Cables are some of the most crucial–and yet most often neglected–elements of studio recording and live performance.
And choosing the best instrument cables, whether for guitar, bass, or keyboard, should be a priority if you intend on getting high-quality records.
That’s why we’ve put together this guide, in which you’re learn all you need to know about instrument cables, and a few brands to choose from.
Quick answer: most likely, you’ll just want a simple TS connector.
For that, take a look at the Mogami instrument cable for high-end use.
Also, the Fender instrument cable will be your choice for any budget.
You can also always take a look at the handy Sweetwater cable finder to find exactly what you need.
If you want to learn more, then keep reading to find out how you should really choose the best instrument cable.
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Overview of Instrument Cables
- Instrument Cables versus Speaker Cables
- Instrument Cables: Balanced or Unbalanced?
- Recommended Unbalanced Cables
- Recommended Balanced Cables
- Balanced versus Unbalanced Cables
- Choosing the Right Instrument Cable
- Quick Tips on Buying Instrument Cables
- Final Thoughts
Find more great gear here:
Overview of Instrument Cables
Musicians and audio engineers routinely spend thousands of dollars on audio enhancers such as compressors, exciters, and the like. But relatively few consider the sound-enhancing benefits of a good set of instrument cables.
Instrument cables are used to connect electric guitars, basses, keyboards, and other electric instruments to amplifiers, mixing consoles, and signal processing devices. These cables are of the “TS” or “tip-sleeve” variety, passing only a mono signal.
It is important to make the distinction between TS cables, which are unbalanced mono, and TSR (tip-ring-sleeve) cables, which pass a balanced stereo signal. TRS cables are generally used for connecting balanced audio equipment together. Although you can connect your guitar to your amplifier with a TRS cable, this usually results in a great deal of noise.
There is also the XLR cable, this, the TS, and TRS cables will be discussed in more detail below.
Instrument Cables versus Speaker Cables
It is also important to make the distinction between instrument cables and speaker cables. On the outside, the two may seem very similar, and may even have the same ¼” connector plugs.
The only way to make absolutely certain whether a particular cable is a speaker cable or an instrument cable is to open up the plug on one end.
Speaker cables will have two wires, one of which is connected to the tip and the other to the sleeve. Both wires are usually of similar gauge or thickness, and there will be no foil shielding or braided wraps.
In contrast, instrument cables will likely have one or both wires covered in shielding material. This may be a braided wire mesh or foil wrapping around the wire connected to the tip. The purpose of this shielding is to reduce buzzing and humming resulting from electrical interference.
If you’re looking for speaker monitor cables take a look at this guide.
Risks of Using the Wrong Cable
Why is it so important to use the proper cable? Using a speaker cable to connect your instrument to an amp or signal processor will likely result in a great deal of noise.
This is because unshielded cables typically pick up electrical signals from surrounding equipment. You could use a speaker cable to connect your guitar to an amp if you wish, but the results won’t be pretty.
Using an instrument cable to connect your speakers to an amp can have even more serious consequences. Instrument cables generally use lower gauge or thinner wire than speaker cables. Although they will pass the audio signal from your amp to your speakers, there is a risk of having the lower gauge cable melt due to the high amount of current passing through. This could also lead to a short that could damage your amplifier.
The Best Instrument Cables: Balanced or Unbalanced?
With regard to balanced versus unbalanced instrument cables, the simplest way to explain it is:
use balanced cables for balanced equipment and unbalanced cables for everything else.
Of course, things are rarely so simple and straightforward in the audio world, so a little more detail is in in order.
The Case for Unbalanced Cables
Unless you have some sort of custom-wired electric guitar or bass, chances are, the circuitry inside is unbalanced. This means that you absolutely must use an unbalanced male to male TS cable if you want to avoid introducing noise into your signal chain.
Best unbalanced instrument cable brands:
- Mogomi – Premium instrument cables that many swear by – Check Price @ Amazon
- GLS Audio – Profession instrument cables that fits within everyone’s budget – Check Price @ Amazon
- Fender – This is a household name among musicians, you can’t go wrong – Check Price @ Amazon
The Case for Balanced Cables
The only other conceivable scenario wherein you might want to have a balanced cable in your rig is when you are using a DI box to connect your electric guitar or acoustic guitar directly to a mixing console or a preamp of some sort.
In that case, you should use:
a regular, unbalanced male to male TS cable to connect your guitar to the DI box;
a balanced female XLR to male TRS cable to connect the DI box to the mixer or preamp.
The reason why you’d need an XLR connector with TRS is in this case is that DI boxes normally use an XLR out for mixers and audio interfaces.
