The following article is a basic guide into the various audio lead/jack types and equipment typically encountered by any musician either live or in the studio. Even as a drummer, there’s value in knowing your way around this sort of gear. Many drummers will use mixers, leads and in-ears live or in the studio and almost every musician uses a foldback wedge when playing live. If you don’t have a whole lot of experience, you’ll want to at least know the basics! This article was written with the help from audio engineer, Brendan Dower.
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Lead, Jack & Input Types
Mono/TS (Tip, Sleeve)
Leads that are mono will typically have a jack end that is split into two parts, the tip and the ‘sleeve’. The tip carries the hot signal – i.e. the sound, whilst the sleeve is for ground, and so carries no signal. These types of leads are used for guitar leads and patch cables.
Stereo/TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve)
Leads that are stereo will typically have a jack end that is split into three parts the tip, ring and the sleeve. Typically, the tip carries the ‘left channel’ signal and the ring carries the ‘right channel’, whilst the sleeve is for ground, and so carries no signal. This jack is typically used for headphones/earphones that don’t have an in-built microphone.
Stereo/TRRS (Tip, Ring, Ring, Sleeve)
TTRS leads are similar to TRS stereo leads but have an additional ‘ring’ for use with headphones that have an inbuilt microphone. These have a jack end that is split into four parts the tip, ring, a second ring and the sleeve. Typically, the tip carries the ‘left channel’ signal and the first ring carries the ‘right channel’. There are however two different standards for TRRS cables. The layouts are as follows:
Tip: Left Channel
Ring: Right Channel
Tip: Left Channel
Ring: Right Channel
1/8″ jack (Headphone)
The 1/8″ or ‘Headphone’ jack is typically used for headphones and headphone inputs, such as the small input on your phone, mp3 player or computer. These are usually TRS configuration for Stereo sound, but can also be TRRS with an inbuilt microphone.
Bantam Lead (Studio Patch Cable)
Bantam leads are used for audio mainly in studio or live sound situations as patch cables, to easily facilitate the re-patching of effects, preamps, channels etc. Typically, effects and preamps are installed in racks alongside rack-mounted patch bays, which feature multiple 4.4mm inputs. Instead of being connected to each other, effects and preamps will be connected to these patch bays, and then to each other using bantam leads. This allows you to easily ‘rewire’ your effects and preamps in the signal chain. Interestingly, these cables are also used in telecommunications patch bays as well.
1/4″ mono jack (Guitar Lead)
This is your typical mono (TRS) lead. Typically used for guitars, patch cables, effects, drum triggers, and line inputs for mixers.
XLR or ‘Balanced’ lead (Microphone Lead)
An XLR lead is used for almost all microphones, and are used to carry signal from the microphone to the mixing desk or interface.
RCA is a stereo connection with a coaxial cable that is commonly used for home hi-fi audio equipment and for ‘Tape Out/In’ or ‘Line Out’ inputs on small mixing desks.
ADAT is an audio connection standard for transmitting digital audio signals from one piece of equipment to another. ADAT units are typically used to add channels/microphone preamps to an audio interface that supports more channels but doesn’t have additional inputs.
Dynamic microphones are most commonly used in live situations. They are less sensitive to volume levels and as a result are great for loud instruments such as drums. This lack of sensitivity is also great for reducing feedback on stage, and quite often all of the microphones being used on stage are dynamic microphones. The Shure SM-58 has become the industry standard dynamic microphone for vocals, and the Shure SM-57 for micing live instruments including drums, guitar amps etc. However, there are drawbacks to using dynamic microphones. They generally aren’t capable of picking up the same range of frequencies as condenser microphones and are far less capable of picking up sound at greater distances from the sound source. Dynamic microphones are perfect for ‘close-micing’ situations live and in the studio.
Condenser microphones are the most commonly used microphones in the studio. Typically come in two variants; large diaphragm, and small diaphragm.
