Focusrite ISA 430 Mk.II Meter Replacement

There are always little maintenance jobs waiting to be done in a studio – and one I had been meaning to get round to was replacing the VU meter in the mighty Focusrite ISA 430 Mk II Producer Pack mic pre.

What was wrong with it?  The bulb had gone.  

Cyril Jones, the founder of Raindirk and one of the great British audio designers, once told me that he used to tell his clients never to turn their desks off.  He reckoned that the only time components were stressed were during power-on, when that initial surge of current hit cold components.  Once powered up, he would say, the thing would go on working forever.

He had a point, and I do try to leave my analogue equipment on most of the time, turning it off only when I know I won’t be using it for some time.  But I got into a situation with the Focusrite; I was fooling with different grounding arrangements for the mains and measuring the effect on noise floor, so I was turning the thing on and off repeatedly.  And inevitably, the bulb went.  An incandescent bulb is an obvious case-in-point for Cyril’s advice.  At the instant of turn-on, a high current momentarily surges through the bulb as it warms up and its resistance increases.

Other people to whom this has happened have moaned extensively about the fact that you can’t apparently replace the bulb in this type of meter – you have to replace the whole meter.  Actually, it’s probably possible to replace the bulb (even with an LED), and I’ll be experimenting on the old meter when I get a chance – and I’ll tell you how I get on.

Obtaining The New Meter

Folks I’ve read about who found themselves in this position seem to tell stories of ‘finding’ a meter on eBay, or from such-and-such a supplier.  Before you go down this route, and especially if you’re in the UK, you should reach out to Focusrite’s service department.  After all, this is professional gear, not domestic or pro-sumer, and accordingly is intended to be maintained.

Focusrite supplied me with a brand new meter, with the all-important ff logo, for a total of £28.08 including VAT and shipping.   At that price, why would you go anywhere else?

Fitting The New Meter

After removing the 10 screws to withdraw the lid, the meter is revealed to be held in place only by two metal brackets which are bent into place:

(Take care lifting the lid; there is an earth strap running from the underside of the lid to main chassis.)

The brackets are easily straightened with needle nose pliers, and the meter then simply drops out.  The four connecting wires terminate in a connector at the extreme end of the main PCB, so you can remove the meter completely to do your soldering:

Then, it’s simply a case of transferring the four wires from the old meter to the new one, ensuring you don’t mix up any of the connections, and popping the new meter in.  The metal brackets can be gently re-bent to hold the meter snugly.  The whole exercise takes about 20 minutes.

Power Supply Connections

While I was inside the unit, I took a look at another problem that the 430s (both Mk I and Mk 2) can suffer from.  The main connection from the transformer to the PSU board is via a Molex connector.  Now these, as anyone who’s had the privilege of maintaining an MCI multitrack machine knows, can be troublesome.  There have been reports of burn marks on and around the connector where the molex is no longer making a good connection.

The oft-quoted ‘solution’ is to discard the connector and solder the wires directly to the board.

In my case, there was a barely-discernible discolouring of the plastic carrier which you can just about see in this picture:

I decided this was acceptable so cleaned the connector contacts and applied a little contact lubricant before putting it back together.  I’ll make a note to look at it again in six months to see if it’s got any worse.

Finally, I noticed the mounting bolt for the toroidal transformer had worked a little loose, so I tightened it.  This is well worth checking whenever you’ve got a piece of gear like this open for inspection.

Remote Support at Landen Park Studio

We offer two types of remote support at Landen Park Studio, which we’ll discuss in turn here.  We’ll also show the pros and cons of each method.  The two methods we provide are Phone-In, and Internet Connection.

Phone-In

We use a Sonifex SY03 TBU (Telephone Balancing Unit).  The SY03 and its predecessor the SY02 are almost a de-facto standard, with thousands of units installed in broadcast and post-production facilities.  So, what’s a TBU?

If you’ve ever phoned in to a radio programme, you’ve heard a TBU in action.  Put simply, it’s a device that attaches to a phone line and converts the incoming and outgoing audio to balanced signals that connect to the mixing desk.  An incoming call is answered using a handset in the usual way and then, with the press of a button, the audio is re-routed into the studio’s system.

It’s a bit more than just a glorified telephone of course; the public phone network works with two-wire connections and uses DC voltages for signalling. You can’t just plug that into a studio desk – and even if you could, it wouldn’t be allowed by BT.  The TBU does the conversion while simultaneously protecting the phone line and your mixing desk from each other.

What are the benefits of using the TBU?

    • The TBU allows a director/producer to join a recording session simply by phoning the studio.  It’s a tried and tested technique and directors with a broadcast background in particular will be completely familiar with it.
    • It’s ‘portable’ and fool-proof.  The director can access the session from anywhere where’s there’s a phone – including mobiles – anywhere in the world.
    • Set-up is quick, and no special software or hardware is required.  This is ideal for short-form recording – e.g. voiceover – where a spontaneous decision can be made to ‘bring in’ a director to check the recording.

What are the disadvantages of using the TBU?

    • It’s only really suitable for remote direction.  Line quality prevents its use for recording, and the slight latency in these systems makes it difficult to use for read-ins.
    • Line quality issues can also make it harder for the director to hear details in the recording.  This isn’t a major issue since the local director/engineer will be taking care of ensuring the recording sounds good.
    • It’s not really suitable for long-form recording – e.g. audiobooks – because, firstly the phone network (and particularly the mobile phone network) will tend the ‘lose the connection’ especially for calls lasting longer than an hour.  Secondly, it can get expensive, particularly when calling from a mobile.  Many ‘free calls’ plans only apply to calls lasting less than an hour.