Best balanced interconnector cable brands:
- Monoprice – Like the name suggests, they offer good quality for budget prices – Check Price @ Amazon
- CableCreation – A highly recommended brand that suits any budget – Check Price @ Amazon
- Hosa – Still in the budget league, many rely on their quality – Check Price @ Amazon
Of course, all this assumes that the DI box and whatever device you are connecting between your instrument and mixer have balanced connectors.
One of the most basic rules of balanced wiring usage is that in order for a signal chain to be truly balanced, every single connected piece of equipment should be balanced.
The Difference Between Balanced (XLR/TRS) and Unbalanced (TS) Cables
Balanced cables consist of two wires and a shield. The two wires carry the positive and negative signals out of phase, resulting in a balanced stereo signal. The shield in turn serves as the ground.
The two wires are connected to the tip and the ring of the cable connector, and the shield is connected to the sleeve. For this reason, balanced cables are often referred to as TRS or tip-ring-sleeve cables, or XLR cables.
These are typically used to connect balanced equipment such as DI boxes to mixing consoles and speakers to amplifiers.
Unbalanced cables do away with the second wire, and have only a single wire connected to the tip and a shield connected to the sleeve.
These cables are referred to as tip-sleeve or TS cables, and they pass mono signals.
These are typically used as instrument cables, connecting mono, unbalanced instruments such as electric guitars to amplifiers.
Choosing the Right Instrument Cable
When choosing the best instrument cables for you studio or stage, length isn’t quite as important a factor as it would be for speaker or monitor cables. Most guitarists seem to gravitate towards 10-foot cables at home or in the studio, as revealed by a quick browse on a couple of guitar-related forums. However, many use considerably longer cables on stage.
To be sure, all cables will have some degree of capacitance, which typically manifests itself as a slight dulling in the sound or loss of high frequency detail. But many musicians and producers agree that there is little difference between a 10-foot cable and a 20-foot cable in that regard.
“What about signal degradation?”
Unless you are running outrageously long cables directly, you probably shouldn’t have to be worried about signal degradation. In any case, many guitarists use some type of buffered effects or tuner pedal, which offsets the signal dulling effect of long cable runs.
For practical purposes then, your instrument cable should only be as long as you need it to be and not much longer. While the idea of being able to walk around while remaining plugged in may seem attractive, excessively long cables can be more trouble than they are worth. They tend to get snagged and coiled for starters, and they have a way of getting underfoot or in the path of a wheeled studio chair.
You might also want to consider the material used in the plug and the cable itself.
Some guitarists swear that they are able to tell the difference between brass and steel connectors, attributing specific tonal qualities to one or the other. Some manufacturers have even developed entire product lines revolving around cables made with some seemingly-magical material that imparts wonderful, sound-enhancing qualities.
While there may or may not be some truth to the tonal differences between the different cable and connector materials used, the differences are likely negligible when you consider all the other factors that can affect the final tone.
Instead of basing your decision solely on some intangible sonic characteristic or audio quality, you might be better off by considering the durability and convenience offered by specific materials.
Quick Tips on Buying Instrument Cables
Pay particular attention to the connector design and materials. This is where cables so often fail, so you will want the connectors to be as durable as possible. You should also avoid cables with molded plastic or rubber ends, as the closed design makes it impossible to fix them without breaking them open.
Repairs & DIY Instrument Cables
Speaking of repairs, if you are at all handy with a soldering iron, you might want to consider repairing your own instrument cables.
You can save a considerable amount of money by buying cables and connectors in bulk, and you can make however many cables as you need, at whatever lengths you want. There are even solderless connectors that make it easy to build custom cables.
- GLS Male TS Connectors – Check Price @ Amazon
- GLS Male TRS Connectors – Check Price @ Amazon
- GLS Female XLR Connectors – Check Price @ Amazon
When getting an instrument cable, you might want to give it a quick jiggle test. Plug in your instrument to an amp and give the cable a couple of jiggles. With a good cable, the signal will remain silent and you won’t hear any crackling or popping.
Some cables are marketed as having “ultra-low capacitance,” or something along that line. You might want to consider these over other alternatives in order to get the best tone possible.
That being said, be wary of snake-oil merchants that attribute almost-magical properties to their cables or the materials used therein.
Cables can and do get twisted, tangled, and bunched up pretty easily. Some cables are actually designed to prevent these from happening, and they might be worth looking into if you find yourself frequently having to deal with such issues.
A good set of cables is a joy to have, and they are essential for ensuring peace of mind and continuous productivity in the studio. It can be quite costly to outfit your studio with a set of pro-quality cables, but the results will pay for themselves many times over in the coming years.