Audio Connectors: 1/4-inch Mono/TS Analog Plug

The plug on a cord that you use for your guitar or synthesizer is an example of a mono 1/4-inch analog plug. The mono part of the name refers to the fact that you have only one channel through which to send the signal. This type of plug is also referred to as a TS plug (short for Tip/Sleeve). The tip is the end of the plug, and the sleeve is the rest of the metal part. A plastic divider separates these two sections. Check out the following illustration to see this familiar plug.

A typical 1/4-inch plug used for guitar and other electric instruments.
A typical 1/4-inch plug used for guitar and other electric instruments.

TS plugs are used for a variety of purposes — to go from your guitar to your guitar amp, from your synthesizer to your mixer, from your mixer to your power amplifier (amp), and from your power amp to your speakers. You would expect that one cord could work for all these applications.

After all, a TS plug is a TS plug, right? Well, not really. The same plug can be wired differently, and it can carry different levels of power. For example, here are the differences between instrument and speaker cords:

  • Instrument cord (the one you use for your synthesizer or guitar): This cord contains one wire and a shield — the wire is connected to the tip, and the shield is connected to the sleeve. You need the instrument cable’s shield to minimize noise.

    If you use a speaker cord (discussed next) for your instrument, you may end up with some noise (that is, you may hear a hiss or a buzz — or even a radio station — coming out of your amp or coming from where you’ve plugged in your instrument).

    Instrument cords are often called unbalanced lines because of the way that they’re wired. An unbalanced cord has one wire surrounded by a braided shield; the wire is connected to the tip of the TS plug, and the shield is connected to the sleeve. The signal is sent through the wire, and the shield is used for the ground. (It keeps the noise down.)

  • A speaker cord: This cord contains two wires and no shield — one wire is connected to the tip and the other to the sleeve. Because the speaker cord carries a lot more current (power) than the instrument cable, the speaker cord doesn’t have a shield. The signal level covers noise that’s present in the cord. Because you have much less current present in an instrument, you don’t want to use a speaker cord for your instrument.

When buying cords with TS plugs, first be sure to look at (or ask about) what purpose the cord is designed for. Then, when you take the cord home, be sure to note what type it is so that you use it correctly.

You can mark your cord in a number of ways: You can put colored tape on it (red for speaker or blue for instrument, for example), put a tag on it, or — gasp — dot it with nail polish.

You generally don’t need to worry about which end of the cord you plug into your instrument — the signal can travel equally well in either direction. However, you can buy cords that are designed to send the current in one direction. (This cord has an arrow on it, designating in which direction the signal should flow.)

These are sometimes called designer cords, and two of the most common brands are Monster and Planet Waves. The theory behind these cords is that they do a better job of preserving the sound qualities of the instrument for which they’re designed. These cords are specifically designed for almost every instrument and application known to man.

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