Wednesday, 12 December 2018

USB Chroma Cables from DJ Tech Tools - my favourites!

Every year, starting in late November, DJ Tech Tools in California has a 'Black Friday' sale, and this is when I tend to buy their Chroma Cables. Yep, I get cables shipped internationally, and here's why... (keep reading for lots of tips for managing cables, power supplies, equipment...)

DJ Tech Tools' USB Chroma Cables are the best I have ever used, and I have a lot of USB cables! They come in lots of colours, which makes it very easy to connect up your equipment and keep track of what is connected (and what isn't). Not having everything connected properly can be bad news, and if all of your cables are black, then tracing them can be time-consuming and error-prone. So, for me, the more colours the better, and Chroma Cables come in 6 colours, plus white and black. The colours aren't over-saturated and dark (except for the black cables!), so it is easy to see them in poor light, but, more importantly, it is also easy to add permanent marker dots to show which way up the connections should be (I love USB-C's because they don't have this problem!) - yes, I'm one of those people who put dots and stripes on cables to make them easier to use. (I also put permanent marker on laptop keyboards for a different reason...)

The sort of marker pen that I use.

I'm sure you can be neater than this...


In fact, the design of the Chroma Cables is actually very subtle - that indented logo makes adding neat dots very easy with a permanent marker pen, and you can code cables with one or two dots quickly and with very little effort. For fine work like this then I use fine tip waterproof permanent pens, and these are good for labelling too. For black cables then you can also get white permanent markers to add those all-important dots!

A 'current style' DJTT Chroma Cable (Note that this Chroma Cable is so new that I haven't yet added a 'this way up' dot with a permanent marker pen...)
An 'old style' DJTT Chroma Cable...
To match up to the Chroma Cables, I also put small self-adhesive coloured dots onto the back of equipment close to the USB sockets - so, for example, I know that the purple USB cable with one stripe goes from the <insert fashionable device here> sequencer to the <insert classic brand name here> sound module... and for those 'annoying but they keep the equipment small and neat' dangling adapters like mini-jacks to MIDI DIN then I use clear heat-shrink tubing over the plugs to protect the coloured dots. You might think that you can just use clear adhesive tape to do this, but over time, it gradually unwraps and goes opaque...

Old adhesive tape goes yellow and loses transparency...
Chroma Cables come with velcro cable straps, which is good for keeping them neatly looped, but I find that the plugs on the end of cables still tend to get caught/tangled because they are wider than the cable.
The plugs are almost always wider than the loops in the other cables...
So I also put each cable in a clear zip-seal plastic bag, which keeps them separate and easy to use. Once you have sorted out your cable storage in this way, then you will never need to waste time struggling to unravel huge knots of cables ever again.

Cables in clear zip-seal bags never get tangled...
Velcro cable straps are not only useful for keeping cables in loops when they are not is use - they can also be used to keep cables tidy and routed when they are in use.

Velcro cable straps... Note that DJTT call these 'USB-A' cables, whereas in fact, they have a USB type A plug at one end, and a USB type B plug at the other...)
You just wrap the strap round associated cabling, so that the MIDI, audio and CV cabling for a device is all in a single loom - and if each cable has a velcro cable strap, then you have several points at which you can loom them together. (so buying coloured velcro cable straps for any cables that don't have them is a good idea too!)

A labelled power supply is a happy power supply!
Another tip that can be a life-saver is to put self-adhesive address labels onto all of the power adapters, wall warts, power, supplies (insert your own name for these little black nuisances here), and then write on them the name of the device that they are supposed to connect to. If you do this when you first unbox the device, then it saves a lot of 'Is this the correct power supply?' questions later.

Just some of the power supplies I have acquired over the years...
With a wide variety of voltages, and different polarities (not all devices have the same polarity as guitar pedal power supplies - so beware!) then it is very easy to connect the wrong power adapter to your device and this can be an expensive mistake... Coloured dots, labels and clear heat-shrink tubing can be used to make connecting everything up correctly quick, easy and hard to get wrong!

RF suppression ferrite 'bulges' at both ends...
Most ordinary USB cables don't have any RF suppression, and in these times of everything becoming increasingly 'wireless' then you don't want interference from mobile phones, wifi, wireless doorbells/garage door openers and other RF sources getting into your audio or computer connections. Ferrite RF suppressors are those bulges that you see on some cables, and they help to prevent high frequency interference from travelling down the cables. Chroma cables have the tell-tale bulges, of course...

Gold plating...
Gold-plating the external metal is one of those features that you don't see very often on computer-oriented USB cables, and Chroma Cables get a tick in that box too. This sort of fine detail is one of those things that pays dividends over time - after several years of cycling between hot and cold temperatures, in damp, dusty, smoky and greasy environments, then anything that helps to make sure that you get good reliable electrical  connections is well worth having - and gold is a valuable metal precisely because it doesn't degrade in challenging conditions.


