Wire energy: Audio cable basics for recording music with quality sound

I was thinking recently about how many times I was at a recording studio or on a stage where live music was being performed and there was some sort of a problem. (Well… of course, there are always issues of some sort – I’m not talking about  someone being late, someone behaving like a diva, or someone being embarrassingly untalented and playing the wrong chord. Can’t help you there!) Some type of audio or audio cable issue is almost guaranteed to come up. And the truth is, there’s more to audio cables than meets the eye.

Related: Meet Ray Dryden, Audio Engineer


audio cablesThe type of problem we’re talking about here relates to connectivity: the physical connection between (1) the sound that’s being produced by instruments and voices and (2) the equipment that lets us reproduce live music, record, or simply measure what we hear. I frequently discover equipment that’s not performing as it should – simply because it has not been properly connected! Now, I can’t sit here and boast and tell you I’ve got all the answers; I’m merely a work in progress. I have only a basic knowledge on how sound gets from point A to point B. With this in mind, I will keep this article fairly basic and non-technical, and in the process, hopefully inspire you to think about correctly wiring your music equipment and related tools together in a way that maximizes the quality of the music.

Tracking: A key process in music recording

Let’s start by forgetting about sound for a minute. (What? That’s right – I said forgetting about sound! Just for a minute, OK?)

Related: Large vs small recording studios

When electronics are involved, we have to speak in a different language, with words like…

…and the like.

As humans, we hear music with ours ears. Unfortunately, our ears are very inaccurate when it comes to detecting a good signals vs bad signals. Our music and related sound is converted into an electrical current which flows through seemingly endless wires – each of which is energized to a specific level. Without the proper wire and the proper energy, the end result is, well, not very musical.

Analog transmission vs. digital transmission

audio cablesI said forget about sound, but there is a similarity inside a wire. The electrical current mimics the sound waves as it travels from molecule to molecule. This energy travels in the form of electromagnetic waves at about the speed of light, reproducing the same frequencies as the music. What I have just described is analog transmission.

Analog transmission is a transmission method of conveying information using a continuous signal which varies in amplitude, phase, or some other property in proportion to that information. (Source: Wikipedia)

Digital transmission is very different. In digital aka data transmission, the frequencies are converted to ones and zeros, so the wire is transmitting digital data or an electronic code. It still travels at around the speed of light and at the other end it is decoded into the frequencies that our ear recognizes as sound. Of course I am assuming that we already know how the music gets into the wire and out of the wire. Yes, microphones, amplifiers, electric instruments, computers, and speakers, just to name a few. However our focus is the wire and how it connects all of those devices.

Digital/data transmission and data reception (or, more broadly, data communication or digital communications) is the transfer and reception of data (a digital bitstream or a digitized analog signal[1]) over a point-to-point or point-to-multipoint communication channel. Examples of such channels are copper wires, optical fibers, wireless communication channels, storage media and computer buses. The data are represented as an electromagnetic signal, such as an electrical voltage, radio wave, microwave, or infrared signal. (Source: Wikipedia)

There are are good wires and bad wires. Good wires are the ones where what goes in, comes out the other end just the same as when it started. The same energy, the same frequencies or data, etc. are transported in a wonderfully accurate manner. Do I have to tell you what a bad audio cableswire is? That’s what we are here for, to eliminate that bad wire. I like to cut the ends off when I find one and usually I reward myself with a good laugh. Most often they have been damaged in some way.

Related: Tracking: A key process in music recording

I hate to admit it but more than once I have cut the ends off of a perfectly good wire – oops! I fixed it later. So let’s start calling wires, cables, basically a wire with a connector or plug at each end. It’s the plug at each end that gives the wire a useful place.

Now comes the trick of choosing which cable to use for what. The cables are generally separated into groups based on how much energy a cable will need to transmit. For instance, an electric guitar cable uses a very small current and works well when plugged into a guitar amp. You would never use a guitar cable to connect an amplifier to a speaker; you need a speaker cable for that.( Speaker cables are much thicker wires so they can carry much stronger current that will drive the speaker.)

How to tell which cable is which

audio cablesHere is the problem, or a confusing thing at least: The plug on the end of a guitar cable is also the same type of plug that is used for some speakers. So how do you tell which audio cable is which? In most cases, there is printing on the side of the wire that the cable is made of. In the case of the guitar cable, it will be printed that it is an instrument cable; if it is a speaker cable, it will be labeled as a speaker cable. This is an extremely simplified example so you must determine which cable is which.

Few things in life – in my life, at least – are more irritating than a musician who doesn’t know how to hook up his own gear… you know, that guy who’s always telling the sound person how to do their job. Let’s move on.
Types of audio cables used at recording studios

Putting audio cables to the test

It’s definitely true: The better cable you buy, the better sound you will get. It is also good to have matching cables (same brand, same type, etc.).

I once did a test with three microphones using the same mics and the same channel settings. I used three different old cables to hook them up. Each mic had a completely different tone and volume in a stage monitor. I then used three identical newer and better quality cables and the difference was amazing; each mic sounded like the others, complete with a nice, rich tone.

Dickson recording studio open for business – Tresbear Music

The bottom line

If you use quality audio cables and pay enough attention to consistently use the correct connections with the correct cables, then you will be rewarded with good sound. It really is that simple!

Thanks for visiting Tresbear Music, and thanks for checking out this audio cable article. If you like it, please share the link with your musician friends and audiophile mates!

Ray Dryden, Audio Engineer

Resources: Wire Energy – Audio cables for recording music

Here are some related resources which go into far more technical detail than I did in this article. On these sites, you can learn more about audio cables in music production than I’ll ever know!

Related: Basic equipment needed for a recording studio