Internet Connection

There are a number of internet-based solutions available.  At the moment, we generally use CleanFeed Pro.  So, how does this work?

You can think of CleanFeed as being like Zoom.  One party sets up a session, and then the other parties access that session through the CleanFeed website.  The ‘host’ – that’s the studio in this case – can include multiple remote parties in the session.  These could include a director, a read-in actor, or the session talent, working remotely.   Audio quality is very good – equivalent to mp3.

What are the benefits of using CleanFeed?

    • Unlike the TBU method, using CleanFeed also allows the director to be local while the talent is remote.  Obviously this requires that the remote end is simultaneously recording a full-bandwidth version of the audio – but Cleanfeed  will ‘record’ the session in up to mp3 quality as well as passing the audio. 
    • Because CleanFeed supports multiple connections, it’s possible, for example, to have an actor recording dialogue here at the studio being fed lines by one or more read-in actors remotely and even being directed remotely if necessary.
    • CleanFeed is fairly resistant to drop-outs, assuming good internet connections at both ends.  It’s reasonable to expect connections to stay up all day if required and of course there’s no direct cost associated with the time connected.

What are the disadvantages of using CleanFeed?

    • Obviously, it’s more complex to set up than TBU.  At the time of writing CleanFeed is only supported on Google Chrome browsers so all participants will need to be using a computer running Chrome and have some basic understanding of audio setup.
    • In its current form, CleanFeed only “recognises” the computer’s built-in input and output (this is a limitation of Chrome, we’re told).  You can use an external audio interface but only one (stereo) input and output will be recognised.  This is mainly an issue at the studio end; “input 1” and “output 1” are unlikely to be free for CleanFeed to use so we get round this by hosting CleanFeed on a separate computer with it’s own audio interface, patched into the main system.
    • Because CleanFeed only uses one input and out channel, there’s no way at the studio end to ‘split out’ multiple participants.  This means that if you have, say, a remote director and a remote read-in actor, they will both appear on the same channel and be heard by everyone else at the same level.
    • As already mentioned, CleanFeed transfers and optionally records audio at near-mp3 quality.  In some cases this may be sufficient but generally full-bandwidth uncompressed WAV files need to be recorded.  If the talent is remote, they will have to be recording their audio locally, simultaneously.   This is a key limitation; if someone is here at the studio directing talent who is recording remotely, the director is hearing the CleanFeed ‘feed’, not the actual recording.  So if the remote recording is full of plosives and breathing issues for instance, the director might not be aware of this.

Digitise your cassettes? Oh all right then

People keep asking me to digitise their old DATs and cassettes into CDs, and I keep saying no.  It’s not because I don’t have the means – it’s just that there are so many outfits already offering to digitise LPs, cassettes, VHS tapes and so forth, and prices are ridiculously low – so low it just isn’t worth the effort.

And it’s not like this work is new to me – I spent several years digitising Jon Hiseman’s tape archive over at Temple Music, working with 2 inch 24-track, 1/4 inch half-track, DAT, cassette, DDS, you name it.  Even a rare Audio & Design modified Sony PCM-F1 system.

And I worked with Jon when he created the CD-R versions of several classic Barbara Thompson/Paraphernalia albums that had previously only been released on vinyl (by playing in up to six unused LPs for each album and amalgamating them to produce the ‘perfect’ transfer).

I also produced the digital master for Art Of Life Records’ CD release of the Peter Lemer album Jet Yellow, from the original (and somewhat dilapidated) 1/4 inch analogue masters, which had to be baked twice and have all their leaders and splices replaced.

The transfers I did for Jon and Peter were scrupulous, painstaking – pedantic, even – exercises in preserving historic recordings for posterity, squeezing the absolute most out of the material and the equipment.  Seeing people offering to transfer from analogue to digital for twenty quid “including return postage” seems faintly ridiculous in comparison.

But… just because I can’t do it cheap, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it at all.  I can, after all, do it well.  I suppose I should stop saying no.

I might even plug up my turntable… maybe not…

Home booths – The Pendulum Swings Back?

Audiobook publishers have been courting narrators with their own home recording facilities for some time.  The reason is obvious – it’s cheaper.  Even paying the reader a ‘premium’ for using their own booth still saves money compared with hiring a real studio with an engineer/producer at the helm.

Home booth productions can also have tighter deadlines, because narrators will sit up all night in their cupboard under the stairs, attic or converted study to get the work done.

But there are signs that the tide is turning.  Publishers are seeing negative comments being left by reviewers on audible and other sites about background noise, intelligibility and ‘tone’.  Editors are complaining about having to spend more time than they can afford ‘fixing up’ problems with the recording.  And we’re seeing proof-readers actually turning down work from self-read authors.

And we’ve noticed that the big operators we work with are going back to being a lot more picky about audio quality than they’ve been of late.

Of course, not all “home booths” are the same.  Well-known long-standing ‘high end’ professional narrators sometimes install pro-quality facilities at home and benefit from the convenience and extra revenue this gives them.  But these are the exception.

Audiobook production isn’t the same as podcasting, for example, and sticking a USB microphone on the dining table is increasingly being seen as not good enough.  Furthermore, working solo is much harder than it might seem – and being guided by an experienced professional engineer/producer is more than worth the extra production cost.