Any recording studio will have bags and bags and even cases of different types of audio cables, enabling them to prepare for any situation.
Cables, while sturdy, are like computers and may break down at any time.
I know you have a simple phone-line jack (PL jack or TS) for your instrument and probably know about your XLR male and female connector from your microphone in your home studio.
“If you’re recording music on a acoustic guitar and without a complete medley and an actual studio, you just need your USB cable, one TS jack and your XLR connector to your interface”
However, if you plan to expand, it’s time you learn about cables first.
Analog cables, such as your PL/TS jack and your XLR connectors work by transmitting electricity. This makes it possible for mixers to send phantom power to condenser microphones where applicable.
The magnets in microphones and electric instruments transmit electric pulses that are audio energies captured through vibrations.
Digital cables used in computers transmit open and closed signals, represented by 1 and 0. Every character in the computer, even letters, are strings of these binaries.
Programming languages allow the simplification of these strings for creating programs or making the computer process other functions.
An audio interface allows you to convert your audio signal into digital while preserving the analog signal’s characteristic. This technology had enabled plenty of home studios to begin their audio projects and create professional-level results!
Your audio interface, converting analog to digital sounds, also functions as your recording mixer.
In the old days, the mixer was the audio interface. Mixers directly streamed to signal processors, which connected to tape recorders of the old.
Now, audio interfaces have analog to digital converters processed through USB and shown in the arrange window of your DAW.
Audio interfaces vary from a simple two-channel mixer with a USB connector to your computer to an advanced hardware complete with different ports for specialized cables, which we will discuss later.
Some audio interfaces have their own signal processing chain similar to DAW plug-ins you use for your tracks. These types of audio interfaces also have their own computer processors, enabling you to use DAW plug-ins without overloading your computer CPU.
I know what we discussed aren’t about cables, but it’s great to know the principles and even your audio interface that directly interacts with your cables, microphones and instruments.
Stereo and Mono: There are different connectors and cables that transmit either mono or stereo. In the following guide we will explain the differences and functions of these.
Still, more useful information…
Microphone levels are often balanced. However, they are quite weak because they’re the vibrations of the diaphragm that captures performances. Magnets have to be energized to improve their performance; hence a microphone preamp is essential.
Most microphones can have preamp from mixers. Some manufacturers provide microphones their own power supply for ‘cleaner’ signal processing, meaning less to no distortion. The microphones then reach line level.
Instrument level signals come from pickups of electric instruments such as guitar and bass. These are direct-line signals to be processed by a direct box.
In some occasions, your own audio interface serves as a direct box by providing a line-in specifically designed for direct-recording instruments. It automatically boosts instrument levels to line levels.
Depending on the quality of your audio interface, the instrument signal could be clean or a bit distorted or colored, which could or could not work to your advantage.
Reaching line level signals means ‘cleaning’ certain signals by using different cables. Unclean signals, which bring out certain artifacts from different sources, will also be raised at line level.
The knowledge of different cables is essential because you’ll know when to use noise-canceling cables, when your cable has a rupture introducing certain signals into your microphones or instruments.
Line level artifacts cannot be removed in the post-processing phase, so use only high-quality cables appropriate for the job. Be aware of your signal chain.
Yes, even bad USB cables can introduce line level signals. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Balancing The Unbalanced
Balanced signals: are useful because they cancel noise, reduce artifacts and create a consistent signal.
Unbalanced signals: have varying electric voltages that could affect the final sound of an instrument or vocal performance.
- Acoustic and electric instruments are not designed to possibly have a balanced signal as often as possible. Using a direct box converts the signal to line level that allows you to process them effectively.
- Direct boxes have XLR inputs that allow microphones to enjoy the same features where needed.
“Of course, you could always have preamps to help do this. But during times of improvisation and a lack of gear, you’ll thank me for this tip”
Cinch and Coax: Also known as RCA Jack, you will find these type of connections on hifi systems.
These connectors can transmit audio and video signals.
These types of connectors can still be found in a lot of DJ equipment.
They have always been color coded for ease of use, you might know them already.
- Red = Right audio channel
- White/Black = Left audio channel
- Yellow = Video Signal
- Orange = Digital Coax (Digital RCA transmits Digitized audio)
XLR: are your standard-issue microphone cables and connectors. Also known as Cannon plug back in the days.
They are thicker than instrument cables because they house a positive, negative and ground wire.
These cables cancel out noise by introducing a balanced sound. Better coiled and a bit more expensive than TS and TRS cables, XLR cables are well-suited for live performances.
Because of their ground wires and sturdy build, XLR cables are not just for studio use. Live performances rely heavily on XLR cables even for instruments due to their noise-canceling and signal preserving capabilities.
