Audio Cables Guide: 9 Most Used Connectors for Your Music Needs

Audio Cables Guide

The thing I hate most about cables isn’t the mess. It isn’t the tangling, the constant setting up and packing up, the winding down or the storage. It isn’t even tripping over them.

No, the thing I hate about cables is that, when it comes to having a music studio, they’re an absolute necessity. These irritating, snake-like beings sit there smugly knowing that as much as you’d like to toss them into an inferno and never see them again, you can’t.

I dream of a world one day where Bluetooth connectivity — or a similar technology — is powerful enough that instruments, hardware and computers can all be linked without latency, dropouts or lesser audio clarity. However, for now I must bite my tongue and bide my time…

Why Do We Need Cables?

Audio Cables Illustration

In all seriousness, I am somewhat grateful for the services that cables provide, in spite of their occasional (okay, I really mean constant) inconvenience. Without them, recording music would be a lower-fidelity far more complicated process than it currently is today.

The advent of audio interfaces has allowed for even a layperson to become a professional bedroom producer and sound engineer — without them, we’d still be stuck with cutting up bits of a reel and sticky-taping them back together.

This is of course not to mention that electric guitars wouldn’t connect to amps, a lot of external hardware (pre-amps, delays, pedals etc.) would be non-functional and computers would simply not exist.

What Actually Are Cables? How Do They Work?

Digital vs Analog

Digital vs Analog Audio Cables

There are two main types of cables: analog and digital.

Analog cables work by sending information via a stream of electricity (an electrical signal) from one point to another.

Digital cables work by sending information via a stream of binary code (1s and 0s) from one point to another.

Typically, the stars of the show in your music studio will be analog cables. That said, this article will still touch upon a few digital cables that will often be just as required as a typical instrument cable (MIDI, USB, Thunderbolt, Firewire, Optical, etc.).

However, when categorizing analog cables there are two more instances we must consider: Balanced vs Unbalanced, and the level at which the signal is transmitted.


Mic vs Line vs Instrument Level

As discussed in previous articles — there are three levels of signal that are transmitted via a cable:

Mic Level vs Line Level vs Instrument Level

Line level is the typical level used by most professional audio equipment.

Instruments such as keyboards/synths/digital pianos are generally outputted at line level when being recorded in a signal chain.

Instrument level (aka Hi-Z) is the direct level of guitars and basses transmitted via an instrument cable before being converted to line level by something like an audio interface, or a DI box.

On some audio interfaces, the same input jack can be used for both instrument and line-level signals, but in that case, there’s also a switch that lets you set the correct gain for each signal level (e.g. line, inst/Hi-Z).

Mic level is exactly what it sounds like and the softest of the three — the level output by a microphone, which is then boosted by a preamp to reach line level.


Balanced vs Unbalanced

Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio
Balanced cables are essentially designed to be free from interference — be it from radio, nearby signal transmissions, and other external noise.

Unbalanced cables are not, meaning that they are less ideal for the quiet, clean signals required when listening to music on monitors, for example.

With that said, most instruments (such as electric guitars, keyboards, etc.) have unbalanced outputs, so using a balanced cable with them would be a little pointless — the end result would be exactly the same.

You can usually find out if the outputs/inputs are balanced or unbalanced by looking at what’s written next to the connector or by checking the owner’s manual.

To carry a balanced audio signal you need all the elements to be balanced: output, input, and cable.

When you connect a balanced output to an unbalanced input or through an unbalanced cable, you lose noise protection and the audio signal becomes unbalanced.

However, if all you had were balanced cables it wouldn’t affect your ability to record or hear audio as they can still be used to carry this signal perfectly well — the only issue is the difference in price between a balanced and unbalanced cable.

If you encounter an issue using a TS cable (which is unbalanced) with a guitar; be it clipping, extreme noise (as is common at large cable distances, generally over 15ft) you can use a DI box (direct injection) which converts the unbalanced signal to one more suitable for recording/input into a preamp/mixer, etc.

Radial ProDI Box

Radial ProDI 1-channel Direct Box

Basically, you can convert a noisy instrument or line level signal into a balanced one that can be plugged into your interface’s microphone input (XLR).

The reason unbalanced cables struggle at longer cable lengths relative to balanced ones is due to the wiring — they are less shielded from signal transmissions and the longer they are, the more likely they are to pick up distortion.

