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Everything
you were afraid to ask
about Cables

for your home or project recording studio

 

by Tweak
 
 

More Cables:

Instrument

Analog Audio

Microphone

Digital Audio

MIDI

Speaker Cables

Adapters

Patchbays

Snakes

One of Tweak's jungles of cables, in fact, one of the more orderly ones.

 

Putting together a home studio requires a mind that can visualize, in a second, the signal flow of the entire studio from every remote piece though interfaces, patch bays, mixers, your computer and then the seemingly thousands of virtual cables and switches inside each computer application.  To become the master of your recording studio, whether it is large or small, you must always know where your signal is and know how to get it where you need it (to your recorder, most of the time).  We connect signals to pieces of gear with cables. To maintain the integrity of the signal, we need to understand which cables to use to connect our gear.  This page is designed to answer all the cable issues a home or project studio is likely to confront and get you past the common misunderstandings newbies have.

The glossy ads in the trade magazines always show gear in it's ideal pristine state, shiny, new, and never with cables connected.  Perhaps this is a psychological point, to make the prospective buyer get a sense of how nice it would be to have this box sitting there.  In the real world, however, there are a tangle of issues for installing almost anything.  Most of these entanglements are cable related. With each piece you buy, the living sea of cables behind tables and racks get denser and more knotty clusters develop, making the act of even tracing a cable from origin to destination a matter of great intricacy.
 

The more cables you have the harder they are to control.  You think, "oh, I need a patchbay" to control them all.  But the patchbay itself will generate even more cables.  Then you think, I got it, I'll use cable ties.  But these lead to problems of making sure all the cables have the right length, which again leads to buying more cables to get all the lengths even.  You might refrain from getting more gear so as not to upset the fine cable job you did.

 

A little story: Large Rig Blues

You buy a midi module to add some sounds.  As soon as it's out of the box, you go digging for cables and a place to put it.  Lets see, oh shoot, my MIDI interface is maxed out, now I have to go through a MIDI thru.  You look and the closest usable thru is 12 feet away and you have one MIDI cable left and its 8 feet long. 

But! You have a 15 footer somewhere else where it only need 6 feet and you decide, let's swap them out.  But as you peer behind your midi interfaces the cables are so tightly packed, flowing over and under each other... you can't read the numbers on the back.  You pull out 3 cables only to realize you disconnected the ins when you were looking for an out.

You find the 12 footer at last, but can't pull it out unless you remove 6 adjacent cables.  Trouble.  Now you have 9 cables out and you know you this is going to take a while and yep, at 5am there you are troubleshooting the MIDI interface, trying to get your sequencer working again. 

Moral of the story:  Use different colored cables, never unplug more than one cable at a time, unless you label it. If you have a choice between buying short or long cables, going longer may help you out if you have to move the gear farther away someday, but will make more of a mess.  

Of course, when you purchased your new MIDI module you were not thinking whether you had any mixer channels open.  Who has mixer channels going unused?  No one.  But that's another problem.  Patch bay city here we come.

Common Analog Cables

   

The XLR cable (3 prong)  This is a common microphone cable.  May also be used as a  line level cable for gear that has balanced ins and outs.These cables can go long distances, even to another room if required

.

The TRS "Tip-ring-sleeve" cable (2-conductor plus ground)  This is a cable for balanced signals just like the XLR above, it just has different connectors.  Note that TRS cables are typically used for mono, not stereo, signals in most studio gear.  The exception being the headphone jack.

CBI makes a nice 20 gauge TRS cable (below) and a less expensive 24 gauge.  large product imageLike the XLR these cables can go long distances, even to another room if required.


CBI 16 X 4 Audio Snake with Neutrik Connectors

The TS "Tip-sleeve" cable
 
(2 conductor "phone jack") This cable is for unbalanced signals.  These cables should be kept as short as possible.  Keep them under 12 feet and away from power transformers (wall warts) or they may pick up dreaded hum and ruin your audio signal.Lovely Item!

The RCA Cable ("home stereo" cable) Because each cable in the RCA pair (as shown below) only has 1 conductor plus ground, it is for unbalanced signals, just like the TS cable above.  Keep them as short as possible. 

