has certified the gear as safe. UL is NOT the government, it’s a private organization, and how things would work in LibPar, here, now.
TIP: NEVER break the ground off a three-prong plug or bypass it with a ground lift. This can be deadly dangerous, and will also add noise to your chain. If you are doing it to remove buzz from your chain, something is wrong with your chain and this is a solution as silly as printing money to help the economy, but more personally dangerous. Don’t do it. Fix your chain, don’t go for quick-fixes that are worse than the problem.
Here’s a good 50-foot, grounded, UL-listed extension cord if you need one to bring power in from another room.
Surge protectors are required for the home studio. They protect your thousands of dollars’ worth of audio gear and computers from getting fried by a surge in your power line. These surges are not terribly uncommon, and can destroy sensitive gear even when they last only a microsecond. Power surges can be caused by nearly anything, from a nearby lightning strike to some tax-eater working for the city wiring something wrong on a power line because he’s in a hurry to get home and play Call of Duty.
Because surge protectors are so commonly recommended, they are very much a “me to!” item. That is, many companies make them, from office supply stores to computer companies. The problem is, most of them aren’t well designed, and don’t actually protect you. A properly designed surge protector should FAIL after a big surge, and require replacing. Most people don’t like this. They want them to keep working. That’s like having a bullet resistant vest that doesn’t resist bullets. Surge protectors that keep working after protecting you give the illusion of protection, which is worse than no protection at all.
Forget all the hubbub of joule ratings and all that, and just get this one from APC.
It’s only 23 dollars, has 8 grounded outlets, and it rocks. It will FAIL PERMANENTLY and not let power through ever again if there is a major surge. That’s what you want. It’s better to replace the unit than to replace all your gear. It’s only 23 dollars, AND it includes insurance on any gear it fails to protect! AND it has a ground-fault indicator, so if you have proper grounding, but that fails for some reason (drunk landlord monkeying around in the basement? FedGov guys who try to bug your phone playing with the wrong box?), a light will come on and let you know. I have five of these, one for my audio gear, one for my computers, one for the home entertainment center, and two as spares.
TIP: Most electronic gear is best turned on and off by using the switch on the surge protector or power strip, for three reasons. One: It saves mechanical wear and tear on the power switch on the gear. It’s better to replace a surge protector or power strip every few years than have to replace expensive gear because the switch wore out. Two: If you use the switch on the surge protector or power strip, your gear is still grounded when off. This is not always the case if you use the switch on the unit. This makes everything safer if something fails internally. Three: It’s better to turn off a master switch than unplug something (like the Comrex Bric-Link, which has no power switch) because when you unplug something that is actively using power, there can be a small power arc. The exception for the “flip a switch on the power strip or surge protector rather than on the unit” rule is computers and anything that acts like a computer and has a power-up and power-down sequence. These things should be powered on and off using the proper power-up and power-down sequence. This is why I have one surge protector for my computers, and another for all the audio gear (pre-amps, mixers, compressors, Comrex, etc.) All the audio gear is left with the power switches on, and powered on and off all at once with the switch on a surge protector. And yes, surge protectors do protect against surges when switched off however, “If a bad storm hits nearby, your best bet is to turn off all of your gadgets and then unplug the surge protector completely.”
A power conditioner “provides clean AC power to sensitive electrical equipment.” That means it regulates the power from small fluctuations, and removes noise in the line that can end up in your audio chain.
I power all of my gear with a Furman H-8D rack-mount power conditioner to minimize hum in the signal. This unit is no longer made, but here is a comparable model for 84 dollars, albeit without the nifty LED voltage readout. I have only two pieces of rack-mount gear, so I don’t bother mounting them in a rack. Fuzzy likes sitting on this unit because it’s warm.
You wouldn’t feed your pet garbage, so why feed your expensive audio gear noisy and dangerous power? Get the right electrical gear to protect your audio gear. Your audio signal will improve, and it may save your life.
Your power chain should go thus: properly grounded outlet > (UL-listed three-prong extension cord, if you need one), > surge protector > power conditioner > your computers and audio gear.
This article was read, vetted for errors, and approved by a licensed, practicing and excellent industrial electrician.
(NOTE: The FTC thinks you’re too dumb to figure out that we get referral fees from my Amazon referral links above, so we are legally required, with a potential government gun to my head, to tell you that. But we wouldn’t recommend anything we wouldn’t personally use.)