The Lost Art of Troubleshooting

Troubleshooting AV
(Image credit: Christina Morillo)

Let’s talk about perseverance under pressure. The way you handle yourself in the heat of battle is a determining factor of success in our industry. How do you react when things suddenly and most unexpectedly go awry? Do you explode into full-blown panic, snatching cables, and swapping pieces of gear in and out of the system in a cold sweat frenzy? Or do you sit quietly for a moment and methodically assess the situation at hand?

Oddly enough, level-headed thinking tends to be the better answer.

A Very Common Problem

There are surely some readers who scoff at such simple advice, but the reality is that any of us can be tempted to panic when faced with a malfunctioning or non-functioning system. Understanding, remembering, and following the simple steps can be crucial in these moments—so much so that it can affect your bottom line both in the short- and long-term.

Work in the industry long enough—although it won’t take too long before you run into this—and you will find yourself in a situation where, for no apparent reason, things simply are not functioning as expected. The band starts in half an hour and the lead singer’s monitor mix isn’t working. Or maybe you’re dealing with a no-audio zone on system commission day while the proud owner of the brand new system upgrade watches anxiously over your shoulder.

Chances are you have felt the heat of battle, and the law of averages dictates that you’ll feel that crunch again sometime soon. It’s important to note that the perception of competence is tied directly to how quickly and efficiently these issues are resolved.

Should calamity ensue, confidence begins to erode. If the issue remains unresolved, valued accounts can slip away.

However, if one responds with a savant-like, laser-focused plan of attack that results in a successful diagnosis and expert repair, the word of your audio prowess will spread like wildfire throughout the community. The art of troubleshooting is growing your business!

Slow Down Your Troubleshooting

The most common mistake in troubleshooting happens right away, when you first discover the problem and the adrenaline kicks in. Human nature, at least when it comes to systems integration, seems to be an attempt to make multiple changes in a single step.

Perhaps you’re familiar with this kind of thinking: “Quick! Change the mic cable while I patch it into another channel in the snake and move it into another channel on the board!”

What’s wrong with this picture? From an investigative perspective, everything.

Much like the art of perfecting a live mix, the secret lies in incremental changes. Take one thing at a time and carefully note the results stemming from each change. From there, you can move into a codified and process-based approach.

Common Sense Can Be Your Most Powerful Tool

Although there are some powerful, very handy tools an AV professional can invest in to make life easier in such situations—like signal-sniffing wands or digital multi-meters, for example—sometimes common sense is a more powerful weapon.

To illustrate, let’s say we have a zone in a building where no sound is present. Where some may panic and make random assumptions based on little more than gut instinct, it is the cooler heads that will prevail. From this measured approach, a flow chart begins to materialize.

Are there other zones in the building that do have audio? The answer to this question is a tool that will guide your response. 

If we move the speaker line over to that amplifier output, do we have audio now? If so, the speaker and speaker line have been confirmed “good.”

Move the speaker line back to where it started, and then move the input feeding the live zone over to the input for the amplifier channel in question. If the dead zone comes to life, we now know the amplifier channel is also functional.

Continuing the investigation as we work our way upstream in the signal flow, What happens if we reconnect the original cable to the amp input for the problem area, and then move the other end to the output that is driving the “happy zone”? If audio returns once again to the zone in question, we have established everything between processor and speaker to be functional.

When we make one small change at a time, we narrow the focus until we pinpoint, with certainty, the exact source of trouble. The alternative—pulling everything out of the system and sending it back to the manufacturer for a “wellness check”—simply isn’t viable. Your system will be crippled while you await multiple and inevitable “no malfunction found” reports from various service centers.

It is when faced with these scenarios that the art of troubleshooting becomes critical to your business.

Partnering for Success

Granted, it isn’t always easy to follow these simple steps when the time comes, but if you at least understand the right thing to do, and know that there is an established and correct approach to address issues as they arise, that will make the difference. You will more likely be perceived as a professional, not simply someone out of their depth.

All that said, you don’t need to go it alone on every job. A manufacturing partner who offers quick and reliable support is crucial in these moments. Make sure you’re using brands whose technicians can be reached easily when a problem arises. The industry veterans working support have heard it all before, know the right questions to ask, and can help you stay on the right path when the pressure is on.

The reality of this industry is that it isn’t how good you are when everything goes as expected, it’s how good you are when the music suddenly stops. Make sure you have a plan in place, keep a level head, partner with the right manufacturers, and—of course—keep reading the trade magazines that offer the quality advice!

Jim Schwenzer
Jim Schwenzer is the director of technical support and service for Ashly Audio; he has led the daily customer service operations at Ashly Audio for over 23 years. Schwenzer is an accredited electrical technician, audio engineer, and professional musician with more than 35 years of experience in the field. Schwenzer has transformed his passion for audio and knowledge of electronics into a front-line asset for Ashly’s customers.