 

CBI 8-Channel TRS to TRS Snake

Tweak: I recommend these with no hesitation.  Great for 8x8 audio interfaces

 

The Insert Cable  (TRS to mono "Y" cable).  Insert jacks on mixers are not balanced.  Basically, on the TRS end, it carries both the input and the output of the mixer channel with a common ground.  These cables allow you to insert a device in the channel's path, like a compressor or EQ or to carry the signal to a patchbay where devices can be conveniently patched in. 

Keep them as short as possible.

A variation on this is the Soundcard 1/8" stereo plug to dual RCA.  Its very helpful with consumer grade soundcards and some laptops. Keep them as short as possible. 

 

 

What is a Snake?  A snake is a bunch of cables bundled together in one casing.  This helps keep the cable jungle a little more under control by only having one thick cable to step on or trip over, rather than 8 or 16.  High quality snakes for XLR cables are expensive and include a "stage box" where the mics and other instruments are connected. Multi track snakes can be found in many types from TRS to TRS, to TS to TS, RCA to TS, and TRS to TS (an insert snake).  These come in varying qualities.  One problem with inexpensive snakes is that one of the 8 cables may go bad and you are stuck with loose ends hanging out.  I really like the CBI snakes for wiring mixers to audio interfaces

You can also roll your own if you are good with a soldering iron

Insert to direct out cable.  Sometimes we want to use the inserts on our mixer as a direct out and only take the signal going out of the channel and not return a signal to it (like when we want to connect a soundcard to the mixer).  You can do the old trick of sticking in a TS cable halfway (to the first click) or get one of these.

 

The Elco Cable (56 pin connector to 16 TRS) For professional multi-track recorders

 

 

What is a combo jack?

Note that the combo jack allows you to connect either XLR -or- 1/4" cables.  (The 1/4" connection might either be HiZ (high impedance, i.e., "instrument level" like guitar or "line level" like keyboards, tape decks, external processors, etc.)

Lovely Item!

How do I connect a Patchbay?

Here's the standard normal procedure.  Connect an insert cable in the insert jack of the mixer. The output of the Mixer goes in the bottom rear of the bay and goes out the top rear of the bay back to the Mixer.  If nothing is connected to the front jacks of the patchbay, this signal will just pass through and back.  To take the output of the channel from the front of the bay, you insert a cable in the bottom front jack.  To patch another signal into the mixer to replace the existing signal, you patch a cable into the upper front jack.

Most Dangerous Cable.  TS to Dual TS. Never use this to connect 2 sources to 1 input. You can use it to split 1 output to two outputs.

What is an XLR jack?

  XLR jack

What is a 1/4 " Line Input

 line input

What is an RCA line input?

rca

Common Digital Cables
Stereo (2 channel) digital cables

 

A: These are all different methods of sending 2-channel (stereo) digital audio data down a cable to another device.  Note, this is DATA, not an analog signal.  The data bypasses all analog circuitry to make the perfect clone of the original data. AES/EBU requires a cable with microphone (XLR) connectors.  This method is used a lot with pro gear.  Common lengths for these pathways is from 3-15 feet. Can you use a Mic cable as an AES/EBU cable?  We are advised not to.  If you are in a jam, video-rated cable may work.
 

S/PDIF: (Stands for the Sony/Phillips Digital Interface) There are two types: Coaxial and Optical. So when some says they are connecting via S/PDIF, you should then ask, Coax or Optical?  Coaxial requires a cable with RCA connectors. They look just like common "home stereo" connectors.

DRA-500 SERIES
In fact, sometimes you can get a high quality stereo cable to work if the run is short. The limit on length is 6 meters or 19.8 feet which is fine for the home studio. 
 

Optical is another flavor of S/PDIF and  has the square connectors called TOSLINK connectors.  These are also known as ADAT lightpipe cables and Fiber Optic Cables

  

 

Multi-Channel Digital Cables

   
The three main methods of multi-channel digital audio transfer are Roland's R-BUS,  Tascam's TDIF or Alesis ADAT Optical.  They differ from S/PDIF and AES/EBU because they send 8 channels instead of two channels.  ADAT is now common on audio interfaces, digital mixers and mic preamps. TDIF and RBUS are used in Tascam and Roland products respectively.

