The Logic of Audio Troubleshooting

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Troubleshooting doesn’t have to drive you insane. It can and will if you let it. We’ve all been there. Maybe the setup took more time than you thought it would, things got a little rushed, and now you’re not getting signal from the singer’s mic. Or, maybe you’re watching a movie with your family, and all of a sudden there’s no sound. Whether you’re troubleshooting in a professional live sound or recording studio setting, or in your home theater, the same general rules apply.

The first rule, and the most important one, is “don’t panic.” When you panic, you tend to adopt a frenetic approach to problem solving, and it makes you far more likely to proceed without being methodical. The less methodical you are, the more prone you are to going down a rabbit hole and never coming back. Of course, keeping your cool is easier said than done when you have people waiting on you, and even more so if said people are paying to be there.

So, this begs the question, how do I keep my cool when troubleshooting? Well, I find that it helps me to remind myself of a few basic techniques that can be applied to many different situations.

Process of Elimination

When troubleshooting, identifying the working parts of a broken system is usually my first step, no matter how complex the system is. If my daughter is calling me from downstairs because Netflix isn’t loading, the first thing I do is a Google search on my laptop to see if the Internet is working. If it isn’t, I know to try resetting the wireless router; if it is working, I know to try resetting the Fire TV Stick. This is called the “Divide and Conquer” method.

I use the same logic if I’m troubleshooting a dead mic channel, like the singer’s I mentioned in the example above, which we’ll call “mic channel 1.” If I’m not getting a signal on mic channel 1, but mic channel 2 is working just fine, I can unplug the mic input from the working channel and plug it into the channel in question to perform a diagnostic. If I get a signal on mic channel 1 after the swap, that tells me the problem must lie somewhere before the console. So, I know to run out and test the mic cable, snake, and the mic itself. If I don’t get a signal after the swap, that suggests the problem is somewhere on the console, either routing related, or preamp related.

Tools for Troubleshooting

Any time you leave the house and there’s even a remote chance that you’ll end up troubleshooting an audio system, whether it’s the PA at band practice, the sound system at Sunday services, or a concert at Madison Square Garden, you ought not leave home without the Whirlwind Qbox Audio Line Tester and Test Tone Generator.

Whirlwind QBOX Audio Line Tester

The Qbox is an all-in-one audio line tester that is an indispensable tool for live sound, studio recording, commercial installation work, and much more. The unit comes with a belt clip and operates on one 9V battery, and it has a microphone, a speaker, a test-tone generator, outputs for standard headphones, a 1/4" jack for line-in, a TT jack for use with patch bays, and male and female XLR connections. You can generate audio at mic or line levels or listen to audio at any point in your system, whether you’re testing the mics, the power amps, the cables, or the console to rapidly confirm which components are working and which ones aren't.

Another great troubleshooting tool to have around is a cable tester like the Kopul CBT-12. This 12-in-1 device can test cables with any combination of speakON 4-pin, speakON 8-pin, XLR 3-pin, XLR 5-pin, TS/TRS, DIN 3/5/7/8, RCA, USB Type-A to Type-B, RJ45, or Banana plugs. The unit has an eight-way knob that allows you to select which pin of the cable to test, and LED indicators illuminate to show that each pin is functioning properly.

Kopul CBT-12 Cable Tester

Conclusion

Every good sound engineer is a good troubleshooter—period. But you can bet they didn’t get that way overnight. One thing I didn’t mention earlier in the article is the “experience” factor. The more scenarios you face and overcome, and the deeper your understanding of audio systems, the more possibilities you have stored in your memory bank that you can call upon when things aren’t going your way. While there’s no shortcut to gaining pro audio experience, developing a methodical approach to troubleshooting is something that can quickly make you a more effective troubleshooter and engineer.

What kind of troubleshooting tips do you have? I encourage you to let us know in the Comments section, below.

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