Know Your DJ Cables - The Essential Guide For DJ Cables From LSA
As a DJ, you need to know all about DJ cables!
Learn how to recognise the different types of DJ cable, what connects to what, and how they all work! If you have any questions click here to contact our support team or ask your tutor during your DJ lessons.
DJs will come across a variety of cables on a regular basis, understanding them is crucial. You will need to be able to set up your own equipment at home and trouble shoot any problems at venues when you perform. There isn’t always a sound technician at a gig so you need to be self reliant when it comes to connecting DJ technology. If you don't learn this you can have some very embarrassing gigs that can knock your confidence as a DJ and performer.
To help you learn how it all works we have put together this guide on the cables and the differences between them.
Balanced and Unbalanced Cables
A lot of people are confused by the differences between balanced and unbalanced cables, which ones they should be using and why.
Unbalanced Cables have just two wires inside, one signal wire and another ground wire. The signal wire is situated in the centre of the cables with the ground wire wrapped around the outside. The ground wire carries some signal information as well as acting to protect the signal from picking up noise along the way from things like RF information and electrical interference. Unbalanced cables work well over short distances but over longer distances of around four meters or more they pick up a lot of interference noise causing crackles and hums to come from the speakers and degradation to your audio. Common examples of unbalanced cables are TS Jack and RCA cables which are both used everyday by DJs.
Balanced Cables have three wires inside, two signal wires and a separate ground wire. These wires are designed to travel over much longer distances without picking up any interference, in order to do this a clever trick of phase is applied. When you send sound down a balanced cable the same signal is sent to both of the signal wires but with the polarity of the signals reversed at the point of sending. Once the signal is received at the other end of the cable the polarity of the signal is switched back to its original orientation. This results in a clean signal. Inverting the phase to transport the signal means that any noise picked up by the cable along the way has been cancelled out by the phase inverting.
If you sum two signals that are identical but reversed in polarity the signals cancel out leaving you with silence. This is what is happening to the noise picked up by the cable when you switch the inverted signal back to its original polarity. The waveforms of the noise align and cancel each other out. Examples of commonly used balanced cables are TRS jack and XLR cables.
The quality of your cables has a big impact on your sound so it’s essential to have decent quality cables. The phrase to remember is ‘you’re only as strong as the weakest link’. You could have the best speakers and the best DJ equipment but if you're connecting it all together with the lowest quality cables it will bring everything down.
Industry standard cables tend to use Van Damme cabling and Neutrik connectors for XLR and Speakon cables. It’s good to purchase decent quality RCA cables as well, not only to make sure you are getting a good sound but also to make sure they are durable and will last. The cheapest ones will start to break very quickly and cause issues while DJing live.
Whilst it’s important to purchase decent cables for the purpose we need them for you also don’t need to buy the most expensive cables either. There’s not much point in purchasing £100+ RCA cables to connect your CDJ’s to your DJM mixer. A decent XLR should set you back around £15-£20 and decent RCA cable tend to cost in the region of £10. Amazonbasics stereo RCA cables actually have quite decent reviews, even in hi-fi publications!
Stereo RCA cables are the ones often with red and white tips, these have been the standard for turntables and hifi audio equipment for decades! They are the most common choice when routing audio from your CDJ to your DJ mixer and always used as an output from any turntable. Although standard RCA cables are unbalanced they are only travelling a very short distance so they provide a great sound.
Digital Coax Cables
Pioneer CDJs and DJM mixers have digital outputs and inputs which also use RCA connectors at the end of the cables. These are less common but some clubs use digital cables to connect their kit instead of the analogue stereo RCA’s. Coaxial cables carry both audio channels through the single cable so there’s only need for one input/output per CDJ. If you look at the back of your DJM or CDJ they are the orange coloured connections. They have a higher impedance than standard RCA cable and a thicker copper wire at the core shielded by an aluminium wrap, the aluminium provides protection from picking up interference.
Some of you will have realised that you can use a standard analogue RCA cable to connect the digital ports, but this is not a good idea. Stereo RCA cables are much thinner, don’t have the same shielding and have a lower impedance. This means that they are only able to carry a thinner bandwidth of information than the thicker Coaxial cables and the lack of shielding results in them picking up much more interference. A standard RCA cable will work as a quick fix if you’re desperate, but the drop in quality in comparison to using the correct cable makes them far from ideal.
Known to many as a microphone cable, XLR cables are another balanced cable, meaning they have 3 wires and 3 connectors at each end. Most professional DJ mixers will have XLR outputs for the master out as well as an XLR input for microphones to connect. These cables can travel over a long distance without losing quality or picking up any interference.
TRS and TS Jack Cables
TS jack cables are the most common cable used with external effects units and guitar pedals. These are unbalanced cables with just two wires inside and two connections. TS refers to the two connections at the end of the jack cable, Tip and Sleeve.