Hosa DBK-303 TDIF CableTDIF and RBUS Cables

 R-BUS and TDIF cables look the same; both use a 25 pin connector, just like a large serial port cable. 

 
ADAT "light pipe" uses TOSLINK (optical) cables, the same cable as optical s/pdif. (Confusing, yes! but I assure you it is true).  But, again, when connected to ADAT i/o these carry 8 channels of digital audio. ADAT is a wonderful thing.  Get comfortable with it.  I  Hosa Fiber Optic Cable
     

Sync Cables

   

ADAT Sync.  This is a 9 pin D-sub cable that look like a small serial cable connector.  It sends MTC (MIDI Time Code) and other synchronization signals.  Note: Many devices can send and receive MTC on MIDI cables.

 

Word Clock Cables.  These are 75 OHM cables (like TV cable) but have the "press and twist" BNC connector which you may have seen on the back of older computer monitors. 

Hosa BNC 75-Ohm Male to Male Word Clock Cable
 If you are using two audio interfaces word clock keeps them in sync. 

Word Clock T adapter.  Helps you extend the word clock sync signal to more than 1 device

     

Computer Interface Cables

   

USB (Universal Serial Bus)  cables connect MIDI interfaces and some audio interfaces as well. 

 

 


Firewire cables are increasingly being used to connect audio interfaces as well as Camcorders and digital video equipment. 

SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) Cables come in many types.  Samplers by E-Mu use the "old" 50 pin Centronic connectors.  Don't confuse these with the 50 pin "half pitch" SCSI III connectors which are smaller.  CMT-200 SERIES

 

Inside the computer or sampler you will typically find 50 pin internal SCSI cable

Other SCSI devices may use the DB25 "Mac" connector which looks identical from the outside to a 25 pin serial cable.  These are also called SCSI II connectors.  CMT-300 SERIES

 

scsi 3 db68

 

There are also DB68 pin SCSI III connectors.  These have 68 pins and are common on SCSI hard drives and SCSI cards. So what if you have a DB50 SCSI connector on your card and need to connect a 50 pin Centronics connector?  You got it, SCSI adpater City, here you come.

The MIDI Cable (5 pin DIN cable)

All Hosa MIDI cables feature precision-molded terminations for a tight, positive fit. All 5 pins are discretely (individually) wired, with one conductor forming the high-density spiral shield.  Length under 50 feet is not an issue

Hosa Standard MIDI Cable (Black)

     

Common Adapters

   

 CBI RCA Female To 1/4-inch Male Connector

   CBI 1/4-inch Female To RCA Male Connector
This adapter features a 2-conductor 1/4 in. female to RCA male. 

Tweak:  The world's most useful adapters

 

Hosa Coupler - 2 Pieces (Female RCA to Female RCA)  Tweak: The budget studio's friend.  Heh, I used to use 3 of these to make a long cable.  (Not recommended for critical uses.)

 

CBI XLR Female To 1/4-inch TRS Male Connector 

 

 

CBI XLR Male To 1/4-inch TRS Male Connector

Tweak: with both of the above you can use an XLR mic cable as a balanced TRS line level cable

 

Behringer CT100 Cable Tester The intelligent, CPU-controlled CT100 accepts virtually any connector type: XLR, mono and TRS phone (1/4 in., 1/8 in., TT), RCA and MIDI. It shows which input pin is connected to which output pin. Separate LEDs indicate proper shield connection and phantom power presence. The CT100 also offers an installed cable test mode and a continuity check plus a test tone generator.



Behringer PX2000 Ultrapatch Pro Behringer's Ultrapatch Pro PX2000 is a brilliantly conceived patchbay that enables you to get your studio or rehearsal room connections organized and get you one step closer to the effective, professional working method you crave. Whether for a complex studio matrix or a modest patching solution for smaller setups, the Ultrapatch Pro is an investment you'll never regret.







