“I can’t wait for your article on cables”, my friend replied.
“You can’t be serious”
Despite his reaction, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who’s going to be excited about cords and connectors, but you’ve got to know this stuff. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with technical details or impedance formulas; just the basics you need to get the job done.
As an example, let’s look at an instrument cable:
The common instrument cable is a shielded, two conductor, 1/4″ TS (tip and sleeve), unbalanced cable.
Okay, that sounds complicated, but stay with me. It’s pretty easy to understand when it’s broken down. Let’s break it down.
Shielded vs Unshielded:
There’s a lot of outside forces that attempt interfere with your signal. Radio frequency can leach into your instrument signal through the cable and will introduce noise. Shielding is a metal jacket that lives under the outer rubber jacket that surrounds the wires inside the cable to prevent the interference. Most instrument cables are shielded, speaker cables are not. With this in mind, (among other reasons) speaker cables should not be used as instrument cables.
The number of conductors indicates how many wires are inside the cable. If you cut open an instrument cable and through the shield, you’ll discover two plastic coated wires. Two wires are required to circuit, a signal wire and a ground wire, so an instrument cable can send one signal. The ground wire can be shared, so a three conductor cable can carry two signals (Think stereo – Left and Right Signals),
The connector (Plug or Jack):
The first thing in that list is the connector: ¼” refers to the width of the plug. The following connectors are common:
⅛” – Typically found on headphones and consumer devices. Casually referred to as an “Aux Cord”. Two or three conductors.
¼” – Typically found on instruments. Two or three conductors.
XLR – Typically found on microphones and DI Boxes (1) Three conductors.
RCA (Phono) – Typically found on recorders and playback devices, typically in a stereo pair. Two conductors.
Speakon – Found on Unpowered Speakers
Still with me? Cool! Just a couple more to get through…
TS Vs. TRS
⅛” and ¼” cables come in two variants, Tip Sleeve (TS or Mono) and Tip Ring Sleeve (TRS or Stereo). TS connectors work with two conductor cables and can send one unbalanced signal, and TRS connectors work with three conductor cables and can send two unbalanced signals or one balanced signal. You can differentiate between the two by counting the insulating rings on the tip of the connector (See above image). One insulating ring = TS, Two = TRS.
Balanced Vs Unbalanced
This one is more complicated. Simplified: unbalanced cables can pick up noise and hum across long distances and shouldn’t be longer than 20’. Balanced cables send an extra copy of the signal to prevent interference and can be run for hundreds of feet. XLR cables are the balanced cable of choice, but ¼” TRS cables are sometimes used as well.
Most analog instruments put out an unbalanced signal. If you need to run a long cable out of an unbalanced instrument you’ll need to convert it to a balanced signal using a direct box to convert the unbalanced signal to balanced. A ¼” to XLR cable should almost never be used as it can not convert the signal to balanced. (2)
There’s still discussion of gauge and impedance, but this should be enough to be confidently grab the right cable when you need one. Hit me up in the comments section or on your social media platform of choice if you have any questions.
- Until researching this article, I had know idea what XLR stood for. It’s Canon (X) Series, (L)ocking connector made with synthetic (R)ubber.
- Unless your instrument has a ¼” TRS Balanced output. Then, this cable is acceptable. The Taylor expression system pickups are the most notable example of this configuration.