Sunday, June 15, 2008

Killing the buzzing buzzKill buzz.

Welcome back to The Hit Maker blog. With the catchy title that I used today, readers will never forget how to deal with the problem of a buzzing amplifier again. But first, let me tell you a true story.

A woman once reported a problem to the power company that I worked for. It seemed that the streetlight in front of her house would buzz loudly all night long. When I arrived to fix the light, she asked me just why it is that some streetlights buzz. I could not help myself, so I explained that "streetlights hum because they can't remember the words". Yea, that one was pretty bad, eh?

The word "Buzz kill" has recently come to mean an annoying person, or an unseen event, that ruins a good time.

It is also true that a buzzing can be a buzz kill. Ever plug your guitar into your amp and hear a buzz killing buzz? It becomes what is commonly referred to as "a major buzz kill" when it happens during a gig, as any member of the paying crowd will happily let you know.

I like to think that the days of ballast-using fluorescent lighting (especially those neon tube beer-lights) causing a buzz are a thing of the past. One by one these noisy fixtures are being replaced or repaired. They can be the culprit of some of the most annoying buzz making objects in a bands sound equipment. However, these lights are often times overlooked as a source of that mind numbing sound in some of the hardest to solve buzz-sound mysteries.

Most often than not these lights are not the only source of amplified sound equipment buzz. There is another major player in the world of "buzz kill buzzing" that must be passed on to all of you, because this buzzing can turn even the happiest crowed against you. The source of "the buzz" is not from any flashy neon beer lights. No, not by a long shot. Nope, that sound that just will not go away (unless you keep your fingers on the strings of your bass or guitar) is from the ground.

The ground you say? How so?

Well, not the ground that you stand on, or is it?

It is true! It is also true that electricity flows from a positive to a negative charge. The buzzing sound is often from a problem that is called a "broken ground", or a "broken ground loop".

Let me better explain this all to you. Basically, after we use a certain amount of electricity, we then force it to go towards a ground source, or towards a negatively charged ground. It is called "ground" because the grounding wires and/or the grounding rods that carry the used electricity are literally driven into the ground. The Earth itself has (or is) a negative charge. Lightning bolts shoot down from the positively charged cloud, to the negatively charged Earth.

The way in which the in-coming power is used and then pushed along to the ground is often called a "ground system" or a "ground loop". When the grounding system has some trouble getting to the Earth, back currents of stray voltage starts being heard by our ears as it goes back into our amps. Well, in layman's terms that is how we are able to hear it.

With this newly gained knowledge of grounding systems, you will be able to diagnose a grounding problem, and then be able to fix it, right? Well, maybe not just yet, but after you are finished reading this blog you certainly will!

There are a few videos that I provide links to in a paragraph or two that will clear up a lot of your questions too.

O.K. Lets say that the lead guitarist in your band is creating a buzz. The problem with this new buzz is that it is not from the media, and it is not from a brewskie either. Instead, his guitar and his guitar amp are generating a loud buzzing noise. It grows louder and louder as he keeps his hands off of the metal parts of his instrument. I bet you already know the cause of the problem, so let's fix it.

The electrical system in this particular night club is working just fine. The trouble is that his gear is having a hard time getting to, or finding a good ground. The most likely cause for this problem is the three prong plug that came with his guitar amp. It is a nice, newer amp and it has a three prong style plug for the power. Problem was that he played in a club last week that had only the old style of outlets, the type that has only two female plug spaces for the plug end to plug into.

So, like so many other people on the Earth, he simply pulled out the circular lug, or the ground lug, out of the end of the amps' power plug. When he did that he was able to plug his amp in and play that night, but he forever ruined the amps' ability to supply a decent ground loop. A simple ground power adapter would have made the fix quick and easy, and he would not had to have pulled out the grounding lug out from his amps' power plug.

Basically these adaptors are a small thing that you plug your three plug chord into. The adaptor has two plugs leading from it that plugs into the older style outlet. These adaptors have a piece of copper that hangs off of them which has a small hole in it. This allows you to attach the copper to the screw that holds the outlet cover on, or some other good source of ground. This, in turn, eliminates the unwanted hum. If you come across this problem you must have a ground power adapter on hand in order to fix it correctly. In fact, keep several of these adaptors in your gear bag as they are cheap and you might very well need more than one at a show.

Please refer to these awesome links and see just how easy the good people at Taylor Guitars make solving this whole ground hum issue. Please make sure to watch all of them as their is only about three or four of them in total.
Here are the links:

So now that you can save the show from any and all unwanted electrical humming noise, your shows will be the best in sound time and time again. You will have other acts begging you to diagnose their source of hum sound, and then they will beg you to help them fix it. This hum is annoying, and it just plain sounds unprofessional. Be warned that I have found a bad ground connection at the venues' power panel before. The source of our hum could not be found that night, and nothing that we did was working to get rid of it. I metered the connection at the panel, and it read fine on the meter. I decided to tighten the connections anyway, since I was in the panel already, and I was glad that I did! That simple deed was all that it took to better the path to ground, and the hum stopped.

Speaking of bad ground connections...... We built a new building once in Florida. The ground their was hard to get down to almost perfect, no matter what we did. We soldered our connections at the panel, we added length to our grounding rod outside. The last thing that we ended up doing was pouring a mixture of saline (salty)watter down beside, and all around the area of the ground rod. This worked, and the power and ground worked and metered correctly.

Bad connections to ground will do some weird things to a buildings power supply. The voltage will go up and down at will, and lights will dim and then burn out. The arking that may happen at the poor connection (if it is loose or broken) may melt the wire itself. A good path to ground is very important, and only a person that knows what they are doing should check the ground connection. Only a pro electrician can legally install and repair this stuff, so do not try it on your own, O.K.? Fix the ground at the amps' power plug, not at the buildings power supply. Leave that to the pros. Please leave that to the licensed pros, we want you playing music, not playing electrician!

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