Instrument Cables: The Life of Your Sound

As we have previously discussed there are many factors that make up the foundation of your “sound” as it were. There is your instrument, your amplifier and even your effects and what order your effects live in. But did you know that your cables can make a significant difference in the way electron path, and therefore sound flows through your rig. It’s true, it’s true…in fact there is an entire industry built around this fact. Companies such as Monster and Mogami have made their name providing uncompromised cable quality, gold and platinum tips and even lifetime guarantees…at a generous price tag as well. They are great. I personally have some myself and can definitely say that they are worth the money. The quality is unsurpassed in my studio cables by the name brands. “But I can’t afford a $40 guitar cable”. That is more than understandable, I was there at one point and truly I only have a few cables of this quality for specified purposes. But don’t worry, you can still get a great quality sound without these boutique beauties. Let’s take a quick look at a few key elements that you should look for in a cable either store bought or hand-made.

Guitar Cable Diagram

A quick look at the diagram above gives us an inside view of what a general unbalanced, or “instrument” cable looks like. You basically have the “Hot” conductive wire in the center surrounded by a layer of insulation, a weave of “Shielding” or ground wire followed by an outer insulative layer or “jacket. One key element to look for is the type of connector on the end. Try not to buy solid molded cables if possible. They tend to be made if very thin wire and have very little shielding around the conductor. In addition if it breaks on the road now you buy a new one, whereas with a two piece screw type connector you can onep the tip and repair away. Another key point is the quality of the shielding in the wire. One side effect of wires is that when the source on one end is amplified on the other the conductive wire becomes a happy home for RF interference. This can be manifested anywhere from a mild buzz to a complete AM radio station…I’ve seen it happen. The key again is quality cable. Whether you are handy with a soldering iron and make your own cables as I and many engineers do or buy off the shelf take a quick second to open the cable and inspect the weave of shielding/ground wire. The tighter the weave the better, the more wires in the weave the better; it makes an incremental difference as each one of these very thin wires well not only connect you to ground, which you will want a good strong connection to, but it will also act as a barrier from RF frequencies from outside the cable. For the final tidbit on cable integrity, make sure that the conductive “hot” wires in the center are nice and stout. Some inferior cables tend to have very thin soft wire. This is undesirable. Though there is a point of relief inside the cable tip. The better your wires twist and adhere together with solder the better and more solid the overall signal path will be.

Now that we have learned what goes into the construction of a quality cable, let’s take a quick look at the proper care of cables. Believe it or not but there is a proper to care for cables to assure that they will last for years, even without regular maintenance. There are a couple of key points here. The first is connecting and disconnecting the cable itself. Please for the sake of your cables and sanity itself don’t yank the cable tip out of jack with the Indiana Jones stage whip action. This is bad for so, so many reasons. For one you are causing extreme stress one the relief point where the cable meets the tip, eventually causing cracked wires inside the cable and crackle later. You can also cause the tip to snap off inside the ¼” jack and then you have some real fun. You could even cause the entire jack to break or pull out of the device itself. The proper way to unplug your cable is to have a hand on the device the cable is plugged into and one on the cable tip gently pulling in an outward motion. I know it’s common sense but more people do it than one might think

Finally the biggest key to proper care of your cables is rolling. I know it seems fast to roll a cable over your shoulder and around your elbow, then tie a loose knot in the end right? Please don’t say yes. This is wrong cable technique on so many levels and is quite literally one of the worst things you can do for the lifespan of your cables…period! Remember your cable is made of a lot of very tiny and thin wires on the inside. It looks sturdy, I know but it is made of spun metal, copper as a matter of fact, one of the most malleable metals around. Every time you pull that wire around the angle of your elbow that you are causing the copper inside to bend that direction. Cables have memory. The metal inside of them tends to “remember” which way it has bent previously and will want to continue to do so. This is what causes that signature figure eight pattern of cables that have wrapped this way for so long. Every one of the bends in the thin wire is a possible point of weakness once brought to temperature by the flow of electrons which will eventually lead to splits in the middle of the cable that cause unwanted noise.

Now that you know what not to do, let’s take a quick look at how to properly roll your cables the way the pro’s do. Known as the “Stage roll” or “Over/under” technique this rolling style comes from the same method used by sailors to roll slack line in the deck of a boat so it can be deployed without tangle.

over-under cable rolling cable-wrap

There are numerous videos online that show in much greater detail the mechanics of the process with close-ups and angles. But with the two images above you can clearly see that the key is twisting the cable on itself so that it would look like a loosely coiled spring if spread out. Yes it’s true. It does take around an extra 10 seconds to roll your cable properly. However the time is way worth the avoidance of internal frays in wires that cause crackle or hum, and once learned the process actually becomes second nature. Add to this a Velcro tie that is readily available for around .20 cents each at your local hardware store and now your wrapping your cables like the pros and can sleep at night knowing that your cables are happier and healthier for a long, long time.

~ as published in Rockstar Magazine ~




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