Burning Down The House (Studio!)

No, I’m not talking about the David Byrne song today. I’m going to write about something that happened here in my office a couple of days ago — that might have resulted in a real disaster. I’m feeling very fortunate that my office, my studios, and my building didn’t burn to the ground when the DVD-ROM drive in one of my PCs caught fire in the middle of the night. I would never have imagined that a single space optical disc drive could spontaneously erupt in flames. But it happened. You might think twice about leaving your equipment running when you’re not around.


Figure 1 – The back of the DVD-ROM drive that burst into flames inside my Sony Vaio computer.

My office is not large. It’s in the front of the building and provides a view of the McLaren repair shop across the street and my driveway. But it’s got a couple of windows and I like having the light. I have three computers located in strategic places. I have an aging Mac tower under my desk that feeds two large displays on my main desktop and there are two PCs on another desk behind me. I use these machines to edit and process audio files (in Nuendo), prepare and upload soundfiles to iTrax, and encode and author Blu-ray discs.

The authoring system was custom made by my former engineer and still functions quite well for a 6-year-old machine. Then there’s the Sony Vaio machine — another older machine with a couple of DVD drives and a few hard drives mounted inside. After all of the dust from the recent studio construction, I decided to organize and clean the desk with the PCs, which I did. It’s always nice to work in an area that’s organized and uncluttered. However, anyone that has viewed my office knows that I’m not a neat-nick. I like to be organized but there never seems to be enough time to find a place for everything and put everything in its place. It’s a problem — especially when I’ve had to downsize a lot to make room for the new studios.

I’ve never made a habit of turning off my computers or audio equipment when I leave the office or studio. I don’t subscribe to the whole “burning-in” idea; I just find it easier to start the next day from where I left off the previous day. And I’ve never had an issue until two days ago.

I had been editing the demonstration tracks for the “Music and Audio: A User Guide To Better Sound” at the close of Friday. When I opened the door to my office on Saturday morning, I smelled a very familiar odor — the smell of burned electronic components. It was quite strong but I didn’t notice any obvious problems until I returned to my Vaio to continue editing. The machine was dead.

After disconnecting all of the external connections, I pulled the case off of the machine and was shocked to see the DVD-ROM drive and power supply severely burned. Take a look at the image at the top of this article — this is not a simply fried cable or two. The whole unit was toast.

And the inside of the computer case showed a large amount of burning as well. There was a major flame up inside of the computer. Something must have shorted out inside the DVD-ROM drive and the dust inside the unit accelerated a brief fire. Thankfully, there damage was contained inside of the computer. But I shutter to think how close I came to losing the whole place.

So I turn off all of my computers when I leave the office now. The audio equipment (amplifiers, console, outboard processors, and interfaces) all stay on, but the computers get rebooted every morning. I thought you might like to know. Fire inside of computer or electronic component can happen — it happened to me.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

24 thoughts on “Burning Down The House (Studio!)

  • Chris Wright

    In truth, this sort of thing can happen to any of us at any time and, I would suspect, occurrences of this kind are very random. Nonetheless this is why I never leave my PC’s or audio equipment on 24/7, although I don’t want that to sound either clever or as if it can’t happen to me, because it absolutely can, regardless of what one does. That said, I do think that leaving gear on for years without switching it off takes you much further into the operational lifespan of equipment, thereby increasing the chances of such an unfortunate incident. Just a thought really.

    You will probably never have such a problem again Mark, even if you still left your stuff on all the time. I see it as bad luck, but thankfully in this instance the collateral damage seems to have been pretty minimal.

  • George Graves

    Do your computers not have the facility to automatically boot up and shut down at the times you specify? I know that your Mac does, and I’d be surprised if your Win-boxes didn’t. I’ll use myself as an example. I usually get to my office at around 9:00 am each day. So I have my Macs set up (in OSX Preferances) to turn themselves on at 8:30 am. Therefore when I walk in the door a half hour later, the computers are up and running. At the end of the day, at 6:30 pm, they shut themselves off. One can even program them to not turn themselves on at all on weekends, I believe, but since I use my computers every day, I’ve never tried that, so I’m not 100% sure of that last comment. If you like everything up and running when you get to work in the morning, try programming you computers to auto boot and auto shut down at the times that correspond to your work schedule

    • I may have to think up a way forward…but it’s hard after so many decades to get everyone in the building to shut down their systems. There’s a lot of gear in this place.

  • Larry Hicks

    Any piece of electronic equipment connected to a power source and switched on—not just PC components—can spontaneously erupt in flames. If you’re shutting off your computers to protect against fire, then leaving powered up amplifiers, console, outboard processors, etc., is underkill. You might think about getting an inert gas fire suppression system installed that also disconnects power to the room, studio, or facility when triggered.

  • Gregory Holmberg

    Just suspend or hibernate the computers. They’ll use little (suspend) or no (hibernate) power, and you can start where you left off. Resume is much faster than boot.

    Also, from time to time, open them up and blow the dust out with an air compressor.

