Most musicians will encounter a tangled knot of various audio cables at some point. While fishing out cables for instruments and speakers, the thought of interchangeability may cross the experimental mind. Both types of cable oftentimes come with 1/4-inch phone plug connectors, and more than one improvisational musician has used one in place of the other. Despite their similar appearance, these cables are very different.
Instrument cable is known for its low power and high impedance. A single 24-gauge wire acts a core conductor, carrying the relatively weak electrical signals from an instrument to an amplifier. To ensure sound purity, this core is surrounded by a grounding sheath and a layer of shielding insulation to prevent any electromagnetic interference from disrupting the low current. Instrument cables are usually very flexible, as musicians can be prone to wander around the stage.
Speaker cable is the opposite, being known for high power and low impedance. It contains two thick wires at the core that carry the powerful electrical signal from the amplifier to the speakers. Both wires are thinly sheathed and surrounded by filler. Speaker cables are usually stiffer than their instrumental cousins, as these cables usually sit in one place the entire performance.
Using Instrument Cable as Speaker Cable
At low signals levels, there will not be much of an issue. The smaller conductor within instrument cables will be able to carry the weak signal without problem. However, at higher signal levels, the limitations of the singular conductor will be taxed, potentially causing the cable to heat up and melt. In extreme cases, this can cause the amplifier to overheat and fail.
Using Speaker Cable as Instrument Cable
Speaker cables, with the dual-conductor core, will have no problem handling the weak signals from an instrument. However, speaker cables do not contain shielding against electromagnetic interference. Speaker wires are not meant to protect the pure musical sound within, like instrument cables, but are purposed to carry any signal contained directly to the speakers. Therefore, the speaker cable will pick up unappealing interference and produce low-quality sound.
Instrument cables and speaker cables are designed with very specific purposes. While they may appear identical on the outside, the innards are anything but. In emergencies, these cables are interchangeable at low voltages at the cost of sound quality. At all other times, musicians should use the cables as intended.
To determine the purpose of a mysterious cable, handlers can unscrew the connector to view the insides. If there are two conductors, it is speaker cable. If there is only one, it is instrument cable.
- Photo Credit guitar cable image by Darko Draskovic from Fotolia.com
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