Posted from: Hollywood, CA
Next tour stop: Portland, OR
Over the time I’ve been working and playing in this field, it’s become very
easy to tell when using products designed for use in sound reinforcement whether
they were designed by people who actually use these things in the field (like,
say, the DiGiCo consoles) or those who sit in a conference room figuring out
how to make the box do what the guys in the field told them they wanted (like,
say, the Yamaha PM1D). Even if it weren’t designed by Dave Rat, owner of Rat
Sound and FOH engineer for (among many others) the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just
a few minutes checking out the Rat
Sniffer cable tester would make it obvious that this is a device truly designed
to be useful out in the field, when the show’s on the line. It may be a cable
tester, but oh, what a cable tester.
The Sniffer is a small black tube, about 3/4" in diameter and 3"
long. One end features a male XLR connector, while the other has three bi-color
LEDs. What is great about this tester (and why I think so many other testers
are useless) is that it doesn’t just give a go/no-go. The bi-color LEDs actually
tell you specifically what is wrong with the cable (or, at worst, narrowing
it down to one of two possible causes), by lighting up in different patterns
depending on what is up with the cable. Three green lights mean you’re good
to go. Combinations of red and green tell you there’s a problem, and by referring
to the provided legend, you can read what the problem is. If you’ve ever used
one of those wall outlet power analyzers that has the three neon lights to tell
you what’s wrong with the outlet, you’ll be familiar with the basic idea, although
the Sniffer is a bit more complex than those are.
But wait, there’s more. Those of you paying attention may have noticed that,
as I described it above, there’s one key missing for the tester to work–how
does the darn thing get power? And that, my friends, is where Dave Rat gets
the "Frickin’ Genius of the Decade" award–the Rat Sniffer is designed
to run off of normal, everyday phantom power, anywhere in the normal voltage
ranges. All you have to do is plug it into the end of the cable, and apply phantom
to the channel, and you’ve got your test results.
Now, you’re wondering, what if I’m early in load-in, or back at the shop doing
prep or repairs, and don’t have the console handy? That’s where the Rat Sender
comes in. This is a small black tube with a female XLR connector on one end,
about 5" long, that takes a 12 volt car alarm battery. It can power the
Sniffer on its own, and actually allows the tester to test for one condition
(pins 2 and 3 reversed) that it won’t recognize with phantom power. It’s even
designed so that, should you accidentally plug the sender into a line with a
mic on it, it won’t be damaged (in fact, the Rat
website has instructions on how to use the Sender as an emergency phantom
supply in an old newsletter!). The Sender has an on-off switch so that you won’t
drain the battery too fast. With normal use, it’s advertised as getting months
to years of use on one battery, and my experience so far bears this out. My
current tester has been in use for a little over a year and has yet to need
to be changed.
So, those are the upsides, what about the downsides? There are a couple, but
they’re all minor quibbles. First, that power switch–in a packed toolbox, it
can easily be turned on accidentally; it’s just a standard issue sliding on-off
switch. I keep my Rat Pack (the combo of the Sniffer and Sender) in a small
zipper pouch (similar but slightly larger than a Shure mic pouch) with some
other test gear, and haven’t had any problems. If you pack it loose, you might
want to put a tab of gaff tape over the switch.
Second, the card that came with my tester had a mistake, omitting a red light
from one of the combinations; the manufacturer (Audio Control Industrial) is
aware of this and has, I believe, corrected this. My tester is at the venue
right now, but I’ll check tomorrow and put a note here on what the correction
is in case they haven’t.
Finally, and this is the biggest problem I ran into, you’ll want to use the tester in at least moderate lighting,
or, if backstage in the dark, shine a flashlight on it when you check the LEDs. Because
of how the tester works, sometimes what is noted as an "off" LED on
the legend actually has a slight voltage bleed to it, and, in a dark theatre,
it will read as being turned on. I went back and forth with ACI last year when
I was positive I had found an error code that wasn’t listed on the legend and
couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was, only to eventually discover
that it was just a faint LED glow that, while unnoticeable in full light, looked
pretty bright in a dark corner backstage!
Those small caveats aside, this is the PERFECT live sound cable tester. The
only thing it’s missing is some sort of latching feature to show intermittents,
but there’s really no way to easily do that in such a small package. For showtime
use, especially on cables that are already run, it’s a dream. You can fire down
a snake in minutes, which would be a pain to do with a standard cable tester
(and would involve using an XLR jumper on the box end, which is another point
of failure to deal with). While not my first choice for testing cables that
have not been run yet (I’ll get to that in an upcoming post), I won’t ever do
a gig without it.
The Rat Sniffer and Sender are available from a number of retailers, but I
highly recommend buying it directly from Rat (see the link at the beginning
of this review); not only are you supporting the guy who came up with this,
but they have better prices than the other sources I’ve found.
Till next time,