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.
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.
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.
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