Audio cables are among the most important components of recording and monitoring chains.
Interestingly, they are also the most commonly-neglected, with most fledgling home studio owners spending more time, money, and effort on speakers and other audio equipment.
Although there is no argument that proper speakers and audio processing software are essential for getting quality recordings and mixes, some consideration should be given to the choice in cables as well.
So in this guide, we cover the importance of XLR cables in the studio setting, and take a look at some of the best XLR cables for recording in your studio.
Quick answer: If you’re in for premium cables, the Mogami Silver series are your best bet.
Most people, understandable, like the balance of quality and budget that the LyxPro XLR cables provide.
You can get even more value from a 5 pack of GLS Audio XLR cables.
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Types of Audio Cables in The Studio
- Balanced versus Unbalanced Cables
- Importance of Balanced Cable Connections
- What are XLR Cables?
- Choosing the Best Audio Cables for Recording
- Final Thoughts
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Types of Audio Cables in The Studio
Audio cables come in many different types depending on their intended use and application.
There are instrument cables, monitor speaker cables, and cables that are designed for connecting studio microphones to audio equipment, and audio equipment to one another.
As the name implies, instrument cables are used for connecting instruments such as electric guitars and basses to amplifiers and signal processing equipment. They are generally unbalanced TS cables with ¼” jack plugs on both ends.
Speaker cables are used to connect speakers to amplifiers or mixing consoles to speakers or monitor speakers. Although many of these have ¼” jack plugs as well, may also be fitted with XLR plugs.
Balanced versus Unbalanced Cables
The terms “balanced” and “unbalanced” refers to the design and construction of a cable with regard to the connectors and wires, and the result that they produce (noise cancelation in your audio signal).
Balanced cables use a TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) design, or the three prong design you find in XLR cables.
With these cables there are three wires inside the exterior insulator. One wire passes the positive or right signal, while the other passes the negative or left signal. The third wire is used as a ground in order to reduce electrical interference that may cause noise or disrupt signal flow.
In contrast, unbalanced cables are TS or tip-sleeve designs. One wire passes the positive signal, while the other serves as the ground. They are often use simply as instrument cables.
In balanced cables, the positive and negative signals are wired out of phase. This means the signal received by input gear (like an audio interface or mixer) and “flipped” in polarity, resulting in phase cancelation.
However, the receiving gear will flip the polarity back to its correct. The result effectively removes all the noise that the cable would’ve picked up along the way. This results in a ‘balanced’ signal. (Read another explanation at Media College.)
You can see how this would be important in recording audio, especially over a highly sensitive condenser microphone.
However, in order to get the benefit of a balanced cable, every single component in the signal chain should be balanced as well.
Please Note: An exception to this rule is a DI box.
Although the signal coming from a DI box is passed through a balanced cable, electric guitars are usually plugged into them with unbalanced TS cables (more on DI boxes later).
The Importance of Balanced Cable Connections
Developing on the last point, balanced cable chains generally have higher signal-to-noise ratios than unbalanced connections. This simply means, as we’ve said, that they have less noise as compared to unbalanced signal chains.
Anyone that has plugged in a Fender Stratocaster guitar (which typically have single coil pickups) into an amplifier is well aware of the buzzing and crackling noise that often comes out of the speaker. This is a good example of the electrical interference that is present in any electrical environment.
Although balanced cables aren’t generally used for eliminating electrical noise in an electric guitar chain (there are other solutions for that), they can be effective at reducing noise in other equipment.
Balanced cables are generally used for applications wherein noise is unacceptable. You will often see these types of connections in speaker monitoring systems, and for connecting microphones to preamplifiers or mixing consoles.
As mentioned previously, every single component in the chain should be balanced in order for the circuit to be considered truly ‘balanced’. Even if only one piece of equipment is unbalanced, the entire signal chain is unbalanced.
What are XLR Cables?
We just touched on XLR cables before, now we’ll dive in them even further.
XLR cables are among the most common types of balanced cables, next to TRS ¼” jack plug cables. XLR cables are fitted with either male or female connectors, which consist of three prongs or three holes, respectively.
As with TRS cables, XLR cables consist of three wires: one positive, one negative, and one ground. These three wires correspond to the three prongs of a male connector and the three holes of a female connector.
Being a balanced connector, XLR cables have all the noise canceling benefits of ¼” plug TRS cables. In addition, the housing of the connector is a lot more robust, and provides a more reliable connection than ¼” jack plugs.
XLR cables are typically used for equipment such as speaker monitors and mixing consoles. Many preamps and signal processors have XLR connectors as well. DI boxes generally combine unbalanced TS input connectors with balanced XLR output connectors.
