Behind the Scenes
Although the title 'maintenance engineer' does not have the glamour of 'producer', it is an essential job. Paul Ward tells us why.
Technical Manager at Great Linford Recording studios, Paul Ward offers advice on equipment care.
Nobody would guess from its surroundings that Great Linford Recording Studio, owned by Harry Maloney and managed by Roar, is situated in Milton Keynes. Housed in Linford Manor, it was designed by Roger D'Arcy of Munro Associates and posed more than its fair share of problems. Being a listed building, strict procedures had to be followed on what could and what could not be altered but now, newly restored, the manor can provide accommodation for up to ten people and is equipped with an SSL 4056 48-channel, total recall console, a Mitsubishi digital 32-track recorder and a Studer analogue 24-track machine. On top of this is a comprehensive selection of state-of-the-art effects. Paul Ward has been with Linford studios from the beginning. He explained how he started out...
Instead of formal training, I started out with a schoolboy interest in electronics and from there I took a Saturday job at the local radio and TV shop. I've been working in studios for around 14 years now, starting off at Morgan studios in Willesden which has since become Power Plant and Battery. My intention was to become a tape op, so I started out in maintenance until a tape op's job became available, then I went into the studio for about four months before realising that it was not what I wanted to do. The antisocial hours and the repetetive recording process was too much for me, so I returned to maintenance. I was there for around five years and after that I moved to Lansdowne studios in Holland Park, subsequently moving to the Manor in Oxfordshire.
I joined this company last October when the construction work was still going on so that I could be involved in the pre-planning of the studio. The architecture was fixed and the SSL console and the Mitsubishi machine had been ordered but the absolute spec of the desk hadn't been decided at that point. I ordered the outboard gear, the analogue multitracks and generally tied up all the loose ends.
What were your priorities when choosing the outboard gear for the studio?
Generally, it's down to what you know the clients want. Having worked in residential studios, I had an insight into what the clients of that kind of studio tended to want. That's one of the reasons I was asked to join the company, because I'd spent eight years at the Manor which is one of the best known residential studios in England. They had been using a couple of contractors primed to do the job but at that point there was only a vague equipment list and I had to fill in the details. This involved positioning of cable runs and so on as well as the choice of gear.
With the very high quality potential of digital recording, did this mean that you had to be more diligent than usual in eliminating problems such as earth loops?
We followed all the recognised standard rules about earthing and never really had any problems in that area. You leave as many earths on the equipment as possible and, assuming you're dealing with professional equipment, usually balanced, there aren't any difficulties. It's only low budget, non-balanced devices that may give trouble. Having said that we have a couple of SPX90s, but we didn't need to make any special provision for them and all the mains earths are intact on the equipment that needs it. Of course, we followed the rules about having one central earth point and breaking the screen connections on the coaxes where required but there's no need to go beyond that. It's all standard textbook stuff. We did go one step further and fit a separate technical earth for the studio but again, that's standard practice for a studio of this calibre and it would be asking for trouble to run a computerised mixing system off anything else. If clicks were to be introduced up the earth path, that could get into the computer and corrupt data losing vital bits of information.
I don't think that digital recording is any more demanding in that respect, after all, hums are not acceptable in any system whether digital or analogue. What comes out of line input of your high power monitor system is the ultimate test of signal quality. There's a lot of mystique surrounding digital recording and playback but it's really just a means of getting round the weak link in the chain which has always been the analogue tape recorder.
"The build-up of oxide on the heads can not only ruin the sound of the machine but can also accelerate head wear..."
I believe that Munro Associates were called in to design the control room. Did you have any control over their work, or did you let them get on with it?
They're a well respected firm of acoustic architects and I have a very high opinion of them so they went ahead and did the job. I just made sure that attention was paid to the right areas, but I really was very happy with the result. It was really a matter of making sure that they weren't trying any outrageous experiments on us.
