When building a home recording studio, you’ll think about everything from computers, audio interfaces, studio monitors, and the like. While all these are important, one overlooked aspect is the cables and connectors. Whether connecting your mic to an interface, interface to a computer, or computer to studio monitors, cables remain an integral part of your home studio setup.
In this post, I’ll cover the common studio audio cables, digital vs. analog cables, balanced vs unbalanced, mic vs line vs instrument cables, different cable shielding, and cable organization. This will help you learn more about the types of cables you’ll encounter. Enjoy.
Common Recording Studio Audio Cables & Connectors
1. Audio Interface Cables
An audio interface connects your microphones and other music gear to your computer. Before you settle on your audio interface, make sure it has the right connections to connect to your computer. Below are the common connectivity options for an audio interface to your computer.
- USB – Many audio interfaces will connect to your computer via USB. This is the most common connectivity option because it is found on almost all computers, MACs, and PCs. USB audio interfaces draw power from the computer or host device, which makes them great for recording on the go. For a beginner home studio, the USB connection works just fine.
- FireWire – This is slightly faster than USB connectivity and is more reliable when recording multiple channels simultaneously. The disadvantage of FireWire connectivity is that fewer audio interfaces use it. You might need to install a FireWire PCIe card to use the connection if you’re using a PC.
- Thunderbolt – Thunderbolt is the newest connectivity option for audio interfaces. It is incredibly fast and has very low latency. Thunderbolt 3 is currently found on the latest Macs and is twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2, which is eight times faster than USB 3. Thunderbolt connections’ high data transfer rates are suitable for demanding recording studios.
Besides USB, FireWire, and thunderbolt, an audio interface can also connect to your computer via Apple 30-pin, Lightning connectors, and PCIe cards.
2. MIDI Cables
Short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, MIDI cables connect electronic musical devices such as keyboards, drum machines, and synths to a MIDI or audio interface, which then connects to your computer. MIDI cables do not transmit the audio signals; instead, they transmit instructions on how the audio will be reproduced, such as the tempo, pitch, and volume.
The 5-pin DIN MIDI connector has been around for over 40 years, and its first protocol used. Although it’s still available, the 5-pin connector has lost popularity to USB, which has become a standard in most computers. Modern MIDI instruments and controllers now feature a USB-MIDI port, which allows you to directly connect a MIDI device to your computer without the need for an interface.
3. XLR Cables
XLR cables are another essential component of home and professional studios. They are usually used for transmitting analog audio from microphones to mixers or sn audio interfaces. The XLR connector is also used to connect an output device, such as an amplifier, to a powered speaker.
A cylindrical body characterizes an XLR connector with three pins, but there are other variants with two to six pins. XLR cables transmit a balanced audio signal, which filters out any signal interference that may degrade the audio quality. Because cables used to connect mics to a mixer or amplifiers to speakers are long, they are more susceptible to picking up unwanted noise and interference. XLR cables come in handy because they can filter out these audio imperfections for better audio fidelity.
4. TS Cables
TS, short for ‘TIP, SLEEVE,’ has two contact points and can refer to either 1/4″ or 1/8″ connectors. The TS connector is one of the most basic types of audio connector in the market. The 1/4″ jack TS cable is the one used mostly in a recording studio to connect guitars to amps and other line-level instruments, such as digital pianos and keyboards, to an audio interface.
TS cables are also known as mono cables because they transmit only one signal. They also transmit unbalanced audio signals, which means you risk getting interference or other issues that might degrade the audio quality. TS cables are shorter to avoid interference, so there is a low risk of degrading the audio quality.
5. Optical Cables
Optical cables, also known as light pipes or fiber optics, transfer audio data using light. They will flash intermittently in different patterns to transfer data. In a studio setup, an optical cable is used for connecting preamps to the audio interface or sending your mixes from an interface to monitor speakers. Optical cables can transmit two types of digital audio signals: ADAT and S/PDIF, aka TOSLINK.
- ADAT – ADAT, short for Alesis Digital Audio Tape, is the most commonly used in the studio of the two. ADAT can carry up to 8 channels of audio at 24bit/48 kHz. Another benefit of ADAT is that it is ‘hot-pluggable.’. This means you do not need to turn off your equipment when plugging or unplugging. The connector avoids ground loops, which can cause a buzz, hum, and other audio problems.
