Today, we talk about studio snakes. Don’t worry friends! These little guys don’t bite. We’re talking about cables!
You’ve probably noticed that there are a seemingly endless number of different cable types and, for that matter, prices!
How can a 1/4” TS guitar cable cost both $1 per foot and $8 per foot? Is there really a difference? What does a “TS” cable even mean? Is it different than a "TRS" cable?
Cables can be a bit confusing to navigate and there is a bit of snake oil salesmanship (see what I did there? It's a snake theme in those two paragraphs) going on at times.
In Part 1, you will learn all about different cables and connection types for analog signals. You will be able to recognize the different types of cables we most commonly use in the studio and what each one is used for.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about different digital cables.
Finally, in Part 3, we’ll get into the business of how studio cables can (and cannot) affect the quality of your sound and what you should (and should not) concern yourself with. If all of these different snakes are already well known to you, skip on to Part 3 – or wait patiently if it hasn’t been posted yet…geez.
Let’s dive in!
First Principles First:
A cable is way to get a signal from Point A to Point B. This is always true. Wireless signal transmission has been used by guitarists and singers live for many years (usually more reliably than Nigel Tufnel at that infamous airbase gig - a clip which is amazingly not on YouTube?) but in the studio, for the foreseeable future, cables will remain king (King Kables, of course, did turn out to be a real company on quick search). This is because cables are a more reliable way to transfer information. They provide a point to point connection that allows electrons to flow smoothly and with minimal distraction to their destination. Most cables (though not all, as you’ll see in Part 3) are also shielded to prevent any RF (Radio Frequency) interference.
Long story short, wireless technology has not hit the studio yet and while I’m sure it will at some point, for the time being, we have cables to transfer our information.
Why do we need to transfer information in the first place? Because the different devices we have all do different things and we may want to use several devices to make a recording. For example, my guitar can make some terrible sounds when I pick it up and flail my fingers about. To get those sounds to be even meaner and more terrible, I may want to use guitar pedals. How do I get guitar "information" into my pedals? Through cables. You get the point.
I’ll describe cables using three parameters:
What type of signal they are designed to transmit
What type of connectors they have (these are the bits on either end of the cable)
What type of conductors they have (these are the wires inside the body of the cable)
There are two main types of cable in the first parameter. Let’s start with….
Category 1 – Cables transmitting analog signals
This song is kind of about them. They transmit analog signals – which is to say “continuous” signals that have not yet been converted to digital. Analog signals are the signals that leave a microphone or an electric guitar (also a pre-amp or other bits of analog gear).
Most of the cables in our studios will be analog because, well, most of the signals we are “moving” from one device to the next are analog. Once we convert to digital (here’s a refresher) we’re mostly working inside the computer (is it crass to link to the Zoolander gif again?).
The most common analog cables in our studio are:
Guitar amp speaker cables
Line level signal cables / patch cables
Let’s get more specific with analog cables and talk about the different connector types and what they all mean:
¼” TS connector, copper conductors of medium thickness
As a cable anywhere in the signal chain between an electric guitar and a guitar amp
More generally, as a connector between unbalanced, mono sources – or sources that just require two wires to complete a loop and transfer a signal.
1/4” is the nominal diameter of the connector. That’s it. There’s pretty much 2 sizes we care about: 1/4” and 1/8”. The latter is the size of the common headphone jack. The former is the size of the common guitar cable jack.
"TS" stands for Tip-Sleeve and visually describes the connector. This type of connector has two conductors (or wires) inside. One wire is connected to the tip of the connector and the other wire is connected to the sleeve.
A two wire conductor is also called an “unbalanced” connection – which we’ll get into in a later post. We need two wires because, as with all things electrical, we need to have a completed circuit
On the left you can see the zoomed out scenario you're used to: a guitar plugged into an amp with a single cable. Blue cables just sound better, ya know?
On the right you can see a more "zoomed in" view of the circuit. As you can see, the blue cable actually needs two conductors (or wires) to complete this circuit. This is where the TS cable comes in. The Tip of the cable is connected to the + side of the circuit. The Sleeve of the cable is connected to the minus.
Usually, two 20 gauge copper wire bundles per conductor . We’ll call this “medium thickness” to distinguish from thicker and thinner cables that we’ll discuss later.