However, balanced cables aren’t necessarily required to get high-quality audio for a number of applications. For example, connecting a pair of headphones to a phone’s headphone output will result in an unbalanced connection yet won’t result in crackling and lower audio fidelity.

That is unless your headphone cable stretches from your room to Mercury…

Guitar Cable Length

Also, since the signal coming to headphones is already amplified, the amount of external interference is going to be negligible as opposed to when you’re running a microphone level signal, which is then amplified to line level (with all the distortions that the cable picked up along the way).

Generally speaking, balanced cables are mono, meaning you will need two signals to replicate a stereo sound setting. There are a few exceptions to this though — for example, a five-pin XLR cable, which can transmit a stereo, balanced signal using just the one connection.

I won’t go into any further detail on this cable though, as it is very unlikely you would ever come across it at an amateur, bedroom level.

Different Cable Types

Audio Cable Types

I’m not going to go deep into specifics about each cable. I will provide a base overview, the different forms and uses each cable can provide and that’s it.

If I go really deep into the functions, the physics and the potential uses of each individual cable on the music market, this article would be about 40 thousand words and more boring than _insert your least favorite album here_.

Additionally, I will avoid naming and going into detail regarding every single converter/adapter available unless it is very important.

For the most part, you can convert any prominent and functional cable head into another (e.g. 1/4″ TRS to 1/8” TRS or RCA to TRS, etc.). This also applies to utensils like splitters, power packs.


Analog Connectors

TRS Overview

TRS Cables Overview


TRS (balanced) cables come in a range of sizes — from the standard ‘instrument’ 1/4” (6.35 mm) to 3/32” (2.5 mm). The latter I won’t cover due to their rarity in music studios.

While 1/8” jacks are often used in consumer-grade products such as smart devices and headphones, and 1/4” units are more popular for studio use, they are still fundamentally the same type of cable – TRS.

While it’s only the sizing that separates these cables, differently sized jacks will still typically have unique applications, which I will touch on below.


TRS 1/4” Cable

1/4 TRS Cable

Common Uses: balanced audio equipment (e.g., running your audio interface’s mono Outs to the mono Ins of studio monitors or connecting a mixer’s Outs to a speaker’s Ins), other studio applications where the cable must be longer than approx. 10–15ft, unbalanced stereo signals (if a 1/4″ jack is needed).

TRS cables look very similar to TS ones with one main distinction — they have an extra ring on the jack. These cables are balanced (mono only) and allow for less noise while transmitting a signal between two points.

1/4 TRS Input

They are comprised of a tip, ring and sleeve, hence their title. These are essential in professional studios when attempting to operate balanced objects like certain studio monitors.

It’s worth considering that no matter the size of the cable, TRS jacks can carry unbalanced stereo signals (so connecting headphones to a headphone amp/output) as well as balanced mono signals.

They’re not suddenly going to implode if you use them with an unbalanced mono output (like a guitar), the signal just won’t be balanced.


TRS 1/8” Cable

1/8 TRS Cable

Common Uses: auxiliary inputs and extenders, headphone outputs, listening to your mixes in your car, carrying unbalanced stereo signals (e.g. your phone to your car).

Known as ‘the aux’, this cable is typically used by insufferable your dear friends while playing dreadful fantastic tunes off their phone in the car. In spite of its reputation as a bit of a meme, these cables are actually a very useful tool for any home studio.

Many headphones are connected via one of these cables (often paired with a 1/8” to 1/4” jack adapter) which is their most obvious use.

Unless you’re a bit of a maniac (or… creative genius?), your recordings will be done with headphones to avoid bleed and background noise which is their most obvious use.

Headphones

Many headphones employ the use of 1/8” cables, so you will need a 1/8” to 1/4” adapter to connect them to most audio interfaces or headphone amplifiers.

Additionally, if you have a larger space you may find that a 1/8” TRS female to male extender cable is a necessity so that your headphones can be used in all corners of the room.

The same concept applies to anything else that requires an ‘aux’ cord, including certain speakers, etc.

Car Audio 1/8 Aux In

Finally, I wasn’t joking about listening to your own mixes in your car.

