It is essential to know the basic wiring and connections required for your Home Recording Studio. If you haven’t read the Elements of Home Recording, I suggest you to go through it if you are new to audio recording. Before you can start any sort of recording, you need to bind every element of your home recording setup appropriately to make a flawless audio signal chain. To get the best out of your audio chain, you must understand the basic connections and cabling needed to hook up your home studio setup.
How to Connect Your Home Recording Setup?
You have selected the hardware and software components of your recording studio after a good amount of thought to match your requirements. A basic home studio needs to have one or more analog audio inputs to record audio sources through microphone, instrument input, analog signals fed from a line level outputs of other devices like a CD player. You may also want to hook a MIDI keyboard to play software instruments and record MIDI tracks in your DAW. You will have at least one pair of studio monitors and a stereo head phone for monitoring what is being recorded and the played back tracks.
All the devices or hardware that are going to be part of your home recording studio audio chain, will have different types of inputs or outputs or both. Different types of input / output connection sockets on your devices take different types connecting plugs or connectors appropriate to the type of the socket. Even though your recording setup is called computer audio recording or digital audio recording, invariable you will have several analog signal sources coming in as well as going out. Similarly, digital audio input / output ports, MIDI ports and other digital port to communicate digitally between different devices may be present. Different types of analog and digital cables may also be required - everything is available ready-made – depending on the devices and connect your home studio setup has.
Analog Audio Connections
There are basically analog and digital connections are needed even in a small kind of setup. Connections and cabling can get confusing. However, if you spend a little time understanding it, it will become easy to handle. Analog connections are used to carry analog audio signals – signals that are continuously varying voltages according to the pressure of the sound wave like signals produced by the sound pressure on a microphone diaphragm. Typically, your audio devices may several analog connections in or out or both. Analog connections have subdivision due to the nature in which it handles the signals and the cables and connectors used. Further, connections on the devices are classified as per the level of analog signal it accepts or outputs. Below are the broad classifications:
• Unbalance Audio or Balanced Audio Connections
• Mic, Instrument, Line or Speaker Level Input / Output
Unbalanced and Balanced Connections
An unbalanced cable consists of two connectors with two conductors each, connected by two wires inside the cable—a signal wire and a ground wire. Unbalanced cables can pick up noise from radio frequency (RF) interfaces like TV and radio transmitters. A balanced cable, by contrast, has three conductors in the connector and three wires in the cable: two signals wires plus a separate ground wire. Balanced cables / connections have the capability of cancelling noises picked from RF interfaces.
XLR Balanced Mic
In our small setup, you will be connecting a microphone to channel 1 of your audio interface. For microphones, typically, you will be using XLR type balanced connections. XLR cables have male and female XLR connectors. Plug your microphone into female end of the cable and the male end goes into your audio interface. Your audio interface may have a combo female connector which can take both XLR male or ¼” TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) / stereo phono jack.
Balanced or Unbalance Phono
Next is our guitar input. This can go into the next input with a capability of taking ¼” phone jack in. There are two types of phone connector: stereo and monaural. Stereo phone connectors are also called TRS phone connectors. They are used to handle stereo signals for headphones, as well as to insert effects. TRS phone connectors can also be used for balanced connections. Monaural phone connectors are used only in the unbalanced method described later, and they are used with instruments such as electric guitars.
Mic Level, Instrument Level, Line Level Input and Speaker Level
There are 4 different signal levels of audio – mic, instrument, line and speaker. Mic level is the lowest or weakest level signal of the four and requires a preamplifier to bring it up to Line level. Instrument level signals live between mic and line level signals - typically see this kind of signal come from an electric guitar or bass guitar. Line level signals are the highest-level signals before amplification. There are two types: Consumer and Professional. Consumer line level audio is rated around --10dBV and is what you’ll find in products like a CD player. Professional line level is rated around +4 dBu and is found in devices like mixing desks and signal processing equipment. As the name denotes, speaker level signals are post amplification output to your speakers.
Microphones are normally connected to XLR balanced inputs. If you are using a condenser microphone it need +48v power, called phantom power for it to work. Most of the audio interfaces, audio mixers and similar devices come with phantom power built in. Guitars are typically connected to unbalanced instrument level input. Most of the time you will find a switch to move the input between mic/instrument and line level so that you can connect a mic, instrument or line level device like key board or CD player. Remember to switch on phantom power, if you are using a condenser microphone.
Now that we have hooked our mic, guitar and keyboard, let us look at the typical outputs an audio interface have. Your audio interface will have a minimum of two output channels - a left and a right or a stereo output and a headphone out. Main out will mostly be a balanced out which can be XLR, TRS connection or a combo. This can be fed into powered near filed monitors, amplifiers or to a recording machine etc. Please ensure you check the output levels (mic, line etc) before you feed the output into another device. You may find many other output connections for additional signal streams like headphone mix going into a headphone distribution amp, second monitor etc.
Unlike analog connections that are typically for audio signals, digital connections carry data to and from a computer and your audio interface and other digital devices. Typically, your audio interface will have a either USB or Firewire connections that communicate to other digital devices like your PC or Mac running your DAW. These connections carry several channels of audio, midi and type of information at a high speed back and forth between the connected devices.
For digital audio, S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) is a common connection found on digital audio hardware. This type of connections normally use RCA coaxial connectors. ADAT Lightpipe optical connections that allow multi-channel digital transfers between digital audio devices over a single fiber-optic cable.
MIDI in / out connections are used to connect MIDI keyboards, control surfaces and other devices. There are standard 5-pin MIDI connection as well as a USB connection work as MIDI connection.