Audio cables - a recording studio essential

Ah, audio cables. They are essential to pretty much anything electrical (unless it's a handheld battery game!). In the recording studio, cables come in many shapes and sizes.

What do you need to know about cables? There is a surprising amount of things to know - we'll cover the basics here.

You already know about power cables. Your coffee pot has one, your computer has one, and you wish your dog had one that you could yank sometimes. A power cable is pretty much like, well, a power cable. Just keep the right one with the right piece of gear and you'll be fine.

Audio cables are many, but let's divide them into distinct categories - mic and line level. There's no rule that says a mic cable has to have a mic level signal, but that makes a nice split point. (What's a mic level signal? See the article on signal strength.)

Mic cables are usually XLR. It stands for Xtended Locking Round. Wow, what an imagination! Anyway, basically all decent mics have an XLR connector, and the preamps take the same. Smaller equipment (or consumer stuff) uses 1/4 inch or 1/8 inch TRS or TS connectors, but it's just not the standard (for microphones).

Why? I'm no scientist, but I think it has to do with the contacts. You have more surface area on an XLR connector than a 1/4 TRS (more on TRS below). The contacts are separated by distance and insulators, so signal leakage is brought to a minimum. You can get gold plated contacts on mic cables, but personally I don't think it's worth it. Spend the extra money on another cable.

Any mic cable worth its salt will be balanced and shielded. What is a balanced cable? That will have to wait for another article, but here it is quickly. When audio goes through a cable, it can pick up interference. To combat this, a balanced cable splits the audio into two identical channels, and inverts the one. At the other side, the second channel is re-inverted to the original phase, and combined with the first channel. That is supposed to erase any interference picked up during transmittal. Clear as mud? Don't worry about it now, just know that a balanced cable will eliminate most interference on the signal going through it.

If you can feel the cable in the store where you buy it (not with online purchases), see how it flexes, if it's brittle. You don't want something that will break after a few months of use.

Just use common sense when buying a mic cable (or any audio cable). Don't go for the absolute cheapest for quality's sake, but also don't go with the most expensive either - it's not actually that much better.

TRS cables use a standard 1/4 inch plug. They can carry stereo audio, or a balanced mono track. Same principles as using a mic cable. These are used for many purposes in the studio, like connecting monitors or patching from one piece of equipment to another (tape decks, samplers, CD players, preamps, computer interfaces). 1/4 inch TRS cables are all around cords.Then there are a few other assorted and various cables. One of my preamps doesn't have a TRS output - it's an XLR. So to get that into my hardware computer interface I need an XLR to TRS cable. MIDI cables take data signals between keyboards, computers, and synths or samplers.

Of course you need plenty of adapters to go around all of the stuff, like 1/4" to 1/8", or a splitter for dual headphones, or a breakout cable to take a stereo channel into 2 mono channels. Just keep a bunch of adapters handy for when you need them.

Computer data cables are also a necessity. You will probably want a few spare USB and FireWire cables, in case one goes bad or something.

One of the most aggravating things that can happen in a studio is to want to do something, but can't because you don't have the correct cable. Trust me, that is maddening! If you go to do location recording, make sure you have the audio cables you will need (not what you think you will need!).

OK, I'll finally give one recommendation for a microphone cable. Check out this audio cable for mics on Amazon.com.

Return from audio cables to audio recording equipment.

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.