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Analog Organization: The “Little Things” Count With Cabling

A well-designed cabling system saves time and makes troubleshooting easier

While digital gets most of the press, analog still does much of the work when it comes to signal transport. A well-designed and organized cabling system not only saves time during load-in/out, but also makes troubleshooting easier.

Setting up a labeling system is simple and saves a lot of time in the long run. The first thing to do is take stock of what you have. While some sound companies like to keep all XLR cables the same length, most stock different lengths in order to select the length that best fits the particular job.

In my company, I’ve standardized XLR cables at lengths of 15, 30, 50 and 100 feet long, along with 2- and 5-foot cables that usually jump signals from one rack to another. These also come in handy for board microphones or cable extensions.

Differentiate between the various lengths. For example, different colored electrical tape can be wrapped the cable ends and covered with clear heat shrinking to keep the tape from slipping off. Or use colored heat shrink at each end. I do this, with a color key of blue for 15-foot cables, red for 30-footers, white for 50-footers and black for 100-footers. The heat shrink also acts as a strain relief helping to reinforce where the cable enters the connector.

Various tapes, heatshrink and stick-on numbers for labeling cable. (click to enlarge)

In addition, I place a strip of green electrical tape (or more recently, a 1/2-inch piece of green heat shrink) on each cable to identify the cable as belonging to my company. It’s amazing just how much cable is “mistakenly” grabbed at the end of the night, with the green tape silencing any debate about who is the rightful owner.

Small stick-on numbers (wrapped with clear heat shrink to keep them in place) can be used to identify the length of the cable. I use 3M ScotchCode for smaller numbers and Brady stick-on numbers for larger ones. (These can be found at electronic parts stores.) In particular, this comes in handy on my extension cords – I have a lot of different lengths and don’t want to cut them down to just a few standard sizes.

Cables of different colors can also identify length and/or for different signals. We have black cable for onstage mics and to hook up racks and outboard effects, while red cable is used for communication systems and intercoms. Green and white cables handle feeds to video, press mults, etc. They can also be labeled for more specific uses, such as “aux 2,” “program feed to video,” and so on.

At gigs, something I’ve found handy is to flag a cable with white gaff tape and label it with a Sharpie so that it will be easy to ID if I need to do signal tracing or troubleshooting later. I also sketch a quick cable chart in a notepad, identifying all signal flow so I can easily trace or re-patch if needed.

Two 1/4-inch signal cables loomed for stereo keyboard use. (click to enlarge)

Regardless of your ID system, print it out and tape it to the inside lid of the cable trunk so stagehands can figure out the code. And don’t forget to label the outside of the cable trunk so stagehands can easily pick it out from the sea of cases.

Breaking Out
Last month, Tim Weaver talked (here) about cleaning up stage cable clutter with subsnakes branching off the main input snake. There are also some things that can be done to organize snakes (a.k.a., “crosslinks”) that distribute signal to the stage left and right amplifier racks.

Smaller snakes can serve to break out into individual lines at each end (known as a fan end), or, a small stage box that houses the connectors can be utilized. To facilitate quickly and accurately hooking up gear many sub snakes incorporate a multi-pin connector at one or both ends. Correctly labeled and/or color-coded multi-pin connectors make easy work in hooking up the main and monitor systems.

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