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There’s a good chance you’ve handled all, or most, of these audio cable types already—even if you weren’t explicitly aware of their inner workings and categorization. In any case, a fundamental step toward becoming a well-rounded audio engineer is knowing how to connect all of the pieces of a recording or live sound system properly. That’s where all these audio cable types come in.
The Difference Between Analog & Digital Cables
This is actually pretty simple. An analog cable, such as an XLR, sends information using electricity. A great example is a condenser microphone; it receives phantom power from your interface or preamp through an XLR cable to fire it up, and then converts the acoustic energy at the other end and sends it back down the XLR pipeline for recording.
On the other hand, digital cables stream information through long chains of binary code. The simplest example of that is how we connect our hardware interface to our computer via USB.
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Connections
The next step you’ll want to understand about audio cable types is balanced vs. unbalanced connections. Balanced cables have three wires inside: a positive conductor (hot), a negative conductor (cold), and a ground. Balanced cables are mostly free from interference over long runs, and that’s because of the two signal wires: if noise enters the cable, the cold conductor (which carries the same signal as the hot one) has its polarity flipped to cancel out the noise.
Unbalanced cables have only a single conductor wire and ground. They’re more prone to interference, but we still use them all the time (e.g., guitar cables).
Shielded cables provide an extra layer of resistance from external noise and interference. This consists of copper wiring surrounding the internal conductors, usually in a braided pattern, a spiral pattern, or a thin layer of aluminum known as foil shielding.
The amount of and style of shielding typically comes down to the quality of the cable.
Different Audio Cable Types & Their Uses
What Are You Using It for?
Well, the most obvious factor in determining which audio cable type to use is what you’re trying to accomplish. Realistically, we’re just trying to match the connections from our equipment to our interface, mixer, amplifier, speaker, etc. If it seems fairly straightforward, that’s great! Our equipment will ultimately dictate the cables we use, simplifying things just a bit.
TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) cables are a style of balanced analog cable with a 1/4″ connection. You’ll know it’s a TRS cable if you look at the tip of the connector and it has two rings around it near the top.
TRS cables can create balanced mono connections, as well as unbalanced stereo connections. A good example of a balanced mono signal is using a TRS to connect to a line in/out on your interface—e.g., from your interface monitor outputs to your speaker monitor.
TRS connections are unbalanced when both conductors are used to send stereo information. The most common example of that is the headphone output on your interface.
TS (tip-sleeve) cables are a type of unbalanced analog cable with a 1/4″ connection. You’ll know it’s a TS cable if you look at the tip of the connector and it has one ring near the top.
TS cables are also known as guitar cables or instrument cables. We use them all the time, such as from a guitar to the amplifier, as patch cables between effects pedals, from certain synths and drum machines, and more.
XLR cables are a type of balanced analog cable with a proprietary three-pin male or female connector. They’re the pro audio standard for their resistance to interference, even over very long runs.
XLR cables are most frequently used to connect microphones to hardware, but you’ll also find XLR connections on powered speaker monitors, PA systems, mixers, certain instruments with XLR I/O, and more.
RCA cables are type of unbalanced analog cable with a stereo pair of connectors. Usually there is a red connector for the right channel and a white connector for the left channel.
The most common use for RCA cables in audio is for connecting DJ equipment like turntables and mixers, though you’ll also find RCA frequently in home A/V setups.
Speakon cables are a unique type of unbalanced analog cable with a proprietary locking connector. These cables are specifically used for connecting speakers to amplifiers.
You’ll commonly use Speakon cables to connect stage monitors to power amplifiers, and sometimes from an instrument amplifier to a speaker cabinet, as is the case for some bass amplifiers.
Digital Audio Cables
Now that we have the analog stuff out of the way, we can explore several kinds of digital audio cables.
Apart from USB, MIDI is probably the most common digital cable type for smaller setups and home studios. MIDI cables don’t send sound signal, but instead transmit event information from a MIDI device to another device.
As far as home studios are concerned, you’ll mostly see MIDI used to send OUT from a keyboard or controller to go IN to a MIDI interface, or a MIDI input on an interface or mixer.
ADAT is a type of optical cable which can carry multiple channels of digital audio through a single cable. It can carry eight channels at 48 kHz or four channels at 96 kHz. For example, you might have a multichannel microphone preamp, in which you could use ADAT to send all channels from the preamp to your interface.
Dante isn’t a cable type itself, but rather a system of tightly packaging video and hundreds of channels of audio for transmission over Ethernet cables. While you won’t find Dante in a home studio, the system is a practical solution for simplifying A/V for houses of worship, arenas/stadiums, commercial recording studios, and more large arrangements.
Finally, we have the most recognized digital cable of them all: USB. In the studio, USB cables have the power to carry audio, power (in the case of “bus-powered” interfaces and equipment), and sometimes MIDI information as well. Most of us already have a USB audio interface, a USB MIDI controller, and more.
- RELATED: Best USB Audio Interfaces for $100 or Less
- RELATED: Does Speaker Wire Gauge for Your Monitors Really Matter?
Got your studio all wired up? Time to “wire up” your mix chops with our very own Warren Huart in his course Mixing in the Box!