Advice From An Old Guy: Learn To Troubleshoot

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If there is one thing that has bothered me for years as a TD and continues to bother me as an integrator, it’s the lack of basic troubleshooting skills many TDs have. I literally cannot tell you how many calls and emails I’ve received that basically go like this:

Caller: This thing isn’t working.
Me: OK, what have you tried?
Caller: Tried? What do you mean?
Me: Tried to figure out where the failure is? What troubleshooting steps have you already taken?
Caller: I came in, it wasn’t working, I called you.

Awesome. I’m 3,000 miles away, and I now have to try to troubleshoot your system, blind and remotely. The number of times it’s a cable that was plugged into the wrong port is astonishing. Or it’s a bad cable. Or someone changed the configuration. Usually, it’s an easy fix. But figuring that out remotely is challenging. Especially when I don’t know your entire system—and you don’t either.

Point A to Point B
Troubleshooting is not really that hard. If it’s a piece of equipment that has a computer, microprocessor or any kind of a brain, turn it off, wait a minute and turn it back on. That solves 40% of all issues. If that fails, you need to trace the signal path back to the point of failure. This is not hard. Usually.

Let’s say your green room TV isn’t working. First, check to see that it’s set to the correct input. Check a known good source into another input, then into the input you’re trying to use. TV is good? Ok, move one layer up. If you have an SDI-based video system, you probably have an SDI to HDMI adapter behind the TV. Check that. Does it have power? Does it pass signal in another application? Is the HDMI cable OK? If all checks out, move up the chain.

There’s probably a DA or matrix router in front of the converter. Make sure the router is patched correctly. Check the output of the router or DA. Let’s say that output the cable to the converter is plugged into isn’t working. Bypass the DA or router and try a working output from the switcher. Do you get a picture? Likely, there is a problem in the router or DA. No picture? The cable or connectors may be bad.

Troubleshooting is simply moving up and down the signal path until you find the point of failure. Approach it with an open mind, and don’t assume anything. I’ve been burned before because I assumed the “easy stuff” was all working correctly. Does the remote need new batteries? Did the power get unplugged? Did a cable get unplugged? Is phantom power on? Did the wireless packs get put on the correct music stands for the right musician? Are you patched into the right DMX universe?

Things Change
I know it worked last week; but unless the items in question were under your direct control in the intervening hours, anything could have changed. Or, you may simply have a gear failure. Can you see how knowing your system and your gear assists you in figuring out why something went wrong?

If you learn to troubleshoot, not only will you be able to get things up and running faster, you’ll also look like a smart, competent tech. I’m not saying you should never call in someone for help; but you need to have run through a pretty good list of things before you do. You should also have a very good idea of where the failure point is.

It’s often a good idea to consider this question when you start troubleshooting a previously working system, “What changed?” It goes like this:

Caller: Our entire Dante system stopped working!!!
Me: OK, what changed?
Caller: Well, our IT guys were out this week and reconfigured all the switches and plugged them into the house network switches.
Me: Well, there’s your problem.

See? Troubleshooting is easy. If there’s a computer involved, it’s often IT’s fault. Turn off all automatic updates to all tech computers. Yes, I know, viruses and malware. Whatever. AV software often is slow to be updated when the OS changes. Don’t update the ProPresenter iMac to High Mavericks Yosemite Sierra on Sunday morning before rehearsal. In fact, don’t ever update anything past Wednesday. That’s not troubleshooting per se, just free advice.

Think Logically
I tend to think in steps. For me, troubleshooting is easy because I think in terms of step 1, step 2, step 3… Others think more fluidly. Ideas come in random order and they may start in the middle of a story and work out to the ends. That’s fine when you’re writing a song, but when troubleshooting it’s imperative you start at one end and work up the chain, piece by piece.

You may be tempted to pick a spot in the middle and test something, then try something else, then something else. You may even get lucky once in a while and find a problem. But I promise you, over the long haul, starting at one end or the other will yield results faster and more accurately.

Learn to troubleshoot and you’ll be a better tech.

View all the posts in this series.