Cables can be confusing. They’re all essentially lengths of wire with connectors at the end, but there are so many varieties out there. After this, you should hopefully have a clearer idea of what cable does what and why there are so many.
¼ Inch Jack
Quarter inch connections are one of the more common connectors when dealing with musical equipment. They are used with instruments, vocals, P.A and DJ equipment.
To avoid worrying too much about which cable is which, it is a good idea to focus on the application of a cable when purchasing them, rather than the science behind it!
For most electric instruments, be it a guitar, bass or keyboard, an instrument cable will do the job just fine. These are usually shielded, mono cables. They will vary in length from many metres for large stages, or a matter of inches for use as patch-cables. Generally, straight-jacks will be used, but in many guitar cables right-angled jacks will be common.
When connecting speakers, a speaker cable is recommended. Speaker cables are usually unshielded mono cables designed for use between speakers and a source of amplification. This can be from a guitar amp head to a speaker cabinet, or from a power amp to passive speakers.
Usually, balanced jack-jack cables are used for passing audio signals which might be susceptible to interference. For example, connecting PA speakers together or to a mixing desk. This ensures that while performing or recording the audio will be clear and uninhibited. Some microphones might require a ¼ inch connection, in which case, a balanced cable would be the best option here.
When using microphones, mixing desks or PA speakers, an XLR cable is a very common requirement. They are a balanced connector with three pins on the male connector, and three corresponding holes on the female connector.
It’s hard to go wrong when purchasing an XLR cable, generally a male-female cable will do the job. Most input sources such as a microphone or the output of a mixing desk, anything that produces the signal will connect to the female XLR connector. Where, most outputs such as the input of a mixer or an active speaker will connect to the male connector.
There may be deviations to this rule, so it’s important to think about what you need. Sometimes you may need a cable that has a different connector, such as a ¼ inch jack, on one end of the cable.
The 3.5mm Jack is incredibly common in day to day use. Most commonly used and seen on headphones, nearly every phone, computer or car has a 3.5mm connection.
3.5mm Jack cables aren’t used massively in music, but they are still very prevalent. A standard 3.5mm jack to jack cable will find most use as an AUX cable. Either connecting a phone or other device to a method of amplifying that signal. Often this will be a speaker, car stereo or mixing desk.
There are occasions where 3.5mm cables are used elsewhere. Some microphones require this connection, or certain synths use these as patch cables, such as the Korg Volca series.
In many cases, 3.5mm connectors are used in conjunction with another cable type such as a ¼ inch jack or XLR.
The RCA cable isn’t a common one outside of HiFi or home audio usage. Mostly used to connect speakers to devices such as stereo systems or audio interfaces. They are usually colour coded with the red connector as the “right” channel, and white (though occasionally black) connector as the “left” channel. RCA connectors can be prone to buzzing due to grounding issues in the design, which means they aren’t always ideal.
Yet another method of connecting a speaker to an amplifier. Speakon cables were designed to remove the ambiguity between different cables, such as instrument cables and speaker cables. Speakon cables are only ever used for connecting loudspeakers to an amplifier. They also feature locking connectors that are rated for higher currents than ¼ inch jacks or XLR connectors. Speakon are much more robust than its counterparts.
The Speakon cable still isn’t anywhere near as common as the more traditional types. Though, these have found popularity in the Electric Bass world. Many bass amplifiers will use a Speakon connector between a head and a cabinet.
A MIDI cable is used to transfer data from a MIDI device to something that can receive a MIDI signal. Home-studios and live setups are the most common applications.
Signal is transmitted from a MIDI Controller into an audio interface for recording. No audio signal gets transmitted in this process. The MIDI signal sends the information of what note is being played and the velocity of the note. Along with this, any controls that are being used are communicated through this cable. This is a simplified explanation of the process, but covers the basic idea!
Others are available, though these are often specialised, this usually means less chance for confusion! If any specific advice or guidance is needed then feel free to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01283 535333 (option 1).