- Male XLR comes with three pins
- Female XLR comes with three holes
TRS: are more affordable than XLR cables and have no need for special inputs. these connectors often fit into any type of TS input/output.
TRS stands for Tip, Ring and Sleeve, the three parts that make up the cable. TS only has a Tip and Sleeve.
The third point in the TRS connector is a negative signal that opposes the positive signal of the tip, canceling out noises and maintaining a balanced signal. They have three contact points but TS only has two.
Also known as Jack Cables, you can find these in mono and stereo versions. But the mono versions are mainly used in the studio environment. A example of use: Guitars or Monitor speakers.
Warning: When connecting a TRS to your audio interface make sure that you know which source you are connecting. A keyboard, synthesizer or guitar needs a “DI” or a dedicated instrument input. These transformers will then bring the signal back to line level. A synthesizer or equivalent will be using two mono jacks.
- Tip: Positive
- Ring: Negative
- Sleeve: Ground
3.55mm Stereo Jack: These are mainly used for headphone connections. You will find them on laptops, tablets and pc’s. They are stereo transmitters and function the same as there bigger 6.5mm jackplug brother (The TRS).
TS: Tip-Sleeve cables are standard issue for instrument connectors. Typically carrying a mono signal, TS cables are usually cheap to high-quality because they are more affordable than most cables.
However, they are to be used only for instruments. During recording, balanced cables are immensely a must. They only have two contact points.
AES/EBU: This is a professional version of the Coax cable. It transmits digital signals on 24bit with an impedance of 110ohms. It uses an XLR connector and it’s equivalent would be the S/PDIF (read about that later).
“Now we’re done discussing analog signal cables. Moving on, are essential computer and audio interface cables that efficiently convert your analog to digital signals”
Yes, most of these cables do not transmit noise and are made of affordable but high-quality materials. However, the ports in your computer and your audio interface interact differently with each other depending on the type of cable you’re using.
The more special and specific the cable, the more it can transmit and receive signal quickly.
Here’s the digital cable guide.
MIDI Cables: Of course, you knew about this and you’ve been using it to wire together your keyboards and keyboard controllers to each other or to audio interfaces.
MIDI transfers note control voltages to synthesizers, which turn raw digital signals into recognizable musical notes.
The Musical Instrument Digital Interface does not only transmit note CVs but also velocity information, the relative impact of the keyboard to the floor, which helps add dynamics to instruments.
MIDI cables connect to the five-pin slot at the back of your audio interface or even your classic MIDI interface.
USB: is the most basic digital cable that allows your audio interface access to your computer.
However, because of its slow data transfer, it works well for home recording studios which use microphones to record vocals to instruments.
The slow data transfer is essential if you’re recording with virtual studio technology (VST) such as emulated amplifiers.
While useful for transferring information from one data storage medium to another, USB technology functions efficiently for such function alone.
Firewire: is fairly common with expensive interfaces and high-end computers.
It has significantly faster data streaming speeds than USB 2.0 ports. They are often used by high-end, multiple channel and fast-powered interfaces.
Usually, Windows laptops cannot use Firewire as it has no firewire port available. PCs on the other hand could find a card with Firewire ports.
This is essential if you are upgrading to bigger and better hardware for your home studio.
Thunderbolt: Commonly used by Apple and used by the newer, high end interfaces, Thunderbolt pars with PCI processing cards when it comes to speed.
Data transfer and streaming is quick and reliable, with complete stability.
Apple used the Thunderbolt technology to surpass the USB’s ‘data transfer only’ function to allow their devices to cast screens, control the laptop remotely or do high-speed transfers between devices for software interaction.
S/PDIF and Toslink: The Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format commonly used in hi-fi systems manufactured by the two companies aren’t left out of the audio engineering loop.
Also known as TOSLINK, it carries 2 channels of audio transmitted by fast light signal pulses instead of low current.
It’s interior is made of fiberglass, an can transmit only one stereo signal. It’s widely used for consumer HIFI products.
However, it wouldn’t connect your interface to your computer. Instead, it sends your mix towards your hardware rack effects and processing equipment, if any.
ADAT Lightpipe/Optical Interface
ADAT cables sound funny because it’s like somebody inverted pronouncing DATA or something.
However, ADAT cables are optic-fiber cables capable of carrying multiple channels of digital audio through a single cable.
It’s like your USB or Thunderbolt, except it uses light rather than electricity to transmit signals.
A single ADAT cable carries about 8 channels at a high sample rate of 48KHZ or four channels of audio at 96KHZ.
Pretty neat, I must say…
“High-end audio interfaces use ADAT cables to interact with a multi-channel microphone preamp, perfect for drum tracking and multi-vocal recordings”