preventing hum and rfi
PREVENTING HUM AND RFI
by Bruce Bartlett
Copyright 2009
You patch in a piece of audio equipment, and there it is: HUM! This annoying sound is a common
occurence in sound systems. Hum is an unwanted 60 Hz tone -- 50 Hz in Europe -- maybe with
harmonics. If the harmonics are especially strong, the hum becomes an edgy buzz.
Your sound system also might be plagued by RFI (Radio Frequency Interference). It’s heard as
buzzing, clicks, radio programs, or “hash” in the audio signal. RFI is caused by CB transmitters,
computers, lightning, radar, radio and TV transmitters, industrial machines, cell phones, auto
ignitions, stage lighting, and other sources.
This article looks at some causes and cures of hum and RFI. By following these suggestions, you
can keep your audio clean.
HUM AND CABLES
One cause of hum is audio cables picking up magnetic and electrostatic hum fields radiated by
power wiring in the walls of a room. Magnetic hum fields can couple by magnetic induction to
audio cables, and electrostatic hum fields can couple capacitively to audio cables. Magnetic hum
fields are directional and electrostatic hum fields are not.
Most audio cables are made of one or two insulated conductors (wires) surrounded by a fine-wire
mesh shield that reduces electrostatically induced hum. The shield drains induced hum signals to
ground when the cable is plugged in. Outside the shield is a plastic or rubber insulating jacket.
Cables are either balanced or unbalanced. A balanced line is a cable that uses two conductors to
carry the signal, surrounded by a shield (Figure 1). On each end of the cable is an XLR (3-pin pro
audio) connector or TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) phone plug.
Figure 1. A 2-conductor shielded, balanced line.
Each conductor has equal impedance to ground, and they are twisted together so they occupy
about the same position in space on the average. Hum fields from power wiring radiate into each
conductor equally, generating equal hum signals on the two conductors (more so if they are a
twisted pair). Those two hum signals cancel out at the input of your mixer, because it senses the
difference in voltage between those two conductors -- which is zero volts if the two hum signals
are equal. That’s why balanced cables tend to pick up little or no hum.
An unbalanced line has a single conductor surrounded by a shield (Figure 2). At each end of the
cable is a phone plug or RCA (phono) plug. The central conductor and the shield both carry the
signal. They are at different impedances to ground, so they pick up different amounts of hum from
nearby power wiring. There’s a relatively big hum signal between hot and ground that results in
more hum than you get with a balanced line of the same length.
Figure 2. A 1-conductor shielded, unbalanced line.
Some hanging mics have long unbalanced cables, and some cables used between pieces of
equipment are unbalanced. An unbalanced line less than 10 feet long usually does not pick up
enough hum to be a problem.
Wherever you can, use balanced cables going into balanced equipment. Keep unbalanced cables
as short as possible (but long enough so that you can service them). Check inside cable
connectors to make sure that the shield and conductors are soldered to the connector terminals.
Route mic cables and patch cords away from power cords; separate them vertically where they
cross. This prevents the power cords from inducing hum into the mic cables. Also keep audio
equipment and cables away from computer monitors, power amplifiers, lighting dimmers and
power transformers. Keep mic cables and mic electronics well separated from lighting equipment
in the grids. Better yet, don’t use hanging mics. A few stage-floor mics and wireless mics will
suffice.
GROUND LOOPS
Another major cause of hum is a ground loop: a circuit made of ground wires. It can occur when
two pieces of equipment are connected to the building's safety ground through their power cords,
and also are connected to each other through a cable shield (Figure 3). The ground voltage may
be slightly different at each piece of equipment, so a 50- or 60-Hz hum signal flows between the
components along the cable shield. It becomes audible as hum. Also, the cable shield/safety
ground loops acts like a big antenna, picking up radiated hum fields from power wiring.
Figure 3. A ground loop.
For example, suppose your mixer’s power cord is plugged into a nearby AC outlet. The system
power amps are plugged into outlets on stage. So the mixer and amps are probably fed by two
different circuit breakers at two different ground voltages. When you connect an audio cable
between the mixer and power amps, you create a ground loop and hear hum.
To prevent ground loops, plug all audio equipment into outlet strips powered by the same
breaker. (Make sure the breaker can handle the current requirements). Run a thick AC extension
cord from the stage outlets to the mixer, and plug the mixer’s power cord into that extension cord.