Think about it — where are most people going to actually end up hearing your finished track? It’s probably going to be on a crappy set of earbuds or in their car.

While it’s obviously not a good idea to make major mix decisions based off what you hear in your car speakers, it’s important to know that your master translates properly to the most common method of listening. And to listen to music in a car, what do you need??? (NO! Not all cars have Bluetooth.)

An aux cord.


TS 1/4” Cable

1/4 TS Cable

Common Uses: guitar to amp cables, certain line-level instruments like a keyboard or digital piano to an audio interface, other applications where you need to carry an unbalanced mono signal.

Also known as an instrument cable, TS 1/4” jacks (tip, sleeve) are typically used for, uh, instruments.

Whether it be connecting to an amp or an audio interface from an unbalanced instrument, TSs are your go to jack. They are often quite a bit cheaper than their TRS counterparts.

Guitar Cable TS


 

TRRS 1/8” Cable

1/8 TRRS Cable

You may also run into another cable type called TRRS, which isn’t typically used in a studio setting, so we won’t go into much detail here.

All you need to know is that a lot of modern laptops and smart devices have this jack, which combines a headphone out and a mic in jack into one connector (hence an extra ring on the connector).

This jack is designed to support headphones with a built-in mic that have a TRRS connector (3 isolating rings). The additional ring on the jack is used to carry the microphone signal.1/8 TRRS Phone Jack


Before moving on to the next section, let’s sum up the key differences between TS, TRS, and TRRS cables:

TS vs TRS vs TRRS Audio Cables

Y-Splitter Cables

Y-Splitter Cables

Common Uses: as a headphone splitter, converting mono outputs into a single stereo signal or vice versa (e.g. if your digital piano only has a stereo headphone out, you can use a Y-splitter to connect this to an audio interface, active monitors or a mixing console, etc.), for splitting a single mono signal to two separate mono inputs (playing a guitar on two different amps simultaneously… if you’re insane enough to try).

TRS Splitter Adapter

Y-splitter cables are very popular in music studios and come in a broad range of connectors — from 1/8” TRS to dual XLRs, 1/4” TRS to dual 1/4” TS, to even USBs.

These cables are very useful for converting singular stereo output signals to traditional studio equipment like mixing consoles or audio interface’s mono inputs.

Their most prominent use in everyday studios comes as ‘headphones splitters’, which converts one stereo signal into two separate outputs — meaning you can connect two headphones to the one cable.

This is effective if you have multiple band members in your studio trying to playback certain recordings, or if you just want the convenience of being able to mix on two separate sets of headphones conveniently.

Additionally, TS-TS Y-Splitter cables can be practically used for any application that a regular TS to TS can, with the added bonus of an extra signal if it were to be required.


XLR Male/Female

XLR Male Female Connectors

Common Uses: microphone connections, for situations where balanced connections are required (studio monitors).

XLR male/female cables are most well-known as being ‘the one for the microphone’. With the exception of some USB mics, most microphones will require an XLR male/female jack to connect it to a preamp/mixer/interface, etc.

These cables are balanced, meaning they are also useful for applications that call for a long cable (like a live performance, or a particularly large music studio) as well as other uses for balanced cables that have been discussed previously in the article.

XLR mic input audio interface

Just like with TRS cables, you could run an unbalanced stereo signal via a standard 3-pin XLR, but most XLR inputs typically expect a balanced mono rather than an unbalanced stereo signal, so it’s not common to run a stereo signal via an XLR cable.

There exists a number of hybrid XLR to TS/TRS 1/4” cables which can be used to connect dynamic mics to certain guitar amplifiers, monitors to mixers or microphones to audio interfaces.

These cables work poorly for microphones that require 48V — as TRS cables typically don’t run as smoothly with Phantom Power signals, which are vital for condenser mics.

XLR male jacks have three pins, which lock into the XLR female jack’s three holes. Ignore the innuendo…


RCA Cables

RCA Cables

Common Uses: connecting analog equipment to mixers/amps such as turntables and tape decks.

Like TS cables, RCA cables are unbalanced. They are the typical ‘old’ cables (red and white) that you would use to hook up your old TV so it would get sound.

In spite of the fact they are mostly redundant now in studios, RCA cables still play a role in specific circumstances and are still of use for a few musical applications.

