Masterguide: Know Your DJ Cables

Last updated 23 March, 2018

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Working out what goes where can be a real pain in the backside for the uninitiated.
Working out what goes where can be a real pain in the backside for the experienced, as well as the uninitiated.

Cables are hardly the most glamorous part of a DJ set-up but without them, nothing works. There’s a confusing array of plugs and cables to deal with in a typical set-up, and many DJs (experienced or not) have no idea where to start. In this guide, we will cover the differences between balanced and unbalanced inputs, analogue and digital signals, and highlight the cables you are most likely to come across while DJing.

Working out which cables are required for your set-up is one thing, and then you have to go about connecting everything together. Getting it wrong can be costly, you risk embarrassing yourself in front of other DJs or club owners and at worst you’re going to make everything sound awful, with the possibility of damaging your gear. In this guide, we will remove any confusion surrounding the most common DJ cables you will encounter when DJing.

Mixers
If you turned up to your next gig to see the mixer unplugged, with a pile of cables nearby and only five minutes to plug them all in, how do you think you would fare?

Analogue vs digital cables

First, let’s talk about the difference between the two categories of audio cables common in DJing: analogue and digital. Analogue cables transmit electrical audio signals from one end to another, while digital cables transmit data in binary code (ie zeros and ones, the language that computers speak).

Now we will move onto the different kinds of cables that you might encounter when setting up your DJ kit at home or in a club. Let’s start with the most common analogue audio cables…

Analogue cables

Analogue cables come in two broad categories: balanced and unbalanced. Balanced audio cables reduce the amount of noise / interference that get picked up as audio signals travel from one end to another, say a DJ mixer to the PA system. They’re better for situations where cables are prone to noise / interference, or cover a significant distance, such as in a mobile or club DJ set-up.

Most home and personal music devices such as the iPhone use unbalanced audio because the distance between the two ends of the lead isn’t much.

Balanced cables are generally mono – that means you need to connect two balanced cables to get stereo sound, just like the outputs of your DJ mixer or controller. Some unbalanced cables are stereo (such as those found in your DJ headphones’ lead), and so only need one socket connection.

RCA

RCA is the most common type of unbalanced audio cable a DJ is likely to come across. Most inputs on DJ mixers are RCAs.
RCA is the most common type of unbalanced audio cable a DJ is likely to come across. Most inputs on DJ mixers are RCAs.

The RCA (short for Radio Corporation of America) plug may be as familiar to you as mini-jack plugs, as these are used frequently in hi-fi and home audio equipment. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as an “Aux cable”, RCA is the most common type of unbalanced plug a DJ is likely to come across. It’s often used for connecting different things within the DJ booth, such as a digital audio interface to a club mixer. Most inputs on DJ mixers are RCAs.

In this situation the cable doesn’t have to travel very far, so a balanced connection is unnecessary. RCA cables are mono, but normally come in attached pairs. The plugs themselves are usually red for the right channel and white for the left, but this is by no means universal.

DJ hardware uses RCA connections for two different “levels”; phono and line. Phono is the level that is output by a turntable and is significantly quieter than the line level outputs of a CDJ or a digital audio interface. Many mixers (and controllers that support external inputs) will have inputs that are switchable between phono and line, or separate inputs for the two.

Always ensure that you know what kind of level you’re using and that you plug your cables into suitable inputs – a line level signal plugged into a phono input makes a horrible noise and definitely won’t do your mixer any good!


XLR

XLR is a balanced cable, often used for microphones, monitor speakers, audio interfaces, PA applications and others.
XLR is a balanced cable, often used for microphones, monitor speakers, audio interfaces, PA applications and others.

XLR is one of the two most common types of balanced plugs. It is used as the master audio output from club mixers, some larger DJ controllers like the Pioneer DJ DDJ-RX, and is also commonly used for microphones.

These cables have the advantage of being very secure (the plug clips into place in the socket) but are quite bulky compared to other connectors. This can be an issue on digital controllers where space is limited. Since it is a balanced connection, two cables are needed to transmit a stereo signal – one for the left channel and one for the right.


