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Earthing for Audio

Earthing for Audio

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Published by dubaidave

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Published by: dubaidave on Feb 09, 2010
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Nov/Dec 2005
s the generous frame of Bob Conductapproached, I knew I was in trouble. “Youpresented a talk at the BBC on the basics of earthing didn’t you?” “No”, I said, unconvincingly.Undeterred, Bob, a zealous member of the IBSExecutive, pressed an ancient VHS tape firmly into my hand. Glancing down I noticed that the case sported thelegend: BBC Earthing seminar by Peter Thomas 1987.“Er, yes” I muttered under my breath and, unbeknownto me, had at that moment agreed to present a talk onearthing to the IBS. Not learning from this episode, I fellfor the same trick again, played deftly by the Editor of Line Up, Hugh Robjohns, and agreed to produce a piecefor this edition. At the outset, I need to make clear that there are noreferences to PMC loudspeakers at all (except in thisintroduction). Neither are there any black and whiteanswers to earthing issues, nor easy fixes to thenumerous problems caused by earthing configurations.If this is your expectation then stop reading right now toavoid disappointment. The management also reservesthe right to oversimplify situations for the benefit of clarity, teach their grandmothers to suck eggs and keepengineering detail to a minimum. Insomniacs are advisedto keep this article handy by their bedside.The purpose of this brief tour of earthing is to raiseawareness of what causes hum and noise in audiosystems, and ultimately produce a simple list of logicalthings to check to isolate and avoid problems.
Mains Earth 
Before we launch headlong into earthing, it’s quiteimportant to appreciate where the mains earthoriginates from and what it’s actually there for.Figure 1 shows anextremely simplifiedcircuit diagram of a threephase generator. Notethat there are three live(L) outputs (marked ‘Line’on the diagram), whilstthe neutrals (N) are alltied together. Note alsothat the neutrals areconnected to ground. This will become an importantfactor later on. The earth’s primary role is naturally for safety. However, in audio systems it also has to providenoise rejection through shielding against low and highfrequency noise (hum and interference). For the audioprofessional the dilemma with this is that its safety roleoften conflicts with the goal to keep noise at aminimum… but this is not – under any circumstances –an excuse to remove a safety earth to cure noiseproblems.
Noise Sources
There are two types of noise that need rejecting: low frequency noise such as mains hum (50Hz) and buzz(100Hz), plus high frequency noise such as radiointerference, digital breakthrough, thyristor noise (fromlighting dimmer circuits), and basically anything thatswitches at high frequencies. Clearly, high gain circuitssuch as mic and guitar preamps are particularly  vulnerable. High frequency interference is on theincrease, and becoming harder to eradicate. One of thedelights of trying to find a solution to eliminate both low frequency and high frequency sources of noise is thatthe cure for one often increases the other – but then you wouldn’t expect anything less!There are many ways that these noise sources findtheir way into our audio circuits. The five primary routesare: induced currents, capacitive-coupled currents, loopcurrents, fault currents (including dirty earths), andfinally multiple earth paths. Did I say this was going tobe easy?
Induced and Capacitive Coupled 
Take a look at figure 2. This shows how induced andcapacitive-coupled currents cause noise. Here we see abalanced cable in the foreground lying next to twoexternal cables. Low frequency noise is inducedelectromagnetically into the audio cable (left of picture),and high frequency noise is capacitively (electrostatically) coupled into it (right).These are two good reasons for keeping audiocables as far away as possible from other cables carryingpotential noise sources – such as cables carrying mainsor digital signals.
Loop Currents
Figure 3 is an example of how loop circuits act likedetectors for noise when connecting two pieces of unbalanced equipment together. In this example, bothpieces of equipment are plugged into the mains andreceive a (safety) earth which also provides a link between the two chassis. Additionally, the screen of theunbalanced cable also provides a connection betweenthe two units forming a ‘ground loop’ with the mainsearth. The noise source only produces an audible
Earthing for Audio
 Following on from a very informative IBS meeting earlier this year, PETER THOMAS AIBS, Managing Director of PMC, expands his advice on how best to deal with unwanted noise in professional audio systems.
Figure 1:A simplifieddiagram of athree phasemainsgeneratorFigure 2: Inductive and capacitive coupling
problem (V 
 ) when the loop is present. If no loop wasformed then no circuit would be formed for the noisesource, preventing the noise current from flowing and V 
