Alright, we’re going to start off today’s article with a little very well-known quote that I’m sure pretty much everyone out there has heard at one point or another: you’re only as strong as your weakest link. It can apply pretty much anywhere. In football, if you have a weak secondary defense you’re likely to get burned. If your car is top notch but the breaks give out… you’re probably going to need the Jaws of Life to pry you out of there. When it comes to music, it is most definitely true. You can have an amazing guitar, top of the line preamps and the best of the best pickups but if your amplifier has seen better days, the end result is probably not going to be what you had hoped for. Now, there’s a very important part of the equation that is often neglected – especially by rookie home studio producers – and that is the very important role of the cable. Do you happen to be one of those players out there that simply thinks all cables are one and the same? Well, I’m here to tell you that that is in fact NOT true. Don’t worry though, I’m not suggesting that anyone go out there and buy yourself a one hundred dollar cable (unless its gold-plated, diamond tipped and can play a mean rendition of Hendrix’s National Anthem). There are plenty of very affordable HIGH QUALITY cables out there that you can easily employ as part of your sonic team but the only way you’ll know if you’re making the right choice is by knowing what exactly too look for in these important pieces of the chain.
Not All Cables Are Built the Same
To get down to brass tacks, there are essentially three main things you should look for in an instrument/studio cable; type, length and quality. Each is pretty important, wouldn’t you say? How good is an XLR cable if you really need a ¼ inch or a 5ft cable when you really need 10? Anyways, you probably saw a mile away where I am going with this. Of the three, the first two seem pretty self-explanatory, but there are still a few things you should consider. Between XLR, ¼ inch, RCA and MIDI, you pretty much have every kind of cable you can possibly need for your typical home studio. Sure, you might need a USB or Firewire cable for certain devices that explicitly call for computer data transfer but chances are you already have those lying around somewhere. Now, of these four types, the instrument cable (¼ inch) comes in two varieties – balanced and unbalanced. Never heard of it? Heard of it but not sure how it matters?
Balanced and Unbalanced Cables
Out of all of the studio centric cables mentioned, none are as versatile as the instrument cable. Besides being able to connect every single type of electric instrument known to man (American man by the way… I can’t vouch for any other country after finding out my phone charger doesn’t work on European sockets) they are also used make connections between speakers, mixers, preamps, effects pedals, monitors, rackmounts… you get the point. Yes, very versatile indeed, but what gives with the whole balanced and unbalanced thing and what kind should I use? Well, let me break it down.
Unbalanced cables are essentially the most basic kind of studio cables you can find. These guys are sometimes also known as TS cables due to the two wires used to transfer a signal from its source; the first wire is a voltage reference known as "ground" (or "shield", sometimes even "earth") while the second wire carries the signal and is known as the "hot wire.” As far as that TS goes, the T stands for “Tip” (which represents the hot wire that carries the signal) while the “S” is in reference to the “Sleeve” (which represents the ground wire). Unbalanced cables are very simple and pretty effective in most cases but they do have a huge glaring problem – these kind of cables are more easily susceptible to outside interferences (which we hear as noise and hum) and the problem only gets worse the longer the cable gets.
Balanced cables are essentially the same as unbalanced in that they also contain a “hot wire” and “shield” but combat that annoying noise by adding a “cold wire.” This three part cable also has an appropriate acronym – TRS – where T again stands for “Tip” (hot wire) R for the “Ring” (which represents the cold wire) and S for the “Sleeve” (ground). As far as what that extra “cold wire” does, it basically carries an identical signal as the hot wire – only it’s upside down. Those of you familiar with how humbucking pickups cancel noise should have already had that bulb light up as soon as they read upside down but for those of you out there who have yet to learn about the very important principles used in humbucking, having two identical signals traveling next to each other in reverse (upside down qualifies) cancels out the frequencies where noise often resides. This is why one humbucker is made up of two single coil pickups (placed in reverse-wound positioning) and how TRS cables combat noise.
Since these kinds of cables employ another wire in the mix, you’re going to have to use them with a differential or balanced input to take advantage of the noise cancelling. Does this mean that hooking up a balanced cable into an unbalanced input won’t work? Not at all; the cable will work, but it will act as unbalanced cable instead since it can’t employ the cold wire – hence – the noise fighting abilities. Same thing goes when placing an unbalanced cable into a balanced input, although the drawback would be that you’re kind of wasting that balanced input, but it’s not a waste if you don’t need it.
It should come as no surprise that TRS cables run for a bit more on average than standard TS’s, but before you go out and spend your dough for that extra consonant, make sure you actually need it first. This is pretty simple actually. Hook up your guitar and amp using any old regular unbalanced cable. Try it out with a studio monitor as well. Hear any slight noise or hum? Not feedback mind you, but slight noise and hum, almost like a buzz even. Most likely not I would imagine. There might be a few very finicky (and very annoying) people out there that SWEAR they can hear this phantom hum but unless you are working with cables that are about 20ft in length or longer, you will most likely not be able to tell the difference in playing a guitar with a balanced or unbalanced cable. Oh, and in case you heard a hum from the guitar to amp but not from the monitors, it’s the pickups – maybe the amp, but I’d put the smart money on the pickups. But I digress.
The Importance of Length and Quality
Alright, we actually already touched a bit on how a cable’s length can contribute to noise but let’s expand on that a bit. You can buy instrument cables in plenty of different sizes but for the most part, something at about 10 to 15 feet should get the job done for most people without it being either too short to move around comfortably with or too long to not keep getting in the way. You should always try to aim a for more than what you need by the way – you never know when that extra 5 feet will come in handy. Anyways, the longer a signal has to travel the more susceptible it is to degradation and fidelity loss. Luckily for us, cables coming in at 15ft don’t experience any noticeable amount of signal loss. It’s there, sure, but the same can be said about 1 foot cables. Once you get into the 20ft range and beyond, then you can start worrying about noticeable signal loss.
As far as quality goes, you’re essentially going to have to pay more for better components as well all already know, but does it make a huge difference? Yes and now, but let me expand on that a bit. Higher quality, more expensive cables are usually built more rugged with a thicker covering, gold plated connectors, balanced wiring and most will even come with a lifetime warranty. Cheaper cables on the other hand are unbalanced, probably not as rugged (doesn’t mean they’re necessarily weak though), use nickel components and generally lower quality hardware. Does it make a difference as far as sound goes? Well, certain people out there will SWEAR by the more expensive variety but for the most part, you’re probably not going to notice any difference between the two but even with that said, the price difference between a standard unbalanced cable and gold plated balanced variety should not be any more than maybe $20 or so, meaning that I would suggest you invest in one even if its solely for the lifetime warranty because as well all know, cables tend to break sooner or later – although I STILL have my original gold component Monster Cable from 10 years back, warranty and all!