You have heard the saying “Use the right tool for the job”… this is especially true for all the cords and cables that connect your bands equipment.
• Does your system hum loudly?
• Do you frequently replace damaged cords?
• Have you fried speakers?
There might not be anything wrong with your equipment. These could all be signs that your band is using the wrong cords for the job.
Let’s go over some super simple basics for those of us that are not technogeeks (amazing soundmen).
Cords and cables have two parts: the actual cord and the ends, or connectors. Each of these parts is designed for specific uses. Your goal is to match the correct ends with the correct cables for your system every time you play.
Types of Ends or Connectors:
• ¼” Phone Plug
• RCA (phono plug)
• XLR (3-pin professional audio connector)
• TRS (stereo phone plug)
You can easily identify which type of connector you have or is needed simply by looking at it. The jacks (places you put the plugs into) are not interchangeable. For example: you cannot plug an XLR plug into a RCA jack – it will not fit. So, knowing what you need is pretty easy.
¼” phone plugs are most often used for instruments and to connect unbalanced line-level (we will talk about this next).
RCA connectors are commonly used for stereo equipment and to connect unbalanced line-level. So, if you are connecting an MP3 or CD player to the system you will probably need and RCA.
XLR’s do not look like any other connector. They have 3 pins (or holes for the pins to go into). This connector is most often used with microphones and for balanced line-level connections.
TRS connectors are generally used with stereo headphones and balanced line-level cables. You may use this for the headphones your soundman plugs into the board.
The connectors are very straightforward – get the ends that plug into and out from where you need them.
Before we move on to the actual cords and cables, you need to have a basic understanding of a balanced signal and an unbalanced signal. Honestly, the technogeeks could probably go on for hours about how this works and why. What you really NEED to know is that lines for unbalanced signals have 1 wire in the cable and lines for balanced signals have 2 wires. Most importantly, they are NOT easily interchangeable, in fact unless you know exactly what you are doing: DO NOT substitute one for another.
For live performances, balanced lines are used when it is important to get the cleanest possible signal without a hum. Microphones almost always use a balanced signal and line. Most often, unbalanced lines are used for instrument cords. The rest of you gear can go either way, depending on the specifications of the manufacturer. Most of the time, cords that have ¼” or RCA connectors are unbalanced. Cables with XLR or TRS connectors are usually balanced.
When you are recording, the problem of picking up noise through cables is almost nonexistent because the studio has complete control of the environment. So, some of the best recording equipment is made to use ¼” connectors with unbalanced lines. We will save that discussion for another time, since most bands do not purchase their own equipment to set up a recording studio.
Once you have the basic concept of a balanced or unbalanced line, you need to consider the signal level. This one is easy – it is the strength of the signal that is put through the cable. Microphones have a weak signal; instruments have a slightly stronger but still somewhat weak signal. Lines have a fairly strong signal and speakers have the strongest signal. Stronger signals need larger wires to carry the signal. So, if you cut open a cable or cord, you would see that microphone cables have very small wires while speaker cables have much larger wires.
The stronger signal of speakers is why you should never use guitar cables for speaker cables. The wires inside are not large enough to handle the signal. If you interchange the cables, they could short, melt, cause shorts and (in extreme cases) fire in your speakers. Do not risk damaging the cords you own and/or hundreds of dollars of repairs to your speakers – buy the correct cords for the job.
The outside of cables and cords is made of plastic or rubber and is called an insulating jacket. It is a safety feature made to protect the wire in the cable and reduce shock from electricity in case of accidents. Although there are many brands of cables, this jacket is usually very similar. The jacket is available in colors but the most common is black.
What is or is not just under the insulating jacket is important to know about… shielding. Shielding is a wire mesh (or piece of foil) that runs the entire length of the cable, surrounding the wires. Of course, this makes shielded cables more expensive than unshielded cables. The function of shielding is to reduce the amount of the noise that is able to interfere with the signal running through the wires. In layman’s terms – shielding cuts down on hum (that buzzing sound you hear when the system is on but no one is playing anything). The quality of shielding is the one factor that most affects the price of the cord per foot.
Cables and cords come is almost any length. The most important idea to remember about length is that the signals has to get from one end to the other – the longer it travels, the more time it has to pick up interference. So, buy the length you need with enough room to expand on larger stages. But, do not buy longer than you need because you will get more hum than necessary on smaller stages (and pay a lot more for your cords).
Here are the most common uses and configurations of cables and cords:
Mic Cables: female XLR to male XLR, balanced, shielded, most people use 20 – 25’
Guitar Cords: ¼” male to ¼” male, unbalanced, shielded, 10’ to 20’ long (depending on how much you move around on stage)
Speaker Cable: can have a variety of connectors depending on the jacks your speakers use, most often is unbalanced, unshielded, 25′ to 50’ is common but length depends on the size of the stage
Patch cords: ¼” male to ¼” male, unbalanced, shielded (NOTE: This is the same as a guitar cord and can be interchanged), 3’ is the most common
Some patch cords are RCA to RCA – typically this is used in your home stereo system (there are 2 connectors on the ends, right and left channels). Still other patch cords are balanced and are used only to connect to pieces of balanced equipment together. Your equipment manufacturers’ specs will tell you if you need this cord.
Now you know the basics about cables and cords. With this basic information you may be able to troubleshoot some of the sound problems most bands experience at live shows. In my experience I have found that old quote to be true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Bands that take the time to make sure they have the right cord for the right job and then label each cord so it gets plugged in to the correct place easily during set up find they experience far less sound issues than bands that do not. I love colored plastic tape… one color for each use with bands name or initials written on the tape using a sharpie marker (to prevent confusion and theft). This one simple trick is worth hundreds of dollars in damaged or lost cords and makes your band look professional to the venues during set up. It decreases confusion and stress before and after the gig, making it possible for you to keep your focus on ministry!
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