From guitars to amps and outboard effects there are many things our gear does for us…it provides us with the palette we need to make the sounds we want to make. The Importance of Regular Gear Maintenance cannot be understated. We have taken great time and care over the years to make sure to buy a guitar that feels just right in our hands , an amplifier that sounds pristine and clean and just dirty enough and the pedals and outboard gear to provide just the right tones to enhance our sound. Now comes the question that no one wants to actually hear or answer…”What do you do to maintain your gear?”
It is an all too common issue. That scratchy pot on your tone knob, the loose input on the pedal, the cable that just seems to pop every now and again, these are the common gremlins that plague us as modern day musicians. Don’t get me wrong, acoustic instruments have their own set of care for needs, but with all of the knobs and sliders on today’s modern gear and the resurgence of vintage gear on the scene how do you make sure that every note is clear and every setting change doesn’t leave you wincing in anticipation every time you reach for a knob on stage?
Well let’s take a look at a more common example of something you use daily that requires some general upkeep to run properly, your car. There is a nifty book of recommended regularly scheduled maintenance that comes with your vehicle. In this book are recommendations like change the oil at a minimum every 3,000 miles, inspect the air pressure in your tires regularly, what the lights on the dashboard mean…etc. These are the items that if kept up with regularly will knowingly increase the operational lifespan and functionality of your vehicle. It’s true, there are cases of vehicles being regularly maintained for 40 years and more by the original owner that still run like a top. That is because these are the people that get a wrench in their hand and turn it to make sure the parts function properly, or they get it to a professional that cares for their baby for them. While most gear comes with an owner’s manual that gives you a general idea of how to operate it, rarely does it tell you how to maintain you gear to assure it functionality over the years. Now sure you can occasionally skip a few hundred miles between oil changes…but skip a few oil changes and that nice car will soon be running a little rougher than usual and soon will need real work.
The same principles apply with musical equipment. It may seem like there is not much you can do, but believe it or not there are quite a few ways to curtail the dreaded pops and scratches in your live electronics, and with regular maintenance you can rock for ages on the equipment you love no matter the date of manufacture.
Outer cleaning products to have on hand:
1) 91% Isopropyl Alcohol – this is a personal favorite, from Sharpie markers to tape gunk this should live in every electronics toolbox there is. From its ability to cut through inks and removes greasy, oily films t is the perfect solution for cleaning sensitive electronics due to its rapid evaporation rate and low, low water percentage. This is what is desired, something that is strong enough but will not stay in puddles allowing corrosion or shorts to occur. It used to be common to find 97%…but that has gotten almost impossible. Whatever you do, DO NOT use denatured alcohol! Denatured alcohol is much more volatile and the fumes from it are so strong they can cause hazing to occur on surface plastics and circuit boards. Isopropyl may have your studio smelling like a doctor’s office, but hey, maybe next time you are at the doctor’s office maybe you’ll think about gear instead of the impending needles.
2) Lighter Fluid – Commonly sold under the brand names of Zippo and Ronsonol, lighter fluid is another go to in the fight for the surface cleanliness of your gear. While mildly greasy to the touch it excels at removing sticker and tape residue from old gear and shares the same beautiful quality as Isopropyl Alcohol, it has mildly volatile fumes and as a fuel source for lighters it is designed to evaporate rapidly. It works better that Goo Gone and is far, far easier to remove the residue after cleaning is done…simply spray with some Isopropyl and it’ll wipe right off.
3) Feather Duster or Soft Bristle Paint Brush – good for general dusting
4) Old Cloth – for wiping down surfaces and cleaning off solvents
5) Old Toothbrush – They tend to be made of soft un-abrasive materials and are good for crevices
6) Double sides Dish Sponge & Scouring Pad – for those spots that need a bit more elbow grease
7) Cotton Swabs – These are perfect wiping around inputs/outputs and around corners of knobs
Now that we have properly cleaned and prettied the gear up, let’s get into the nitty gritty as it were and explain what it takes to clean the inner electronics and connection points of your equipment. While the above section is the equivalent of how to wash your car, this section is a bit more about how to check the oil and make sure things are working properly and consistently.
