Polarity issues in CD recording from bad wiring

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Balanced audio signals are a great thing for the audio industry. If you don’t know much about balanced vs. unbalanced signals, I highly suggest doing some reading on Wikipedia.

Balanced signals have a differential amplifier on the output and the input side. They basically carry a mono signal down 3 conductors. Two wires carry the signal and then the last wire carries the ground. The beauty of the differential amplifier is that two wires that carry the signal. One wire carries the normal signal, then the other inverts the polarity. So, the two signals are out of polarity of each other. At the receiving end of the balanced signal, there is another differential amplifier which inverts one of the wires and sums them together to get the signal back to normal.

If there is any noise injected into the wire on its run, it is injected into both wires in polarity. When the signal reaches the receiving end of the wire, that differential amplifier inverts the polarity of one of the wires which cancels out the noise. This is because the noise is now out of polarity with each other and, in the summing process, cancels out itself.

Illustration from http://www.ians-net.co.uk/images/articles/balanced/balanced.gif showing how noise is rejected in a balanced signal.

At North Ridge Community Church, NRCC, we have a Tascam CD recorder which we use to record the spoken word of our services. I noticed one day that I had to turn up the CD really loud in my car to be able to hear it. This surprised me because earlier in the day I was almost clipping the meters with the CD recording levels. I decided to rip the CD into Cubase 5 to see what was going on. Here is what I found:

Out of Polarity signals which were recorded to the CD like this.

As you can see, the left and right channels are recorded out of polarity to each other. Basically, they are cancelling each other out from the inversion.

After seeing this on the screen, I went back to the church to find that the CD recording feed is coming from a balanced mono send off of a matrix on the Allen & Heath ML4000. The cable then goes into a 1/4 inch stereo to R and L RCA adapter. The way this adapter works is for a headphone cable which takes the left from the tip and sleeve and the right from the ring and sleeve. With a balanced signal, the tip and ring are inverted in polarity. So this is sending the + into the left while sending the – into the right.

I recorded a video of myself explaining what is going on when you have a signal that is out of polarity. In the video, I accidentally mention that this could be called 180 degs out of phase which is incorrect. The only term to call this is out of polarity.

After making the correct type of adapter with the balanced to RCA, the recordings will now have full volume on the CD recording with a full spectrum sound. This is another reason not to trust any installed wires without checking them.

Drew Brashler

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