The MIDISport Uno is a 1x1 MIDI interface that is totally portable, hot-swappable, and powered completely by your computer's USB port. Drivers support all Windows operating systems 98SE and higher, as well as Macintosh OS 9 and Mac OS X.  M-Audio MIDISport UNO 1x1 MIDI Interface with Cables and Connectors




 
Warped Tweak 2--collect them all 

Everything you wanted to know about cables

Q) What is the difference between balanced and unbalanced connections?

A)TS--tip and sleeve (1 conductor plus ground) is for unbalanced signals.
TRS--tip ring sleeve (2 conductor plus ground) is for balanced signals.  With balanced cables, you can travel longer distances without picking up hum or noise...

Note: It is the signal that is unbalanced or not.  Using a TRS or XLR cable does not make an unbalanced signal balanced.  However, if you use a TS (or RCA cable with adapters) on balanced signal, the signal will become unbalanced.  Keep in mind that both the source and destination gear must pass balanced signals and you must use TRS or XLR cables to maintain the balanced connection. 

 

 

Ok, many of you are still in trouble.  Let me spell it out.

Balanced gear
|
TRS or XLR cable
|
balanced gear
= balanced connection

 

Balanced gear
|
TRS or XLR cable
|
unbalanced gear

= unbalanced connection

 

Balanced gear
|
TS or RCA cable

|
balanced gear
= unbalanced connection

 

unbalanced gear
|
TRS or XLR cable
|
unbalanced gear
= unbalanced connection

Q) Can you plug an unbalanced TS plug into a balanced TRS jack

 A) Yes.  In most cases there is no problem with doing so. If the manufacturer says you can use unbalanced or balanced it is fine.

Q) Does that make the unbalanced gear balanced

A) No. All three connectors must be solid to realize the benefits of a balanced line signal.

 

Q) How can I make my unbalanced synth Balanced? 

A) With a direct box, or line level shifter, the unbalanced signal is converted to a balanced signal.

 

Q) Can you use an XLR to TRS cable and keep a balanced signal path?

A) Yes.  The gear can't tell.

Q) Can I use an XLR Mic cable as a balanced instrument cable with TRS adapters?

A) Yes.  It is done all the time in pro studios and on stage.

Q) Are "Guitar cables" the same as "instrument" cables? 

A) Yes.  Both are TS cables. 

 

Q) Can I connect my XLR mic to my soundblaster 1/8" phone jack?

A) Yes, you can make it happen with adapters, but you will defeat the balanced signal.  The Mic will likely hum and sound like garbage.

 

 

Q) Is a headphone balanced?

 A) No, it uses a TRS cable but in a different way.  A balanced audio signal only carries one mono channel of audio.  A headphone jack carries 2 signals for stereo and both these signals are unbalanced.  Make sure you get this straight as it is perhaps the most embarrassing way to show off your noob-ness.

Q) Can I connect my turntable to the RCA tape in jacks on my Mixer? 

A) No.  The turntable is a very weak signal that needs a preamp and a ground. 

 

Q) Can I connect my line level tape deck outputs to the instrument level HiZ jacks on my audio interface?

A) Usually Yes.  Turn down the trims as low as you can.  If there is no variable trim knob (like on ultra cheap gear) then the tape deck might be too hot.

Q) Is it wise to run two signals to a single jack on my mixer with a "Y" cable?

A) No. You risk adding noise and hum and the gear does not like it.  You might even damage your gear.  Its a rule: Never force two outputs into an input (that is why we use mixers).

Q) Are plastic molded plugs worse than those with metal housings ? 

A) Yes.  You can't repair those with plastic moldings.  With good quality metal housings you can re-solder the leads when they break, and cables nearly always break near the plug or where the strain relief is.

Q) Ok then, Can I split the output of a device with a Y cable to go to two destinations. 

A) Yes. That is fine.  A common use of this is to split a mono effects send to go to both the left and right input of an effects box.

 

Q) Can you use a TRS to TRS cable with 1/8" (headphone) adapters and connect a stereo soundcard output to a stereo mini disc input?

