So, you have bought the best microphone, purchased high-quality speakers, and whatnot.
All the instruments are arranged neatly in your home studio, and you are ready as ever to start recording.
But…there’s something that’s still missing… cables.
So, if you haven’t yet figured out which type of audio cable you need to connect the different equipment where required, you are still a step away from bringing your home studio to life.
However, the thing about audio cables is that buying the one needed for the job can prove to be a rather challenging task.
Whether you search for them online or purchase them from your local hardware store instead, the different audio cables types available in the market can leave you in a tangled mess.
You will come across terms like TRS, RCA, XLR, etc. which will not only fly right over your head, but also make it almost impossible to decide which type of cable is best suited to your needs.
Buying audio cables is perhaps the least glamorous aspect of setting up a home studio.
But at the same time, it is also the most important one – because, without the right audio cable, you cannot get the best results, or even start recording for that matter.
In this detailed guide to audio cables for home studios, we will help you complete the sound system set up by discussing everything you need to know about:
- Analog and digital cables
- Balanced and unbalanced cables
- Different types of audio cables
- Types of analog connectors
Ready to get those wires sorted?
Analog Cables vs. Digital Cables
If you are recording for the first time, the first question that you are likely to ask is, ‘what is the difference between analog and digital cables?’
The most straightforward answer will be that analog cables carry continuous sound signals, whereas digital cables transmit brief impulses.
However, to get the hang of their functionalities, it would help to take a more in-depth look at the concept of analog versus digital signals.
If you recall the science lessons from school, you will remember that the term ‘analog’ refers to a physical quantity that is continuously variable in nature.
In other words, if its values were plotted on a grasp against time, you’d get a continuous line or curve.
On the other hand, digital loosely translates to something that is either on or off.
By extending this definition, we can deduce that analog cables are those that help you transmit sound signals in continuity.
They carry information in the form of a stream of electric charges whose magnitude changes according to some influencing factor in the real world – which in this case, is sound.
However, digital cables carry information in the form of binary codes – i.e., a string of zeroes and ones or low and high voltages.
It goes without saying that whether you speak into a mic or play some musical instrument, the sound wave it produces is an analog signal.
To capture this sound or transmit it further for processing and conditioning, you need an analog audio cable.
But when you use a digital audio workstation (DAW) or similar systems, you need digital cables to that the devices can communicate with the computer or even amongst each other for that matter.
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cables
Anyone who’s in the market for audio cables will come across the terms ‘balanced’ and ‘unbalanced’ cables numerous times.
So, let’s understand the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio cables before we move on to discussing the different audio cables types.
In terms of functionality, balanced cables are used where there is a high likelihood of the signals being distorted due to noise and electrical interference from nearby components.
With respect to their internal assembly, the main difference between the two types is that balanced cables have three inner wires or conductors, whereas unbalanced cables only have two.
In balanced cables, also known as one-pair cables, two inner wires are used as conductors while the third serves as ground.
However, in unbalanced cables, also called single-core cables, there is only one conductor, and the other is the ground.
What difference does this configuration make, and why does it matter?
The two conductors in balanced cables help carry the same sound signal with two different polarities.
The first wire is used for the +ve current while the other is used for the –ve. These are known as hot and cold wires too.
Since noise is imposed on both signals in the same pattern, the reversed polarity effectively rectifies the distortion on the receiving end of the cable.
Put simply, unbalanced cables have a higher chance of picking up noise and radio interference, whereas balanced cables are specially designed to overcome this problem.
They cancel out the effect of electrical hums so that you get the most out of your recording gear.
Types of Audio Cables
If you categorize them in terms of function and the specific instruments that they are compatible with, there are four main types of audio cables that you can choose from.
In most cases, you will need to buy at least one audio cable of each type, especially if you are looking at a more proper setup complete with a digital keyboard, sound controller, signal booster, and so on.
Instrument cables are used where a direct connection needs to be made between an instrument and an amplifier.
They are typically designed to carry signals with a low voltage.
So, for instance, you can use an instrument cable to connect bass, guitar, and any other electronic instrument to a preamp.
These types of cables usually use ¼” phone plug connectors, but the length of an instrument cable can vary depending on the distance between the equipment to be connected.
A patch cable is a generic name for electric wires that can be used to link a variety of different components.
These cables come in both balanced and unbalanced forms, but the one thing common to all patch cables is that they are quite short in length.
Patch cables use different audio connectors, including TRS, RCA, XLR, and ¼” phone plugs that make them suitable for linking effect pedals in addition to connecting sound recording gear.
Microphone cables, as the name suggests, are the cables that connect a microphone to some other recording gear.
This can be a computer sound card, a digital audio workstation, or a simple voice recorder too.
These cables use XLR male and female connectors on both ends, respectively.
However, it’s not hard to find a microphone cable with a USB connector that plugs into laptops or even tablets, allowing you to record sounds on the go.
Mic cables have balanced conductors to eliminate the effect of noise in sound recording.
In certain cases, microphone cables can double up as patch cables, which means that you can use them to plug a power speaker to a say, a mixing board.
Moreover, mic cables also provide DI connections for mixing consoles and are suitable for creating lighting effects as they are capable of handling digital multiplexing.
Speaker cables provide an electrical connection between loudspeakers and audio amplifiers.
The conductor wires in speaker cables are thicker than those used in other audio cables types.
This is because speaker cables have to carry comparatively stronger signals with a much larger voltage.
Depending on the type of speaker and preamp it is designed to be used with, a speaker cable can contain a ¼” phone connector, MDP connector (commonly known as banana clip), or a binding post.
