One of my latest projects had me scrambling for an alternative to a traditional hardwired audio snake.
There are several great reasons why you’d want an alternative to running 12-36 (or more) mic cables around the room! One is cost, the other is just the sheer mass of cable that has to be handled.
And sometimes you need the use the smallest cable size possible to fit in a limited space or stay out of sight.
There are a few ways to approach this problem. Here are just a few:
- use wireless mics or similar wireless input/output sources
- use a digital snake (Dante, AVB, EtherSound, etc)
- use a balun snake
A balun what?!
I’ll get to that…
But first, lets talk about the cost.
Wireless channels are expensive. Going wireless between the stage and mixing console is great for some things, and it can be a quick fix if you already have the gear. Otherwise, it’s an expensive proposition to send wireless audio to every input/output in the room.
Digital snakes run on a Cat5e or similar network style cable. You can often pump dozens (and hundreds) of channels of audio down a single cable. Most of them work great, plus there are a bunch of digital consoles that support direct inputs from digital snake input devices.
But, digital snake hardware and infrastructure can be expensive to deploy. More devices are available that use the common Dante digital audio standard, so the cost is coming down for peripheral devices, but it still isn’t cheap.
And that brings us to the balun snake. This type of snake uses Cat5e cable, but it is not used to transmit digital audio.
“Balun” is short for balanced-unbalanced. Balun snake devices simply have a transformer (kind of like a direct box does) that converts balanced audio to an unbalanced analog audio signal that can be sent down very small Cat5e twisted pair cable over fairly long distances (150-250’ or more).
Balun send/receive devices are much cheaper than digital snake hardware too (especially if you don’t already have any existing digital audio infrastructure).
Real World Example
So, in my latest project where I was scrambling for more input channels, I simply needed to add four send/receive audio channels to a portable stage.
We could have run four separate mic cables, but we were talking 150’ of cable for each run. Not ideal, and not entirely “portable”.
I ended up finding a great problem-solving device from Radial Engineering (maker of some incredible direct boxes) that gave me a 4-channel balun snake using a single Cat5e cable.
Sending four separate 150’ microphone cables around the room may have been cheaper, but the ease of use issue, portability problems, and other user variables made it clear that the simplicity of a balun snake was worth the investment.
So how did it work?!
Well, as often happens with spur of the moment engineering projects, we ended up going a completely different route at the last minute. It turns out that the digital mixing console already had an AVB (Audio Video Bridge digital transmission standard) card slot, and we just needed to add the manufacturer’s digital snake stage box to have 16 inputs and 10 outputs. (And someone found some extra money in the budget…)
At the end of the day, we ended up investing in the higher capacity that the digital snake offered for the facility.
But, it was a great lesson in creative engineering!
NOTE: Balun snakes use Cat5e network-style cable, but you do not want to plug this cable into a network switch! The cable must be point-to-point, meaning:
- audio goes into the balun transmitter
- balun connects to a Cat5e cable
- Cat5e cable connects to the balun receiver
- audio leaves the balun receiver and connects to the console
Need a simple digital snake alternative?