How much do your cables matter? In this article, we'll talk about a few different scenarios in which your cable quality may or may not matter.
Before we get into the cables, let's first discuss a few components and what purpose they serve.
The connectors are the part of the cable that determine what they plug into. Examples include XLR, 1/4" (TRS or TS), TT, etc. The quality of these connections matters a lot. You'll want to look for sturdy materials and easy access to the wires in case you need to make a quick repair. Gold plating is also sought after because it keeps the connections from oxidizing.
If a cable is shielded, the electrical noise that can negatively impact your signal will be significantly reduced. Things like WiFi and cell phone signals are always in our airwaves and we need to keep them out. In a studio setting, all of your cables should be shielded.
Now that you know some basics, let's get into the meat of the article!
The question of cables to your studio monitors comes up quite often, so this is a good place to start. In a studio setting, cabling to your monitors is arguably the most important signal path. It doesn't matter what you record and mix if you can't hear it accurately. Inexpensive and unshielded monitor cables will introduce interference, noise and sometimes crackle that will be frustrating at the least and degrading to the signal at worst. When I was starting out, I used the cheapest cables I could find and I paid for it later by pulling my hair out.
If you haven't gotten monitor cables yet, save yourself the hassle and get something decent right away. Good cables for monitoring (Mogami Gold, ProCo Evolution, etc) will last a lifetime and they are worth the investment.
This one is a very grey area. Getting sixteen 30-foot Mogami Gold cables isn't exactly in everyone's budget (including mine). To balance out the cost, I have broken tracking scenarios down into two groups: Loud and Quiet.
In the 'Loud' group I put drums, guitar amps and horns. In these scenarios, I am okay with using cheaper cables because the high signal typically covers up any noise/interference.
In the 'Quiet' group I put vocals, acoustic guitar and piano. In these scenarios, I use the best cables I possibly can. If there is noise (with my WiFi router, there almost always is), the spaces in between words and decaying piano chords will definitely show it. Mogami Gold cables do a killer job of eliminating the noise and they give the truest frequency response of any cable I've used. For quiet recording scenarios, especially vocals, use high quality cables.
Digital cables are different than analog cables. Instead of carrying a sound signal, digital cables carry data. It is 0's and 1's in different combinations that have already been converted from analog to digital. Examples would include Optical, USB, FireWire, S/PDIF and the like.
Given that digital cables do not carry a sound source, but rather data, the quality of digital cables generally does not matter. All they need to do is deliver the information. Essentially, it either makes it to the destination, or it does not.
The only caveat is durability. Some ADAT cables are fairly thin and can break easily if moved around or bent too much. Most of the time, you won't have to worry about something like this as digital cables are generally used in permanent installs. It is worth mentioning because occasionally, engineers will use optical and S/PDIF cables for extra preamps. My recommendation is to focus on good quality analog cabling and not worry about the quality of digital cables.
If you recall from above, we have two categories that I like to place different sources into - Loud and Quiet. Guitars have pickups that can introduce noise and interference. They also emit a fairly quiet signal compared to something like drums. For these two reasons, I think getting at least one good quality guitar cable is very well worth it.
For the studio, I like to use Mogami Gold (of course) because of the clear frequency response and noise rejection. For live purposes, I like to use the Rapco Horizon RoadHog cables because they are gold plated on the connectors and are built for taking abuse while still sounding clear and clean.
You've made it this far in the article, so I figured it's a good time for a little bonus tip: cable length matters too!
For live performances, you probably won't notice too much of a difference. In the studio however, there is a perfect maximum length. When a cable passes 18-feet in length, you can start to hear a degradation in quality. It is not much, and in many cases negligible. But if you're going for the lowest noise and fullest frequency response possible, shoot for 18 feet or less!
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