XLR Cable, copper conductors of medium thickness
Connecting “balanced” pieces of gear. I will explain more about balanced connections in post 3 (because they're super freakin' cool) but for now just keep in mind that gear with balanced connections will usually say “balanced” somewhere on it or be designed for a 3 conductor cable such as XLR or TRS (which we’re getting to next)
XLR: Amazingly, it’s apparently a bit controversial as to what XLR actually stands for. The most reasonable explanations I’ve seen (in 5 minutes of searching the web after realizing that I actually have no idea) are that it was originally a brand name from the manufacturer that invented them (X series cable from Canon Electric, with a Latching feature and a Rubber ring) or that it was originally a stereo connector with a grounding pin (X for the grounding pin, L for left, R for right).
Remember how the TS cable had two conductors (one connected to the Tip and one connected to the Sleeve)? Well, XLR has three conductors. Instead of a having a single pin sub-divided into multiple sections, it has three distinct pins. Again, each pin is connected to a conductor (i.e., wire) inside the cable.
XLRs have two additional convenience features: a locking tab to keep them firmly in place and an alignment pin to keep them from only being inserted the correct way.
Medium thickness copper conductors (similar to the TS cable: 20AWG conductors)
¼” TS connector, copper conductors of HEAVY thickness
Speaker level connections (e.g., connecting the output of a guitar power amp to a guitar cabinet). See here for a refresher on the three common level types we see in the studio.
Same as the 1/4” TS we talked about above!
This is where things start to get a bit confusing and even dangerous. The perceptive among you will have noticed that the only difference between this cable and the Guitar Cable is that this cable is thicker. In other words, the connectors are the same. In other words, you can plug this cable into your guitar if you wanted to.
Let’s think about this for a second. We know that the signal we send to a speaker has to be much stronger than the signal we send into a guitar amp. After all, the signal we send to the speaker has to have enough current (and power) to physically move the speaker cone and send out those sweet jams to your annoyed neighbors.
The dangerous part comes into play because the connectors are the same. If you wanted to, you could plug the output of your gnarly guitar amp into your guitar pedal rack – or a sensitive piece of analog gear - and, as soon as you played your first mega-chord (see below)
you would send a firehose of water into one of those thin, cone-shaped paper cups that people inexplicably think are a good idea. How am I supposed to put that thing down if I need to go somewhere for a minute?
You see what I’m saying? You can destroy your sensitive electronics with this because sensitive electronics may have the same connection type.
Having two different connectors would make it more difficult to get this wrong but then how would we be able to tell the n00bs apart from the rest of us civilized engineers?
¼” TRS connectors, copper conductors of medium thickness
Sending stereo signals between pieces of gear
Sending balanced signals between pieces of gear
A TRS connector looks very similar to a TS connector (guitar cable) but it has an extra R…which stands for “Ring”. If you look at it compared to a TS connector, you will see that that it has a third section. So here we have a Tip, a Ring and a Sleeve. In other words, three conductors. Remind you of anything? How about that pesky XLR cable? So TRS cables and XLR cables are basically the same thing – at least as far as the conductors are concerned. They can both pass a 3-conductor signal and, in fact, you can buy (or make your own) cables that have a TRS connector on one end and an XLR connector on the other end. This can be helpful for passing signals from a piece of gear that has one type of balanced connector to a piece of gear with the other type.
There are a few practical differences between XLR and TRS and we'll get to this in Part 3.
1/8” or ¼” TRS connector, copper conductors of LIGHT thickness
Weaker stereo signals (e.g., headphone cables)
Less finicky, short run balanced cable connections (e.g., in a patch bay)
Same TRS we described before except, you know, the 1/8” one is half as big as the 1/4” one. Often studio headphones will come with an adapter that can take you from 1/8” to 1/4” so you can use the headphones in cell phones as well as your 1/4” studio outputs.
Mixing and Matching TS and TRS:
Female TS and TRS jacks look the same. You usually can't easily tell them apart unless the gear is marked. If in doubt, check the manual. (I know I know...I never have the time or the manual either but I'm trying to be a responsible adult with my advice)
Think about this: when you plug a TS cable into a TRS jack, you are effectively "shorting" or connecting the R and S leads on the TRS jack. This could be ok. You may be able to record an unbalanced signal through a balanced connection. In fact, most interfaces that only have combi jacks allow you to do just that by plugging your guitar directly into the balanced connection.
However, you really should not connect a balanced output to an unbalanced input. Here again, you are shorting two "hot" leads on the output of balanced gear. Some pieces of gear may not care. On others you might find that you've "let the smoke out". Unfortunately, all electronics need smoke inside to work. If you let the smoke out, you usually can't put it back in.
Alright, that covers the most common cables you will see in the studio for analog signals. Next up, digital!