The resulting sound is pretty even across the listening area but they had to work within the conditions imposed by the fact that it was a listed building and they couldn't just chop things about as they might have liked. For example, there's a fireplace that we weren't allowed to remove or alter so they designed a bass trap into it. There are also a couple of novel floating bass traps in the form of boxes suspended in the upper rear corners, again made necessary by space constraints. These are a new design and Munro were a bit secretive about the actual details.
We went for Quested monitoring in the end and chose the 215 version rather than the 415 one because we preferred the way they sounded. And we're very happy with our choice. It's been particularly successful when you consider that they sound right in a listening environment more like people have at home. Rather than having an outrageously expensive, custom designed room to record in, we've actually adapted the kind of room that people might have at home which in a lot of respects is following a more faithful path of sound reproduction.
"Rather than having an outrageously expensive, custom designed room to record in, we've actually adapted the kind of room that people might have at home..."
The monitoring system is driven by Yamaha power amps because they're the ones that Roger Quested recommends for the system. The choice of NS10s for near-field monitoring on the other hand is again based on a knowledge of what clients expect to find in a studio.
How do you work in your role as day to day maintenance engineer? Do the engineers keep a fault log so that you can find out instantly what's giving trouble and get on with fixing it?
That's certainly part of it: keeping on top of anything that may have broken down during a session and a lot of that can be put down to how well it's looked after in the first place. Modern equipment is very reliable anyway, so breakdowns are rare. With this standard of studio where there are literally hundreds of different pieces of equipment, it may only take one or two items to break down to seriously degrade the performance of the whole system. For example, if a fuse goes in one of the power amps, that's the whole monitor system out of action and we can't do a lot without that.
We don't tend to keep whole spare pieces of equipment, except for those known to be particularly weak links, such as tweeter diaphragms. They're fragile things so we keep spares. You don't keep spare bass power amps though because they don't often fail. The vital bits that we can afford to keep, we do, and if we don't keep them, we make sure that we have very quick access to somebody who has them.
"It's always worth buying the best quality cable and the best quality lead."
In the home studio, most problems can be attributed to faulty leads, does that particular curse afflict professional studios too?
Oh yes. Really there's no difference between the home studio and the pro studio in this respect, except in the level of equipment expense, and failures always seem to be down to patch cords and pieces of wiring that get forgotten about or walked over. For any one at home having problems with leads, the first thing is to make sure they're put together properly. A lot of the time home made leads will be satisfactory for the first session or two, and then they fail. That's because the engineer's favourite way of unplugging a cable is to pull the lead, not the plug. If the cable clamping assembly isn't put together properly, then the lead will fail pretty quickly. It's always worth buying the best quality cable and the best quality lead. It may be expensive at the time but cheap leads are a false economy. The patch leads on the SSL jack field for example cost an absolute fortune. There are cheaper versions but they're not worth buying because they fail so often. The same goes for XLR connectors. If it's something that's going to be plugged into the back of a power amp and left there, a cheaper version will probably be adequate. But if it's for use on a mic lead which is being plugged in and out all the time, you've got to buy the best quality components.
Are you plagued by corrosion in jackfields and connectors once they've been in use for a while?
It's not a serious problem unless people pour orange juice down them. They must be kept vacuumed out regularly to prevent dust build-up, and if anyone does have an accident, they must be cleaned straight away. Usually soap and water and a stiff brush is all you need. If it happens during a session, we might flush it out with alcohol and then clean it properly at the first opportunity. Greasy spray contact lubricant is inadvisable, though, because dust will stick to it and then you will have worse problems than ever.
Most of the problems that we've looked at so far are simple signal path problems but how far can you take maintenance before you have to call in an engineer or send for a spare unit?
If the fault can be tracked down to a specific piece of gear which you can bypass, or something like a circuit board within a channel in the desk then it's possible to cope. Often a spare channel will need replacing. We have a test jig in my workshop so I can repair that kind of thing down to component level here if need be. Generally the important thing is to keep the session going. You can't call a halt to everything while you fault-find to component level. If you get a major disaster like a tape machine transport system going or a strategic power supply, then a session might come to a stop, but that happens very rarely in a modern, well maintained studio.