That way, the separated equipment chassis will tend to be at the same ground voltage -- there
will be very little voltage difference between chassis to generate a hum signal in the shield.
Caution: Some people try to prevent ground loops by putting a 3-to-2 safety ground lifter on the
AC power cords. NEVER DO THAT. It creates a serious safety hazard. If the chassis of a
component becomes accidentally shorted to a hot conductor in its power cord, and someone
touches that chassis, the AC current will flow through that person rather than to the safety
ground. Lift the shield in the receiving end of the signal cable instead, and plug all equipment into
3-pin grounded AC outlets.
Let's explain the signal ground lift in more detail. The hum current in a ground loop flows in the
audio cable shield, and can induce a hum signal in the signal conductors. You can cut the audio
cable shield at one end to stop the flow of hum current. The shield is still grounded at the other
end of the cable, and the signal still flows through the two audio leads inside the cable.
So, to break up a ground loop, disconnect the cable shield from pin 1 in line-level balanced
cables at the male XLR end (Figure 4). You can either cut the shield, or plug in an inline audio
cable ground-lift adapter.
Figure 4. Lifting the shield from the pin-1 ground in a male XLR connector.
Removing the shield connection at one end of the audio cable makes the connection sensitive to
radio-frequency interference (RFI). So solder a 100 pF capacitor between the shield and XLR pin
1 (Figure 5). This effectively shorts RFI to ground, but is an open circuit for hum frequencies.
Figure 5. Supplementing the lifted shield with a capacitor prevents RFI.
Some engineers create a partial ground lift by placing a 100 ohm resistor between the cable
shield and male XLR pin 1 (Figure 6). This limits the current passing through the cable shield but
still provides a good ground connection.
Figure 6. A ground lift using a 100 ohm resistor and a 100 pF capacitor.
Label the XLR connector "GND LIFT" so you don't use the cable where it's not needed. For
example, mic cables must have the shield tied to pin 1 on both ends of the cable. The ground lift
is only for line-level cables.
Here's another way to prevent a ground loop when connecting two balanced or unbalanced
devices. Connect between them a 1:1 isolation transformer or hum eliminator (such as Jensen or
Ebtech, shown below).
Jensen Iso-Max CI-2RR
Ebtech Hum Eliminators
OTHER TIPS
Even if your system is wired properly, hum or RFI may appear when you make a connection.
Follow these tips to stop the problem:
· Unplug all equipment from each other. Start by listening just to the powered PA speakers.
Connect a component to the system one at a time, and see when the hum starts.
· Remove audio cables from your devices and listen to each device by itself. It may be
defective.
· Partly turn down the volume on your power amp, and feed it a higher-level signal from your
mixer (0 VU maximum).
· If you are using a mic snake, be sure that its stage box is not touching metal.
· Do not wire XLR pin 1 to the connector-shell lug because the shell can cause a ground loop if
it touches grounded metal. If you are sure that the shell won’t touch metal, wire XLR pin 1 to the
shell lug to prevent RFI.
· Try another mic. Some dynamic mics have hum-bucking windings.
· If you hear hum or buzz from an electric guitar, have the player move to a different location or
aim in a different direction. Magnetic hum fields are directional, and moving or rotating the guitar
pickup can reduce the coupling to those fields.
· If the hum is coming from a direct box, flip its ground-lift switch.
· Turn down the high-frequency EQ on a buzzing bass guitar signal.
· If you think that a speaker cable, mic cable or patch cord is picking up RFI, wrap the cable
several times around an RFI choke (available at Radio Shack or other electronics supply
houses). Put the choke near the device that is receiving audio.
· Install high-quality RFI filters in the AC power outlets. The cheap types available from local
electronics shops are generally ineffective.
· Connect cable shields directly to the equipment chassis instead of to XLR pin 1, or in addition
to pin 1. Some equipment is designed this way to prevent the "pin 1 problem". The cable shield
should be grounded directly to the chassis -- not connected instead to a ground terminal on a
circuit board inside the chassis.
· Periodically clean connector contacts with Caig Labs DeoxIT, or at least unplug and plug
them in several times. See www.caig.com.
By following all these tips, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of hum and RFI in your audio
system. Good luck!
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AES and Syn Aud Con member Bruce Bartlett is the author of Practical Recording Techniques
5th Edition and Recording Music On Location published by Focal Press.
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