RCA Stereo Output

Typically a DJ equipped with an older turntable will use RCA cables to connect it to a mixer, which is probably their most common use in the musical field.

In my own studio, I use an RCA to TS 1/4” cable in order to connect my tape deck to my audio interface. This allows me to authentically replicate the saturation one gets from recording on tape by sending my computer’s audio through to the tape deck and back again.

Digital Connectors

USB/FireWire/Thunderbolt

Common Uses: connecting things (primarily an audio interface) to your computer.

While I won’t go into detail here, USB cables are also used to connect instruments such as synths, digital pianos and drum machines to your computer to exchange MIDI and, in some cases, audio information.

Which one of these three cables you will need will generally be predetermined by the audio interface you have. Often the expensiveness of the interface will correlate to which of the three cables it will use to transmit data to and from a computer/laptop.


USB type A vs type B vs type C vs FireWire vs Thunderbolt


USB Type B is the cheapest and slowest cable and is the most common among low to mid-tier audio interfaces. It is now slowly being phased out in place of the substantially quicker USB C/USB 3.0.

FireWire is a high-speed data connection which is commonly found on higher-end studio equipment.

Thunderbolt is the highest tier of the three, offering the fastest speeds. It is also the most expensive.

Thunderbolt 3 connection

For amateur/home studios, the type of interface you select shouldn’t really be determined by which of the three cable types it employs — especially as many of the USB B 2.0 machines are being usurped by those employing the much better 3.0.

The difference in latency provided by the different digital cables is considered to be marginal and only really a factor on massive projects or users that prefer portable Macs (which is admittedly a lot of them).

Overall, the merits of using any particular interface cable over another is a rather complex discussion and getting into it would be lengthy and confusing. If you are interested in maximizing your studio though, it’s worth checking out forums like this for more information.


MIDI Cables

5-pin MIDI Cable

Common Uses: connecting MIDI instruments (generally synths, keyboards or digital pianos) and transmitting MIDI data from one point to another

MIDI cables are unique in comparison to other audio cables (like the TS/TRS etc.) in that they do not transmit an audio signal, but rather data (or specifically, event messages) that is read by a computer.

They are commonly used in studios for connecting older keyboards/synths to either an audio interface or directly into a computer (when using a USB to MIDI cable).

MIDI In Out Ports

However, many newer MIDI controllers have foregone the need for a MIDI cable and instead transfer MIDI data (and power) via a simple USB connection to a computer, alleviating the necessity for multiple cables (MIDI IN and OUT).

This connection allows you to control the sounds of VSTis (virtual instruments) via a keyboard instead of having to input the notation data manually, allowing for a smoother, faster and often more musically dynamic process.


Optical Cables

S/PDIF ADAT TOSLINK connectors

Common Uses: for connecting preamps/other additional 8-channel hardware to an audio interface, sending output mixes from an audio interface to an additional pair of speakers/monitors

Probably the last cable that is pretty common among music studios, optical cables comprise two different jacks that communicate data through light-flashes — hence the name optical.

ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) cables are probably more common of the two and are the industry-standard for the addition of preamps and extra audio interface channels to your base audio interface.

For example, the Audient iD14 has the capacity for 10 inputs but the model on its own only supports 2. With the addition of an 8-track preamp/analog-digital converter, you can reach 10 simultaneous inputs for larger recordings. They can also be used for connection to a standalone ADC or headphone/speaker hub.

TOSLINK Optical Input

S/PDIF (Sony/Phillips Digital Interface) that uses TOSLINK connectors, works similarly to ADAT jacks except that they only carry 2 channels of audio as opposed to the ADAT’s 8. Additionally, S/PDIF work independently of sample rate, whereas ADAT is locked to 48 or 96 (if using 4 channels) kHz.

Generally speaking, which of these two cables you will need depends entirely on your hardware’s requirements. There is minimal variation in data transfer quality so this shouldn’t be a factor when choosing your equipment, unlike with audio interface connectors (though this may be ultimately gratuitous, as discussed earlier).


Now that we’ve learned about all the main audio connectors, let’s take a look at the typical audio interface and see what audio ports it has.

Audio Interface Connectors Explained

And here’s one of the setup scenarios on how you can use these ports in your recording studio:

Audio Interface Setup Example


One Last Note on Cable Types

Most other cables that I’ve failed to mention will probably be really niche and only necessary in very specific sets of circumstances.

