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I'm someone who suffers from chronic Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). Don't most of us musician types? It's easy to fixate on that next piece of gear, believing it will elevate my sound and take my recordings and mixing skills to the next level. Usually, It's an excuse to procrastinate and isn't a very efficient way to generate output. But some buys are hard to skirt around in the studio.
The purchase I recommend before almost any other is a decent pair of studio monitors. They might not be the "sexiest" buy, but I promise you'll get more use out of them than all of your fantasy purchases combined. Your speakers are your only point of reference to the sounds you make in your studio and to the professional recordings you know and love. Your speakers are your context and perspective. Without them, you'd be lost. But what studio monitors should you get? And what type of cabling should you use to connect them to your interface?
First, let me tell you where I started and how I ended up with my current monitoring setup. When I started recording, I realized that I needed something besides my extremely hyped gaming monitors to mix on. Even back then, I knew I needed some realistic representation of what my music sounded like without a major bump in the low end. I wound up going with the Bx8s by M-Audio. These have an 8-inch woofer and are in a comparable price and performance range of the modern Yamaha Hs8s or Rockit G4 8s. To be honest, the M Audios suited my needs for the many years I used them, but Looking back, I would have gone with something a bit smaller. Perhaps the 5' or 6' version would have sufficed as I was recording and mixing in my small bedroom.
When I bought these speakers, I had no clue what kind of cabling to use with them. I didn't fully understand the difference between a standard mono TS cable, and balanced TRS cables. All I knew was I wanted to get up and running as quickly as possible. The back panel of the Bx8s has two input options: TRS 1/4 inch and female XLR. I had a few crummy 1/4 inch non-Rattlesnake instrument cables laying around, so I connected the monitors using those. I was naive and in a pinch, but this sort of worked for me at the time. The main issue using unbalanced cables as a stand-in for balanced TRS cables is the possibility of radio frequency interference ( or RF).
The reason those mono guitar cables worked for me at the time was most likely due to minimal RF interference coming into my studio. The short length of the cabling may have also been a factor. This was a lucky fluke. Mono TS cables have a shield to protect from interference, but a balanced XLR (or TRS) cable has a shield and an extra conductor (or ring). Hence the three pins on an XLR plug/jack and the extra ring on a TRS plug. *The tip and ring flip the polarity of the incoming signal (phase cancellation). This makes it, so unwanted interference along the cable length is canceled out by the end of the run. This polarity flip leaves you with a very clean, quiet signal, and the noise traveling along with each conductor is canceled out. TRS also allows long cabling runs without worry about interference, whereas a typical guitar cable can sometimes act as an antenna at longer lengths. This can introduce more unwanted noise into the signal path.
When I started working at Rattlesnake Cable Co. I replaced every crummy cable in my studio with high-quality Rattlesnakes. From patch cables, instrument cables, XLR's, headphone extension TRS cables, to Monitor cables. Two years ago I upgraded my speakers from the M-Audio Bx8s to A77Xs by Adam Audio. These 3-way midfield monitors are well detailed and have a designated driver for the mid-range. Last year I also bought some Avantone Mixcubes as a secondary reference monitor. I was looking for something small with no low end, and these work wonders for general mix balancing and referencing. These are mid-range focused, making them ideal for initial level setting in the early stages of a mix. As with the A77Xs, I made custom-balanced Rattlesnake monitor patch cables for these little speakers. Since we have so many options for weave colors at the shop, I have all of my cabling color-coded. This keeps me organized when I crawl behind my desk and switch things around in my inputs and outputs.
Regardless of your budget, remember one thing; When choosing speakers for your studio, what matters most is that you're familiar with the tone of the speakers themselves. Listen to EVERYTHING on them. Get to know how your favorite records sound on them. Listen to multiple genres through them. Understand how they push air and react to various frequencies. When it comes to cabling for your Monitors get balanced cables if you can. Most modern speakers on the market these days have either a 1/4 inch TRS input jack or a female XLR input jack. Typically most audio interfaces have balanced outputs, so using a TRS to TRS or TRS to Male XLR cable should suit your needs. Yes, a generic instrument cable could work for you at short lengths. But why introduce the possibility of unnecessary interference?!
Some may also confuse "Speaker Cables" with "Balanced Patch Cables". In this article, the monitor cables I've been referring to are balanced patch cables. The Speaker cable is non-shielded and has a much larger gauge conductor. This means you will undoubtedly introduce horrendous noise into your monitoring system. Speaker cables are used to send signal and power to unpowered monitors or speakers - typically used for amplifier heads to speaker cabinets.
Max Dutcher is an electronic musician from Missoula, Montana who primarily creates experimental ambient and dance music. Max also is a valued team member at Rattlesnake Cable Company.
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