"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

A Beginner's Guide to Cables: Part 3

Toby Roworth

Jan 30, 2012

In part 3 I'm going to look at the cable itself, and which types of bulk cable are best for which purpose. As with many things, people have favourite brands they go to when it comes to cables. Van Damme, Klotz and Sommer all have a good following, and I've had good experiences with Van Damme stuff, but when it comes to buying stuff for myself, it's always Sommer, so they're what I'll use as examples here.
There is still a large school of thought that are happy if a simple electrical connection exists from one end to the other, and will happily buy cheap cable with a name like "professional low-noise mic cable", and this may often suffice. But when it comes to a gig and things go wrong, it's often caused a faulty cable, which is far less likely to happen with higher quality cable.
Balanced cable
Balanced cable is the the staple of the PA world. It is mainly used for mic cables, but can be also be repurposed for stereo line cables and even normal line cables if soldered incorrectly.
It usually consists of two conductors, one red (hot) and one blue (cold), surrounded by a screen. In theory, the screen does nothing, as a balanced cable shouldn't pick up interference, but in practice it can be quite useful, especially when using in a non-standard way, such as to etend a stereo line signal.
I tend to use SC-stage 22, Sommer's lower end mic cable (SC-Source is their flagship, coming in at twice the price), which performs more than adequately. It coils beautifully, and I've run line signals 15 meters down it without any problems, suggesting the shielding is quite decent.
Unbalanced cable Unbalanced cable fills that gaps for things like instruments and short interconnections.
It consists of a single conductor, surrounded by a decent screen. The screen quality is much more important in balanced cable, as it's all that stands between your signal and the noise surrounding it.
SC-Tricone is the cable of choice here, and performs very well under most conditions. It coils quite nicely, but requires some effort to strip the carbon inner sheath properly. For a higher end guitar cable, SC-Spirit it nicer, but is twice the price.
Stereo cable Normal balanced cable will work well for this in most cases, but a narrower cable is sometimes required, for example when using mini-jacks.
SC-Goblin is like a mini SC-Source, and is the only Sommer cable to fit into all Neutrik's normal connectors. It's not as nice to coil, but much better than most commercial mini-jack leads. It can also be used for low-profile patch leads.
Twin cable When a cable needs to split into two, like a stereo-2Xmono lead, a more exciting cable is required. SC-Onyx consists of two line cables attached together, so its cross-section looks like a figure of 8. It comes in three sizes, with 2025 being suited for most uses, and the only one StudioSpares stocks.
Speaker cable Speaker cable is fat, has two conductors and no screen. The signal level going down it is high enough that interference is very rarely a problem, so a costly screen is ommited.
SC-Meridian is the best speaker cable by far, coiling almost as easily as a mic cable. It's not cheap though, especially in larger diameters. If interfacing to jack's go for 1.5mm, as the 2.5 is a bit to fat to screw the boot on, and most systems using jacks shouldn't be too high-powered anyway. I made this mistake when I made up my cables, and also bought the fire-resistant version as well. The fire-resistant version hardly coils at all, so I'd avoid it unless you really need it. Rest-assured I won't be making that £40 mistake again!
Multicore The last type of cable is multicore. This consists of lots of little cables wrapped in a single jacket, but beyond that the variety is massive.
For types of multicore, refer to Sommer's website (or preferably catalogue - well worth the month it takes to arrive from Germany, as it actually make quite a good read!). SC-Planet is a good start if using a multipin instead of tails, but beyond this I won't make any recommendations, as I've yet to make my own multi'.
It's here that I mention "my favourite cable", an official thing that I actually have! SC-Nautilus is a super-multicore, containing 16 balanced lines, 2 speaker returns and a mains cable, all in a single sheath. This cable allows a powered mixer (mixer with built in amp) to be set up with a single cable from the stage. However, it's about £15 per meter. If anyone ever buys me 20-30 meters of this, they'll probably be my friend for ever!
Round-up I've looked at various types of cable today, along with which ones I use. Next time I'll look at putting it all together, in a guide to actually building the finished leads.