From The Bench

by Tom Lees

Arnold Schnitzer

This Article Was Originally Published On: February 3rd, 2015 #Issue 15. 

Michael Scott says that we are the sum of our memories and experiences. Finally, someone makes sense. I think we can all agree that when it comes to music and memory, the arrogance (or is it ignorance, stubbornness, etc.?) of our musical sensibilities and the passion for our craft make many of us willing to feverishly argue to our last breath that we are in the right when it comes to all things “tone.” This is why I love talking with musicians.

You all remember Linda Richman, right? Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic. The Progressive Era was neither progressive nor an era. Discuss … Okay, this is not Coffee Talk, but I will give you a topic. An instrument chord is neither an instrument or a chord.

Aye, some of you clever ones spotted my homophone slip, eh? If you guessed homograph – or heteronym – then, chances are you started your career as a musician really early on; congratulations! “A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind man,” right? Of course, I meant to say instrument cord.

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Back to the point. Many of us have done cable shootouts that have ranged from simple to complex, and each time this type of testing is done, it seems that people become more and more polarized. Well, I have good news.

If you think cables sound the same, then you are right. Oh, and if you are sure that cables sound different, you are right. You see, I trust your memory. I was not there at your test, so I certainly cannot contradict you. However, I would like to stop and ponder for a moment whether the issue is that you are limited by your experiences. If you compare two or more electrically similar cables, they will sound the same. If you compare two or more electrically different cables, well they will sound different. Well, that sounds obvious, doesn’t it? The trick is, it can be difficult to know and control all relevant variables and conditions until we know what those variables and conditions are.

Since I like making things more elaborate than they really need to be, I wanted to do my own test, and share those results with you. To address the cable challenge, I gathered up several cables, all the same length. I then had my good friend Tim Rotterman, who is one of my favorite pickup winders (Timberwolf Guitars, wind up a couple prototype “transmitter coil.” The transmitter coil can be seen in action in Fig. 1. What’s that you say? Why, it is a coil that I use to transmit signals. Tim came up with a clever mount that allows me to set the transmitter coil pretty much anywhere I want along the face of the instrument. Typically, I get a signal running through the transmitter, then move the transmitter around close to the pickup until I get the strength of response that I am looking for.

Fig.1 Transmitter Coil In Action

Here is the idea. Testing cables can be tricky. Measurement equipment can overpower inherent limitations, e.g., capacitance, of a cable. This can result in measurements that do not translate to the real world. I wanted to test the cable as it is intended to be used. So, I plug the instrument cable between a bass and an amp. Instead of driving the cable directly with our test analyzer, I drive my “transmitter coil,” which sits over the bass pickups. In this fashion, the Audio Precision test analyzer drives my coil. The coil induces a signal into the pickups of the bass, and the signal travels through the bass electronics, out the output jack, down the test cable to the amp. Think of the transmitter coil as a surrogate for plucking the strings. The cable “sees” the impedance of the bass guitar and the amplifier as it would in normal use. If there are differences to be found, then this rig will flesh them out.

So, what’s the verdict? Let’s look first at Fig. 2, which represents a comparison of Cable Brand A vs. Cable Brand B. I would call these cables about the same in this test. I actually tested several cables that all pretty much landed along this same curve. As such, I can easily see how someone may grab 4-5 cables and not hear a difference between them.

Fig. 2 Cable Brand A vs Cable Brand B

Let’s take a look at Fig. 3, which represents a comparison of Cable Brand A vs. Cable Brand C. Whereas, these cables exhibit similar low end, the cables have different characteristics in the high end, starting around 1kHz. One might think this to be an anomaly, but not so.

Fig. 3 Cable Brand A vs Cable Brand C

Let’s take a look at Fig. 4, which represents a comparison of Cable Brand A vs. Cable Brand C vs. Cable Brand D. We see that, again, these cables exhibit similar low end, but start revealing differences in their response at higher frequencies, starting around 1kHz. Just as I found several cables that tested similarly, I found just as many that tested with differences revealed in the higher frequencies.

FIG.4 Cable Brand A vs Cable Brand C vs. Cable Brand D

So there you have it. All you need to find differences in these cables is … the right cables! Well, wrong. Let’s look at Fig. 5, which represents a comparison of Cable Brand A vs. Cable Brand C. Yep, these are the same cables as in Fig. 3. Oh, and it’s the same bass, same transmitter coil, same amp, same amp settings, everything is exactly the same … except, the responses in Fig. 3 were obtained using the normal/passive setting on the amp and the responses in Fig. 5 were obtained with the active setting on the amp.

FIG. 5 Cable Brand A vs Cable Brand C (Active Setting on AMP)

You see, even with the same cables, it is easy to get different and varying results, as long as you change at least one parameter. The input impedance of the amp can have a significant impact on the results you perceive. In my testing, I found that high input impedances reveal differences in cables easier than low input impedances. The type of bass, the settings of the electronics on your bass, whether you use effects pedals, and a host of other factors can affect how the cable performs in the system.

Also, do not overlook the clear differences in cables that might affect your preferences that do not directly affect tone. For instance, of the cables in my testing, there were clear differences including the way each cable coils up, the thickness of the cable, and the end connectors. One cable in my roundup has been with me for years. I paid a hefty price for it (just over $50). However, after hundreds of gigs, practices, etc., this cable still coils back up perfectly, looks new, and does not tangle up on stage. Mentally, these aspects make the gigs more enjoyable, and thus makes this cable my “go-to” cable.

So, keep testing, keep debating, and forge your own opinions based upon your own experiences. That is what the fun is really about.