Following on from last month’s cable discussion, I thought I’d go over possibly the most important factor in studio cabling this month and look at what can be done in the home studio to tackle certain issues. I am talking about the use of unbalanced cables and the noise they can introduce into your recording when used incorrectly. So many people I come across don’t even consider this factor when putting together the cables for use in their home studio, and then find themselves looking for a solution to a ‘ground’ or ‘noise’ issue later on. The simple fact remains that your signal is always only as strong as your weakest link, and so often, that weakest link is in one of the cables that you decided to save a few dollars on.
Getting it right from the start
It always amazes me how musicians can spend exorbitant amounts of money on their equipment, and then when it comes to the cable to join it all up, they suddenly decide that they can’t spend any more. Why would you take a two thousand dollar amp and a four thousand dollar guitar and then think that spending twenty dollars on a cable to link the two is going to be just fine? There are more expensive cables available and they come at a price for a very good reason: they offer a better quality. But, so many musicians think this doesn’t matter and then destroy their tone with a cheap cable. The same goes for your studio gear. If you are going to invest so much of your hard earned money on a top-notch computer and outboard gear to make your recording all that it can be, why would you want to let it down with ratty cabling in between the equipment. I am not just talking about your microphone or instrument cables, but your IEC power cables and USB cables too. We all know that you can get these sorts of cables for a dollar or two each and they are just fine. Well no, they aren’t ‘just fine’. There is a reason why there are expensive power cables available and that is that some people care about quality power being supplied to their quality equipment, and so should you.
Respect your gear
If you value your studio setup, you should respect it enough to join it all up with the right cables. Whenever possible, you should be using balanced cables for all connections as a basic rule. This is a basic rule that is often overlooked though. Why should you use a balanced TRS when a guitar cable will do the job? Why? Because it doesn’t really do the job you want it to. The problem with unbalanced instrument cables is that they are susceptible to interference, especially in longer lengths and when running across power cables. This cannot be avoided when using unbalanced instruments like guitars, but can be controlled at least by using shorter cables, keeping them clear of power sources and getting them into a balanced signal path as soon as possible.
You can often tell when an unbalanced cable is not behaving itself in your setup when you hear a high-pitch squealing coming through your speakers. This is generally the result of interference from a power source, most often your computer and can be directly attributed to one or many of the unbalanced cables you are using. If you pull the power supply out of your laptop, if using one, and run on batteries, you will often find that this instantly kills the problem as the power source has been removed. But, you can’t run on batteries forever and this is just a Band-Aid solution to a much greater problem. This should be used more for diagnosis rather than treatment. To treat this problem you need to go back to the source and consider that time you decided to save a few dollars by buying unbalanced cables for you monitor speakers. That is more likely going to be the problem. Investing in quality balanced cabling for as much of your signal path as possible is the best way to fight against studio noise at the beginning. This will help you eradicate other problems before they even develop, and will allow you to focus on the real cause of other noise elements in you setup as they arrive.
After all, every time you have some issue with noise in you recording, you don’t want to have to test every cable by replacing them one at a time. You should be confident with your signal path to begin with and know that good quality cables will not only save you from unwanted noise, but deliver a louder signal with greater frequency range too. Yes, you will hear more with quality cables. I know a lot of you think a cable is just a cable and they all sound the same. But they do not. You get what you pay for in your cable runs and when you have a lot of cheap cables all combined, you really get very little for your money. So please think about how you go about lining all your gear together. Whether it is your interface and some outboard gear, or your guitar, amp and pedal board, think about all the cables you are using and get them right to begin with.