Finally, there's the topology: straight or right angle? Chroma Cables come in both, although there are four different ways that you can have right-angle USB-A plugs, and Chroma Cables only have one of these. If you search around, then you can find USB-A right angle plug to straight socket cables/extenders (sometimes called 'USB printer extension cables'), which can sometimes give you some of the other possible orientations.
A right angle 'barrel' power connector, and a non-Chroma Cable with a black dot...
For those times when the power socket is right next to the USB socket, then you can also sometimes find extension cables for the power supply that have right angle plugs, which may fit inside the USB right angle - or may not! Some 'universal' power supplies come with right angle plugs, although then you have all of the complication of making sure that the polarity is correct (for which a cheap multimeter is very useful!) Unfortunately, there are so many sizes and variations of 'barrel' power supply connectors that finding the right one can be difficult...  There's a lot more to socket topology than some manufacturers seem to be aware of - particularly when there's limited space between the back of the DJ booth and your equipment.

One final thing about the physical relationship between sockets and equipment is the 'socket hidden behind the device', which happens with lots of music gear - the sockets are all around the back, where you can read the markings. Cue for more labels:

A TX7 module from the front, with a very old painted blue MIDI plug (from before I discovered self-adhesive dots). So which MIDI socket is the plug connected to? (The MIDI In, of course) Now imagine the same photo without the label... 
One interesting alternative to having separate USB and power cables for devices is to use a combined USB/Power box - often called a 'MIDI USB Host' or a 'USB MIDI Host' or a 'USB Host to MIDI 5-pin DIN Converter'. These provide a type A USB socket, a power supply socket, and one or more MIDI sockets (often just MIDI Out), but the important thing is that they mean that you only connect one USB cable to the device, and it gets power and MIDI data through that... Unfortunately, MIDI USB Hosts boxes tend to be confused with ordinary USB MIDI Interfaces where the power comes from the device (instead of externally), some devices don't like you not connecting the power and using just the USB socket, and there can be problems if the device already implements a MIDI USB Hub/Host internally. There's a whole blog post just waiting to be researched and written up on this topic...

Other cables...

So far I have concentrated on USB-B cables, because that's how the majority of my equipment (like my MIDI Fighter 3D) is connected to my computer, but Chroma Cables are also available in USB-C, and for Audio Cables too. Both of these are on my shopping list... and may well get reviewed in a future blog post.

In conclusion

The best justification for buying and marking up good quality coloured cables (like DJTT's Chroma Cables) is that they are like an insurance policy to help mitigate unexpected difficulties in the future. Trying to find a bad connection on a dark stage, an 'atmospherically-lit' recording studio, in a cramped home studio or a 'cables everywhere' DJ booth can be a nightmare, and anything you can do to avoid that sort of problem is well worth it. Making your setup and tear-down easier reduces hassle and stress (on you and your cables) and leaves you free to concentrate on making music happen. And for permanent installations, then labels, colours and dots can make maintenance and adding new equipment simple and quick too.


Chroma Cables: DJ Tech Tools (There are other cables, but these are my favourites)

Also, a selection of places to start looking for related items mentioned in this post. This is not meant to be exhaustive (there are many other suppliers), so do your own research before buying

Self-adhesive dots: Stationery shops/stores, or try Amazon
Clear heat-shrink tubing: Electronic shops/stores or try Amazon
Permanent markers: Stationery shops/stores or try Amazon

Velcro cable straps: DJ shops/stores, audio equipment shops/stores, or try Amazon

Excel Valley
Hobby Electronics
Kenton UK
Mode Machines
MIDITech (this website has a very clear separation of MIDI Hosts from MIDI Interfaces!)
iConnectivity (I use these...)

USB Types: A, B and C

Since I have mentioned USB type C, then this is probably a good time to look at USB plugs and sockets in a bit more detail. So what are the different type pf USB plugs and sockets, where are they used, and why do you always seem to have different plugs or sockets at each end?
USB type A plugs
USB type A is the flat rectangular plug/socket that you find on computers, memory sticks, flash drives... You know, the ones where you always need to turn them over to push them in, and often you need to turn them over twice... You won't normally find type A sockets on a printer* or a MIDI Interface**... except...

Okay, so there are exceptions!
*   Printers that allow you to print from flash drives can have type A sockets so that you can plug in a flash drive. But you can't use this socket to connect a computer to the printer - especially because you should not be able to find a USB cable that has a type A plug on both ends.
** There is an exception for some specialist MIDI boxes - go to the 'Topology' section in the main part of this post for more information...)

USB type B plugs
USB type B sockets are often used for 'printers' and MIDI interfaces. It is the 'squarer' shape with two chamfered edges. Some MIDI Interfaces use 'micro' USB type B sockets to save space.

The USB cables that you will normally use when you are working with MIDI Keyboards or Controllers will have a type A plug on one end, and a type B plug on the other. This is a deliberate part of the careful design of USB: there are different sockets on each end of the cable, so that you can't do things like connect a printer to a printer, or a MIDI Controller to a MIDI Controller, or a flash drive to a flash drive, and then complain that nothing is happening...

USB type C plugs
One final exception is the latest version, USB type C, and they are the small rounded connectors that look kind of mid-way between a type A and a micro type B. They can be plugged in either way up! Also, they break the 'rule' about having different plugs or sockets on each end!

If you are interested, there's a technical document about the USB Device Class Definition for MIDI Devices which describes what USB-MIDI is all about. Warning: This is a document written in the style of a technical standard - it is not intended for casual reading.

For more general technical USB information, then there's a good introduction here.

For USB MIDI Interfaces, then here's a pretty good troubleshooting guide.

Just in case you were wondering - I don't have any connection with DJTT (other than buying things from them), and I bought all of the cables.

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