Mix Interview: Arthur Kelm
Jun 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By George Petersen
A WELL-GROUNDED APPROACH TO AC POWER PROBLEMS
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Electrical power, like the air, is something most of us take for granted. Live or studio, AC power and grounding remain one of the great enduring mysteries in audio systems. Hum, ground loops and intermittent buzzes seem to be prevalent in studios everywhere, and there are few guitarists who haven't encountered the guitar-to-mic “kiss” stemming from improperly wired outlets in clubs or rehearsal spaces.
Solid information about power and grounding in audio is sketchy at best and shrouded in folklore, myths and the ever popular “I read this somewhere on the Net, so it's gotta work.” However, one person who's taken an empirical approach to the subject is Arthur Kelm, studio designer and CEO of Ground One AV Inc., a consulting firm that addresses the specific power and grounding requirements of pro recording facilities and high-end home theater installs.
Kelm's audio roots run deep. After getting his EE degree, he worked on satellite communications systems and then left to create custom wireless rigs for (and toured with) Debbie Reynolds. Coming off the road, he was chief tech for Chateau Recorders in North Hollywood and designed Broad Recording Studios for Hawaiian artist Al Harrington with the help from his mentor, legendary studio architect Jack Edwards. Returning to L.A., he spent days as a tech at Canyon Recorders and nights at Record One Studios. This was followed by a couple years doing engineering and tech work for Laura Nyro (for whom he designed a studio), Toto and Ocean Way Studios. In 1987, Greg Ladanyi and George Massenberg asked Kelm to be general manager/chief engineer of The Complex, and he remained there for four years.
Kelm then provided freelance tech/design services and consulting for companies such as Walt Disney Imagineering, and was director of engineering for The Record Plant Studios. After a year as chief engineer at Skywalker Sound, Kelm focused his energies full time on studio design and creating solutions for AC power problems.
Today, Kelm's company offers consulting services and manufactures AC distribution, voltage conditioning, power isolation and filtering products. He also still takes on the occasional studio design project and graciously set aside time to discuss some design/construction/installation and grounding issues.
What's your design philosophy?
It's first determining the artist's needs and then making that artist's favorite speakers work in that room design. I learned studio design from hands-on experience creating a lot of rooms, seeing what worked and what didn't work. Being a technician helped me see all the elements that go into a good room design — it's not just architecture.
You can design a room entirely from drawings and computer models, but that's no guarantee the room will sound good. And one room might sound good with certain speakers but not with other monitors. And 90 percent of the time, that's the issue — the wrong speakers in the wrong room. A good room should sound good — period — but the wrong speakers can make a great room sound bad and the speaker/amplifier combination is critical. There's no such thing as a perfect monitor.
Why do people think AC power is so complicated?
It's only complicated because of grounding. If it's not done correctly, there are a lot of red herrings. People will begin troubleshooting a hum or buzz and start looking in the wrong place to fix a problem. Then when things start interacting with each other, it begins a downward spiral when you may “fix” one problem only to have it move somewhere else, which screws people up. I take an analytical approach to solving power issues. People try all sorts of odd remedies, when sometimes the problem can be traced to poor installation by the electrician.
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