  • Rodrian Roadeye

    I had an HP Slimline start smoking during use after two years. Dust inside had evidently started to smolder. It really needed a cleaning which I had been reluctant to do. I was home when this happened and like many left my equipment on 24/7. No more. Regular cleaning is a must.

  • Ronaldo Franchini

    A similar tragedy happened with a friend in Rio de Janeiro city, some years ago. He forgot his laptop turned on over the bed and went out to walk. When he returned his apartment was in flames and the firefighters had a hard time to put out the fire. He lost everything in the house and had to sell the apartment totally ruined. So, remember, never let a laptop with the vents closed when it is turned on, it is very dangerous! The best is when you go out or go to sleep, please turn it off.

  • Holy Cow Mark, Never seen one do that before!
    Thank goodness the Lord was on your side and that didn’t spread to something much worse.
    My first wife and myself had the whole building burn down our first appartment was in around 1973, scary stuff that. And a good reminder to us all to shut down any unnessacary electronics when we go away, you just never know, beside it saving us money on our power bill.

  • Dave Griffin

    Fires caused by computers being left on are more common than you think. I can remember back to my student days and some undergrads sharing a house, which subsequently burned down due to a fire started by a computer being left on – they were lucky to escape with their lives.

    I Never leave electrical or electronic equipment left on if I can help it.

  • Happened to a friend of mine. But his studio did mostly burn down. Dog hair in the hard drive was the culprit. I wonder if in your case it was the dust from the construction?

  • Marc Warden

    Seems like everything should be powered down and disconnected from the mains when not in use – if only to protect against lightning bolts and other unexpected power surges. What makes you think dust and electronics affect only computer components?

  • Alfredo F Martel

    Very glad it was not much worse. Truth be told, first thing I thought was that it had not been an accident. Doubly glad I was wrong there.
    Keep up yor very good work, thank you for your effort in educating “audiophiles”.

  • Frank Van Alstine

    And you still plan on leaving your audio equipment on all the time?

    Any electrical equipment can fail and when (not if) that happens and you are not around, a small fault can cook itself into a major calamity as happened to your disk drive.

    The concept that audio equipment needs to be on all the time to sound good is just more audiophlake BS.

    As long as you see the wisdom of shutting off your computers when you are gone, please apply that to your audio equipement too.

    • It would be very difficult to get everyone in the entire building to shut down all of their equipment. There are people that remote into their machines and work from home. There are hundreds of pieces of gear in the 9 studios that exist in the space. I may look into some fire supression technologies.

  • craig allison

    Glad disaster was avoided.

  • Mark,
    What a horrific thing to have happen! It could have been so much worse as you said. I’m very glad it wasn’t! My general mistrust of everything man made forces me to unplug electronic devices, shutting off water supplies for toilets & washing machines etc. whenever going away for awhile. My high fear of lightning I believe to be reasonable – my grandfather struck twice, my father once-its not genetic, but I’m not chancing it either! Florida living brings some extra tasks during the nine months of summer with violent lightning storms most afternoons. The tasks are just unplugging all audio and video equipment, music equipment, computers, wired networks and anything else I value highly. I also disconnect all coaxial cables to the equipment, by far the most popular route of destruction in my experience. Surge protection for lightning is almost as reliable as unsinkable cruise ships navigating amongst icebergs…

    • That’s amazing Bruce…lightning must like your family! Thankfully we don’t have much lightning here.

  • Cormac Long

    firstly, I’m very sorry to hear about the incident and thankfully it was not something much much worse.

    In all my years in IT-related telco work, I had never heard of a fire on such a device. A few burn outs in PSUs for sure and the occasional I/O card or CPU burn out. Once I read your post, a bit of Googlage showed that it does happen, albeit quite rarely. There seems to be some relation between these optical drive fires where the fire starts at the SATA power connector into the drive. Some suggest its a short in the connectors/cable that triggers this. The SATA socket is not a flimsy connector so I have some doubts on the cable/connector. But I suppose it could also be common circuitry next or near the power sockets on these drives.

    Another example here..

    On a lighter note, when I first read the post, a little voice in my head said that maybe it was just the cable finally burning in after all those years 🙂

  • Patrick J Sandham

    Best advice – good fire insurance. It can happen to anyone at any time. Glad it was a minor incident, at least physically.

    • Thankfully, we have everything covered but I shudder to think about all of the gear, microphones, and stuff that’s in the building.

  • Wow. That was a close shave, Mark. I suspect that a seasoned engineer such as yourself has all of his audio and other files backed up somewhere off site? keep up with the good work re. Music and Audio book and associated files.

    • I have most of my important files on a remote server…but not everything. I do have multiple copies of the book assets.

  • Robert Werner

    I think you need two numbers… the one on your receipt and the one for your attorney. Is this the first of an “air bag” problem???? (;-)

    • From what I’ve been able to figure out, this is a very rare situation. The VAIO computer with the drive is at least 7 years old. What has changed is my standard operating procedure…I turn everything off now at the end of my day.


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