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Recording Music with MIDI, AES/EBU, or S/PDIF Digital Connectors

If you’re going to record using a digital recorder or mixer in your home studio, you’re going to run into digital connectors (plugs and cables/cords). Digital audio equipment is a recent invention, and as such, no one standard has emerged.

Because of this lack of standardization, a variety of digital connection methods are on the market, only a few (or one) of which may be on the equipment that you own or intend to purchase. Regardless, knowing about the most common types of connectors and their purposes can help you decide what equipment is right for you.

MIDI Digital Connectors

MIDI, short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is a handy communication protocol that allows musical information to pass from one device to another. To allow the free passage of such information, MIDI jacks are located on a whole host of electronic instruments.

Synthesizers, drum machines, sound modules, and even some guitars have MIDI jacks. And, to connect all these instruments, you need some MIDI cables. The MIDI connector contains five pins (male) that plug into the female MIDI jack (port) on the instrument or device.

MIDI connectors have two male ends. The device contains the female jack.
MIDI connectors have two male ends. The device contains the female jack.

AES/EBU Digital Connectors

AES/EBU (Audio Engineering Society/European Broadcasting Union) cables are much like S/PDIF cables. The AES/EBU standards require these cables to transmit two channels of data at a time. They differ from S/PDIF cables in that they consist of XLR plugs and use balanced cables.

AES/EBU was developed to be used with professional audio components, hence the use of balanced cords — the kinds used in professional-level equipment.

S/PDIF and AES/EBU connectors look the same as analog RCA (S/PDIF) and XLR (AES/EBU) but are marked
S/PDIF and AES/EBU connectors look the same as analog RCA (S/PDIF) and XLR (AES/EBU) but are marked as digital on the machine.

S/PDIF Digital Connectors

S/PDIF (short for Sony/Phillips Digital Interface Format) cables consist of an unbalanced coaxial cable (one wire and a shield) and RCA plugs. These cables can also be made from fiber-optic cable and a Toslink connector. The S/PDIF format can transmit two channels of digital data at one time.

S/PDIF protocols are similar to AES/EBU standards, except that S/PDIF was originally designed for the consumer market — which explains why unbalanced cords are used. In spite of being developed for the consumer market, S/PDIF connectors are found on a lot of pro recording gear along with (or instead of) AES/EBU.

If you want to use cords that are longer than 3–4 feet when using an S/PDIF connector — or about 15 feet for AES/EBU connectors — your best bet is to use video or digital audio cables.

Regular audio cables degrade the sound at longer distances because they can’t transmit the type of signal that digital produces without affecting the quality of the sound. If you use audio cables for longer distances, you lose some of the sound’s definition. Some people describe this sound as “grainy.”

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