The Gadget Bag: Protecting and Using Cables
Posted Mar 30, 2007

Welcome to the newly expanded Gadget Bag. Today's subject is cables. Almost everyone who has videotaped an event has run cables at one time or another. But there are right ways and wrong ways to choose and use equipment to minimize possible mishaps and injuries and damage to the cables themselves.

figure 1Protecting Your Cables
Over the years, I've used those hard rubber cable "tunnels" and found them acceptable, but a pain to store. They were always too long or too short and created a hump that everyone tripped over. Using tape to keep cables down is also a flawed solution. Gaffer's tape is too expensive, and doesn't stand up under heavy traffic, and duct tape leaves that annoying adhesive residue.

My solution is commercial entry mats. They combine industrial-strength carpeting on top with vinyl backing and edging. They come in several sizes and colors and will last decades. Because of the width, they provide a gradual "ramp" over any number of cable runs and are easily traversed by both foot and wheelchair traffic. The vinyl edge provides a great taping surface for securing the mats to the floor or to each other.

They are even useful in storage; I throw them in the back of my SUV to protect the cargo area. They can be found in hardware and office superstores, department and carpet stores, and if you are lucky, can also be purchased at closeout type stores for a bargain—$5 to $30, depending on size.

figure 1Ever try to pull cables only to have the connector get hung up on something? Then, to make the situation worse, you give it a yank and decapitate the cable? A simple fix that costs virtually nothing can prevent both problems from occurring ever again.

First step is to grab a bottle of water or a soft drink and take a break. Then, take the empty plastic bottle and remove the bottom with a utility knife (be careful not to remove a finger in the process). Then cut the bottle length-wise.(This may be easier with a pair of shears or HD scissors.)

Now, take your cables and place them in that lengthwise slit so that the connector is at the open bottom end. Now, when you pull your cable, the bottle automatically slides down to protect the connector(s) and prevents it from becoming caught up in any obstruction. This also provides other benefits like providing audio snakes protection in storage and keeping the connectors clean when dragging cables outdoors. Just make sure that you select the proper size for the number of connectors or cables.

Labeling Cables
Labeling cables accurately is important both in the studio and the field. This helps speed connections and troubleshooting. Ever wonder why multi-line cables are color-coded? Labeling can be accomplished in many ways, but I like to do a combination of colors and numbers, with the numbers indicating the length of the cable.

Simple self-adhesive paper (a great use for all those old VHS tape labels) with permanent marker, protected with a layer of clear packing tape, is simple, effective, and long-lasting. Plus, it also helps in finding and identifying your own cables in those big shoots where you are not the only one running cables.

Grounding and Eliminating Hum
I hope that everyone reading knows that you do not run AC-powered wires with audio or video cables. No matter how good your grounding is or how thick the shielding is, if you run any cable with AC power cords, you will pick up noise (hum). The longer the run, the more pickup will occur. This happens as a result of induction (being in close proximity) and can be eliminated or minimized by keeping as much distance between the two cables as possible and if they have to cross, do so at 90 degree angles. I will always try to find alternative sources of AC power so that I can bring it in from the opposite direction to prevent the parallel dilemma.

As for hum, there are a number of causes and just as many solutions. Most often hum comes from grounding issues and inductive pickup. The most common audio hum problem is created when the ends of the cable are grounded differently.

The misconception is that all electrical outlets are grounded with the same ground, but there can be several volts of difference between any two given electrical outlets. That equates to some pretty serious noise levels on tape. The simplest solution is to insert an isolation transformer in line with the cable. This device isolates (i.e., electrically separates) the signal from both devices and transmits it inductively.

These can be as simple and cheap as $15 from Radio Shack to several hundred for a stereo XLR unit. In some cases, a number of different XLR "black boxes" (direct boxes, in-line adapters, etc.) have what is termed a "ground lifter," the purpose of which is exactly that; an XLR cable consists of three main conductors—two signal lines and a common return. In most cases, the return is also the ground. This switch removes the return from the ground to create a "floating" signal not physically connected to the ground, thus eliminating the hum.

Another trick to eliminate hum if you are in an older building that does not use grounded (three-prong) outlets is simply flipping the plug in the outlet. If your equipment has a grounded plug, you will have to use one of those 3-prong to 2-prong adapters. But be careful; flipping the plug may increase the noise level because of the lack of a real ground.

Another way to eliminate ground-induced hum is to eliminate the cable! Creating a wireless audio link is very simple, provides a clean signal, and eliminates the actual running of the cable. My favorite method is to use an instrument transmitter, like the kind that musicians use for electric guitars. The input level is optimized for this use and is conveniently terminated with a 1/4" phone plug, to interface with the most common jack on almost all mixing boards. Common tie points are outputs or sends that can be adjusted independently of the main output.

Rapid-Fire Tips
Do you (or one of your clients) have an older DVD player that is having problems playing 8X or 16X DVDs? Check with the manufacturer; they may have a firmware upgrade to resolve the issue, usually deliverable via a CD.

Tired of having your email addresses harvested by bots (those pesky programs that search websites to get email addresses)? By changing the text of your "contact" email addresses from one of the standard fonts to Unicode or by inserting a space between each character of the email address will prevent harvesting and possibly reduce your spam.

Do your clients know that you provide other services besides weddings or whatever your specialty is? Solve that problem and increase your income by creating a one-page "line card." List all of your services, in plain English (or whatever language best matches the client base you serve) on a handout and make sure that each client gets a copy when they pick up their project, receive their invoice, or contact you in any other way. This is especially good if you do tape-to-DVD conversions and photomontages.

On the Web
Retrieves lost passwords
Offline password management
WAV-to-MP3 converter
Leave a voicemail for yourself, then this service emails it to you

Thanks to Brian Gunn and Lance Gray of PixelPops Design ( for this month's web tips.

Ed Wardyga, owner of Keepsake Video and KVI Media in Rhode Island, has been producing event video since 1989, specializing in stage productions. He runs the website and is the recipient of the WEVA Walter Bennett Service to Industry Award.