Music Studio Cables: Different Jack Types, Which Cable for Monitors?


Oh, how I long for the days in the future when everything is wireless. How joyful it will be to record in a cable-free studio! No tripping over them, no hours of recording time lost sitting on the floor untangling!  No picking up a guitar who’s cable has somehow become wrapped around the charger to my laptop and…….well I’m glad I had that laptop insured. Unfortunately, that wonderful day isn’t here yet and until then we will have to live with a home studio that is full of cables snaking around all over the place.

This article may or may not be of use to you, but I hope it will be of some use to someone. I wanted to make a (sort of) glossary of all the different types of cables that you are likely to come across in a home music studio. The glossary will include a bit of information about the function of each of the cables and whether or not they are worth having in your collection, along with some recommendations of cables I personally use.  Hopefully, it will be a useful point of reference if you ever need to know what a particular one does.

Before I get into the glossary of cable and connector types I’ve put in a few explanations of other words you may see associated with cables to help. I’ve tried not to get too technical, a lot of it is electronics and not that important unless you fancy getting nerdy!

Why so many types of cable?

So why isn’t there just one type of cable for everything in the home studio? That would make life so much easier! Well, unfortunately, different types of signals require different types of cables. This is for a variety of reasons, does it need to be mono or stereo, how much noise interference is tolerable, how loud does the sound need to be etc.

Unshielded vs Shielded

Unshielded cables

If you were to use the most basic kind of cable (simply two wires ‘signal’ and ‘ground’ running alongside one another within some insulation) for music production you are likely to run into a few issues.

The alternating current coming from the wall socket is at 60hz (in the USA), this means that any electrical equipment you have in your studio such as lights or other electronic gear tends to emit sounds at this frequency.

Therefore if your cable is unshielded this hum can get into them and produce an annoying hum on all your tracks at 60hz (and harmonics thereof 120hz, 180hz etc). The longer your length of cable the more likely this is to happen also (more opportunities to sneak in) and seeing as a lot of cables in the home studio need to be pretty lengthy, you can start to see why unshielded cables are a bit of a problem.

Shielded cables

To get around the problems caused by unshielded cables it should come as no surprise that one solution is a ‘shielded’ cable. Instead of running side by side, the ground wire actually surrounds the signal wire which stops the hum from reaching it. There are different types of shielding that you may come across when shopping for cables. Braided shield, serve shield and foil shields.

Braided shields tend to be the strongest with serve shields being slightly less strong but giving more flexibility to the cable. Foil shields are cheap and crap and break easily so avoid those!

Do I Ever Need an Unshielded Cable?

You may think that you would always want to use shielded cables in all situations but that is not the case. A shielded cable means less noise but that comes at a price.

A shielded cable is low power and high impedance, these cables are usually associated with instruments and so are built to carry a weak unamplified signal from for example the guitar to an amp, add on top of this they are often made even more flexible and lightweight for better usability on stage.

These types of shielded instrument cables are therefore not what you want to use in other situations such as carrying the already amplified signal from your amp to a speaker. A speaker cable is therefore often unshielded and with much bigger wires to carry the signal (as flexibility isn’t as desirable). A small shielded wire, when used with a speaker, causes a lot of energy to be wasted in the form of heat and at higher signal levels this can cause issues. The shield is not as essential in these cables because the sound is already amplified and any noises are not really noticeable.

Unbalanced Vs Balanced

Both the wires described above (the most basic shielded and unshielded cables) are unbalanced, this basically means that even the shielded cable, if run over a long distance, will pick up some noise interference. You can get away with this for some instruments but for other things such as a microphone you want as little unwanted noise as possible.

A balanced cable, on the other hand, has a clever trick to get around this. You still have a ground wire but there are two signal wires, one ‘hot’ and one ‘cold’, these signals are mirror images of one another and therefore cancel each other out. Once they reach the input device the cold signal’s polarity is flipped from negative to positive so both hot and cold wires have a positive signal and a sound is again produced.

