Cable Pizza

My imaginary friend once told me: “setting up DJ gear is like making a pizza; you have the base and the topping.” I thought he was crazy, but he did bring up an interesting point about the headaches of the cables filling the booth like mozzarella cheese. Let’s face it, cabling can be daunting, but it’s something that all professional djs need to know.  With a solid understanding of cables, levels and common problems- you can trouble shoot almost any audio issue easily and look like a pro every time.  In this article we will cover the essentials you absolutely must know by heart.

Levels – the sauce

Think of levels like the power running down the cable, the spiciness of the sauce (yes spicy pizza). We have several types of levels useful for different things.

  • Microphone levels
  • Line levels, including
    * Balanced
    * Unbalanced
    * Phono Level

Line Levels

These levels are the most common around the DJ booth. They are mid power connections designed to plug sound cards into mixers, and mixers into amps or powered speakers – so on and so forth. The professional audio world splits these levels into balanced and unbalanced, each having different “power levels” to suit each other. As a result nasty things can happen if we plug one into the other.

Microphone Levels

Microphone input levels are very important to understand. That input is expecting an input level of -60db, compared to a standard line level input on a mixer which is looking for -10db. This means that if you plug a microphone into a line level, it will be too quiet and if you plug a line level output (cd player) into a mic input then distortion is guaranteed.

Phono Levels

Records have a very interesting characteristic. They are cut with large dips in volume at specific frequencies so the needle wont skip. To make up for this Phono level inputs on your mixer then increase these frequencies back up again. If you accidentally plug a CD player into a phono input it will sound like some one cranked up the gain, and all eq’s to 11.

Speaker Level

This is the big daddy of levels- the very, very high powered level that comes straight out of the amp before going to non-powered speakers. Do not ever, ever try to plug a speaker level cable into your soundcard or find your room the victim of a bomb…not that it would be easy to do that, but just saying.

Balanced and Unbalanced – seafood or pineapple?

Now we have our sauce sorted, all that’s left is the meat of the pizza. The choice between balanced (or professional) signals and unbalanced (more consumer) signals is similar to the ever complex question of choosing seafood or pineapple. It is sacrilegious and frankly won’t work to mix the two.

  • Unbalanced cables run at a line level of -10dBV or roughly (0.316 V-RMS for the nerds out there). All cd players and almost all dj sound cards have unbalanced outputs. This is the most simple line level, which is suitable for short runs of audio. Over longer runs the cable will start to pick up a lot of noise.
  • Balanced cables “break the signal down” (for the sake of simplicity) into two parts (plus a ground), + and -. By doing this, the amp or mixer gets the two pieces and works out what the signal should sound like subtracting any noise that may have been picked up along the way.  Balanced cables run at a line level of +4dBu (1.228 V-RMS) and are normally used for long runs to speakers and amps.

EAN’S INSIDER TIP: Some sound cards have the choice of -10db or +4db outputs. Your probably thinking, louder outputs = better! Not really, dj mixers and sound boards are expecting un-ballanced inputs so your really sending way too loud of a signal. Always run -10db outputs UNLESS your going directly to speakers or a special mixer with balanced inputs.

Cables – the base of our pizza


Now these little boys you may know from the family DVD player. They have one metal rod with a metal cake-cutter shape ring around it. Sorted into left and right (white and red) they carry an unbalanced signal through two cables. These are some of the most common plugs and you should be able to find these on most mixers and soundcards, however, as they are unbalanced they are most susceptible to interference.


These plugs are the new industry standard for balanced cables. They are three pronged cables and often have a little clip to keep them in place. Superior to RCA, XLR cables are heavy duty and usually thicker. Like all the other cables, you need one each for the left and right channels.

¼” TRS and TS

The ¼” Tip Ring Sleeve plug should be familiar as the humble DJ headphone plug. Fatter than the little iPod plug, the TRS plug can do two main things:

  • Work as a headphone jack. (read about the importance of good headphones)
  • Work as a balanced cable. TRS plugs are found commonly on soundcards (due to the fact they take up less room than XLR) while they are technically the same as XLR plugs.

*A notable exception is Native Instrument’s Audio2DJ which has two TRS connections, but work the same way as unbalanced headphone jacks. NI supplies a TRS to RCA converter cable, and the outputs are -10db.

The TS (Tip Sleeve) cable is slightly different and found mostly on older soundcards. They only have one little black ring and work in the same way as RCA plugs by transmitting unbalanced signals.

Finally, be careful plugging an unbalanced TS plug into a jack that is set up for balanced TRS due the different signal levels described before – all we’ll get is distortion and fuzz.

When the pizza burns

Unfortunately, no matter how many books we read, something will always go wrong after hours of planning and setting up. Here are three of the more common issues:

Throughout all these potentially scary and worrying issues, the principles of cabling, like a pizza are simple. If something isn’t working, take it back to the basics and have a quick think. Work out what your needs are, such as whether you should mix using hardware or software. All you have to do is remember the key principles and things should work out; and anyway, would you really want a pineapple flavoured seafood pizza?

About the Author: Charles Goodacre

This is Charles first article for Dj TechTools.  If you like it- show some love in the comments. We are planning on a follow up article with more details on ground loops and other advanced topics.


Comments (34)
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  • Anonymous

    Great article,

    Djs need to realize that they should know the equipment they are using,

    and remember, RED LIGTHS = SYSTEM NOT HAPPY

    done sound for way too many big name djs that redline and shut down the system!

  • dub wolfen

    On that tip, where can we get some advanced knowledge about contemporary PA and soundsystem equipment installations? I’ll check out the EV PA bible, but I’d love to find stuff that deals with newest tech out there, along with the authoritative info on the basic copper. Not a bad article, but I think there is way more you could have written about this topic, even though most of the articles on DJTT tend toward the short and basic. Still much appreciated.