- S/PDIF – This carries only two audio channels and is less commonly used in a studio setup. However, S/PDIF is not limited to the sample rate like ADAT, which is locked to 48 kHz (8 channels) or 96 kHz (4 channels).
6. Word Clock Cables
These are coaxial cables with a BNC connector at each end. Word clock cables are used in a recording studio to sync the internal clocks of different connected digital devices.
Digital devices use an internal clock to keep time while processing and playing audio. When connected, two devices must be referenced to the same device. If they are not referenced to the same device, the difference in clock timing causes pops and clicks in the audio.
Using a word clock cable, you can set a ‘master clock’ device and other devices as ‘slave’ units. Slave units sync to the master clock device, thus avoiding differing tolerances in the clock timing that can cause those audible pop-and-click sounds.
Digital vs Analog Audio Cables
There are two types of audio signals, analog and digital. What are their differences? Which is better?
The difference between analog and digital audio cables is how they transmit audio signals. Analog cables transmit information via a stream of electricity. In contrast, digital cables transmit information via a binary stream of 1s and 0s.
While digital audio signals should interpret analog signals, most people can still discern the differences. Analog audio is warm, has more texture, and represents the original sound. Digital sound is described as somewhat cold and lacks the nuances of analog audio. In a home recording studio, producing analog audio would require a studio full of different equipment, which is only viable sometimes. Digital audio production is cheaper; you can record a whole album with a computer, DAW, and microphone.
Examples of digital cables used in a home recording studio are MIDI, Thunderbolt, FireWire, USB, and Optical. You have XLR, TS, RCA, and TRS for analog audio cables. Analog cables are further categorized into balanced vs. unbalanced and the level at which balanced and unbalanced audio signals are transmitted.
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Audio Cables
The major difference between balanced and unbalanced audio cables is the purity of the audio signal. Balanced audio signals have a low risk of picking up unwanted noise, while unbalanced audio signals can pick up unwanted noise, which you’ll hear in the form of buzzing and humming noise. Here’s a simple explanation below.
Balanced Audio Cables
A balanced audio cable has three conductor wires in the cable: Two are audio signal wires, and one is a ground wire. When balanced audio is transmitted, it is sent out with two copies of the same audio signal but with reversed polarities. As the audio signals travel down the wires, they’ll pick up noise and other interference. However, at the output, the polarity is reversed, which cancels out the noise, and results in a pure audio signal.
Because balanced cables have a low risk of picking up signal interference, they are used in longer connections, like microphones to interface or amplifiers to speakers. Some connectors that carry balanced audio signals are XLR and TRS.
Unbalanced Audio Cables
An unbalanced audio cable has two conductor wires: One is the signal wire, and the other is the ground wire. When an audio signal is transmitted, it travels along the signal wire. The ground wire also carries a part of the audio signal but also shields the main audio signal wire from interference. However, it also acts as an antenna and can pick up noise.
The lack of a third wire means there is no noise cancellation. Unbalanced audio cables thus transmit noise they pick up along the way to the output device. To reduce noise and interference, unbalanced cables work best for shorter distances, such as connecting the guitar to the amp. In a space with interference, the maximum length of unbalanced cables should be 15-20 feet.
Mic vs. Instrument vs. Line vs. Speaker Levels
Both analog and digital audio signals can be used to transfer four levels of audio signals: mic level, instrument level, line, and speaker levels.
- Mic Level – These are signals generated by your mic. They are the weakest or lowest of four signals and require a preamplifier to boost them to line or instrument level.
- Instrument Level – These fall between the mic and line level and refer to any output by an instrument. These include electric guitars and basses. A DI box is used to convert the instrument to a low-line level.
- Line Level – This is the standard and highest signal strength for most pro audio equipment. They flow in your recording system after a preamplifier stage and before an amplifier stage. Line levels can further be categorized into consumer and professional line levels.
- Speaker Level – These are signal levels post-amplification. When the line level enters an amplifier, it goes to the speaker at the speaker level. This level is much higher than the line level and requires speakers cables for safer signal transfer. Connecting a mic or another audio gear to the speaker level can damage it.
Cable Shielding Explained
Cables can be a source of picking up electromagnetic interference as they transmit audio signals. Shielding the cable combats these effects and improves the audio quality. The shield surrounds the wires, which reflects electromagnetic interference or picks it up and conducts it to the ground. Cables come with varying degrees of shielding, which determine where the cable is used and the cost of the cable. There are three main types of shielding in audio cables, which are foil, braid, and serve shield.