Considering this article is aimed at amateur artists, not those looking to recreate the conditions Katy Perry’s last album was recorded in, going into it would probably be a waste of time for majority of readers.

For example, a lot of professional studio setups would include BNC cables in order to synchronize all the different pieces of hardware to the same ‘master clock’, avoiding pops, crackles and other disgusting sample-based issues.

Additionally, most of you probably know of ethernet cables (CAT) as those handy fellers that connect your gaming computer to the internet without resorting to the evil, unreliable nature of Wi-Fi.

That is the extent that 99% of home studios would need to use them for, but some very advanced audio interfaces actually use CAT to transmit data due to their ability to avoid additional latency regardless of length.

Spending Money on Cables – How Much Does Quality Matter?

Audio Cable Quality

This is a hotly contested topic — do more expensive cables affect the tone, the sweetness and the fidelity of the signal that is being transmitted?

There’s no real unanimous answer among studio pros and guitar players, which means that the difference in sound is relatively insignificant.

Many claim that there is no physics to support there being a difference in audio tone based on the cable used, yet even so some swear that more expensive cables bring about more beneficial studio results.

It really is up to the user.

However, where more expensive cables do shine is longevity. The soldering and effort in craft for dearer equipment is generally superior, meaning that a $40 cable may last 4 times as long as a $10 one.

If you’re like me, and tend to be a bit clumsy around the tight spaces of your studio (and also treat cables with the general disdain they deserve) paying for the durability is probably worth it, otherwise the difference between cables is pretty marginal.


Cable Organization

Cable Management

If you just heard a scream, it was me from 3000 miles away.

This is a very distressing topic and one that I have yet to master in spite of years of training. That said, I do have a good grasp on the principles of how to keep your studio from becoming a hazardous firestorm — I just continuously fail to implement them.

Do not let my failure dissuade you from one of the most important, frustration-averting skills of working within any musical environment.

The first, rather obvious tip is to avoid letting your studio become a minefield in the first place. Get into the habit of putting away all your cables after use — invent some sort of Ludovico technique where you get shocked upon seeing a tangled cable (just kidding).

Learning how to properly manage and wind cables is key. Turning a 30ft behemoth into a small, aesthetic, oval is a great start – I’m sure we’d all rather wake up to a baby snake than an anaconda in our room. If you’re rather pathetic at winding cables, you can buy a cable winder that, surprisingly, winds cables.

Another product that can help declutter your bedroom studio are ‘audio snakes’ (or multicore cables), which is pretty funny considering all the snake imagery I have been pushing throughout this article.

Essentially, this is a thick cable which combines numerous (from 4 to 40+) jacks into one, easier to manage cable. These also come with hubs, hardware which helps split the cables to their respective destinations and provides a simpler, unanimous destination for the studio’s cables to meet.

Cable sleves are another great invention that will help your creative space look tidy and organized.

There are numerous solutions on YouTube for creative ways to avoid clutter in the studio with cables. Even something as simple as a labeled wire basket can help give cables a place to go (rather than on the floor, or still plugged in).

Knowing where everything is and being able to grab specific items at your convenience is one of the key elements of a professional music studio — and replicating this within your own workspace will nearly always benefit productivity and motivation.

Finally

There’s nothing sexy about cables, but you know what?

They get the job done.

Without them, I wish you the best of luck accomplishing a whole lot in your music studio. You wouldn’t even be able to record music on your phone, because, how would you charge it?

This has been somewhat of an exhausting article — cables can get confusing very quickly, even if I did avoid most physics-related discussion throughout.

Hopefully, you are armed with enough information now that when you begin building your studio, your inspiration to piece together the next great Beatles track isn’t interrupted by the fact that you have an XLR cable instead of a TS, but instead by the fact that you’re not actually a member of that band.

About the Author – Ben Knight

Hailing from the depths of the world — aka Australia — Ben Knight is a passionate pianist, cellist, songwriter and engineer.

With a Master’s in Writing and Editing, he combines his love for music with his knowledge of the written word to make sure he has the funds to keep buying unnecessary pieces of musical equipment for his home studio.

You can check out his band Mellow Daze on all the major streaming services.

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