For those who are not familiar with this term, the simplest explanation of multi-core (often called snake in the US and Canada) audio cables is that it’s just a kind of extension cable which makes its way from stage directly to a mixer desk. The digital snake system, ever since its invention, has been revolutionary in live sound production. It enables easy handling of the workflow in monitoring and mixing events, especially live concert venues and churches.
Although digital devices have been accepted worldwide for a long time, many audio engineers and technicians still prefer using 50m long audio cables with XLR connectors at the ends of their multi-core. While analog physical cables are still recognized as a common solution, digital snakes can replace those long, messed up, knotted multi-core between a digital mixing console, pre-amps, bunch of microphones and instruments on stage.
Not only will a digital snake transfer signals with fewer amount of cables, but it will also improve sound quality and RF immunity. Most digital snake consoles provide a couple of digital networking possibilities which provides users with the ability to customize devices to accommodate a particular audio signal sharing protocol.
What is a digital audio snake and how does it work?
The main task of the snake is to transfer the audio signal from point A to point B with minimal loss of quality of the signal itself. So, if you know how audio transmission works over a standard multi-core cable, it will be much easier for you to figure out how it works with a digital multi-core device or a digital snake. Nowadays, instead of multi-cores, audio systems have the possibility to use a digital signal transfer option. In digital snakes, the regular audio is encoded to digital with the assistance of converters. All the channels and their signals are packed and transferred with a single wire to the mixer and then reconverted to the analog signal again.
The main difference between analog and digital snakes is latency, and this is perhaps why some might think twice about adopting this system, although with quality equipment it isn’t really a big issue. Latency is the total time it takes a data package to progress from digital snake to the mixer. The good thing is that the latency on most devices is quite subtle, almost unnoticeable. In digital snakes, audio is mostly transferred via Ethernet (Cat5, Cat5e, Cat6…) RJ45 connectors, MADI (Multichannel Audio Digital Interface), Dsub.
The downside of the digital multicore system is its price. It can be pretty expensive, but, the good news – many of the digital mixing consoles can be a great alternative. Digital mixers which can provide you multicore recording can be your digital snake. The only thing left is to buy a long enough cable to reach from the stage to the mixer and that would be it. To simplify, you have a band on stage, several microphones and instrument cables, one digital snake system, and a mixing desk, let’s say 100m away from the band.
Next step – connect all of your instruments to the digital snake box. From the backside of the digital snake device, connect your (usually Cat5) network digital cable (which should be 100m in length) and unwrap it and plug it into the network input socket commonly used on digital consoles. Yes, just like that, simple and super easy. Especially due to the weight and thickness of the cable, it is much simpler and lighter than regular analog audio multi-cores. Read my other post about how digital and analog mixers compare.
How does an analog stage box work?
As we said earlier, standard multi-cores are just really long audio cables with XLR connectors from one side and boxes with inputs at the other side (some of the advanced multi-cores have up to 64 input channels and some returns). Each channel has its cable and each can be somehow damaged if used inadequately. Analog audio snake can be of great benefit to a lot of scenarios.
For example, imagine that you are a drummer. You need one microphone per each component: 1 for kick, 1 for snare, 3 for toms, at least 2 overheads and to start, one drum module for triggering the kick or sampling clap. So that means that you have 8 cables. Ok, that’s not much. But imagine that the mixer is 20m distant from you. Ohh, no! Now, you need to have 8 cables which are 20m long. No way. What you should do?
Keep your 2m cables, buy a multi-core box and it will cost you less than you buy eight 20m long cables. And of course, it’s a much simpler and neater solution. Just place the multicore box near your drum set and plug in all of your mics in it. Unfold your 20m long snake and plug each cable in your mixer inputs so that you and your colleagues can enjoy playing without messy, tangled cables around them.
How to hook up an XLR audio snake cable?
So, the equipment you need is microphones, instruments, a stage box, mixer and PA system. The next step is to plug each microphone and/or each instrument into a stage box(each instrument into its dedicated channel). The snake’s cables plug into the XLR inputs on the mixer. A quality snake will usually have numbered labels on each of the XLR audio plugs, so it’s important that you carefully match these with the channel numbers on the mixing console. If you don’t you could end up in a terrible mess trying to figure out what instrument is on what channel.
What are audio returns for?
If you are only familiar with regular snakes with several inputs, you should know that there are “return” plugins with male XLR on some snakes. You may be wondering what their purpose is. How do you think your audio engineer sends you a signal to the monitors? Basically, return plugins on the snake serve for for anything you need to get from the mixing board to the stage, including aux returns to stage monitors or to a personal monitoring system. The aux return channels are a must for proper monitor mixing.
However, there are some other users for these extra cables. Imagine that the mixing desk is about 50, 100, 200m meters away from the performance area and that you have to do a sound check. How will you communicate with an engineer? With a cell phone or walkie-talkie, SMS maybe? Definitely no. Talkback is another useful purpose of return connectors on analog as well as on digital snakes. You can easily chat with engineer who is far away from you.
Digital snake advantages
In the world of audio engineers, technicians or just hobby musicians, there is a doubt as to whether digital snakes are reliable as analog. The short answer is generally speaking, yes they are, and much more. By and large, digital snakes have proven to be pretty reliable. And also, it is useful for you to know, analog snakes do fail from time to time, plus you have to worry about crosstalk, ground loops (buzzes, hums).
Usually, most digital multi-core consoles have high-quality mic pre-amps which increase the input gain where the best quality audio signal is found. This will assure that your digital audio signal will sound the best it can. Also, once the signals are in a digital form, it becomes resistant to long-distance cabling losses.
Some of the most expensive digital snake devices on a market can provide you with up to 2km (1.2miles) audio transfer but only with dedicated optical cables. It is almost impossible to avoid some of the signal loss within the long-distance audio transfer via analog cables. This becomes even more important in larger venues or church buildings.
Also, hums, buzzes and cross talk which external noise sources can cause are much lower than in an analog device. Low-cost installation with a simple Ethernet cable is all that is needed to connect the stage box to the mixing desk and this is one of the most desirable elements of this system. Digital units, such as the Behringer S16 digital snake, eliminate the requirement to use thick, bulky and hard to manipulate cables. Instead of these, it transfers an audio signal using very light, thin and easy to work with Ethernet Cat5 cable.
The presence and low cost of these, in comparison with analog cables, are a big advantage. Also, these digital snake systems are huge energy and time savers. If there is a problem with the cable and it needs to be replaced it is a lot easier and cheaper to replace a single cable than with an analog system.
Hopefully this article has helped you to know the difference between digital and analog systems and the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Frank Edwards is the founder and owner of churchsoundtips.com and has over 10 years experience running sound in his local church.