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Quality Begins At Ohm

Leader
By Paul White

Recording quality is a big issue amongst project studio owners, which seems odd insomuch as you can almost take quality for granted these days. While esoteric A-D/D-A converters definitely sound better than the more affordable devices used in typical home multitrack gear and computer audio interfaces, the sound quality of a relatively low-end soundcard can still be noticeably better than the converters the professionals had access to only a decade ago. We have also seen an unprecedented growth in the number of cheap, seriously decent capacitor mics on the market, and it seems that users often prefer to team one of these with a dedicated voice channel rather than rely on the perfunctory mic preamps in their mixer. Every link in the project studio audio chain has got better and, in many cases, cheaper too. Choosing good quality equipment and integrating it into a system of well-chosen components is a major step towards achieving better sound quality, though it s still true that the way the equipment is used has more of a bearing on the end result than the equipment itself.

Paul White circa 2002.While most project studio owners would acknowledge these facts, when it comes to wiring these components together, standards often fall dramatically. Now, I'm the last person likely to be convinced by ludicrously expensive designer cables, but passive speakers need to be connected using heavy-gauge, low-resistance cable, not bell wire or guitar leads, and digital equipment needs digital cable of the correct impedance, not moulded phono leads! Wiping the metalwork of jack plugs from time to time with Deoxit will help minimise contact resistance, which in serious cases can cause signal intermittency and even distortion.

Views on cabling differ widely. Some people are convinced it makes no difference at all while others believe every cable has its own sound. In reality there is often an audible difference in quality between budget cable and adequate cable, whether used for speakers or line-level signals. This can be due to a number of factors, from resistance to cable capacitance to screening. The quality of mic cables can make a difference too, though because of the low impedances involved, the effect may not be dramatic. I wouldn't advocate buying fancy cables that cost more than the mic you're plugging into them, but at the same time, don't expect optimum performance from the cheapest mic cables either.

Problems invariably arise when connecting unbalanced sources, such as synthesizers, to mixers with balanced inputs, as suitable off-the-shelf cables may not be readily available. In this situation, the best results are usually achieved by using a properly wired unbalanced-to-balanced jack cable, as described in the Audio Cables & Wiring FAQ on the SOS web site (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan02/articles/faq0102.asp) and various other articles on studio wiring. If this means you have to get out your soldering iron or pay someone else to make the cables for you, then so be it — it's well worth it.

Ultimately, any recording system is a chain and any points of weakness will affect the whole system. Today's studio systems are simpler than ever, with fewer separate boxes and fewer interconnections, so it makes sense to pay attention to the way in which they are put together and to respect your interconnections as being a vital part of the system, not just a necessary inconvenience.

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published August 2003