  • audiomontana

    If any of you want to actually advance your knowledge of signal, sound, and useful knowledge of PA equipment check out the PA bible. Its available as a download from Electrovoice. I think it was written during the 70s when all this ‘new’ technologey emerged. Its boring as hell and hard to read but if you can get through it and actually retain some information youll be 100 miles ahead .. and runnin.

  • Danimal

    Nice Goodacre, gone to a lot of effort i see

  • DJN

    Great informative primer – I’m actually forwarding this link to an installer that I talked to at the “other job”. Good stuff here that I have to teach people on daily basis – keep up the good work!

  • OneG

    Thanks, this helped a lot.

  • Remote

    Can we have a guide to how long is too long for unbalanced audio?
    I realize that how much noise and interference the cable picks up will affect it. But how about standard club scenario in a mix and snaking around a couple of TT and CDJs?

  • Nate

    So I have an Audio 4 DJ, which has slots for Black/Red RCA Inputs as well as Yellow/White RCA outputs. Is there any way to use some sort of converter to use XLR (balanced) cables instead?

  • DJ transientOne

    Very good article. never knew the difference between balanced and unbalanced.

    Just did a gig at a bar. Man did their system buzz. That bugged me.

  • Perpetual Stu

    People really need to understand this stuff!!!! It’s essential!!!! In my experience, I figure about half of the DJs out there don’t have a clue. Another thing, TEST your cables before you show up at the club, and bring EXTRAS!!! You need to have a few spares in case a cable shets the bid on stage.

    I look forward to part two….. you should discuss PHANTOM POWER (I once hurt a mic badly by flicking on the phantom power without thinking what it was connected to.), INDUCTION, PROPER ROUTING, CABLE REPAIR, ADAPTERS, and CALZONES!!

    As far as actual writing is concerned, I think the inexperience shows a little bit here, but it certainly wasn’t unreadable.

  • Anonymous

    [quote comment=”29018″]on a mixer with 2 different 1/4″ inputs, what does “line” vs. “insert” indicate?[/quote]

    insert is for using outboard gear like rackmount compressors, gates, reverb/delay. the 1/4″ input is used as send/return and usually uses a TRS that breaks out into 2 mono 1/4″ ends. Line is just your standard line level input.

  • Mr.Nicklebe

    Wouldn’t mind some pizza right now… mmmm. Wait wait we’re talking about cables, mustn’t get distracted.

    Really good article, especially the table things of all the inputs and problems.

  • Dj Nvidia

    Great column… I already understood the difference for most of these (except the TRS/TS stuff), but I really enjoyed the trouble-shooting table. Now I know what to look for when stuff goes wrong…

  • BentoSan

    Sounds like we have some interest for a part 2 on this article 🙂

    Nice work on the article, a follow up article in a week or two would be very good !

  • Jacob Lysgaard

    you should mention DI-packs, that balances signals. I always use that when DJing on a stage, with audio going all the way to the sound guy. And the pizza analogy was a bit much. Otherwise, good article!

  • DJ Moonie

    Would have been nice to have a section on ground loops, and explain perhaps why you’d use balanced and unbalanced.

    Otherwise, a good starter article!

  • ToS

    – Are PHONO really line levels as they are quite weak and don’t have common GND?
    – Plugging TS into TRS is normal thing thiese days. It is the simplest way of “debalancing”.

  • Paul Mitchell

    I like this a lot.

  • Peter Morgan (The DJ Podcast)

    It is an article like this one that I can save and go back to for reference. Proofreading errors aside, it’s good information to know.

  • Punit

    Very informative & well written article. Quite a few DJ’s I meet do not know basic cabling fundamentals.

  • LastOne

    This remember me a song by Uwe Smichdt, that man known also Señor Coconut and many other alias, under the name of The Samplers called: “La Vida Es Llena De Cables”
    We always think in that way…

  • E1

    Good article. Before I read it i had some idea of what the different connections meant. Now i can look at my Mackie mixer and know exactly each connection is doing and why. Unbalanced vs balanced connection is something i was wondering about for a while also. People just said balanced was “better” but never really explained the technicalities.

  • DJ Resistor

    [quote post=”5437″]Unbalanced cables run at a line level of -10dBV or roughly (0.316 V-RMS for the nerds out there). All cd players all almost all dj sound cards have balanced outputs. This is the most simple line level, which is suitable for short runs of audio. Over longer runs the cable will start to pick up a lot of noise.[/quote]

    Proofreading is essential if you’re trying to publish an article that is simply regurgitating facts.

    • Charles Goodacre

      Thanks for the heads up – if I have to read or write the word “balanced” again I think I might just explode.
      Sorry about that guys, not exactly the best place for a typo.

  • James

    I had an early gig where I plugged a line into a phono… took me about 15 minutes to work out what the hell was going on. Terrible night!

  • sammy b

    very informative and am glad i have a resource to understand all this stuff
    great article.


    on a mixer with 2 different 1/4″ inputs, what does “line” vs. “insert” indicate?

  • thefoskinator

    Very insightful, helpful and well contructed. Bravo.

  • matthew

    you would be surprised the amount of people that do not know the difference from a balanced and unbalanced line

  • J450N N4ME

    This will be an undervalued article unless you need it. I recognize how vital this all is but I have no need for it yet. I am, however, THRILLED that I know where to find this info when I need it. This saves me from having to rely on the guy at guitar Center’s “pro audio” section for cable selection. The less I rely on those guys the better. Great article!

  • first

    Yep those are cables…