The thing about wires that I despise the most isn’t the mess. It’s not the tangles, the continual setup and teardown, the winding down, or the storage. It’s not as if you’re tripping over them.
No, the thing I despise about wires is that they are an absolute requirement when it comes to establishing a music studio. These vexing, snake-like creatures sit smugly knowing that no matter how badly you want to throw them into a fire and never see them again, you can’t.
I see a scenario where Bluetooth — or a similar technology — is powerful enough to connect instruments, electronics, and computers without latency, dropouts, or a loss of audio clarity. But for the time being, I’ll have to hold my tongue and wait…
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF CABLES?
Illustration of Audio Cables
In all seriousness, despite their occasional (well, I mean frequent) inconvenience, I am appreciative for the services that cables give. Without them, recording music would be a much more difficult and low-fidelity procedure than it is now.
Audio interfaces have made it possible for even the most inexperienced person to become a professional bedroom producer and sound engineer; without them, we’d still be cutting up reels and sticking them back together.
This isn’t even taking into account the fact that electric guitars wouldn’t connect to amps, a lot of external hardware (pre-amps, delays, pedals, etc.) wouldn’t work, and computers wouldn’t exist.
WHAT ARE CABLES IN REAL LIFE? WHERE DO THEY COME FROM AND HOW DO THEY WORK?
ANALOG VS. DIGITAL
Audio Cables: Digital vs. Analog
Analog and digital cables are the two basic types of cables.
Analog cables transmit data from one location to another by a stream of electricity (an electrical signal).
Digital cables carry data from one location to another via a stream of binary code (1s and 0s).
Analog cables are usually the stars of the show in your music studio. Nonetheless, this article will discuss a few digital cables that are frequently required in the same way that a standard instrument cable is (MIDI, USB, Thunderbolt, Firewire, Optical, etc.).
However, there are two more factors to consider when categorising analogue cables: balanced vs. unbalanced, and the level at which the signal is conveyed.
INSTRUMENT LEVEL VS. MICROPHONE LEVEL
There are three levels of signal that are transmitted by a cable, as detailed in earlier articles:
Mic volume vs. line volume vs. instrument volume
The most common level utilised by professional audio equipment is line level.
When keyboards/synths/digital pianos are recorded in a signal chain, they are often output at line level.
Instrument level (also known as Hi-Z) refers to the direct level of guitars and basses communicated over an instrument wire before being transformed to line level by an audio interface or DI box.
Some audio interfaces provide a switch that enables you change the correct gain for each signal level (e.g. line, inst/Hi-Z) using the same input jack.
Mic level is the smallest of the three — the level generated by a microphone, which is then enhanced by a preamp to achieve line level.
EQUALLY BALANCED VS. UNEQUALLY BALANCED
Audio: Balanced vs. Unbalanced
Balanced cables are intended to be free of interference, such as that caused by radio transmissions, nearby signal broadcasts, and other external noise.
Unbalanced cables aren’t, which means they’re less suited to the quiet, clean signals needed for music listening on monitors, for example.
However, because most instruments (such as electric guitars and keyboards) have unbalanced outputs, using a balanced connection with them would be redundant – the end result would be the same.
By looking at what’s written next to the connector or consulting the owner’s handbook, you can typically determine if the outputs/inputs are balanced or unbalanced.
All three aspects of a balanced audio signal must be balanced: output, input, and cable.
When a balanced output is connected to an unbalanced input or via an unbalanced connection, the audio stream loses noise protection and becomes unbalanced.
However, if all you had were balanced cables, you wouldn’t be able to record or listen to music because they can still transport this signal perfectly well – the only difficulty would be the price difference between a balanced and unbalanced cable.
You can use a DI box (direct injection) to convert the unbalanced signal to one that is more suitable for recording/input into a preamp/mixer, etc. if you encounter an issue using a TS cable (which is unbalanced) with a guitar; be it clipping, extreme noise (as is common at long cable distances, generally over 15ft), etc.
ProDI Box Radial
1-channel Direct Box Radial ProDI
Essentially, you can turn a noisy instrument or line level signal into a balanced signal that can be plugged into the microphone input of your interface (XLR).
