How To: Amp up a Home Recording Studio w/Cabling

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With the advent of laptops and cheap software like Logic and ProTools, building a decent “home” recording studio isn’t as out of reach as it used to be. But there’s more to it than buying crisper mics, better pedals or amplifiers that go up to 11. I recently dropped by a small recording space in Portland, OR — the unofficial band capital of the West Coast — for the lowdown on how to get the best, albeit relatively-subjective, bang for the buck by ditching generic audio cables. Hint: buying the most expensive patch cable available isn’t the solution — more after the jump.


“That’s what’s retarded about cabling. It’s like trying to describe the difference between two pastel paintings of a lake: one may have longer brushstrokes or be a slightly blurrier pic. But if you close your eyes and listen, you begin to isolate the subtleties.”

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Brandon and Benjamin (above) rent a linoleum-floored room in what used to be a breakroom of an industrial space. They have “home recorded” all four of their albums, including their last two on Sub Pop Records. They’re currently working on a new one in this space, where I find a messy, but deliberate network of cables of all sizes, thickness, colors, and function — digital and analog alike, including two 10-foot monitoring cables that each cost ~$100. Playback at a recording studio mixing station is vital, but the sound, of course, all begins with the analog and digital signals you send from the pre-amps, guitars, drums or keyboards.

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At left, a range of instrument/guitar cables, mostly from Mogami (~$30-$50 depending on length).

However, the longest, most impressive cable is a 50-foot, Mogami “snake” (~$400-$500) This guy spans most the studio, channeling the analog signal that originates at the drums, vocal mics and guitar — then pre-amps — across the room. At either end, you’ve got 16 inputs/outputs in aggregate (below, top) that let you patch in whatever however, wherever. ex; find the prime spot for your bass drum, leave it, and run your cable to the mixing station, where secondary cables pass the sound from the snake to a number of ADCs (below, bottom) that convert the signal for digital editing*.

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Before playing on a bigger budget album with Modest Mouse, Benjamin used only generic snakes for his personal studio. During those sessions, however, he says he really started to hear the difference. “It’s pretty hard to define,” he told me, “That’s what’s retarded about cabling. It’s like trying to describe the difference between two pastel paintings of a lake: one may have longer brushstrokes or be a slightly blurrier pic. But if you close your eyes and listen, you begin to isolate the subtleties.”

With a generic snake, he says, there’s simply less presence, less body and a lower dynamic range. We didn’t conduct any spectrum analysis, but I’m willing to believe a slightly more expensive cable can be worth it, simply because people like Benjamin and Brandon don’t have hugely disposable incomes, unlike boomer audiophiles who put together compelling justifications for their crazy home stereo cables. Much of the same thinking and “physics” can applied to the cables you record with, but active recording vs. passive listening seems different. A “better” cable for recording isn’t simply about minimizing resistance so you can hear the difference right then and there in the moment, the way it is when a needle hits the vinyl and immediately transmits the cash registers on “Dark Side of the Moon” to your speakers. With recording, you’re resigning yourself to a delayed listen, capturing the signal for potential use down the road, then making adjustments as you re-record to get a desired sound. It’s not about tinkering with a known work to achieve a golden tone. In that sense, the act of recording seems inherently honest about the subjectivity of it all (at least that’s my impression from this personal studio). If you take your craft at all serious, you might lay down and then sift through dozens or more takes to find the one that just feels right and sounds clear-est, but what is there to justify? You won’t have anything to compare it to and why would you? You’re creating a “vibe”, not architecting the ultimate waveform.

The following tips will help maximize your purchase power:

How Much Cable to Buy

With a snake, calculate the true, absolute distance you need and don’t overestimate. If you buy a 100 feet for a 50-foot run, you’re not doing your sound any favors. When electricity travels from the mic through the pre-amp and into your snake, there’s only so much distance it can travel before the quality starts to degrade — even with a higher-quality, pricey cable, that’s unavoidable.

Where Not to Buy

Guitar Center? Meh. Leave that place to undiscerning n00bs. Every beginner’s go-to outlet sells basic quad cable with extra shielding that’s used to reduce RFI/grounding issues/noise. The resulting reduction in resistance will hamper your sound. Besides, in a decent space, those issues shouldn’t be too prevalent.

What Brands to Buy

You can buy a much cheaper non-quad cable with more bandwidth and a clearer sound. Pro studios and musicians are partial to cable makers like Canare and Mogami. Between the two, some say it’s really six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Where to Buy

Going direct to Mogami and Canare can be pricey. If you’re looking for custom-build cables, it’s worth it in some respects. However, Redco will make many of the same cables for more reasonable fees ($1.00+/foot, depending). Or better yet, also try Hotwired, which often sells even cheaper pro cables on eBay.