TRS Jack cables are used for the booth and master outputs on DJ mixers and inputs into mixing desks, amplifiers and active speakers as well as a variety of other equipment. These cables are balanced cables, they have three wires inside the cable and three connections on the end. TRS standing for Tip, Ring and Sleeve.
It is important to be sure to use the correct cables for the kit you are using. If you use a TRS cable with a TS connection you may end up with noise in your system and issues with your sound.
Ethernet / Link Cable
Ethernet cables are a digital cable used to connect equipment together for them to share data and communicate. CDJs can be linked or networked together using ethernet cables, the same cables you use in your home for internet or telephone line connections. This enables the Pioneer CDJs to share information from one USB stick between the two players. The Pioneer DJM mixers also have an ethernet port, using this port you can network the CDJ’s and the mixer which will unlock features such as the effects unit in the DJM syncing with the beat-grid of your track and the CDJ platter lights turning red when the corresponding channel fader is turned up to show that they are live.
Don't forget to link multiple CDJs (more than two) you will need to have an ethernet hub.
NL2 / NL4 Cables
Also referred to as Speakon, or sometimes just speaker cables, these are the standard cables used to connect amplifiers to passive speakers for large sound systems you would find at clubs and festivals. These cables have multiple cores to be able to transfer different signals at the same time to the different drivers inside the speaker cabinet. They are unbalanced, thick and weighty cables.
Mini Jack TS Patch Cables
Small unbalanced 3.5mm TS cables are used to interface synth modules, you will find them on common hardware such as the Korg Volca series and the Moog Grandmother we have in our studios for music production tuition.
You can get cables that transfer from one connection to the other such as Stereo RCA-3.5mm Jack aux that you would use as an input to a line channel on your mixer or TRS Jack to XLR to go from your TRS jack booth output to an amplifier or speaker with XLR input.
USB A to B (Printer Cable)
The most common USB cable used with DJ equipment. These are the cables you need if you would like to use the internal sound card to record from the DJM mixers directly to your laptop or connect the CDJ’s to Rekordbox, Traktor or Serato to work in HID mode. You will also find these cables on the majority of Midi and DJ controllers such as the DDJ series from Pioneer or the Traktor controllers such as the X1, F1, S2 or S4.
These are the most up to date form of USB connection with much higher data transfer speeds than the older cables and the capability to transfer more power.
Whilst Thunderbolt 3 uses the same connector as the USB-C cable Thunderbolt is a lot more advanced with faster data transfer speeds, more power and the ability to transfer video display signals. You can use a Thunderbolt 3 cable for USB-C ports but this will give you restrictions on the capabilities. These are the ports you have on modern Macbook’s, you can connect to USB-A devices using a converter.
MIDI - 5 Pin Din
MIDI (Musical instrument digital interface) ports feature heavily in hardware such as synthesisers, samplers, drum machines and much much more since its creation in the early 80’s. The biggest advantage of MIDI is being able to control external hardware Midi cables are used to connect keyboards and other electronic musical devices together to share information.
Power Cable - IEC C7 (Figure 8)
A common UK mains power lead, this cable is also regularly found to use with DJ kit such as the XDJ-700, XDJ-100 and CDJ-900nexus models.
Power Cable - IEC C13 (Kettle leads)
The most common UK mains power lead used on computers, monitors, TVs and printers. Uses a thick copper conductor for devices that require a higher current. This will be the power cable found on most club DJ mixers, the CDJ2000NXS2, XDJ-RX2 and loads of other equipment.
Cable management For DJs & Producers
It’s easy to end up with a nest of tangled cables all over the place, having audio cables crossing over power can cause interference and poorly positioned cabling can cause strain on your cables and connections casing them to break or damage your equipment. Here are some suggestions to keep your cables tidy and organised.
Correctly Coil Your Cables
This is really important to prevent your cables from being damaged, becoming kinky and difficult to manage. Here’s a directional video from Sweetwater on how to correctly coil your cables.
Bunch groups of cables together to help you keep them organised. We suggest using the velcro ties as they are reusable and light on your cabling. You can get them in a variety of colours so it’s easy to colour code which cables are for what purpose.
Hooks or Trays
Some studio desks have a cable tray fitted underneath to lead your cables through, you can purchase these to fit yourself or an alternative is to use hooks. Attach hooks under your desk or on the edge to keep your cables from dangling around and stop the weight of them straining on the connection.
DJ Cables Checklist
Know what the difference is between balanced and unbalanced cables
Understand what 'Phasing' is
Realise that your cable quality can affect your sound
Know all the types of cable above for audio, data and power
Have a plan to manage your cables and protect them from damage
Further Help & Tuition
If you would like to learn more about DJing or music production, including how to manage your equipment and cables enrol on a course at LSA. We teach 1-2-1 so you will have quality time learning direct from a pro! Online and offline courses are available. Click here to view our DJ courses.