"There's a lot of mystique surrounding digital recording and playback but it's really just a means of getting round the weak link in the chain which has always been the analogue tape recorder."
A large part of the job of a maintenance engineer is to make sure that faults don't develop to the point where they are a serious problem, and that's one of the beauties of being familiar with the equipment. Periodically I'll go through all the channels on the desk testing all the sliders, pots and switches and either clean or replace any that are noisy. The sliders we clean regularly. It's good practice to clean the whole surface of the desk with a clean paint brush in conjunction with a vacuum cleaner so that you remove the dirt rather than just spreading it around. I've seen studios where they brush all the dirt down to the bottom of the desk where it falls into the fader slots!
With tape machines, these are routinely lined up so any channel showing more drift than the others is watched as there's probably a component starting to fail. We do a check at the beginning of each day's work and a full line up before each new session. If remixing a tape for someone, obviously we have to line the machine up to that tape, otherwise we use a test tape. With a modern machine, there's very little realignment necessary, because everything's so much more stable, but part of this is attributable to the fact that we leave all the equipment switched on permanently. This way it's much more reliable because the temperature is stable and there isn't a power surge every time you switch something on. The warming up of a cold piece of equipment puts a tremendous stress on all the components and that's when things like power supplies fail. The multitrack stays aligned much better if it's left on than it's turned off to save the few pence worth of electricity that it might use overnight. I wouldn't recommend this for home studios of course, I don't leave my stereo switched on all the time at home. And we have smoke monitors in the studio in case anything does catch fire in the night which you are not as likely to have at home.
Do you have any tips to pass on to home users about maintenance?
The tape machine, particularly the heads and the tape path, must be kept clean and demagnetised. The build-up of oxide on the heads can not only ruin the sound of the machine but can also accelerate head wear and that can be expensive to put right. Just get a torch and a stiff brush and you can clean the worst out the transport, then use cotton buds and alcohol to shift the last traces from the heads and tape guides. Don't buy fancy head cleaner: go down to the chemist's and buy yourself a bottle of isopropyl alcohol; it's much cheaper. A head cleaner tape might help get off loose dirt but they're not much good for serious cleaning. Depending how much you use the machine, clean it at least once a week. Also take care of how you store your tape. If you store it in a very cold room, it's more likely to shed oxide than one that's stored at normal room temperature. Tapes left in the car overnight are a popular source of trouble. On the other hand, don't store tapes on a shelf over the radiator because heat accelerates print through. And of course keep your tapes away from dust. Modern recording tapes are quite hard-wearing but they do need replacing from time to time. If you've spent a fortune on all the latest gear, you're doing it no favours if you use the same reel of tape for five years.
Demagnetisation is also important but you have to do it properly or things can end up worse than before. For open reel machines, switch on the demagnetiser well away from the machine, bring it slowly towards the heads and then pass it close to the heads and tape guides without actually touching them. Then, slowly move it away from the machine before switching off again. Don't switch the demagnetiser on or off while it is close to the heads or you'll leave a magnetic charge on the heads that's difficult to remove. For cassette machines, the little electronic demagnetises built into cassette shells work fine, that's what I use here.
For mixers, just keep them clean and spray contact cleaner or WD40 into any crackly pots. This is often only a temporary solution but it will keep you going until you can get replacements. The paint brush and vacuum cleaner method of cleaning is well worth doing.
Preventive maintenance is a subject all too often overlooked by studio owners, but Paul Ward stresses it's importance in terms of a 'healthy' studio. Once gear starts to malfunction because of neglect, it's invariably inconvenient to repair or replace it, and preventive maintenance greatly decreases the chance of this occurring. This rule applies just as well to the most basic home studio as to the most expensive professional one, and many of the techniques described here are the same in all cases. Of course there's also an added psychological advantage. Try making sure that studio clients know just how meticulous you are. It all adds professionalism to your enterprise.
And that's what Great Linford is all about.
Feature by Paul White
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