What Not to Expect

No matter how much money you invest in cabling, the old adage holds: garbage in, garbage out.

*How to pick a converter is a whole other story, since the type/brand/era of your converter determines how much or little harmonic distortion colors the sound. Purists say no converters can compare to recording in analog.

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23 Responses to How To: Amp up a Home Recording Studio w/Cabling

  1. Brother Provisional says:

    “I think Seattle would take umbrage with that.”

    Oh, Please.

    No one can afford to live in Seattle. Musicians flock to Portland since its is possible to live decently on part time wages. Seattle is a great place to live if you’re a 35 year old programmer. Otherwise, it is really, really freaking expensive, and there is a huge shortage of affordable housing. Portland is now what Seattle was in the late 80′s before the big grunge sellout; a place where lots of young adults can live and rawk on the cheap.
    Sure, Seattle has an ok scene going on now, but no one is moving there specifically to hang out and be in a band.
    People often describe Portland as being a “Hipster Utopia,” or as the west coast version of the music scene in Williamsburg, sans the greed.

  2. GrumpySteen says:

    All cables cause changes in the signal they’re transmitting, but minimizing that change isn’t always the goal. Sometimes the change makes the signal sound better to the listener. It’s hard to quantify subtle changes to sound that you’ll hear from cables and other minor equipment, however… thus the comparison to the difference between two pastel paintings of a lake.

    But that still doesn’t justify audiphiles who spend thousands of dollars on power cables which are then plugged into standard 12 gauge house wiring.

  3. Chris S says:

    It’s worth reminding oneself that this is a recording studio, not a playback environment.

    Signal levels may be lower – maybe even extremely low on certain mics and guitars. This isn’t 2Vp-p territory here – this is chasing a fraction of an ampere generated by a tiny pickup coil into a 1 megaohm input. Shoving it across a 50 foot cable is not going to do it any good!

    If you want a more technical look at some of the effects on signals from cables – and the way cables interact with the system – check out http://www.harmony-central.com/articles/tips/guitar_cords/

  4. Downpressor says:

    Its pretty obvious from the comments who has spent time in a studio and who hasnt.

  5. markfrei says:

    Another thing to realize is that small issues that you can barely hear, become quite large across 24 or more tracks of audio. The cabling you use in a very nice home system may not need to be anything like what you’d need for a home studio. In the recording studio you are running a lot of signals and often doing some pretty long cable runs.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I would highly recommend Redco. During construction in my schools auditorium someone threw out the custom connectors on the ends of our snakes. We called every place we could find attempting to find someone who could make us the cables. Not only was Redco able to make them within a week for a very reasonable price, they turned out great and were a huge improvement over the ones we had previously. On top of that it turned out they were only 30 minutes away. We’ve place several more custom orders and everyone came out great.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Portland rocks.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Responding to #12: A dose of reality…

    Oregon (and Portland to a lesser degree) currently has a 12% unemployment rate and it’s rising, second only to Michigan. People move here without jobs because they want to “hang out”, which only compounds the problem. It’s ugly out there on the job front. Plus, wages are not particularly good and have been stagnant for some time now.

    Further, it ain’t cheap to live here anymore. The housing situation is tight, quickly becoming every bit as ridiculous as it is in Seattle. Rentals are hard to come by and expensive.

    I would also point out: By the time a city is widely known for being “hip”, it is quickly on its way to not being so. It will be smothered by growth, homogenization and, sad to say, too much love.

    Musicians, writers and artists and such need space, easy access to a job and cheap living. You’ll have a hell of a time finding any of those in Portland right now.

    If I was in my twenties again and looking for a place to land (like I was when I moved to Portland), I’d do more research, dig deeper and look for a less well-known but promising place instead (i.e. affordable and unaffected) before the trustafarians, trendoids and maddening hordes latch onto it. You will suffer for a few years, but then you will be lauded as the one with “vision” who got there first, before it all went to hell. The cycle continues as ever.

    The only clue I will give: Rust belt.

  9. royaltrux says:

    Is there a measurable difference in resistance? That’s easy to quantify.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I think this article is confused in a more than a few ways. Mogami and Canare studio cable (XLR and TRS), are almost always “quad”, which is in fact superior to 2 and 3 conductor cables. Quad cabling gives you MORE bandwidth, headroom and noise cancellation. I would also say that the difference in good cabling is actually quite remarkable and obvious sounding with proper studio speakers.

