The audio world is full of neat gadgets and devices that make the lives of professionals and amateurs easier. One such optimization is the audio snake.
What Is An Audio Snake And Are They Required? An audio snake is essentially one physical cable that combines multiple audio cables within its body. Snakes come in a variety of lengths; a number of channels, and connection types. Though snakes make patching/running multiple lines much easier, they are not required and are simply an optimization.
In this article, we'll discuss audio snakes in greater detail and touch on their applications in the audio industry.
What Is An Audio Snake?
An audio snake, as mentioned, is a multi-channel audio cable that is capable of carrying multiple individual audio signals from point A to point B via a single cord.
Snakes are used to simplify audio setups and reduce clutter. Rather than running multiple lines from one place to another, a single snake can be run instead. This reduces labour and keeps things tidy.
Snakes most often utilize multi-pin connectors, XLR connectors (typically 3-pin), or phone cables (typically 1/4″ TRS). That being said, any connector that carries audio can effectively be “snaked.”
Sends And Returns
When using individual channels of a snake, the audio signal will flow in one of two directions: send or return. Some snakes with only have sends while others with provide both sneds and returns. If a snake's product description mentions sends and returns, it has both.
An audio send means that we're sending audio from an output (microphone transducer, electric instrument, etc.) through the snake to its appropriate input.
An audio return refers to the signal moving in the opposite direction. Examples of audio returns include monitor feeds and communication systems.
Note that “sends” and “returns” are simply opposite signal flow directions. There's really nothing stopping us from using a snake “in reverse” so long as we have the proper amount of channels.
As an additional note, it is possible to reverse the flow of audio with certain adapters (XLRM-XLRM adapters, XLRF-XLRF adapters, 1/4″ TRS plug-plug adapters, 1/4″ TRS jack-jack adapters, etc.).
That really all there is to it in terms of answering what an audio snake is. Audio snakes are really quite simple in design and act to optimize our systems as audio technicians.
So, Are Snakes Needed?
Unless we're using a specific piece of gear with a multi-pin snake connector, snakes really aren't required. We could do any job without a fan-tailed snake, for example, by simply running multiple individual audio cables along the same run. Audio snakes help tremendously in simplifying workflow and reducing clutter but are not absolutely necessary for proper cable running!
Speaking of multi-pin connectors and fan-tailed snakes, let's look at the general snake designs.
General Snake Designs
There are two basic design types for audio snakes:
Let's discuss each of these along with ways to create a snake yourself.
Snakes With Consolidated Multi-Pin Connector
Multi-pin connectors are common among the professional snakes with higher channel counters.
These connectors have a single connector that feeds each individual audio conductor. They connect easily with a tiny slot and key system.
The DT12 37-pin (pictured below) is a popular example of a multi-pin snake connector. This is a heavy-duty locking connector that can effectively send/receive 37 individual balanced audio signals.
Above, we have both ends of a DT12 snake and below we have a snake complete with protective caps for when the snake is not in use.
By simply connecting one connector, we can send (and return) multiple audio signals.
Snakes With Fan-Tailed Connectors
Snakes with fan-tailed connectors simply expose the individual audio cables at their ends. This is common among professional and “prosumer” snakes and those snakes with lower channel counts.
These snake types are often constructed by multiple audio cables held within a single larger physical shield. Each individual connector (whether a send or a return) at either end of the snake is labelled with a number to ensure the user knows each of the signal paths. Connector 1 at one end is the same cable as connector 1 at the other end and so on.
A great example of a fan-tailed snake with TRS connectors is the Mogami Gold 8 x 1/4″ TRS-TRS snake (link to check the options and prices on Amazon). This snake features high-quality 1/4″ TRS plugs with gold contacts. It is pictured below:
An excellent example of a fan-tailed snake with XLR connections is the Seismic Audio SARLX 16×25 (link to check the price on Amazon). This 25-foot snake features 16 sends (3-pin XLR-Female on one fan-tailed end and 3-pin XLR-Male on the other end). Each send is colour coded and uses 22-gauge copper wire to carry the signal.
Stage Box Snakes
Very often we'll find snakes that feature both XLR and TRS connectors. These snakes also often have a stage box at one end and individual plugs/jacks at the other.
One such example of a combo snake with a stage box is the Seismic Audio SALS 16x8x25 (link to check the price on Amazon):
This model of snake is 25 feet long and features the following:
- Sends: 16 XLR Connectors
- Returns (Box): 8 XLR Connectors paralleled with 1/4″ TRS
- Returns (Fantail): 8 Connectors (4 XLR and 4 TRS)
That's 16 XLR sends (from the box to the fantail) along with 8 XLR returns (paralleled with 1/4″ TRS at the box) that connect to 4 XLR and 4 TRS at the fantail.
The Stage Box
A stage box, as pictured above, acts as an interface in sound reinforcement and recording studios to connect equipment to a mixing console. It provides a central location on the stage to connect mics, instruments, and speakers to a snake. This snake sends all channels to the mixer. This simplifies setup (and tear down) greatly).
