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Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Cables, Leads & Connectors

3. Cable Specifications

Before we go on to look at different lead types, some insight into general cable properties would be useful. Let's acquaint ourselves with a few of these:

Number of Cores

 

Excluding multiplexed solutions (which we´ll discuss later), a cable exists to transfer one or more signals between devices, and to do this requires at least one wire conductor, plus a
ReturnA 'return' is a desk input that brings back audio originally output for processing. There are two common types: the insert, where the whole channel signal is interrupted and sent directly out to a compressor or similar processor and then returned back to the channel, usually before the EQ stage; and the auxiliary send and return where only part of the signal is sent for processing and the return mixed together with the original signal.
return
path (the ground). A stereo feed needs an additional wire conductor, but still only one overall ground. So the number of signals transmitted in a cable corresponds to the number of independent signal carrying wires - plus one for ground.

Screening

 

In low-level signal cables, the ground also provides a first line of defence against "airborne" electro-magnetic interference (EMI - all manner of
DistortionIn most cases distortion is an undesirable alteration to a signal which occurs when a piece of equipment is driven with a input level that is too high for its operating level. Sometimes, as in the case of guitar distortion, this can be an intentional and desirable effect.
noise
and hum). It does so by implementing a ground wire screen to completely
SurroundA general term for any audio system where the listener hears sounds from all directions. Many such systems are described as '5.1' surround: there are five full-range audio channels (three front and two rear) and a sub bass channel. More complex systems (7.1 etc) are also found in larger cinemas. Most surround sound media, including DVD, uses some form of digital encoding to incorporate surround information into a stereo signal.
surround
and encapsulate the signal wires, thereby acting as a shield which EMI finds hard to penetrate. The screen is normally electrically connected to the hardware chassis or mains earth (or both), such that any marauding EMI finds itself swiftly sucked into that great
CapacitorAn electrical component that stores charge, also known as a condenser. A capacitor/condenser microphone uses two conducting plates, one fixed and one in the form of a moving diaphragm. When a polarising voltage is applied the electrical signal produced by the vibrating diaphragm (in response to sound) is very faithful to its movement, resulting in accurate reproduction.
capacitor
beneath our feet which we call "The Earth", and
RenderRendering describes a process that usually cannot be performed in real time, where the result of processing results in a new file. In the case of video where two moving pictures have to be overlaid, as in a transition or titling, both elements then have to be combined or rendered to one file for playback. In the context of audio it might be desirable to commit a real-time effect with the audio for duplication elsewhere on the timeline or the freeing up of processing taken up by real-time processing.
renders
it unable to interact harmfully with the signal carrying wires. Various types of screened cable are available:

Lapped Screen

A Lapped Sceen is wound/wrapped loosely around the signal wires over the length of the cable.

Pros: Cable with a simple lapped screen is usually inexpensive, extremely flexible and easy to terminate (add connectors to) when making up DIY leads.
Cons: The screening properties vary depending on how the screen is wound, and tight flexing can compromise its effectiveness, as gaps can form allowing the signal wires to "peep through". This cable type is also prone to damage through kinking.

Braided Screen

A Braided Screen is tightly "woven" around the signal wires, giving extremely good interference rejection. It is also physically robust.

Pros: Braided-screen cables are available in a variety of thicknesses and offer excellent screening
EfficiencyA specification, expressed as a percentage, measuring how efficiently a speaker converts an audio signal (watts) into sound waves (dB). As in any conversion process there is usually some kind of loss, which in this case is turned into heat.
efficiency
, combined with reasonable flexibility.
Cons: They are time-consuming and difficult to terminate. These cables are generally much more expensive than lapped screen varieties.

Foil Plus Drain

The signal wires are surrounded by a
Layer1) In synthesis and sound design, sounds are often created from two or more basic waveforms or samples layered together. 2) In computing, most operating systems and other software are written in layers, from the lowest level dealing with basic processing functions which is addressed by higher-level layers with specific functions such as sound and graphics.
layer
of foil which is in contact with an uninsulated length of wire called the "drain-wire" (ground) running the length of the cable under the insulation
Layer1) In synthesis and sound design, sounds are often created from two or more basic waveforms or samples layered together. 2) In computing, most operating systems and other software are written in layers, from the lowest level dealing with basic processing functions which is addressed by higher-level layers with specific functions such as sound and graphics.
layer
.

Pros: This cable is Ideal for permanent installations where flexibility is not a
KeyAn additional input on a dynamics processor such as a compressor or noise gate, enabling the dynamics of one signal to control the level of another. This can be used for many functions, including ducking (compressing a music signal when a DJ or announcer speaks), synchronised gating, and (in conjunction with an equaliser) de-essing.
key
requirement. It is very easy to terminate and its screening properties are excellent.
Cons: Very poor flexibility - damage is likely if the cable is bent to too small a
RadiusThe distance from the centre of a circle to its circumference. Any curve that is an arc of a circle may therefore be defined by the radius of the circle that would be produced by extending the arc, for example the curve of a guitar fretboard.
radius
.

Multiple Screen

In situations where signal
CrosstalkUnintentional interference between audio sources, for example the sound from a singer's headphones leaking into his microphone.
crosstalk
is an issue, it can be beneficial to screen individual or paired signal wires separately. Such a "multiple screen" cable uses a foil and drain for each feed. Note that even though each feed is separately screened, there is still effectively only one ground, as all the drain wires are electrically connected together at the receiving and transmitting devices.

Pros: Superior screening with minimal
CrosstalkUnintentional interference between audio sources, for example the sound from a singer's headphones leaking into his microphone.
crosstalk
.
Cons: Very poor flexibility and high cost.