Materials you should keep on hand:
1) Can of Deoxit electronic contact cleaner/lubricant – This is Not, I repeat NOT a product drop…this stuff just plain works! There are equivalent products by other brands, but the regularity of finding those at your local electronics shop or Radio Shack is so few and far between it barely warrant mention. DO NOT try to use wd-40 in the place of this product! I have seen the bad effects of this application of WD-40…yes it’s a lubricant…meant for metals…NOT PLASTICS! Most of the interior parts of your electronics are going to incorporate some sort of plastic or ceramic component and wd-40 will destroy it. Much like the situation with Isopropyl Alcohol, this product is made to be electronic friendly.
2) Can of compressed air, or air compressor – This is an invaluable way to get the gunk out of spaces without having to full disassemble your gear. A simple proper placement of the nozzle, a quick pull of the trigger and all kinds of dust bunnies will be freed for you to handle ass you wish.
3) Various male plug ends – i.e. 1/4″ cable tips, XLR, RCA…just about any that you use regularly. These will be used to spray cleaner on and insert/remove repeatedly to lubricate input/output jacks.
Now we’ll cover the cleaning of your three most basic components that have issues; inputs, potentiometers and faders. Let’s get started by making sure your equipment is OFF and unplugged before you begin to clean anything…again off and unplugged!
The proper method of cleaning inputs is the same whether it’s 1/4″ jacks, XLR inputs or RCA…really just about any input except optical. Start off with taking you a liberal application of Deoxit cleaner onto the spare input tip for the desired input type, in this case a 1/4” input. If you once well coated insert and remove the tip from the desired jack to be cleaned…repeat this process approximately 25 times for each input desired to be cleaned. 91% Isopropyl Alcohol can do the job if you happen to not have electronic cleaner/lubricant handy. By doing this you are not only simulating the plugging and unplugging of the input allowing you to feel if anything is loose, but at the same time cleaning and lubricating the contact points associated with that input, freeing them from any blockages or grimy buildup thereby eliminating crackles and pops from cables at input points.
Coat tip thoroughly Insert & remove 50x
The process for cleaning a potentiometer or “pot” is a little more involved. Begin by removing the knob from the potentiometer you need to clean. Begin by using your Isopropyl Alcohol on a cotton swab or toothbrush and clean the surface surrounding the retention nut. This area believe it or not is an extreme dust collector and breeds gunk. Once the area is cleaned and prepped grab your electronics cleaner/lubricant of choice and point the tip of the nozzle straw right at the joint of the turning post in the center. Allow this a few seconds to penetrate…then begin to turn the potentiometer up and down just like normal operation. Repeat this step approximately 50 times for each potentiometer needing to be cleaned. By doing this you are again simulating the operation of the knob as normal and at the same time allowing the cleaner/lubricant to penetrate the ceramic discs inside that provide resistance. “But wait. I have sealed pots!” No worries, turn your dirty potentiometer over and there should be a small hole…this access port is precisely for cleaning and lubricating the potentiometer in question. Apply your cleaner and follow the same process as above. Once you have learned this handy process you will never suffer from scratchy pot syndrome again I assure you.
Remove and scrub Spray dirty pot Turn knob 50x
Finally, one of the most important parts to maintain and most frequent to give you issues is the fader. Faders are the last point of connection for your signal before it goes out to the main system and as such should always get special care and attention. Again make sure your device is powered off and unplugged before beginning this process. Remove the fader slider from the channel slider you wish to clean. Believe it or not the fader is the exact same thing as a potentiometer, just arranged in a liner up down or side to side fashion instead of clockwise/counter-clockwise. The other big difference is that you can use compressed air on a fader track. To begin cleaning start with the fader in the lowered position and take your can of compressed air and place the open tip of the air straw into the fader track, press the button and move the can in a back and forth just as you would move the fader. Once finished place the fader into the top position and repeat the process. Now take your can of electronics cleaner/lubricant and give the inner part of the fader track an up and down spritz. Once the spray is applied move the fader up and down approximately 50 times, again simulating the motion of the fader while in operation and lubricating all parts of the fader track evenly. Once this process is finished for all of the fader you wish to clean lightly spray some Isopropyl Alcohol over the area and give it a quick wipe down. Wait a good thirty minutes or so and it should be safe to plug in, power on your gear and enjoy the nice newly cleaned goodness you
Have at your fingertips.
Remove fader top Spray track with air Move Approx. 50 times
Spray & move Spray with alcohol Wipe to remove excess
If you follow these simple maintenance steps on a regular basis will not only assure the continued full functionality of your equipment, but vastly extend their lifetime as well. Until next time, keep the cleaning materials close at hand and remember clean gear is happy gear.