The most under appreciated and absolute most important piece to an entire professional audio system are the cables. The first piece that connects your new expensive $100 microphone to your brand new $500 mixer should not be a cheap throw in. The reality is that unlike anything else in any industry, most worth it microphone and instrument cables come with a lifetime in store swap warranty. I say invest! You may spend $7 more from the cheap microphone cable to get the lifetime warranty cable, and it is absolutely worth it.
Cables in general, made up of a microfiber and copper cabling. The copper cabling is intertwined to prevent noise and buzz. The better the cable, the better the resistance to noise and buzz, also more frequency reproduction. Each major retailer offers their version of lifetime warranty cables. Since most good cables come with a lifetime warranty, the differences lie in the frequency reproduction, the noise resistance of the intertwined copper wires, and the quality of microfiber protection. The microfiber is the cotton that is between the copper wire and the plastic cover of the cable.
Types of Cables
1. XLR Cables
-The term XLR is the official name for a microphone cable and is used for connecting several types of audio equipment.
- XLR cables have a male end and a female end, the male end has three pins and the female end has three holes.
- The “input” of an XLR cable is the female end.
- The female end receives sound from a source
- A singer sings through the capsule of a mic.
- The voice travels through the mic and out of its XLR output
- Then into the female end of the XLR cable
- then the male end is plugged into a mixer
- The male end of an XLR cable has three pins and is used to plug into the input of a mixer or a speaker.
- XLR cables can be used for connecting microphones, mixers, speakers, and more.
- XLR cables are balanced, which helps prevent buzzing and hums.
- Since XLR cables are balanced they are able to be connected to each other with no loss in quality.
2. 1/4″ Cables
Quarter inch TS (tip sleeve) cables are most commonly known as guitar cables, but are used in most any situation. There are different types of quarter inch cables but TS cables are mono, generally used for instruments and some wireless mics, and used when connecting a phone or computer output to a mixer. Unbalanced ¼ cables are tip sleeve which refers to the cable transfers and receives sound. ¼ cables are even used to transfer transfer an electric current from a power amp to passive speakers.
-There are at least two deciding factors on when to use TS cables.
- First- if the input or output is labeled mono / unbalanced.
- if labeled unbalanced you have to use a 1/4″ TS cable
- Second- if the initial source of sound is stereo, you will need to convert it to mono.
- a 1/4″ input only has one connection point so plugging a phone into a mixer with a cable is a good example of why to use 1/4″ TS versus a balanced TRS cable.
When connecting a phone to a mixer to play music. The headphone output on a phone is in stereo (a left and right audio channel). This means you will need a 3.5mm cable (same size as an aux cable that connects a phone to a car stereo). On the other end of the 3.5mm cable it will be two ¼” cable ends. The ¼ ends must be TS or in other words mono, meaning one single channel per cable(left and right). This is important because if the ¼ end of the cable is not mono, the cable will not transfer both left and right channels. In other words the music coming from the phone will sound hollow and will possibly be missing the vocals. This is because ¼ inputs on a mixer are mono. This is not necessarily the end of the explanation between ¼ mono and ¼ stereo cables, there is also more to go over about TS cables because there is also TRS. First there will be a list about ¼ cables,
- ¼ inch cables are instrument cables
- Instrument cables are a mono quarter inch cable.
- Instrument cables are used to go from instruments to guitar or keyboard amplifiers.
- ¼ inch cables are also speaker cables
- When purchasing speaker cables they should be clearly labeled speaker cable and it is important to specifically use speaker cables for connecting a power amp to speakers.
- Speaker cables are for connecting a power amp to a passive / unpowered speaker.
- Speaker cables carry power and are unshielded.
- Since speaker cables are missing a shield they can cause a buzz if used for anything other than going from a power amp to a “passive/unpowered” speaker.
- Remember, make sure the ¼ cable is labeled speaker cable and never use an instrument cable to connect and amp to a speaker, it will cause irreparable damage.
3. TRS CABLES
TRS cables are another kind of quarter inch cable. TRS stand for tip ring sleeve, these cables are balanced. These cables are important to use when connecting a mixer to speakers because they help eliminate any 60 cycle hum. When looking at a TRS cable we can see that there is an extra like in the middle of the connector that a mono TS cable does not have. This extra line allows the cable to have two connection points, in other words a TRS cable can transmit two independent audio channels. TRS cables are stereo but do not get the terms balanced and stereo confused. Stereo means there are 2 channels, a left channel and a right channel. When dealing with stereo both channels on the cable have their own independent audio. When dealing with balanced, there is only one channel of audio being transmitted. This is why it is important to use a mono cable in the earlier explanation. The reason we use TRS cables to send only one channel of audio is because TRS cables allow extra shielding against buzzing or humming. TRS cables are also used to create a Y. When a ¼ inch cables is TRS on one end and the other end is two ¼ mono cables. This kind of cable can be used in several different instances. Specifically to connect a “gate” or “compressor” to a mixer. I will go in more depth in the insert explanation of this chapter. Since TRS cables are balanced they can come in several different forms.
- TRS to TRS cables are quarter inch on both ends and are used to connect
- outboard components to a mixer
- mixer to a speaker, and often
- keyboards/synths to a mixer
- TRS to XLR Male cables are used to connect a
- mixers ¼ inch output to a powered speaker.
- connect mixers to power amps,
- Anything that says it has a “balanced” output.
- outputs will be in the next blog post
- TRS to XLR Female cables are used to go from a mixer’s XLR output to a
- powered speaker
- power amp or to
- outboard gear that only has a ¼ inch input
-Thanks for sticking around to the end, the next post will explain inputs and outputs! Knowing how to route a system and use proper signal flow is important. See you there!