Improving the signal chain

Hi. My setup is very simple¹. Basically a norns shield and USB audio from OP-Z, plus one single other item of gear, either one of my two teenage engineering Pocket Operators or Android smartphone going to norns input via a 3.5mm audio cable.

I have one audio cable, and it is a random, noname very skinny noodle I had laying around, maybe a meter long. It’s the rightmost of these three, next to Etymōtic headphone cord and OP-Z USB cable for scale.

Question is this: should I at all care about the quality of this single audio cable? Or will an investment make absolutely no improvement to my sound quality on this simple setup? My intuition is that i shouldn’t, but in a more sophisticated setup audio cable setup will start to matter.

¹ ain’t got the moneys the for modular FOMO lifestyle

Looks fine to me. Does audio sound weird through it?

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Sounds ok to me, but i am not “gold ear” and don’t know what I might be missing. But doesn’t sound distorted or anything, or flaky contact.

Then I think you’re good! I’m always on the lookout at thrift stores and such for these cables. Usually can pick up a few for $1.

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There are no fancy mini cables so you’re all set. As long as it isn’t crackly then nothing to worry about.

Be gentle with it, try to keep the original wind/fold, don’t jerk the ends too much.

If it gets crackly replace it. :slight_smile:

One thing for better sound is to run your source (the OP-Z) as loud as you possibly can and then turn down at the Norns. But even worrying about that is probably overkill.

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Got it, thank you @corpusjonsey and @Gahlord I’ll keep this noodle. Moving on :control_knobs:

PS. I’m using USB audio with OP-Z which has pretty good signal I think (plus leaves the norns input free for this other stuff)

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For USB cable it absolutely doesn’t matter.

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One thing to watch out for is noise and ground loops in your signal. This is something a DI box can also help with with the “ground lift” button. I have 8 channels worth of DI and frequently use them all. You can almost not have enough of them.

What I want to know is: what the “proper” method of converting unbalanced to balanced

There is nothing wrong with connecting balanced ports with unbalanced cables. It simple puts the cold(inverted) signal to ground and you miss out on the noise cancelling properties of balanced signals. It’s important to note that the quality of the cable you use matters more for unbalanced signals. Specifically the shielding of the cable is what matters more. The shorter the cable the less the quality matters, but pay attention to if you put it right on top of a power supply or power cables.

Now if you want to pass your modular through line level gear. As others have stated modular levels are too hot for most line level gear. Converting from modular level to line level is what most “output/interface” modules do and most of them output a balanced signal. I don’t think putting modular levels directly into line level gear will damage anything, but it definitely won’t help anything having so little headroom. I’m sure if a piece of equipment is crappy enough a signal that’s too hot could blow it out, so it’s best to avoid altogether if you can.

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I’m pretty happy with my signal chain for most instruments, but when it comes to my vocals it seems there’s always something to be desired. Weekly vocal lessons haven’t hurt. Neither has my recent acquisition of Gullfoss, although that’s for later in the mix.

Chain:
SM7B or Røde NT2a -> neve-style pre -> Klark KT-2A -> Focusrite Clarett

Piece by piece I don’t think it’s the gear but my ability holding me back. But I’m wondering if I would benefit from adding a Pultec-clone EQ? I suppose a better condenser is an option. But I’ve been reluctant to record with condensers for sibilance and them picking up too much of the room. Although treated and with a bass-trapped vocal corner my studio is still a small room.

Any ideas on what a Pultec-clone could give me? I figure, since this is all learning by doing I will never really know the benefits of a hardware EQ until I get one and start experimenting, right? Thanks!

wanted to circle back on this with a discovery I made today. i was getting a ground loop on a balanced cable from my DSI Prophet 08 Rev 2. Tried an unbalanced cable and the loop went away which perplexed me. Checked the manual on the synth, unbalanced outputs…

I wouldnt think that connecting balanced cables to unbalanced ports would cause a problem but i guess they can.

AFAIK there are very few synths with balanced outputs (although I think my old A4K may have had them), and it’s nearly always better to use unbalanced cables. On some synths using balanced cables with its unbalanced outs will result in a severe volume drop due to out of phase signals. This came up recently with people trying to use balanced cables with their Super 6’s.

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Oh I thought most keyboard gear was balanced. The prophet 08 is the only synth I have that’s unbalanced. The rest are balanced. I could see older synths being unbalanced too. Good to know unbalanced synths is probably more common than I assumed.

I still don’t understand why the loop though. You wouldn’t think that the ring would still be common to ground same as plugging in unbalanced cable to balanced in/out. In my case I was even still going into a xfmr DI box which I thought would surely isolate the loop but nope.

If you plug unbalanced output -> balanced cable -> balanced input, I could see phase issues arising from that setup depending on the input balancing circuit. There could be a difference between cold and ground that the input would cancel.

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Yeah, I am not sure of the numbers but in 30 years of owning probably around 30 synths, the only balanced one I’ve owned is the A4K. I wish it was more common. I think the Wavestation A/D rack maybe had balanced outs back in the day too, but I only had the keyboard EX version.

Anyway, hope you get the ground loop hum sorted!

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I actually just went through this same thing concerning my old Teac reel to reel. It’s unbalanced RCA ins and outs and I have it connected to my balanced patchbay. I mostly send audio from Ableton to and from it. I found that it was distorting on the way in and needed a lot of gain on the way out. So my results were often distorted and noisy. I bought the ART Cleanbox Pro to deal with this. Now I have Balanced TRS out of my patchbay going into the XLR inputs of the Cleanbox. Then the unbalanced RCA’s from the Cleanbox to the RCA inputs of the Reel to Reel. Totally solved my problems. Got it for just 40 bucks on eBay too!

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I also have a Rev2 and didnt even realize it was unbalanced outs. I have it connected to my balanced patchbay using balanced TRS cables and everything seems perfectly fine.

Well that is the frustration of ground loops. They are actually very complicated and highly dependent on the electrical environment of your studio.

If you are ever down for some light reading: https://web.mit.edu/jhawk/tmp/p/EST016_Ground_Loops_handout.pdf

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Me after an evening of looking for ground loop when I just wants-ta jam.

image

But in all seriousness, I have a noise problem that comes and goes. I suspect it is the heating element in my dishwasher. But when that noise is present, recording is just off the table.

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How do you guys deal with low signal like sounds from kalimba? Today I tried mic with it by using Rode NT4 and Mixpre-6. My Mixpre set to 38dB gain, but it the volume didn’t get to -20dB even I put my kalimba close.

Here’s something huge I learned recently. I process external audio through my modular all of the time and I’ve always struggled with getting proper gain staging. I have some Ladik modules for sending line level audio in and out of the modular. I also have a send/return for guitar pedals. I would frequently have distortion and noise problems so I emailed Ladik and this is what they had to say:

“Eurorack standards defines quite low headroom, “normal” level is ±5V(peak-peak) and power supply allows max. level around ±10V, this is only 6dB headroom.
So if your sound source is not quite perfectly steady (say within 3dB) it will be tough to establish a reasonable level with any of pre-amplifiers…”

I’m not really sure I full understand how the power effects the headroom but the fact that Eurorack does have very little headroom explains a lot of my gain staging issues.

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Have you tried any other mics? Are you sure you have the mixpre channel set to mic and not line level? I don’t have any issues recording my kalimba with a dynamic mic, so the signal should be hot enough with a stereo condenser.

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