Daisy Chain Cables
Looking as unique as their name, daisy chain cables are audio cables that are based on the ‘daisy chain’ wiring scheme.
They are quite distinct from other cables in the sense that rather than one long piece of wire with two connectors on either end, daisy chains consist of multiple connectors along the length of the wire.
This configuration allows you to wire different devices in a continuous loop.
Daisy chain cables are a must-have if you are setting up a hi-fi home studio and want to link various instruments without having wires scattered all around the room.
Make sure to buy this type of cable if you plan to use a pedalboard because it will help you use the various effects in the best possible manner.
Daisy chain cables are also an essential item for dedicated bassists and guitarists as they help them connect and power as much as ten (or more) stompboxes.
The special wiring scheme ensures that all your effects continue working in top condition while helping you always keep things neat and organized.
Commonly Used Digital Cables
Although analog audio cables handle most of the connections between instruments, it is unlikely that you won’t require a digital cable for something or the other.
The following are two of the most commonly used digital cables in sound recording studios.
MIDI cables are a staple for every home studio that uses a MIDI controller. These cables let you sync information and transfer instructions between gear.
The main confusion most amateurs face is in deciding whether to plug a MIDI cable in the IN, OUT, or THRU jack.
To figure out the right port, ask yourself what function the component in question is performing.
If it’s receiving a signal, you need to plug the MIDI cable in the IN port and vice versa.
However, if the info is being passed along from one device to another, then the MIDI cable needs to be plugged into the THRU port.
You probably already have a USB cable, but even if you don’t, you will rarely have to purchase it yourself because all instruments that require a USB connection normally include the cable in the package.
USB cables help exchange information between computers and recording gear as well as musical instruments like drum machines.
USB cables can get easily get unplugged if you step over the wires or tug a little too hard at the instrument it is attached to.
Also, when transporting instruments, avoid wrapping USB cables around the components because it will damage the conductors inside.
Types of Analog Connectors Explained
A good audio system typically uses so many cables and connectors that it can be hard to keep track of what plugs into what.
Connectors can be classified into two main categories: cable connectors and chassis connectors.
Cable connectors are attached to the end of a cable, whereas chassis connectors are the ports built into the ‘chassis’ of the particular equipment.
The following section will help you identify the different types of analog connectors used to link different components and, at times, even cables themselves.
XLR, which stands for External Line Return, is one of the standard forms of connectors used in professional audio/ visual and stage lighting equipment.
These cables have two different ends containing an XLR male and XLR female connector, respectively.
They contain three pins (or holes) – one each for the two polarities and a third ground pin.
The terms XLR connector and XLR cable are frequently used interchangeably because XLR is a type of cable connector – i.e., you will not generally find these connectors on an instrument.
There are a few reasons why these cables are so highly popular in both home and professional studios.
Firstly, they are always balanced so you cannot only run long wires but also rest assured that the signals won’t be subject to interference.
Secondly, XLR cables tightly snap into place and will not unplug by mistake. Moreover, they are good for handling the main outputs from mixers, mics, controllers, and so on.
Tip Sleeve (TS) connectors are unbalanced connectors that come in ¼” and 1/8” inch configurations. Being unbalanced, they contain two conductors.
It’s easy to identify TS cables due to their ‘mono’ connectors, i.e., the tip of a TS connector will only have one stripe around the edge.
When using TS cables, keep in mind that the length of the wire should be kept as short as possible otherwise, the quality of your audio will be heavily compromised.
This is because TS cables are quick to pick up the unwanted signals from the surroundings.
Even if there’s no background noise, the signals traveling through these cables can still be distorted easily as the wires are susceptible to electrical hums.
TRS, which stands for Tip Ring Sleeve, is an analog connector that consists of three different conductors.
You can distinguish these connectors from other types by looking at the tip of a cable.
If the connector has two small rings around its edge, it’s a TRS connector.
TRS connectors can help you carry balanced or unbalanced signals depending on what they are plugged into.
These connectors are commonly seen on speaker cables, instrument cables, and microphone cables.
In case you haven’t figured it out already, the ¼” or 1/8” inch jack used in headphones is a TRS connector.
To tell a TRS connector apart from a TS connector, look for the rings at the top.
A TS jack always has one circle while a TRS connector has two plastic rings, creating three indentations in the jack.
RCA connectors were named after Radio Corporation of America, the company that was the first to design and manufacture electrical audio cables.
Although they were developed in the early ‘40s, RCA cables are still heavily in use today. In fact, they have become an industry standard for linking various kinds of audio devices.
Be it a stereo system, mixer, CDJ, or the main output from several other instruments; an RCA connector will fit them all.
RCA connectors come in pairs, and the devices compatible with these connectors use a color-coding scheme to illustrate the correct socket for each RCA jack.
Common colors used in audio gear for home studios include red, white, and yellow. The red and white jacks are for audio while the third is reserved for video signals.
An important thing to note is that RCA cables always contain two conductors.
This means they are unbalanced and, thus, should not be used for larger distances or kept more than a few feet long in your home studio; otherwise, you risk reducing the quality of your soundtracks.
While the world might be going wireless, it seems like recording studios still have a long way to go before they can catch up with the sans-wire technology.
To select the right audio cable, you have to consider the equipment you want to use it with, the conditions under which you will be recording (background noise, sound from other instruments, etc.), and of course, the scope of the project itself.
Use this guide as a reference to understand the function of different audio cables types so that you can easily decide which one is best suited to your recording needs.