Preventative Maintenance for Audio Systems

We have recently received a number of service calls with respect to sound systems which are all related to preventative maintenance, so we thought we’d share a few of our expert tips on how to keep your audio and video systems running as long as possible. There is simply nothing worse than hosting a large function at your facility, only to discover that the sound system is not  operational for a standing-room only crowd. While some contractors offer 24-hour support, the travel time involved may make it far too late for the tech to be of any useful assistance. Let’s look at some basic maintenance tips to keep your systems in top shape.

Keep your sound system in top shape:

  • Use a jet of compressed air to clean out air vents on sound equipment
  • Clean dust bunnies from around the audio/video system
  • Rotate volume and tone controls every 6 to 12 months to keep them lubricated
  • Leave equipment on 24/7
  • Get an annual check-up of your equipment from a sound contractor

Lifespan of a typical audio/video system

Remember when you got your TV repaired? Of course you don’t.

Back in the day, we simply advised that a piece of equipment was not worth repairing. Currently, we use the catch phrase “end of life cycle” or “built-in obsolescence” because now most equipment is designed to be disposable. Most audio manufacturing companies historically put forth claims such as “17 years mean time between failures”, but all have long since quietly dropped these sentiments as the equipment they are manufacturing no longer will perform reliably for 17 years. This applies across the board to all manufacturers – not just the no-name brand ones.  When was the last time you took your television to a TV repair store to get serviced? These days, you simply throw it out and purchase a new one.  Sadly, the same can hold true for sound and video systems.

Don`t let your sound system become public art

From our experience, a typical commercial sound system will last no more than 15 years before problems start creeping in due to component aging.  That is assuming that the sound system is properly designed, is well ventilated, and that name brand equipment is being used. Sound systems that are poorly ventilated, or located in a closed closet can see that longevity number drop to under half.

Failures due to Heat

While the days of a smoke-filled environment are long gone, the large metal heat sinks that keep an amplifier cool are also long gone.  Todays’ amplifiers use small heat sinks, and rely on fans to keep cool. Even in a relatively clean office environment, an amplifier can gather a lot of dust.  This heats up the internal components quickly, resulting in damage that can exceed the cost of a new unit. 

A neglected amplifier at five years. All that dust and dirt leads to overheating and serious damage

While we do not recommend that anyone open their amplifiers to clean them, a jet of compressed air into the vent slots of the front of an amplifier can certainly clean off the serious accumulation of dust and dirt seen above. We recently completed a service call to an arena that advised that the sound cut out after the system had been used for about an hour. We discovered an even worse scenario than the above picture. We had installed the two amplifiers 17 years ago, but they had never even once been serviced.  One amplifier was beyond repair due to the heat damage, but the second was cleaned and is still working today.

Also, it is very important to remove dust bunnies from around the amplifier rack. This prevents the fans from sucking in more dust, which then results in  more build up inside the amplifier chassis.

Noisy controls/system cutting out

A non-technical fix to cure some common problems of intermittent sound systems is to rotate the volume controls and switches every 6 months from one end to the other. This prevents oxidation from building up, and ensures the lubrication within the controls remains fluid. It is usually that one signal input (such as a wireless mic) that is only used once a year for a large function that will inevitably fail on the day it’s needed. Working the controls can prevent this experience. Note that we do not recommend removing any security covers that may be covering sensitive settings.  In addition, do not forget to rotate the volume controls that may be in a penalty box or on a pool deck.

Call a professional and have your sound system running clear and distortion free

Once a volume control starts cutting out, or changes from soft to FULL volume when moved slightly, a technician will need to be called to replace or to clean the control internally.

Keep it turned on, or turn it off?

We are frequently asked for advice about whether it is preferable to turn a sound system off at night, or at any time when it is not being used. With everyone concentrating on energy savings, it’s a good question. It’s a two-part answer:

Most sound equipment draws a negligible amount of power when idling, so we recommend that mixers, amplifiers and signal processing equipment be left on 24/7 for a number of reasons:

  • You won’t see the difference on your power bill if you turn off even a large arena sound system nightly.
  •  Just like an incandescent bulb will burn out when you turn it on, so will an amplifier. The surge of power rushing into the amplifier at turn-on is hard on equipment. Leave the equipment on so that it remains at a constant temperature, as this practice lengthens the life of electronic components.

The exception to leaving sound equipment on continually are CD or MP3 players, laptop computers  that act as music sources, and (gasp!) cassette decks – IF anyone is still using them. All of these music sources use components such as lasers or motors that have a finite life to them. Turning these devices off until they are needed will extend their life significantly.

Turn your CD/MP3/Cassette deck off when not in use

Call your sound contractor for a yearly check-up

While the above tips will extend the life of your sound system, there’s nothing like calling in a professional technician to run through all of your audio and video systems completely. We were recently requested to check a sound system that we had installed 15 years ago. When our tech arrived on site, he noticed that there was a lot of hissssss in the sound system which had not been mentioned when we were initially contacted. Our tech diagnosed that one of the components in the sound rack was defective and was able to bypass it, ensuring that the sound quality was excellent for the upcoming high school graduation ceremonies. This was a case where only a tech familiar with sound equipment could have resolved the issue, and averted a potential audio disaster!

It is a wise choice to have a qualified audio contractor check your entire sound system over at least once every year. Think of it as being the oil change that keeps your system running smoothly. A skilled tech can pinpoint and diagnose potential problems that may not be apparent to end users.

End of Life

The expected life span of a well-designed and installed sound system is about 15 years. The exception is your music sources, which typically last two to three years for a CD/MP3 player.  This time frame is even less if used in a pool environment where chlorine can and will attack mechanisms, laser assemblies and microphone jacks that are typically abused in an arena or aquatic setting.

Here`s an example of a 6 year old set of microphone connectors, well chlorinated on a pool deck

On the positive side, the speakers in a commercial environment should last well in excess of 20 years.  This of course is providing that the sound system is designed so that the speakers cannot be damaged regardless of how loud the volume is turned up, and secondly, as long as the correct speakers are specified at the time of the installation

What won’t increase the life of your sound system

We’ve had many inquiries over the years as to the benefit of power line conditioners and surge protectors. Generally speaking, the vast amount of AC power coming into a building is well regulated, and is not subject to power surges or outages. Many companies push the sale of power line conditioners and surge protectors as being mandatory in a sound system, and that the use of this equipment will prevent a sound system from failing.

Based on our many years of experience however, these claims are false. Virtually all electronic equipment has some form of surge protection built right into the unit, and external surge protectors are simply duplicating what the equipment already has. In the case of a lightning strike, a direct strike of a lightning bolt onto a power line causes a surge far beyond the ability of a rack-mounted unit to remove from the incoming AC power. The bottom line is that we recommend saving your money and skipping the expensive surge protectors. Instead, ensure that your sound system has enough circuits from the breaker panel to correctly power all equipment.

Don`t do this. Ever.

In summary, make sure your sound system components are kept clean and cool so they remain within the correct operating temperature. Test all functions of your sound system prior to a large and/or important event, and don’t hesitate to call your sound contractor if you have problems. Budget to upgrade your sound system roughly every 15 years, and contact a qualified audio technician to assess the equipment and system you have. Follow these steps to avoid having an aging neglected system die in the middle of an important function!