I get asked questions about cables and adapters all the time. This is a comprehensive guide to the most frequently used cables and adapters for musicians, producers, and home studios! I would go so far as to say that most of these are must-haves. But you should at least be familiar with them and know what they are used for.
1/8th'' to 1/4'' adapter
These adapters are used to plug headphone cables into audio interfaces. They seem to disappear, so get a few of them.
Apple Lightning to 1/8''
The #1 dreaded, most forgotten, and most frequently lost dongle on the planet! Shame on Apple for this even existing. This is used to connect iPhone X and newer iPhone models to 1/8th inch or aux cables. The iPhone connector is called a "Lightning connector".
Apple Thunderbolt Adapters
I will lump all of these into one category. If you use Apple laptops older than 2015 you have or need at least one of these: Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2, USB to Thunderbolt 3, or the Digital A/V Multiport Adapter. There are numerous other ones that exist as well, but I use these the most!
1/4'' Headphone Splitter
This is on my "critical to bring when I'm going to someone else's house or studio to do music" list. This is used when you have an interface or music device that only has one headphone port and you have two people that need to plug in. Leave one in your backpack and thank me later.
1/8'' Cable aka "The Aux Cable"
Probably the #1 most requested cable. This is used to connect music devices like iPhones and laptops to speakers. It is also frequently used to connect headphones. This is also a lumped category because here are three different types of Aux cables I have: 1/8'' extension cable, 1/8'' to dual 1/4'' ts breakout cable, and standard 1/8'' male to male cable like the one pictured. I think having all three is critical.
Aka guitar cables or TS cables or patch cables. These plug guitars and bass guitars into amps, pedals, and into the DI or Hi-Z Inputs on audio interfaces. Do not use these to connect speakers, keyboards, or guitar cabs. These are not to be confused with TRS cables or speaker cables.
Balanced 1/4'' Cable
Aka TRS cables or quarter inch cables. These are commonly used to connect keyboards, studio monitors, and speakers. Notice the two black lines on the tip of these cables that distinguish them from guitar cables. TRS means Tip, Ring, Sleeve. Any music equipment will have some designation on the jacks or in the manual saying "balanced outputs" These are the cables that you use!
Not to be confused with guitar cables, or TRS cables. These are only used to connect speaker cabinets to guitar amps. Double check by reading the text on the actual cable itself. Do not use any other cable to connect guitar cabs!
Aka Mic Cables or balanced XLR cables. Used to connect microphones to interfaces or mic preamps. These are also used to connect studio monitors, speakers, and DI Boxes. XLR Jacks and cables are easy to identify because of the three prongs. You can get XLR to TRS aka XLR to 1/4'' cables that are really useful in certain situations. They come in both male or female versions. With cables, the side with the prongs or the tip is called "male" and the other end that has the holes is called "female".
Aka iPhone charging cable. I've found the knockoff non-Apple versions of these to not function for things like CarPlay. I would recommend sticking to Belkin or Apple for these, but they are expensive.
Definitely one of the most confusing cables, because of versions and variations. Typically for music production, interfaces and MIDI keyboards and peripherals will use USB Type A to USB Type B cables like the one I pictured here:
USB 3.0 is a newer version of the USB protocol that is faster and will be designated either on the port or in the user manual of the device you are using.USB 3.0 is commonly used for audio interfaces and hard drives. Check out this chart:
The USB-C cable is the most recent iteration and these are frequently confused with Thunderbolt 3. USB-C is used for things like hard drives, USB Hubs/Docks, and audio interfaces on both Windows and Mac computers. Check the user manual for any equipment and verify what ports they are and what cables are required because they look almost identical. TB3 is always designated with a lightning bolt. Read the next section for more info.
Thunderbolt is commonly used for audio interfaces, display monitors and hard drives for the Mac platform. Thunderbolt cables and ports will always have a lightning bolt symbol on them. Thunderbolt is an Apple proprietary connector that is similar to USB-C except that it is also able to daisy chain and power multiple devices. A USB-C device will work plugged into a Thunderbolt Port, however a Thunderbolt Device will not work plugged into a USB-C port.
Prior to 2017, Apple used another version of this connector called Thunderbolt 2, which is still very common and perfectly suitable for hard drives, displays and audio interfaces. You will need aforementioned dongles/adapters to connect TB2 devices to newer TB3 equipped Mac computers. However, TB3 will not work with older TB2 equipped Macs.
These are used to connect display monitors, TVs, and video game consoles.