With the proper number of sends and returns, we can run all the appropriate cables through one stage, effectively connecting the entire stage to the mixing console in live (and studio) environments.
Simple DIY Snake
A simple fan-tailed DIY audio snake can be made from simply taping two or more audio cables of equal length together.
As an example, I nearly always do this when working as an audio technician on a video shoot that requires I tether into a camera.
Basically, as the audio technician, carry the audio recorder and, most often, a boom pole and microphone. There are typically other wireless mics in the scene or event as well.
I record each individual microphone but also send a left/right mix out of the recorder directly to the camera. This requires two XLR cables and so rather than having two loose cables running, I tape them together as a “snake” to reduce tripping hazards and keep things neat.
Pro tip: electrical tape works great for this but will leave a residue if left on for too long or in hot environments. To help keep things organized, tape a tag on the right channel of the outputted mix. This way, if the camera unplugs during a break, it will be easy to plug the snake back in properly when it's time to work.
This is great because the cables can then be separated and used normally. There's no need to keep these cables together as a snake.
If you are looking for a more permanent DIY snake, shrink wrap cable can be used to physically hold numerous single audio cables together while also providing physical protection.
Even still, it's possible to buy multi-pin connectors (or create them yourself, though there are specific specs to follow for proper compatibility). With a connector or two, we can effectively solder the proper lines within a cable. We could even buy a pre-wired cable to connect to the multi-pin connector (allowing us to adjust the length of the snake to our liking).
Applications Of Audio Snakes
Common applications of audio snakes include:
In live music performances, a mixing engineer is responsible for the front of house and monitor mixes. This engineer benefits greatly from being toward the back of the room (in front of the stage) so that he or she can hear the mix in the context of the room.
This means that the mixing console in which the instruments (microphones, DI boxes, etc.) are plugged into is away from the stage. Rather than sending each individual mic and instrument to the console via their own separate cable, an audio snake is generally used in order to consolidate the audio cables into one big cord.
The snake often plugs into a stage box on the stage. A stage box offers a simple patch bay with clearly labelled inputs.
Of course, wireless microphones can do away with snakes altogether but it's worth knowing how snakes are used in live stage performances (they still are)!
Audio snakes are commonly utilized in broadcasting (particularly setup-and-go type broadcasting like in live sports).
For example, the press box of a sports game could have two commentators. Each commentator would have a mic line (to be sent to the broadcast) as well as a listen line (from the producer) and a separate line for IFB (to talk directly to the producer without going to air). This alone would require 6 audio lines which is much easier sent via a single snake than through 6 individual audio cables.
Snakes will often be used along with an audio patch bay in both live venues and in broadcasting situations. In this case, a fan-tailed snake's connectors can be spread out and connected to their appropriate ports within a neatly displayed patch bay.
What Are Audio Patch Bays?
An audio patch bay is effectively a series of well laid out inputs and outputs in a single unit. Patch bays are often hardwired to route their connections to specific stationary equipment.
This eliminates the need for working around and finding the inputs/outputs of stationary gear and replaces it with a simply laid out I/O. In other words, a patch bay allows you to change the signal flow among the devices in your studio without having to crawl behind all your gear to unplug/replug your cables.
When set up properly, a patch bay will allow us to plug a cable into a patch bay input (or output) and have it connect to another input (or output) that is permanently connected to the patch bay.
Audio patch bays, like snakes, come in a variety of designs. Studio patch bays, in particular, can be as simple or as complicated as we want. There is a lot to know about patch bays that we won't be covering in this article (in the spirit of keeping the article focused on audio snakes).
How Do Snakes Work With Patch Bays?
Snakes with consolidated ends connect via DT12 multi-pin connectors and do not work with patch bays. Rather, they connect to their appropriate DT12 connector.
Snakes with fan-tailed connectors, however, benefit greatly from patch bays. Imagine needing extending cables to connect the end of the snake to individual devices around a room versus plugging the individual cables (which are of equal length) into a patch bay.
The fan-tailed ends of a snake can easily be positioned and connected to a patch bay for a further simplified and uncluttered run of cables.
In many ways, simple patch bays resemble stage boxes, as can be seen below:
What are the types of audio cables? There are many types of balanced and unbalanced audio cables with various types of connections. Popular audio cables include XLR (3-pin for mono and 5-pin splits for stereo); TRS and TRRS (both 1/4″ and 1/8″) depending on if the mic also has headphone monitoring; and even USB.
For more detailed reads on microphone cables and connections, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Why Do Microphones Use XLR Cables?
• Best Microphone Cables
• What Do Microphones Plug Into? (Full List Of Mic Connections)
Are microphones input or output devices? According to a computer, a microphone is an input device since it inputs information into the computer. For the observation point of the microphone, however, mics are output devices since they output audio signals. Typically though, input/output devices refer to their interaction with a computer.
To learn more about mics and input and output devices, check out my article Are Microphones Input Or Output Devices?