You've just bought a vintage Gibson Les Paul and an amp stack that could tower over Macaulay Culkin’s comical setup in Michael Jackson’s, “Black or White,” video. You plug in and turn on the amp ready to rock, only to be greeted by noise and connection issues of that 3 dollar cable you bought on eBay. Did I buy the the right cable? Is it the guitar? The amp? You begin to panic. Curtains open and you're on stage but the bloody cable won't stop making noise! You scream out, cursing at the cable louder than the noise it's creating through your amp. Everyone hears you. You cry and curl into yourself. The crowd falls silent. The curtains close.
You wake up.
If this sort of nightmare has ever haunted you, you know that the importance of quality cables cannot be overstated. If you bought a car worth $100,000 would you run that car on the cheapest oil and gasoline that money could buy? The answer is quite simply, no. The same goes for running your audio through quality cables. Buying quality cables ensures that both the capture and reproduction of your audio is not negatively affected. Below is a brief description of many different types of cables the home studio owner is likely to encounter, along with their intended uses. Familiarize yourself with the content in this article and all your cable nightmares will become a distant memory.
Analog cables transmit audio information through the use of electricity. It should be noted that the shorter the cable, the more likely the transmission is going to be successful without a loss of quality. Analog cables can be either balanced or unbalanced.
Balanced cables have the ability to cancel-out potential noise from other electronic equipment which makes them a preferred choice for most applications in the home studio. They are also capable of longer runs than unbalanced cables before a loss of quality occurs. Any mic or line level signal should be connected using a balanced cable. Balanced cables may have either a ¼” TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) connector, a male/female XLR connector, or a TRS to male or female XLR connector. Choose the cables that best fit your current setup.
Unbalanced cables are used when recording into a Hi-Z instrument input on your recording interface, or going into a DI box, which we will look at later on. An unbalanced cable will have a ¼ inch TS (tip-sleeve) connector. This type of cable has no noise canceling capabilities and is best used in short lengths for instrument level signals.
Digital cables transmit an audio signal through a string of 1’s and 0’s known as binary code. One digital cable that all recordists will make use of is the cable running from the interface into your computer. This can currently be done through a USB, firewire, or thunderbolt connection. These types of digital cables transmit data at different speeds, with USB currently coming in at the budget level and thunderbolt leading the charge on lightning fast data transmission. Technology is constantly improving in this area, so be aware of any new developments as time goes on. The other types of digital cables are not necessities for the minimalist, but should be well understood and considered when making hardware purchases.
Optical cables are another type of digital cable, which transmit data through a series of light flashes. This has given optical cables their pseudonym name, lightpipe. Two types of optical cables are popular for two different purposes. ADAT cables are typically used to send a multiple channel preamp into a recording interface to expand the number of channels available to a recordist. S/PIDIF, or toslink cables can only carry two channels of audio which make them useful for transmitting your stereo mix from the recording interface, to other devices.
MIDI cables are another type of digital cable that transfer data from an electronic instrument to another device like an audio interface. Due to the compatibility of MIDI cables with most modern audio interfaces, most electronic instruments now utilize a USB connection.
Many other digital cables exist including BNC cables which are used to sync the clocks between two or more digital devices, Cat5e cables which are a common connection for headphone distribution systems, and AES/EBU cables which transmit a S/PIDIF through an XLR connection.
Unlike digital cables, the variety of cables used to deliver power are small. The variety is so small in fact that it is only worth mentioning the most common of them all, the IEC cable. These IEC cables are used in many places including monitors, computer towers, outboard gear, and more.
This cable overview has hopefully demystified some of the common misconceptions that people have when it comes to purchasing cables. You should now be well equipped to make an informed buying decision in regards to anything cable-related. Rest easy tonight.