Conductive Plastic

Conductive plastic screening is a relatively new innovation in which the screen comprises a single tube of carbon-loaded plastic. Like the foil-screened cable, an uninsulated drain wire runs inside the screen.

Pros: Highly flexible, resists kinking and very easy to terminate.
Cons: Screening performance is inferior to braid or foil.

Optical Fibre

An optical fibre is a glass or plastic extrusion designed to guide light along its length using a phenomoenon known as Total Internal Reflection. Apart from some esoteric display and lighting systems, optical fibres are used exclusively for the transmission of
DigitalAll digital equipment, formats and systems represent audio in numerical code or form. Digital information is a precise way of expressing any of information that can be quantified in some way.
digital
signals.

Pros: These fibres provide complete electrical isolation between devices – a potential safety consideration. Also note that no
ReturnA 'return' is a desk input that brings back audio originally output for processing. There are two common types: the insert, where the whole channel signal is interrupted and sent directly out to a compressor or similar processor and then returned back to the channel, usually before the EQ stage; and the auxiliary send and return where only part of the signal is sent for processing and the return mixed together with the original signal.
return
path is required – a singe fibre strand is enough to convey the entire signal (or many more if signals are multiplexed). Since signal losses are tiny, very long cable runs are possible.
Cons: Making up DIY leads is virtually impossible without special tools, which are themselves expensive. Therefore, off-the-shelf, fixed length leads are normally the only practical solution for the recording studio. Flexibility is poor.

CapacitanceThe ability of a conductor to store electric charge. Measured in Farads where capacitance (C) equals amount of charge (Q) divided by voltage (V).
Capacitance
and Impedance

ImpedanceThe term for electrical resistance when applied to AC current.
Impedance
is often described as ‘resistance to AC’ or Alternating
CurrentThe flow of electrons or charge in an electrical device, measured in amperes (amps); defined as the voltage applied divided by the resistance in the circuit.
Current
. In fact, it is actually more complex than simple resistance, because the
EffectsGeneral term applied to audio processors for dynamics, time, ambience and equalisation whether in the form of 19" rack units, guitar floor pedals, or software plug-ins.
effects
of capacitance and inductance vary with the frequency of the
CurrentThe flow of electrons or charge in an electrical device, measured in amperes (amps); defined as the voltage applied divided by the resistance in the circuit.
current
passing through the circuit. This means that
ImpedanceThe term for electrical resistance when applied to AC current.
impedance
varies with frequency, whereas the effect of resistance is constant regardless of frequency. The combined effect of
CapacitanceThe ability of a conductor to store electric charge. Measured in Farads where capacitance (C) equals amount of charge (Q) divided by voltage (V).
capacitance
and inductance is called reactance.

The resistance of signal cables is rarely a concern, except over distances of several hundred metres, but the
CapacitanceThe ability of a conductor to store electric charge. Measured in Farads where capacitance (C) equals amount of charge (Q) divided by voltage (V).
capacitance
of a cable can cause problems, especially where the inputs and/or outputs of the connected devices have high
ImpedanceThe term for electrical resistance when applied to AC current.
impedance
– such as in the case of an electric guitar and
AmplifierA device for increasing the power of a signal by taking power from a supply and shaping the output to match the input signal.
amplifier
.

Due to the close proximity of the inner cores and the outer screen of a coaxial cable, the cable acts as an electrical
CapacitorAn electrical component that stores charge, also known as a condenser. A capacitor/condenser microphone uses two conducting plates, one fixed and one in the form of a moving diaphragm. When a polarising voltage is applied the electrical signal produced by the vibrating diaphragm (in response to sound) is very faithful to its movement, resulting in accurate reproduction.
capacitor
- the longer the cable, the higher the
CapacitanceThe ability of a conductor to store electric charge. Measured in Farads where capacitance (C) equals amount of charge (Q) divided by voltage (V).
capacitance
. When combined with the
ImpedanceThe term for electrical resistance when applied to AC current.
impedance
of the circuitry attached to the cable, this
CapacitorAn electrical component that stores charge, also known as a condenser. A capacitor/condenser microphone uses two conducting plates, one fixed and one in the form of a moving diaphragm. When a polarising voltage is applied the electrical signal produced by the vibrating diaphragm (in response to sound) is very faithful to its movement, resulting in accurate reproduction.
capacitor
effectively forms a high-cut
FilterA circuit used to remove or accentuate frequencies in a sound source. Common types are found on mixing consoles equalisation, synthesizers and dedicated processors such as graphic equalisers.
filter
, and the higher the
ImpedanceThe term for electrical resistance when applied to AC current.
impedance
, the lower the cutoff frequency. In practical terms, a guitar lead of more than say 6
MeterAn electrical or electronic device for measuring the properties of electrical signals, such as voltage and current. In audio, level meters measure audio signals against an appropriate reference.
meters
long, may introduce audible tonal changes by rolling off the higher frequencies, leaving a dull and lifeless sound. Short cable runs are unlikely to produce audible capacitance-related
EffectsGeneral term applied to audio processors for dynamics, time, ambience and equalisation whether in the form of 19" rack units, guitar floor pedals, or software plug-ins.
effects
. However, it's best to buy the lowest
CapacitanceThe ability of a conductor to store electric charge. Measured in Farads where capacitance (C) equals amount of charge (Q) divided by voltage (V).
capacitance
cable you can find of the appropriate type for your needs.

Now that we’ve looked at some different cable types, let’s turn our attention to the signals they’re required to carry.

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