Cable Basics For Singers

When a new singer starts collecting gear for doing gigs, something that can be very confusing is the kind of cables needed. First I’ll show pictures of the different cables connectors most commonly used so you’ll know what I’m talking about. There are two primary kinds of connectors, and they can be mixed on the same cable. (I will be speaking in general terms for this blog entry, there are exceptions to some things.) I will repeat some important concepts in different ways because, well they’re important.

XLR to XLR cables are typically “balanced” and provide more signal strength for weak audio sources like microphones, while protecting the weak signal from radio interference.

1/4 INCH
Either BALANCED/TRS (Tip-Ring-Shield) or UNBALANCED/TS (Tip-Shield)

You may occasionally hear people call a TRS plug “stereo” and a TS plug “mono”. This isn’t the best terminology for our application as singers, but be aware that the terms are sometimes used. I’ll cover this again shortly.

Here are the kinds of cables I use, a very common setup:
Cable between the microphone and mixer: XLR female to XLR male, 25ft
Cable between the mixer and the speaker: XLR female to XLR male, 15-25ft
Cable between the mixer and the monitor: TRS to XLR male, 15ft (my mixer has a TRS “MON SEND” output. The monitor itself will accept either XLR male or TRS.)

Other combinations commonly seen in bands:
TS to TS (typically used for powered instruments that have a strong signal)
TS to XLR Male (typically used for powered instruments that have a strong signal)
XLR Female to TS (typically used for powered instruments that have a strong signal)

I’ll clarify something right now because people (like myself when first starting) get confused about mono and stereo, and the different kinds of cables. People imagine that “stereo is better”, so they want a “stereo mic cable”. A typical singer’s microphone is MONO. An XLR cable carries that mono signal to the mixer, even when the other end has a “stereo” 1/4-inch or 1/8-inch connector on it. The “stereo” plug is more correctly called a “balanced” plug in this situation. (A TRS cable can indeed carry a stereo signal or two signals, but only for certain instruments. It is better to think of it as “balanced”.)

Balanced means it is using the three pins to send the signal in a way that doubles the signal strength and minimizes signal interference, which lets you run longer cables without picking up odd signals from radio. The balanced 1/4-inch plug is also called a “TRS” plug (Tip, Ring, Shield from the old telephone operator days). The three pins on the XLR end match the three parts of the 1/4-inch TRS plug.

A “mono” 1/4-inch or “unbalanced” plug is called a TS plug (Tip, Shield). TS cables are sometimes a bit cheaper, but for singers are often not the best choice. I’ll repeat some of these concepts a few times. TS cables are usually intended for powered instruments, not microphones. They can work, but the signal strength is usually half of a TRS connection, and are more susceptible to Radio and CB Radio interference.

Usually a microphone cable will have XLR connectors on both ends. But sometimes, a microphone cable will have an XLR connector for the mic, and a 1/4-inch plug on the end that goes into a mixer board or directly to a powered speaker input. If the plug has 3 sections, it is a balanced TRS plug. If it has 2 sections, it is an unbalanced TS plug. Either kind will work, but TS carries half the signal strength. Typically, it is preferable to have the XLR or TRS kind to minimize any radio interference with the microphone cable. Instruments will most often use cables with 1/4-inch plugs on both ends, and they are almost always TS plugs because they don’t require signal protection.

A mixer board at a live performance will typically only output mono (the same signal through both speakers) unless you use the pan knobs to separate various inputs into left or right. But it is very rare that you would ever want to move the pan knobs from the center at a gig.

I’ll say that again: At a live gig, the output from both speakers is nearly always mono, even with multiple speakers on each side. This is because the audience on one side still wants to hear all of the music, and they won’t if only half of the band is playing through the speaker on their side. The pan knobs are usually left in the neutral middle position.

– unbalanced mono (instrument, strong signal doesn’t benefit from signal protection). This can use a TS cable, though a TRS may work. Typically, you would never connect an instrument to an XLR input on a mixer board because the board is expecting a microphone on that kind of input. It isn’t impossible, but more rare.

– balanced mono (mic, soft signal benefits from signal protection). If the output end is a 1/4-inch plug it should be a TRS cable, though a TS will still work but at a much lower strength.

Microphone cables should almost always use XLR connectors on each end (female-male). If the far end of a microphone cable is a 1/4-inch connector, it should be a TRS connector for the best signal quality. However, a TS connector will still work but with half the strength.

A general standard of XLR Cables:
Signals come out of a Male XLR (part with pins) (such as Male XLR connector on a cable to the mixer board Mic 1 input).
Signals go into a Female XLR (such as microphone with Male pins into Female XLR connector on a cable)

XLR inputs on mixers and powered speakers are typically only for microphones (“mic level” input), or there may be a switch on the device that you can set to Mic or Line Level (meaning an instrument like a keyboard or guitar). Most instruments have a much stronger signal than a microphone and will typically have a 1/4-inch TS plug for attaching to the mixer or speaker. The mixer board may also have a “Hi-Z” (high impedance) button if an instrument like a guitar is being plugged into a particular port. It tells the board that you aren’t using a microphone and to handle the signal differently.

I hope this helps you to understand better what the various kinds of cables and connector are, and how they are typically used.

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