 would not exist. But no, we can’t lift the mainsearth to break the loop and cure the problem!
Fault Currents and Multiple Paths
Mains earths will often carry high fault currents (in theevent of poor or faulty equipment being connected to it)and will therefore be termed ‘dirty.’ Mains cables arealso commonly installed as a ring main – ie. in a loop –and cause circulating noise currents with multiple pathsbeing taken by the fault currents. Audio equipmentplaced inside an area where fault currents are flowing via different paths will be susceptible to the radiatedfield from the mains earth cables, chiefly throughinduction, and large hum fields will be present. Movingcables in this instance will not completely solve noiseproblems.Having painted such a negative picture of theproblems we face, and before we all give up and retireto the South of France (always an attractive option) let’stake a look at the solutions available to us to improve theabove situations and minimise noise.
Clean Earths
The problems produced by dirty mains earths have leadmany broadcasters and studios to provide a ‘Clean Earth’in their installations. This is sometimes also referred to as‘Programme Earth’ (mainly by broadcasters) or ‘Technical Earth’ (by broadcasters and studios) – just toconfuse everyone.In these installations this ‘clean earth’ is kept free of fault currents, enabling it to provide the screen to theaudio circuits. Clean earths are wired in a star from theincoming earth to the building. In other words, a singlecable is routed to each technical area, rather than beinglooped around the building as is the normal way withstandard mains distribution. Each mains socket is thenstar wired individually back to the incoming clean earthto the technical area. This reduces the incidence of humloops and also keeps any fault currents from upsettingthe entire building as they are routed directly to theincoming mains earth to the building.The down side of clean earths (apart from cost) isthat they must be kept separate from the mains earthdistribution in the building, otherwise the combinationof multiple paths will be a source of considerable noiseproblems (and heartaches).This is not to say that the mains earth distributioncannot be wired to the same standards as a proper cleanearth arrangements – and in many installations the needfor a separate clean earth distribution has been avoidedby adopting the same distribution techniques. For example, Metropolis Studios in London run screenedearth cables to each studio from the incoming mainsfeeder.In situations where equipment is being rigged inpremises not under your control, plugging all theequipment into a single mains outlet (preferably withthe benefit of a distribution board) will avoid mostproblems inherent with a dirty or poor mains earth.
Lifting Earths Safely 
There are instances where breaking a mains earth loopis required to solve a hum problem. The use of anisolating transformer is the only solution to avoidcompromising the safety of the equipment.Consider the scenario where the mains earth hasbeen lifted from a piece of equipment, and a faultsubsequently develops in which the mains Live becomesconnected to exposed metalwork. Figure 4 illustratesthat a shock can be received from the Live mains supply because a circuit is made back toNeutral via the earth – as per Figure 1 where the neutral is earthed at thegenerator – and so a potentially lethalcurrent flows through the body.Figure 5 illustrates that if thatsame piece of faulty equipment wasconnected via an isolatingtransformer, there would no longer be a circuit back to earth. No current would flow and no shock would bereceived because the transformer provides the break in the circuit. Theonly golden rule to remember is that you must connect only one piece of equipment per isolating transformer.The downside of this approach –lifting the mains earth combined with an isolating transformer – is thatin removing the mains earthreference from a piece of equipment you may well open it up to highfrequency noise pick up through thereduced effectiveness of its shielding. Also, high frequency noise can capacitively cross theisolating transformer’s windings and enter theequipment via its own transformer.
Balanced and Unbalanced Circuits
For the purpose of reducing noise, unbalanced circuitsshould be avoided if at all possible. Figure 6 shows how the screen of the interconnecting cable is the returnpath for the audio, and so it cannot be removed or disconnected. However it also forms part of a groundloop with the mains earth connection between the twopieces of equipment. Nevertheless, if the mains earth isclean, both pieces of equipment are plugged intoadjacent outlets, and the audio interconnects are notrouted near sources of noise then usually this works well.In the case of the balanced circuit shown in figure 7,the screen of the interconnecting cable is no longer part
Nov/Dec 2005
Figure 3: A classic ground loop situationFigure 4: The potential shockhazardFigure 5: An isolating transformerprevents the shock hazard

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