    It’s also amazingly easy to make these cables with bulk Mogami wire, Switchcraft, connectors, and a little soldering. My cables are the same as packaged Mogami ones and cost me about a third of the price. I like the Mogami “Neglex 2534″. There are very simple guides available that show you how to put these together.

    Check:

    http://www.mogamicable.com/Bulk/micr_cables/quad_micr/quad_micr.htm

    I’m sorry but it always seems to me that Benji doesn’t have a firm grasp of this stuff. He is in fact a drummer, not much of an engineer, and is quite pompous. A Portland hipster indeed.

    I still like this article and hope to see more like it, but it’s irksome to see inaccuracies in an article that purports to dispel technical myth. You’re heading in a good direction Steven, just do a little reading up.

  11. Brother Provisional says:

    That tells me pretty much all I need to know about this post. It’s infected with audiophilia.

    Arguably, the recording studio is the most appropriate place for this kind of thinking. The goal of the recording engineer is the record audio that will sound good on all playback systems, from earbuds to ridiculous $10k audiophile systems.
    Its one thing to say “good enough” for your own listen pleasures, but quite another to say, “We just didn’t care that much” to the entire audience of human history. Within reason, of course. Recording studio people can be some of the worst offenders of subjective valuation of expensive kit, what with the common fetish for vintage gear and outdated technologies with irreproducible “magic.” That being said they also tend to have sharper ears than most of the human race, since sound is money for them.

  12. Downpressor says:

    @21 Telecustard,

    Look, if you are to the point where you are caring about what cables you use, you’ve entered the professional realm. If the quality of the shielding in your cable snake is something you give more than a moment’s thought to, chances are your recording project is more than just for giggles. I’m sure there are some folks out there who bought Neumanns and a Pro Tools HD rig strictly for recording themselves with no commercial intent whatsoever, but they are not in the scope of a normal discussion.

    My reply was off the cuff, I didnt want to call out some commenters specifically.

    FWIW, yes I’m “pro professional studio”. Sure you can make a great track with nothing but your laptop and a USB mic, but I’m darn willing to bet that you used some professional techniques in the recording or it will in fact sound like crapola. Even if you do something ghetto like hanging up some heavy quilts and making a pop filter from used pantyhose and a clothes hanger to work like a vocal booth, you are gonna sound better than just hanging a mic in the living room.

    FWIW2 I’m aware that a “good enough” studio can be setup for under US$10K, but I’d still say if you are spending thousands, you probably have an incentive to make some of that back and thus you’ve left the realm of the complete amateur. I built my little “studio” for ~US$6K, but its for mixdown only, I wont record anything here that cant be directly tracked. For that I go and rent time in a room thats built right and has the right gear for what I need to record.

    FWIW3, re: the original article, the one thing that made me cringe was “linoleum floored room”. Not seeing any thing to work as acoustical baffles was bothersome but that might just be the angles of the photos.

  13. technogeek says:

    Roll 3D6 under my intelligence… I save. Nope, I don’t buy it.

    If there’s a measurable difference in impedence (capacitance/inductance/resistance), or in shielding/noise-rejection, an audible difference is possible.

    But the human mind is entirely too good at convincing itself that “I paid more, and it must be better, because otherwise I’m going to feel like an idiot.” The right answer is double-blind tests.

    Which usually indicate that as long as the cable is at least reasonably close to what the specs call for, nobody can hear a difference.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Years ago, that cable company that is very protective of their trademark was trying to make a splash in the pro-audio industry, and they had a “forum” at one of the hotels near the Audio Engineering Society convention. I went along, and heard several esteemed recording engineers give their testimonials, and then there was a chance for people from the audience to give theirs.
    Just about every person-at-the-mic said something like “I had been wiring in my equipment in an ad-hoc fashion as I acquired it, with the cheapest cable I could find, West-Penn 291. The haze and hum was really getting to me, so I ripped out all of my cables, and wired the whole thing from scratch using your cable and a consistent grounding scheme. The buzz and hum disappeared, the haze disappeared, and I think your cable is the best stuff ever”.
    I took this to heart. When I got back to my place of employment, I ordered supplies, and in the next down-time I ripped out all of the cables and replaced them using WestPenn 291 and a consistent grounding scheme. It dropped the noise-floor by a measured 40dB. (High RF environment…)
    I encourage everyone to read Rane Technote 101 “Sound System Interconnection”

  15. Telecustard says:

    Its pretty obvious from the comments who has spent time in a studio and who hasnt.

