How long can an instrument cable be? What is the maximum length that you could go for without ruining your sound?
Cables are the main transmitter of our sound, the signal carrier that aids in projecting our creativity to the world. Even with the introduction of various types of wireless technology, cables have remained the standard in the music and audio industry. Professional studios still laboriously install these lengthy bundles of wires, no matter how much of an eyesore they are.
Not to denigrate these wireless systems but they do have a number of disadvantages. The most glaring one would be latency, which is a huge problem for a field that requires natural timing and feel. A sound that is a few milliseconds delayed from its source can vastly affect the playing of a musician, whether it’s a recording or a live situation.
The biggest problem with wireless however is that the sound can diminish the further a musician is away from the transmitter. However, if you wish to run around the stage or join the crowd for your guitar solos, a very long cable is not exactly the better alternative to wireless. That’s because cable length also plays a vital role in your overall sound.
Ask any musician about tone and they’ll tell you how crucial it is to their playing. It is true that an ordinary listener will never be able to discern the differences between cable lengths, or understand other technical matters concerning music equipment. However, the obsession for tone has been clearly impacting the evolution of modern music ever since the amplifier was invented.
Countless variants of instruments, amps, effects and even cables proliferate in the market, promising a quality of tone that could help you play better. Just like most music gadgets, music shops also often carry expensive cables that claim to produce the best sound.
Take note however, that if you disregard small details such as the max length of your instrument cables, you might not be able to make the most out of your entire setup no matter how pristine your instrument is.
How long can an instrument cable be?
So how long can an instrument be without altering your sound negatively? Anything beyond 20 feet can be detrimental to your sound. According to some experts 18.5 feet is the ideal length that will still allow your instrument to be heard clearly. At this length, you can still measure the minute changes in your tone.
The basic premise here is that, the longer the cable, the more tone degradation your instrument will suffer from. Although the design and quality of your cable can help improve your sound, being overly long will still affect your tone in a bad way.
If you are a guitar player with tons of pedals in your rig, be prepared for a serious amount of signal loss. To solve this problem, you may use a buffer pedal to strengthen the signal, allowing you to achieve a louder sound while maintaining your clean sound. Fortunately, a vast majority of pedals produced by well-known brands and boutique builders are buffered, so you won’t have to worry about having tons of stompboxes and patch cables on your pedalboard.
On the contrary, true-bypass pedals won’t help you in bringing back your lost signal, since they are designed to allow your sound to pass through a bypassed (turned off) pedal without being modified.
How does cable length affect our sound?
In order to understand why very long cables are bad for our sound, we need to touch on a few principles and ideas to help you make better decisions when purchasing one for your instrument.
When it comes to cables, impedance is the factor that can affect your tone the most. Impedance is a measure of electronic resistance, and the longer the path the signal has to flow through, the more resistance it will encounter. Most electric guitars are high-impedance, so the further your guitar is from your amplifier, the more your signal will deteriorate.
One ignored fact however, is that most of the time, guitar players are already using cables that are 20 feet or more. When measuring the total signal loss that comes from long cables, you have to consider the patch cables as well. With both input, output and pedal cables accounted for, it is more likely that cable is running above the ideal length.
So how long can an instrument cable be? You have the freedom to go as far as fifty or even a hundred feet, but you know that that won’t be beneficial for you as a musician. Aside from the weaker signal, longer cables are also more expensive and difficult to maintain. Moreover, it is also harder to troubleshoot and repair a cable that is extra long, not to mention the hassles of wrapping, transporting and storing it.
The max length of your instrument cable shouldn’t be more than what you need. After all, the quality of your sound and music shouldn’t be compromised in exchange for your onstage antics.