Other equipment where you would normally see XLR connectors are microphones and acoustic guitars that have onboard pickups and preamp systems.
Some microphones may have male XLR connectors at their base that plug in to female XLR cable ends. However, some of these cables may have a ¼” plug on the other end.
Again, it is important to note that the ¼” plug should be of the balanced TRS variety if the signal chain is to be truly balanced. The cable should be plugged into a balanced input on a preamp or a mixing console as well. Otherwise, the signal chain will be unbalanced.
Choosing the Best Audio Cables for Recording
When choosing cables for audio recording, some of the most important factors to consider are length and connector type.
Length considerations are pretty straightforward…or so it would seem. After all, you simply need to have your cables at a sufficient length to get them from point A to point B, right?
It is indeed important to ensure that your cables can reach where they need to without them getting in your way. However, you should also ensure that they are only long enough so that they pass the signal without affecting the signal adversely.
A note on Capacitance
All cables have some degree of capacitance, which means that they all ultimately have an effect on the quality of the sound (that’s a Wiki link, BTW, if you want a lot more details in that explanation).
In audio applications, capacitance typically manifests itself as a loss in high end detail and clarity, which means that your music may sound duller or less brilliant than it actually is.
If you monitor through a signal chain wherein capacitance is present, it may lead you to boost the treble far more than is necessary. This results in overly bright and harsh sounding music when it is played back on other systems.
Cable length can also affect how much electrical noise is introduced into the signal. The longer a cable is, the more material there is that can pick up electrical interference. This could lead to a considerable degree of buzzing, crackling, and/or humming, even in balanced connections.
A good rule of thumb is to only have your cables as long as you need them to be, and not much longer. Although the effects of capacitance are normally noticeable only at distances exceeding 20 meters or thereabouts (that’s over 65 feet), you will want to avoid these effects as much as possible.
Best XLR cables for recording
Here are a few great cables that we found:
- GLS Audio XLR 5 Pack – Check price @ Amazon
- Mogami Silver Series – Check price @ Amazon
- LyxPro Balanced XLR Cable Premium Series – Check price @ Amazon
Choosing cables based on connectors is also a seemingly simple and straightforward task.
In most cases, you simply have to choose cables that have the same connectors as the equipment you are planning on plugging them into.
But different types of equipment have different connectors, and certain pieces of equipment may even utilize more than one type of connector.
Some audio interfaces, for instance, may only facilitate a number of connectors, leaving with the option of using TRS inputs.
You will also have to consider the durability of the connector you are using, especially with regard to how well it will hold up to jostling and repeated plugging/unplugging.
The good news is that cables can generally be custom-fitted with the types of connectors that you need. As mentioned previously, microphone cables may have a XLR female receptacle on one end, and a ¼” or TRS male plug on the other.
Your choice then boils down to personal preference, with due consideration given to connectivity and durability.
Here are the Best XLR to TRS cables:
- Mogami GOLD TRS-XLRF – Check price @ Amazon
- Cable Matters – Check price @ Amazon
- CableCreation – Check price @ Amazon
In discussing the necessity of ensuring that every element of the signal chain is balanced, we mentioned that DI boxes are the exception to the rule.
DI boxes are typically used to connect unbalanced devices such as electric guitars and microphones to balanced audio equipment such as mixers, preamps, and signal processors. These serve to bring instrument level signals down to line level signals, allowing them to be connected to line level inputs.
Of course, most electric guitars are unbalanced devices, which means that using a balanced cable to connect them to a DI box is out of the question….
How then does the unbalanced-to-balanced connection work out?
When you plug an electric guitar into a DI box, the signal is converted into a balanced signal by the DI box circuit.
The outgoing signal is then balanced and suitable for connection into a balanced input. This essentially “conditions” the signal, reducing noise and bringing it down to a level that is suitable for line level devices such as mixers and preamps.
So in essence, an electric guitar signal is only unbalanced until it gets into the DI box. From that point on, the signal is balanced, and can be treated just like any other balanced signal.
DI Box Guides
- Take a look at our guide to find the best electric guitar DI boxes.
- We also did one for acoustic guitars.
At that point, you can simply use any of the balanced XLR cables we mentioned above to record your instruments.
It should be obvious at this point that finding the best XLR cables for recording isn’t always as straightforward as it would seem.
There are quite a lot of factors to take into consideration, especially if signal quality and integrity are concerned.
With a basic understanding of the concepts outlined here however, you pretty much have a solid foundation upon which to base your cable purchasing decisions.
Now go out there and get connected!