TRS / TS cables (1/4″ and 1/8″ jacks)

TRS left / TS right
In the picture above, we have 1/4″ TRS on the left and TS on the right. The difference between the two is that TRS offers a balanced connection.

TRS (tip-ring-sleeve), is arguably the most confusing type of connector you’re likely to come across. Firstly it comes in different sizes,  the more common type in the DJ world is the 1/4″ version. The other is the 1/8″ (or 3.5mm) headphone plug mentioned earlier. However, even when only taking this one size into account, there are pitfalls.

To start with, TRS is very easy to confuse with another connector; TS (tip-sleeve). TS plugs fit into TRS sockets and vice versa, but the difference is the number of connections. TRS has three: the tip, the ring and the sleeve. TS only two: the tip and the sleeve.

TS cables are generally used for mono, unbalanced signals and are most commonly used with electric guitars. TRS cables can be used for mono, balanced signals as well as stereo signals. Since TRS is the more useful of the two, let’s focus on it, now we have cleared up how to differentiate between the two.

TRS can be used as a more compact (but similar quality) alternative to XLR for balanced audio output from mixers and audio interfaces. High-spec club mixers and DJ controllers like the Pioneer DJ DJM-900NXS2  and DDJ-RX use a pair of balanced TRS sockets for the booth outputs.

However, since TRS plugs are relatively compact and contain three connections, they are also used as unbalanced stereo cables. For example, the headphone output on almost every DJ mixer and audio interface in existence is a TRS socket. There is absolutely no difference between a TRS cable used for unbalanced stereo and one used for balanced mono.

TRS-digital-dj-tips
Arguably the most common audio connection of all, the 1/8″ mini-jack. This is the connector that you’ll usually find on MP3 player headphones.

An example of an unbalanced stereo TRS cable can be found in your DJ headphones’ lead. Even though it’s got a TRS connector (whether 1/4″ or 1/8″), it is wired to send a stereo signal from your DJ mixer / controller / music player to your cans.


Speakon

SpeakOn lalalala
Speakon cables are designed to take high current signals and are ideal for connecting power amplifiers to loudspeakers.

One of the newer analogue audio connections is Speakon. Developed by cable supremos Neutrik, it is designed to take high current signals. Speakon connectors have a twist-lock mechanism that secures them into the socket and are ideal for live sound applications. They are most often used for connecting power amplifiers to loudspeakers and as a result, Speakon to XLR cables are also commonly found in large-scale festival rigs.

So, that pretty much covers the most common analogue audio connections. Let’s move on to the most commonly found digital audio cables…

Digital cables

Optical Cables (S/PDIF – ADAT)

optical cable
S/PDIF is much less vulnerable to external interference than analogue connections, and as such do not need to be balanced.

Optical cables can carry multiple channels of digital audio through a single cable by transferring information using a series of light flashes. Digital connections are occasionally found on some audio interfaces, and notably on newer Pioneer CDJs and some high-end club mixers. In most DJ applications, optical connections take the form of a “coaxial” socket, which is very similar in appearance to a single RCA socket (but it will usually be marked “digital” or “S/PDIF”).

S/PDIF carries two channels of audio and is commonly used to output your stereo mix from the audio interface to an external source such as a cheaper pair of monitor speakers.

ADAT cables, on the other hand, can carry eight channels at 48kHz, or four channels at 96kHz and are commonly used in music recording and production studios to send all eight channels of a multi-channel mic preamp to the audio interface.

Due to the nature of digital signals, they are much less vulnerable to external interference than analogue signals and as such do not need to be balanced.


USB

USB lalalala
The ubiquitous USB cable needs little introduction. They are very important for DJs, allowing music gear and computers to “talk” to each other.

USB cables have become common in audio production. They’re on Midi keyboard controllers, audio interfaces, modern synths and drum machines. They allow music gear and computers to talk to each other. USB cables can also carry Midi information.


FireWire

Firewire lalalala
FireWire is only seen on older gear these days, I can’t remember the last time I saw one of these cables.

Originally developed by Apple to be a high-speed connection for its Macintosh computers and peripherals, Firewire has since been replaced by Thunderbolt and USB 3.0.


Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt lalalalala
Thunderbolt offers extremely fast transfer speeds and was developed by Apple and Intel.

Thunderbolt is one of the newer digital connections in this guide. Found originally on costly Apple computers, Thunderbolt has become one of the more popular connections for gear and peripherals that need speedy transfers such as high-capacity hard drives, music production audio interfaces, and even external display monitors.


Midi

Midi cables are used to sync and communicate instructions between gear. They are commonly found in home studios connecting keyboards to computers.

These cables don’t transport sound, they transmit data using a language known as Midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). This allows for various types of musical information to be communicated, including pitch and velocity.

These cables are commonly run between a keyboard / controller to a Midi interface, which then connects to your computer and lets you control the virtual instruments within your digital audio workstation (DAW). Midi cables aren’t as common as they used to be, as newer-generation USB cables have the ability to transfer Midi data directly to the computer.

Other connections

Power

iec-cable-digital-dj-tips
IEC cords are used to power many pieces of electronic equipment, including computers, instrument amplifiers and professional audio equipment.

The IEC C13 (or simply, IEC) or kettle lead is used on virtually everything from computers to rice cookers (I once got a telling off when I nicked the power cable from my Mum’s), to studio monitors and amplifiers. This is especially useful as if you ever lose one, chances are good you’ll have a few backups lying around the house.


Ethernet

Ethernet cables are commonly found
Ethernet cables are not only used to connect computers to the internet, but also for hooking up DJ gear like CDJs and mixers via Ethernet Link.

Ethernet (or Cat 5) is a type of cable used for computer networks. They are also used for networking hardware such as CDJs and DJ mixers, allowing them to communicate and share tracks from a single USB stick, for example.


Same signal adaptor cables

The 2xRCA to mini-jack adaptor is probably the most common cable of its kind.
The 2 x RCA to mini-jack adaptor is probably the most common cable of its kind. It is often used to plug smartphones and tablets into hi-fi systems.

If you need to send audio from an unbalanced analogue source to an unbalanced analogue input, for example, but the connectors / sockets are different, then simply using cables with the appropriate connectors will do the trick. The most common example of this is using a 2 x RCA to mini-jack cable (pictured above) to connect a phone into a hi-fi system.

The same rules apply with balanced signals, a good example of this is using XLR – TRS adapter cables when connecting a DJ mixer to a set of monitor speakers. Basically, as long as you are sending the same type of signal between devices, these kind of cables will usually suffice.

You should not, however, connect unbalanced to balanced, digital to analogue or high voltage to low voltage and expect it to work properly. In some cases it might even damage or destroy your equipment. This is where signal conversion comes in…


Signal conversion devices

DI box lalalala
A DI box allows you to plug unbalanced gear, like a guitar or drum machine for example, and convert them to balanced signals for connecting to mixers and PA systems

A DI box (direct injection) is an example of a signal conversion device. In this case, it converts an unbalanced output signal into a balanced signal. This allows you to run long cables around a stage or a club with less noise and no interference. A useful little gizmo!

Another type of converter you are likely to come across is the power brick. Power bricks contain transformers to convert the mains electrical current from high to low voltage and AC to DC, ready to power your DJ controller or small mixer. Without this conversion, you would blow up your gear!

Then, there are audio interfaces or sound cards, which convert analogue signals to digital. This type of device is most visible when ripping your vinyl record collection from a turntable (analogue) onto your computer (digital) or when using a DVS “breakout box”, although such a device is included in all DJ controllers nowadays, too, to turn computer (digital) audio sent down the USB cable into analogue audio to drive your speakers and headphones.

Finally…

Understanding the difference between these different audio cable systems can help you make a better-informed decision when choosing your gear, and save you from being bewildered by cables when your shiny new DJ gear arrives in the post.

Knowing your cables is undoubtedly one of the geekier sides of DJing but is nonetheless a basic skill every DJ needs. We hope this article has helped you to understand audio cables better because this is one of the least understood yet most important things any self-respecting DJ should understand.

Did we miss any cables out? Which cables do you use in your home set-up? What’s the most disastrous experience you’ve had with audio cables? Let us know in the comments below…

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