Large Diaphragm Condenser Mic
As the name suggests, large diaphragm condenser microphones have a physically larger diaphragm. The diaphragm in a microphone is responsible for picking up the audio. These microphones are used for recording vocals and room sounds in the studio, and any other situation that requires high quality audio of a sensitive sound source. They are more sensitive than small diaphragm condenser microphones far more sensitive than dynamic microphones, but as a result are not suited to live use due to feedback. Note that ‘live use’ does not include recording live situations. These mics are used for recording both live and in the studio!
Small Diaphragm Condenser Mic
Unlike large diaphragm condensers, small diaphragm condensers are used both in the studio and live. They are often used on hi hats or as cymbal overheads, but are also great for stereo micing acoustic guitars and other acoustic instruments.
Plate/Boundary Mic/PZM (Pressure Zone Mic)
Plate microphones usually feature a small condenser diaphragm and are flat in shape, hence the name ‘plate mic’. For drum kit these are typically used in kick drums and are placed on the inside of the drum. In this configuration they are often used with another kick drum mic on the outside against the kick drum resonant head.
Stage & Studio Equipment
The mixer is the control surface that allows a sound engineer to ‘mix’ the band and adjust audio levels etc in a live situation. Mixing desks can range from small 4 channel units to large 32 or 64 channel consoles. In live situations, mixing desks are the link between microphones, and the amplifiers that run the speakers and PA system. They usually feature microphone preamps, effects, equalizers, and faders and dials for adjusting the microphone preamp gain, volume and equalization. Modern digital consoles can be controlled wirelessly using an iPad, and many digital consoles also act as interfaces and can be used for recording.
A stage box and attached multi-core cable is, as the name suggests, a box that sits on stage, with a multi-core cable attached. The box is covered in XLR inputs (can be 8, up to 32 or more inputs), and the attached cable is numerous XLR cables bundled together (one for each input), that then plugs into the mixing desk. These are used so that there isn’t multiple XLR leads running from the stage to the mixing desk, but instead a single cable.
‘Foldback’ or ‘foldback wedge’ is a term for the speakers used on stage as the performers personal speaker for ‘on-stage’ sound, so that they can hear themselves and the other musicians around them. Foldback speakers can also be referred to as monitors.
The term ‘Monitor’ in the audio space is used to describe speakers that are specifically designed for monitoring the sound. This could refer to studio monitors, which are specifically designed for use in the studio for mixing and editing, or foldback speakers, which are used in live situations. Studio monitors are usually much higher quality compared to hi-fi stereos, in-home entertainment systems and their live/stage counterparts, and are generally EQ’d for a flat response to allow for accurate reproduction of sound, as opposed to hi-fi systems which usually feature an increased bass response because their purpose is to sound ‘nice’!
In Ear Monitors
In-ear monitors are earphones used for the same purpose as a foldback wedge. In-ear monitors often try and block out external noise as well, and as a result are great for stage use in live situations, and in the studio to block out some of the live instrument.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
A ‘DAW’ or ‘Digital Audio Workstation’ is the software used for audio editing and recording, and is usually used in conjunction with an interface. Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Logic, Adobe Audition and Audacity are all DAWs.
An interface is a firewire/usb unit to act as a link between the physical inputs (line or mic inputs etc) and the DAW. An interface is the hardware that contains the Audio to Digital converter for recording to a computer. Interfaces usually have at least two XLR/Line (1/4”) inputs, but can support up to 32 channels. Interfaces with more channels usually have 8 XLR/Line inputs but more can be added using external ADAT Mic preamp units. Most interfaces also have phantom power to support the use of condenser microphones.
DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter)
Simply put, a Digital to Analogue Converter is a unit that converts a digital signal from an Optical/SPDIF coaxial cable to an analogue signal – E.G: RCA.
Phantom power is a power supply source that is transmitted from mixers or audio interfaces through XLR leads to power external devices. Phantom power is most commonly used to power condenser microphones, which usually require this power source (some condenser microphones also take 9v batteries), but is also used to power DI boxes.
A DI box or ‘Direct Input’ box is used to convert an unbalanced line-level input to a balanced microphone/XLR input.
Got questions about any of the gear mentioned above, or think something is missing? Feel free to get in-touch with me directly by leaving a comment below or using my contact page.