This is shown in my incredible diagram below

What is capacitance in audio cables?

Many people refer to capacitance in a cable as being similar to the diameter of a hosepipe. The lower the capacitance of a cable the ‘bigger the hosepipe’ without getting too technical this basically leads to you getting a wider range of frequencies when compared to a cable with a higher capacitance which will end up losing some of the higher frequencies. So the capacitance (measured in picoFarads or pFs) can actually affect the tone of the sound quite significantly.

You want a low capacitance cable in most situations so you don’t end up with a muffled bass-heavy sound. That being said you don’t want to go too low and end up with a high-frequency whine. As with many of these things, it’s a matter of taste and what sound you are going for. Low capacitance also means more chance for unwanted external noises and hums to enter the cables so if you have a low capacitance cable and are using it with an instrument it is even more important that it is well shielded.

Cable Glossary

Ok so now you (hopefully) know what is meant by unshielded, shielded, balanced and unbalanced I will go through the different types of cable you are likely to find in a home recording studio and a little summary as to why that cable has been chosen to carry out its necessary function.

I will also give some tips on cables I use and where it is and isn’t worth spending more money.

Different connection types

1/4 inch shielded instrument cable or TS cable

Probably the cable you will come across most often in the home studio is the 1/4 inch shielded instrument cable. This is the cable used to connect guitars to amps for example.

These cables have actually been around since the 19th century! But it’s original use was on the very first telephone switchboard in Boston.

If you look closely at the jack you will see a single black ‘hoop’ just below the tip. This is an insulating tip and if there is only one it indicates the cable is a ‘mono’ connection. It is very rare that you will need a stereo 1/4 inch instrument cable though as most amps are in mono and most instruments are only capable of playing in mono. There are some stereo guitars out there though so double check this before choosing a cable.

Recommended cable: GLS Audio Instrument Cable

You don’t have to spend a fortune on cables, and if you aren’t using them for gigging the chances of them breaking or failing from wear and tear are lower. Despite this, don’t go for the cheapest cable, you want them to last a long time and if you buy a few decent ones you shouldn’t need to replace them for a long time.

The length of cable you go for will also depend on your studio setup, how much equipment you have, which instrument it will be used with etc. You want to own a variety of lengths, longer cables are good if you want to move around a bit and don’t want to be constantly worried about being right up against your desk. But short cables are also good in some situations, as having hundreds of long cables snaking their way around your studio is a nightmare and wasted hours of untangling waiting to happen! It is also worth bearing in mind (as you may have figured out from my attempt at an electronics lesson earlier in the article) that the cable length can actually alter the instrument tone.

I have been using the GLS audio instrument cables for a while and I can’t really fault them. They are good value, they are flexible but durable because they come wrapped in a ‘tweed’ jacket rather than plastic so they are virtually impossible to snap or break and they have a low capacitance but are well shielded so you get those high frequencies but without any annoying buzzing or humming.

1/4 inch unshielded speaker cable

As mentioned earlier in the article you are usually better off getting an unshielded cable in some situations, for example, connecting an amp to an external speaker. These ‘speaker cables’ also have 1/4 inch jacks and therefore look virtually identical to the shielded instrument cables mentioned above. In a home studio, however, these cables aren’t really that necessary, it isn’t often you are going to want to blast sound out at high volumes and so I would probably stick to just buying shielded instrument cables in the majority of cases.

Recommended Cable: Peavey PV Speaker Cables

1/4 inch TRS, Balanced Jack or Stereo Jack

Another cable with a 1/4 inch jack to add to your collection is a 1/4 inch TRS cable.  As you can see from the image below they look almost identical but have two little black hoops rather than just one as in the standard instrument cable. You may have already guessed that this, therefore, means the connection is stereo and thus is capable of carrying a stereo signal (separate left and right channels).