    Well that’s the thing, isn’t it? A home recording studio is whatever you decide it is, with the limiting factors being how much time and money you can spend on it. So, the person with the Studer tape recorder, the Neumann mic, and the McIntosh amp, will have a significantly different experience than their fellow enthusiast with the Zoom H4 or their laptop. If it’s a “home” studio, the person with the $25 cassette-corder in their bathroom can legitimately claim to have spent time “in” it, if they record themselves playing music on it.

    Your comment has a “pro-studio” feel to it, but that’s my subjective take on it.

  16. roboton says:

    The thing to consider in a studio is that your are replicating everything possibly dozens of times across the same electrical path. A little bitty phase differential on a single track can suddenly sound much different when replicated 75 times into a single mix. After a while you begin to notice how all the things affect one another. Cables make a difference, but albeit not nearly the most important one. The two most important factors of a studio are room treatment and Mic placement.

    Basically you start where you can make the most difference then spend years teasing out the small differences. These guys are teasing out the small differences.

  17. DSMVWL THS says:

    We didn’t conduct any spectrum analysis, but I’m willing to believe a slightly more expensive cable can be worth it

    That tells me pretty much all I need to know about this post. It’s infected with audiophilia.

  18. technogeek says:

    I dunno. Yes, good cable makes a measurable difference, and if you’re talking about serious studio setup with a few miles of the stuff it can make an audible difference. I’m less convinced that “better” cable makes an audible difference, once a reasonable threshold has been reached.

    And when multiple variables are changed at once, as
    pointed out in #7, it’s easy to mislead yourself about which change accounted for how much of the result.

    My experience is field recording and reinforcement, often in “festival” conditions (changing performers every 45 minutes or so, if not more often). I freely admit that under those circumstances ambient noise sources and knock-about microphones are likely to swamp the differences folks are claiming to hear with expensive cables. Maybe if I was studio-trained I’d feel differently. But I’m an engineer by temperment, not an artist; if the final result is indistinguishable in blind tests, good enough really is Good Enough. Especially since the folks actually listening to the final recording aren’t exactly going to be doing so thru studio equipment.

    Standard song cue, TTTO No Business Like Show Business, from a Mad Magazine parody:

    “…I don’t like to brag how good my speakers are
    But when I turn the sound up real far
    I can hear the dandruff fall from Ringo Starr
    That’s why I’ve got Hi-Fi!”

  19. Anonymous says:

    “I recently dropped by a small recording space in Portland, OR — the unofficial band capital of the West Coast…”

    I think Seattle would take umbrage with that.

  20. sworm says:

    You need the better cabling for a studio because:

    1. you can layer the same sample loads of times
    2. at home you use one set of cables all the time. In a studio the cables all have to be the same, or you notice the difference. That’s how human hearing works.
    3. Longer distances.

    All this being said: building your own studio rarely if ever makes financial sense unless you can rent it out.

    A good but slightly dated studio costs 500$ a day. Recording takes a week, mastering another. So you can record professionaly for less than 10k$.

  21. sworm says:

    You need the better cabling for a studio because:

    1. you can layer the same sample loads of times
    2. at home you use one set of cables all the time. In a studio the cables all have to be the same, or you notice the difference. That’s how human hearing works.
    3. Longer distances.

    All this being said: building your own studio rarely if ever makes financial sense unless you can rent it out.

    A good but slightly dated studio costs 500$ a day. Recording takes a week, mastering another. So you can record professionaly for less than 10k$.

  22. haineux says:

    So, it seems that fiddling about with cables is one of the more common things that home recording artists do — INSTEAD OF ACTUALLY RECORDING MUSIC.

    STOP F’ING ABOUT AND RECORD SOME DAMN MUSIC, YA WANKER.

    That being said, reading up on ground loops and proper mic cabling is a good investment for the next time that you go to record and nothing works and the only rational solution is to rip out every single F’ING cable and START ALL OVER AGAIN.

  23. Brother Provisional says:

    A dose of reality…

    What does reality have to do with the migration patterns of shiftless hipsters over the last decade?
    Granted, the pickings are way slimmer today in Portland than say, five years ago, but the damage is done and the scene is well established. That is to say, the hordes of bands that qualify Portland as “the unofficial band capital of the West Coast” are here to stay. But I agree with you, Portland is too big for its britches, and this scene has already hit its high water mark.
    Sure, you can buy a house in Detroit for what it would cost to rent an apartment in Portland, but then you’d be living in Detroit.

    What’s next? I know a lot of people moving to Austin.

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