What Does The Damn Thing Actually Do And How Does This All Work? – Part 6: Cables And Connectors

This is part 6 of our series of blog posts with simple explanations for the most common terms in audio, as well as features and functions found on recording studio equipment. The resource to end the confusion and help you focus on creating amazing music!

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Fellow audio nerds, please note:

The explanations are as non-technical and simple, as possible. I want it to be practical and useful and I don’t care if everything is 100% scientifically correct. All that matters to me are the results that the people who read this will hopefully get.

It’s not meant to be an academic piece of work on audio technology and if you are an experienced engineer who thinks this is stupid, then I’m really sorry, but this is not for you then. And I can definitely understand your desire for accuracy and your love for nerdy discussions, because I’m a total freak in this regard, myself (just ask my wife). I just think inflating our egos by throwing around complicated terms and definitions is not going to help anyone trying to capture a great song.

Audio Cables And Connectors

General info

Cables and connectors with two cores and pins:
Used for an unbalanced mono signal (unbalanced means more likely to pick up external noise). 

Cables and connectors with three cores and pins:
Used for either a balanced mono signal (less likely to pick up external noise) or an unbalanced stereo signal.

Long cables & weak signals:
balanced is better, because it reduces noise issues.

short cables & strong signals:
unbalanced will work just fine.

Cable Types

Mic Cables

Used to connect a mic to a preamp (mic input on an interface or console). Usually with XLR connectors.

Instrument Cables

Used to connect an instrument to an amp or instrument input (“High-Z”) on a preamp/interface. Usually with ¼-inch Jack connectors.

Speaker Cables

Used to connect an amplifier to a passive speaker. Thicker than instrument cables or patch cables because they have to handle much more powerful signals. That’s why you shouldn’t use your standard guitar cable to connect your amp to the cabinet. Usually with ¼-inch Jack or Speakon connectors. 

Patch Cables

Short audio cables used to connect pieces of audio gear which each other. Usually with ¼-inch Jack, XLR, or TT-Phone connectors

Connector Types

XLR

Circular connector with 3 to 7 pins. Used on microphones and all kinds of professional audio equipment.

Jack (Phone, TS Or TRS)

Connector used on patch cables, instruments, headphones and all kinds of audio gear. Most common are the “big” ¼-inch Jacks and the “small” 3.5mm (0.14-inch) Jacks. There are 2-contact versions (TS, “mono jack”), 3-contact versions (TRS, “stereo jack”) and up to 5-contact versions. TS and TRS are the most common in audio. 

Cinch

The red and white connectors (left/right) you will find on most consumer audio gear. Not really common or useful in pro audio.

Bantam (TT-Phone)

A smaller kind of jack connector. Used on patchbays to save space and provide a stable, safe, “pro standard” patch connection.

Patchbay

A panel with many connectors in the back and front that allows you to quickly reconnect pieces of gear, or change the order of gear in a chain without having to climb behind the rack, or plugging cables in and out of the actual gear itself. The gear stays connected to the back of the patchbay. In the front, the connections are made and changed through short patch cables.

Data Cables And Connectors

USB

Used to send digital data back and forth between the computer and the interface

Thunderbolt

Used to send digital data back and forth between the computer and the interface

Firewire

Used to send digital data back and forth between the computer and the interface

ADAT

Optical connection, used to send digital data back and forth between multiple interfaces, converters and other digital audio gear. Often used to extend an interface with an additional converter, so it can send/receive more inputs/outputs to/from the computer.

MIDI

An old standard to send data back and forth between digital devices. Some interfaces still have MIDI connectors, but nowadays MIDI data is usually sent via USB or Thunderbolt.


These are the other posts in this series:

  • General Audio Terms

  • The Production Process

  • Routing And Processing

  • Microphones And Mic Accessories

  • Preamps, Converters, Interfaces

  • Computer, Software And Audio Files

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