Because unbalanced cables are less shielded from signal transmissions than balanced cables, they struggle at longer cable lengths. The longer they are, the more likely they are to pick up distortion.
Balanced cables, on the other hand, aren’t always required for high-quality audio in a variety of applications. Connecting a pair of headphones to a phone’s headphone output, for example, will result in an unbalanced connection but not crackling or reduced audio fidelity.
Unless your headphone cable stretches all the way to Mercury…
Length of Guitar Cable
Furthermore, because the signal sent to headphones has already been increased, external interference will be minimal, as opposed to running a microphone level signal that is then amplified to line level (with all the distortions that the cable picked up along the way).
In general, balanced cables are mono, which means you’ll need two signals to create a stereo sound. However, there are a few exceptions, such as a five-pin XLR cable, which can transmit a stereo, balanced signal with just one connection.
I won’t go into any more detail about this wire because it’s quite improbable that you’d ever come across it on a hobbyist, bedroom level.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF CABLES
Types of Audio Cables
I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of each cable. I’ll give you a general overview, as well as the various shapes and applications that each cable can serve, and that’ll be it.
This post would be around 40 thousand words long and more dull than insert your least favourite record here if I went into great detail on the functions, mechanics, and prospective uses of each unique wire on the music industry.
In addition, unless it is extremely relevant, I will refrain from mentioning and discussing every single converter/adapter accessible.
Most notable and functional cable heads can be converted to another (e.g. 1/4′′ TRS to 1/8′′ TRS or RCA to TRS, etc.). This includes utensils such as splitters and power packs.
OVERVIEW OF THE TRS
Overview of TRS Cables
TRS (balanced) cables are available in a variety of diameters, ranging from 1/4” (6.35 mm) to 3/32”. (2.5 mm). Due to their scarcity in music studios, I will not cover the latter.
While 1/8″ jacks are commonly found in consumer-grade products such as smart phones and headphones, 1/4″ jacks are more commonly seen in studios, both are fundamentally the same type of wire – TRS.
While the only difference between these cables is their size, different sized jacks will often have distinct applications, which I will discuss further below.
CABLE TRS 1/4″
1/4 TRS Adapter
Balanced audio equipment (e.g., connecting a mixer’s Outs to a speaker’s Ins or wiring your audio interface’s mono Outs to the mono Ins of studio monitors), other studio applications where the connection must be longer than approx. Unbalanced stereo signals of 10–15 feet (if a 1/4′′ jack is required).
TRS cables are extremely identical to TS cables, with the exception of an extra ring on the jack. These balanced (mono-only) cables reduce noise while sending a signal between two sites.
TRS 1/4 Input
Their name comes from the fact that they are made up of a tip, ring, and sleeve. When working with balanced things like studio monitors, these are important in professional studios.
It’s worth noting that TRS jacks may transmit both unbalanced stereo signals (such as connecting headphones to a headphone amp/output) and balanced mono signals, regardless of cable length.
They won’t collapse if you use them with an unbalanced mono output (such as a guitar), but the signal will be unbalanced.
CABLE TRS 1/8″
TRS 1/8 Cable
Auxiliary inputs and extenders, headphone outputs, listening to mixes in the car, carrying unbalanced stereo signals are all common uses (e.g. your phone to your car).
This wire, also known as the ‘aux,’ is frequently utilised by obnoxious your loved pals in the car to play horrible great tracks from their phone. These wires, despite their status as a bit of a meme, are a really valuable tool for any home studio.
One of these cables (typically accompanied with a 1/8” to 1/4” jack adaptor) is used to connect many headphones, which is its most obvious purpose.
Unless you’re a madman (or… a creative genius? ), you’ll be using headphones to avoid bleed and background noise, which is their most obvious application.
a pair of headphones
Because many headphones use 1/8″ wires, a 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter is required to connect them to most audio interfaces or headphone amplifiers.
Furthermore, if you have a larger space, a 1/8″ TRS female to male extender cable may be required so that your headphones can be utilised in all corners of the room.
The same principle applies to anything else that uses a ‘aux’ connection, such as certain speakers, and so on.