Connectors & Cables

The concept of a signal line being "balanced" is important too understand since an "unbalanced" line may result in

TRS ("Phone") Plugs

TRS Connectors are plug heads that consit of Tip, Ring, and Sleeve.

TRS, or Tip, Ring, Sleeve Connectors, are probably the most widely used consumer plug around. They will primarily come in 3.5mm (consumer grade headphones) and 1/4 inch (studio grade) versions. These of course refer to the width of the plug. The "traditional" layout is as follows.

  • The Tip is the left channel signal for stereo sound (or positive polarity for balanced, mono signals).
  • The Ring is the right channel (or negative polarity).
  • The sleeve acts as a ground.

There are other variations of these plugins that may have only 2 (TS plugs, typically older designs) or possibly 4 seperate parts to the plug ("TRRS" plugs). With the latter the fourth is usually

Optical (ADAT)

We don't seem to have any of these....

XLR

XLR plugs ("Cannon X" cable with Locking mechanism with Rubber Insulation) remain one of the more popular connection types for stage and studio audio transfer. The most popular design is the 3 pin balanced audio cable. This means each cable will be a mono signal, requiring two for stereo sound, or a else a 5 pin variant. The 3 pins are similar in use to balanced TRS jacks...

  • Pin 1: Grounding (shielding) wire.
  • Pin 2: Positive polarity signal.
  • Pin 3: Negative polarity signal.

These days XLR connections are mainly used for audio but are sometimes also used as power lines (lighting inparticular).

They can come in 3 to 7 pin varietires so always be sure to check that you are connecting compatible cables when using them.

The MIDI plug

The vast majority of MIDI transmitions between controller and DAW will be via USB. But older machines or synth boxes will use 5-pin, 180 degree DIN connectors. The "DIN" part refers to the Deutsches Institut für Normung / German Institute for Standardization. "180" degrees refers to the pins within the plug layout being spread over 180 degrees instead of a circular 360. Two pins for L/R Audio In, two pins for L/R Audio Out, one for screening (noise shielding).

When the MIDI protocol was first standardized digital audio work stations were not in common use. The idea of USB ports didn't even exist. To get signals from controllers such as keyboards to the synth generator a specific connection was developed.

Cables designed specifically for MIDI have a habbit of looking exactly like XLR cables, and *some* of them are interchangeable, so take care to not use one when you mean to use another. Even if you do find a 3-prong MIDI cable (that is the minimum connectors needed for a MIDI signal) remember that MIDI is a digital signal describing the notes begin played, NOT the actual audio, and will not automatically be read by all inputs.

As a rule of thumb:
MIDI cable = 5 prongs.
XLR = 3 prongs.

S/PDIF

The "Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format" is a plug that makes use of the same RCA style heads you might have seen connecting a television to a VCR or game console before HDMI became the video standard. Unlike those component cables however, which usually transferred only one color channel, two-channel stereo is possible with S/PDIF.

Microphones

There are many different kinds of microphones and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each type can help produce the best sound as some are better fitted to some environments then others.

Who broke our mics, seriously, they're all dented and crap.

Dynamic

Condenser mics

Ribbon

Cardioid

Hardware Mixers

A Multitrack Recorder (MTR) is any integrated recording and [down]mixing device capable of multiple inputs and outputs at various levels.

With the proliferation of decently powerful laptops portable Multitrack Mixers don't have the usefulness that they used to. A decent MIDI controller can replace the tactile sensation of knobs and sliders if desired. At this time you can't even make a case for a "vintage" sound since most MTRs produced within the last decade or two will use digital hard drives instead of tape.

The main benefit of a physical mixer will be easy access to an array of inputs that can be recorded at once, for instance if you wanted to record a full performance with multiple band member. or for management of a live show, but even then a control surface without onboard media would be a more specific solution to that need.

ADAT originally referred to an 8-track tape based recording format. In modern MTR and DAW interfaces it more often refers to the encoding format.

Most MTRs can also be used to transfer analogue sound to a digital format via ADAT.

You'll see ADAT mentioned as a bullet point on many MTR packages but it is, debatably, primarily a convenience for backwards compatibility.

ADAT connections typically use optical ports recognizable by their square plug heads. If you hear pops or clicks when using this connection, you may need to loook into the options of your audio interface and search for the recording "clock" speed oto make sure it is set to "optical".

To "zero" the controls of an interface means to manually move them to either a default, or rest position where they do not modulate the signal.

MIDI controllers

A MIDI Controller specifically refers to devices that output midi from various control schemes as if they were instruments themselves.

MIDI controllers can include interfaces as basic and known as electric piano keyboards or much more esoteric designs. A device that can output MIDI signals may act as a contorller, but typically you would not refer to one as a controller unless it was designed as a human interface for one.