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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