Type and Usage of Important Studio Cables

por Rafa

Hi ! This is Rafa Monteiro, from Montpellier, France. This is an assignment for lesson for week 1 of “Introduction To Music Production” at Coursera.org. Today, I would like to talk to you about cables.

Once a professor taught me an important lesson regarding the importance of cables. It happened during a recording workshop at college, in which the students would play and record stuff to mix later. It was one of my first experiences in recording music.

She told me that “you will have the sound of your weakest link”, meaning that the lowest quality piece of gear that I had would have the bigger impact in the quality (or loss of quality) of my recording.

Usually, that piece is the cable, the most overlooked piece of equipment. Not only because it is usually the most common piece of gear used (you will need at least one cable for each device you need to connect), but usually they are the most worn and battered part of the equipment. All that plugging unplugging (not to mention other forms of damage it takes, like people stepping on it) have its toll.

Many people spend a lot of money on expensive DAWs and Audio interfaces and forget about the cables. Purchasing the cheapest ones might not be good, since it’s a higher chance that they won’t sound that good. It would be better if mones was spent in an overall average set than an expensive ones with poor quality cables, that might compromise the signal flow.

That said, it’s also very important to treat the cables with the same care that the other pieces of equipment are treated. They deserve it.

There are many kinds of cables avaiable in the market (just google “professional audio cable” and check it out), but only a few that are really important, at least for us who are making the first steps in the world of audio recording.

They are :

XLR – this is the cable that is mostly used to plug microphones, and that’s why they are also called “Mic cables”. It is a balanced one, meaning that it has two wires in wich the signal is sent, and a ground metallic lattice for the ground. This allows the cable to resist interference and noise, allowing its use for longer lenghts.

TS or ¼ inch cable – this is the classic instrument cable. Guitars, Basses and Keyboards are usually plugged with this one. It is unbalanced (it has a positive wire and the ground lattice only), making it vulnerable to intereference and noise. Preferably, it’s best not to use anything longer than 3 meters (or 10 feet) long. The shortest, the better.

There are two kinds of TS cables : Mono (the regular ones, with only one black mark in the jack) and Stereo (with two black marks in the jack, near the tip). The first one is used most of the time, since the signal produced by instruments is usually Mono. But there are a few situation in which you will need a stereo TS cable.

TRS cable – it looks like a smaller version of the TS cable, more thin with smaller plugs. They have the same plug used in home earphones and earbuds. They work exactly the same way as the TS, and it’s mostly used to plug home devices into the DAW.

RCA – remember those old cables that used to connect your TV and a VRC or DVD player ? Well, they are still used in studios, for the very same purpose – plug home appliances into the interface.

MIDI – some MIDI equipment (specially onder gear) use this kind of cable of 5 pins inside a jacket. It’s used to send MIDI (Music Information Digital Interface) information back and forth from a controller to a DAW or synthethizer.

It’s still worth to keep one, but more and more they are being substituted by…

USB/Firewire cables – These are used mostly to connect the DAW to the interface. They only transmit digital data, instead of audio signal. But more and more, they are being used for other purposes, like the USB being used to connect Keyboards or Pedalboards to the DAW.

For a small home studio, in order to start making simple recordings of their voice and instrument, a pair of good quality XLR cables and a couple of not so long TS cables will do.

The audio interfaces usually come with their own cable, so, you won’t need to purchase one just to plug it in the DAW. But, since USB appliances are very common nowadays (and not that expensive), having an extra pair of USBs won’t hurt.

If you are a guitar or bass player, I would also suggest considering to purchase a good quality Direct Box, to help with the connections. They aren’t expensive and will be useful in a lot of situations, like monitoring the recorded audio.

Last, but not least, it’s never enough to ask you that you treat your cables with care. If you do, they will last for many years.