The letters TRS stand for Tip, Ring, Sleeve. The tip is the bit at the end of the jack, the ring is between the two black hoops and the sleeve is below the second black hoop.

To achieve a balanced connection (as I spoke about above) you need a cable such as the 1/4 inch TRS that is capable of carrying a stereo signal. This is so you can have the two channels cancelling each other out as the sound travels down the cable (no noise) and then one reversing to produce sound.

So if your keyboard or synth has an output the right size for a 1/4 inch jack and says (balanced), then even if it says ‘mono’ you should use a TRS cable to achieve minimal noise interference. Double check the manual of whichever instrument or piece of equipment you are using to see if you see the word balanced connection.

Recommended Cable: CableCreation Instrument Cable

You don’t need to break the bank on instrument cables, these from cable creation have always served me just fine. Get yourself a few different lengths so you always have options in the studio.

1/8 Inch Cable/ Connector or ‘Headphone’ Jack

Day to day probably the most commonly seen type of audio connection is the 1/8 inch minijack. Most often seen on iPod headphones this is one of the smaller connections you are likely to use in the studio.

The 1/8 inch is usually always a TRS connection and so you should see two black hoops and it is capable of transmitting stereo sounds.

There aren’t many places in the home studio where you see these connections but they do pop up. One example is with the miniature Korg Volca synths. I previously wrote an entire article on how to connect these to the computer to record. The audio output on these (because of their size) is a 1/8 inch. You can connect them to one another using small 1/8 patch cables such as the one below.

Or if you want to connect them to an audio interface you need a Y cable in order to record in stereo (onto two channels) as shown below.

XLR or Microphone Cable

The XLR connection is a balanced connection and is used in situations where a secure connection with minimal noise is desired. The most common use of an XLR cable is therefore for microphone cables. They used to be used in speaker connections too but these have pretty much all been replaced by other inputs such as the Speakon (see below). So microphones are pretty much the only time you will use these cables in your home studio.

XLR cables have a female and male connection with female plugs usually receiving the output signal and male plugs usually plugging into inputs. So the male usually goes into the female (it’s basic biology!).

The input consists of 3 pins a positive, negative and ground.

Recommended Cable: GLS Audio Mic Cable

Again as always with this site I won’t go recommending fancy cables I’ve never used. Yes, there may be slightly better cables out there, but I have never had any issues with a simple GLS mic cable. Reasonable price, long and good sound quality, what more do you need?

RCA

These are the types of cables you may be familiar with from your Hi-Fi. RCA actually stands for Radio Corporation of America, making them instantly sound like the least cool cable in the world.

They are another older connection, common in the 1940s and you shouldn’t come across them too often in the home music studio. Some DJ mixers use them still as do some speakers.

Recommended Cable: KabelDirekt RCA Stereo Cable

I’m sure they’re all great really

MIDI

A MIDI cable is used to carry MIDI signals (sorry for pointing out the obvious). I recently wrote an entire ‘Beginner’s Guide to MIDI’, so if you really want to get nerdy on the subject of MIDI then check that out. But in quick summary MIDI is a digital signal rather than an audio signal and so these cables carry ‘information’ in the form of things like pitch and velocity which is then interpreted by either a piece of equipment that can understand MIDI, such as some synthesizers or by a computer.

A MIDI cable is quite distinct with 5 pins (male at both ends). You will need MIDI cables if you have older vintage synths which don’t have a USB connection. If you have a more modern synth you are less likely to require a MIDI cable as MIDI data can now be transferred via USB.

Recommended Cable: Roland MIDI Cable

Speakon Cable

One of the more modern cables is the Speakon cable. The cable was designed by a company called Neutrik who wanted a cable that could carry very high-frequency sounds. They are primarily used again for connecting speakers to amplifiers and you are probably not going to have much need for them in the home studio.

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous rock star....but that hasn't stopped him from writing and recording music in his home studio. Rob has over 15 years experience of recording music at home.

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