A) Yes.  No problem

 

 

Q) Can I use an RCA cable as a digital s/pdif coax cable. 

A) If it is well shielded, it might work. With a cheap cable, the data may get garbled and your computer will send up alert boxes saying "unknown format", or "wrong sample rate", or something unintelligible.  Ideally these digital cables have 75ohm cable in them (like your TV cable). You could make one out of extra TV cable you have laying around.

 

Q) Can I use a DB25 serial cable as a SCSI cable?

A)  I've done it.  However, some db25 do not have all 25 pins connected.  These won't work. Also, premium SCSI cables have special shielding (which is why they are so thick) and a limit on length.  So if you use a 25 foot DB25 modem cable you are asking for big trouble. 

 

 

 

Q) Can you hear the difference between quality analog cables and cheap ones.

A) Yes.  When the cheap ones break.

 

Q) Do you think cable ties are a good idea?

A) Makes things neater and might let you vacuum more often, but is also harder to rip apart when one cable goes bad or needs to move.

Q) Is the ADAT toslink connector the same as a s/pdif toslink connector?

A)  Yes.  The same cable may be used too.

 

 

 

Q) Is it true that ADAT cannot handle sample rates over 48kHZ?

A)  For 8 channel transmission, yes, but manufacturers use two methods to work around this.  The ADAT lightpipe cable has a limit to much data can be transmitted through it.  Audio interface makers often solve this problem by only letting you use only 4 of the 8 inputs and outputs at the 96kHz rate.  The newer alternative that is appearing is to add additional ADAT ports to split the load.  This are often called the "dual SMUX" protocol.

Q) is there an adapter for ADAT cables that can give you 8 separate digital outputs?

A) Not inexpensively.  There is no common adapter for this task. A conversion boxes exist for this task but they are quite expensive.

 

Q) Are there RBUS, TDIF and ADAT adapters that allow you to go from one format to another?

A) As above, there are no adapters for this task.  However, there are conversion boxes for RBUS to ADAT and some audio interfaces can convert ADAT to TDIF and vice versa, like the MOTU 2408.

 

Q) OK then, is an ADAT LightPipe the same as an ADAT cable the same as a home theater "optical" audio cable with toslink connectors?

A)  Yes.  All three terms refer to the same cable.  That is a Fiber Optic cable with toslink connectors.  ADAT cable and LightPipe mean the same thing.  Note that there is also an ADAT SYNC cable which should not be confused with the above.  The sync cable is used when you connect up two or more ADAT recorders.

 

 

 

Q) I am thinking if I buy super high quality MIDI cables, my audio tracks will sound better, Any ideas?

A) Argh.  You need to go here again.  Dude, get it straight.

 

OK class, someone got it wrong so stand up and

Lets all Sing:

Audio.... does... not.... go .....down.... a.... MIDI..... cable

It..ne-ver...does

It ne--ver did

It ..ne--ver...will...

Lol

 

Many cable questions and answers are in the studio central forums.  Search the forums  Or enter the Studio accessories and Cables Forum

 

 

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Go to the Previous Class

 

Cool Links:

Soldering and making you own cables by James at www.music-in-your-ears.com

Tutorials on Cable Building and LOTS more at Shavano Music Online

 

Tweak's Articles on Essential Studio Concepts

Hooking Up Audio
MIDI Basics
The Many Functions of MIDI Data
The Audio Interface
Signal Flow Computer-based Studio
Signal Flow of an MPC Hip Hop Studio
Signal Flow of a MultiTrack Studio
Assembling Your Studio Rig
Studio setup in a Nutshell
5 Hot Tips
Building a Quiet Room
Understanding MIDI Interfaces
The War on Hum
Multiple Video Displays
Latency and how to Deal
Word Clock
TimeCode
Everything About Cables
Digital Audio Converters
Bit Depth and Sample Rate
Studio Monitors
Impedance for Musicicans
How to setup a Patchbay
Room Acoustics Basics
Studio Monitors Price List
Acoustic Products
Catalog of MIDI Interfaces

 

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