What is a balanced signal?
Most people are accustomed to using unbalanced audio lines, from connecting their stereo and television equipment. It has one wire to carry the signal, and a ground wire (typically, it's wrapped around the signal wire, as a “shield”). The signal is referenced against ground.
A balanced line has two signal wires, the second signal is an inverse of the first one, and they're used together (they are referenced against each other). They may have a shield wrapped around them, but it's not a part of the signal path, it's just there for noise reduction. Equipment accept these two opposing signals to produce the desired one (audio, video, radio, or various other types of signals). But any outside noise picked up by the cable will be the same polarity across both wires, and will get cancelled out.
To demonstrate that mathematically, presume that (at a particular moment in time) down one audio wire is positive 2 volts of electricity, while the other wire carries negative 2 volts of electricity. These are our balanced audio signals. They are combined differentially (the signal from one wire minus the signal from the other wire), and we get 4 volts of signal, in total. This is the audio signal that we want.
(+2) - (-2) = +4
At the same time, the wiring has been placed next to something that induces 3 volts of noise (unwanted signal) into the wiring. Pretty much the same voltage, and polarity, will be induced into both wires at the same time (with only a very slight difference between them, because both wires aren't precisely identical, nor precisely the same distance from the noise source). The input stage combines the signals from the wires differentially (as I've just described, above—the signal from one wire minus the signal from the other wire). This time we get no output, because the noise signal will be subtracted from itself. The noise signal is virtually eliminated.
(+3) - (+3) = 0
Compare that to the unbalanced line, where a fair amount of the noise will get through the shield, straight into the one signal wire, and there being no other way to eliminate it.
These examples are a bit simplified, for the sake of a simple explanation. It's easier to show how balanced audio works with differential signals to produce the desired audio audio, and common (noise) signals cancel out, using text-book example values. But in real life, the in-phase and out-of-phase signal lines may not actually have equal voltages on them, depending on the actual circuit design (though unequal voltages can be a problem with some circuit designs). And the cancellation of common noise across both lines is mostly dependent on the impedances of both signal lines being the same (in balance with each other), across the entire circuit (the output stage, the cabling, and the following input stage). Usually balanced signal wires will be twisted around each other (twisted pair) inside the cable jacket (and inside equipment), this helps to ensure that any external noise that manages to get into both wires, will get into both wires more equally, and that both wire's electrical characteristics will be very similar.
How effective a balanced circuit is at removing common noise is its CMRR (Common Mode Rejection Ratio). The ratio is a comparison of the amount of signal outputted when a signal is applied normally (differentially) to when it's applied as a common signal to both phases, with the result stated in decibels. Typical circuitry may have somewhere around a 70 to 90 dB CMRR, which is very large reduction in noise (90 dB being approximately 32000:1, so that approximately 3 volts of injected noise gets reduced to about 94 microvolts). Compare that to unbalanced wiring, where 3 volts of noise getting onto the signal wire will mean 3 volts of noise on top of your audio signal, and the noise may well be stronger than the wanted audio signal.
What do you call the two poles of the balanced signal?
With a balanced line, you have two signal lines, one is the inverse of the other. They get given a variety of names, some are highly misleading, and I avoid them. For instance, it's common to refer to one pole as hot and the other as cold. Neither pole has a temperature, and neither pole is guaranteed to have more signal than the other, it's a really bad naming scheme. In-phase and out-of-phase are another commonly used name, but “phasing” is a term with a more complex meaning (referring to timing of the signals, and one pole of a balanced signal is not timed differently than the other).
If you look at the two poles on an oscilloscope, you can see that one signal is an inversion of the other (a negative, if you like). And since circuit diagrams, wiring schematics, and connection labels, frequently refer to the two poles using + and − signs, I tend to use positive and negative as the names for the two poles (with positive being the same as the signal, and negative being its inverse). The meaning of this is generally well understood, and people are already familiar with them, since it's often used in other signal contexts (such as speaker wiring).
Connecting balanced equipment together
At the most basic level, you only need to connect the two signal wires between the equipment. They're the only part of the wiring that carries the signal. The shield, where present, is there to try and prevent external noise getting into the signal wires, or prevent the signal wires radiating noise out. Normally, it'd connect to the chassis bodywork, not the signal ground, though some equipment join the two together, one way or another.
Usually, you'll connect equipment together with an XLR or ¼ inch TRS jack, which will join the two signal wires, and the ground wiring between the equipment. But you may modify that if you have to overcome a problem.
The shield, or ground wire, isn't part of the signal, but it may be necessary to connect your equipment's grounds together to reduce a noise problem. On the other hand, it may be necessary to disconnect the ground wiring between the equipment to get rid of a hum. You'd leave the shield grounded at one end, so the cabling is still covered by a grounded shield. You may need to experiment which end to lift off.
When there's multiple connections between equipment, such as all the wiring between an audio mixer and a stereo recorder, it's usual to connect the left and right grounds together on one piece of the equipment, and disconnect one of the grounds where it connects to the other piece of equipment. And if you have inputs and outputs connecting, too, you might lift the other cable's grounds off at the same side.
e.g. A tape deck would have all the wiring shields connected to its inputs and outputs. The mixer might only have the shields connected on the left in and left out. Or, perhaps, only on its left input.
This is done to reduce noise. On some equipment you can hear it make a significant change, if you listen while you change the ground wiring around. Ultimately, you connect and disconnect grounds to get the quietest background noise levels that you can manage, not stick to a strict rule of always connecting this and always disconnecting that. And you need to listen to the effect it has on all the equipment, not just the device you're currently adjusting. e.g. You might make a tape deck quieter by connecting all its grounds, but make the mixer noisier, all the time, by doing so.
Patch your equipment together, turn on their power, but leave playback devices running silent. Open the channels on your mixer, and listen to the changes as you change grounding. You may find some equipment injects noise into the ground wiring, and can cause noise problems even when you have its mixer channel muted.
Way back in the olden days, when dinosaurs roamed the recording studios, most balanced connections were made through audio transformers. This meant that the real connection between different equipment was a magnetic coupling between the two halves of the transformer. There wasn't any direct electrical connection, unless you joined ground wires, too. This gave you a lot of isolation, making it very easy to connect lots of equipment together, without one thing causing problems to another.
Nowadays, it's a rarity to find audio coupling transformers in the input or output stages, and you can get ground loops from the signal wiring, no matter what you try to do by changing the external ground connections. Since, ultimately, somewhere inside the equipment, the input and output stages are connected to ground. With equipment, like that, you may have to insert your own audio transformers into the signal path, to break an earth loop. Particularly if connecting equipment together that are in different rooms, or buildings.
Should balanced wiring be twisted-pair?
The simple answer is “yes.” Although untwisted pairs of wiring will carry a balanced signal, twisted-pairs are much better at common-mode noise-rejection, as they expose each wire to any noise sources in a more equal fashion. By way of example, you can easily compare how two parallel wires pick up a lot of noise, and a twisted-pair picks up almost none, when they're both unshielded.
What's the best way to connect unbalanced and balanced audio lines together?
That's another of those questions that doesn't have one always-true answer. The simplest way is to use an audio-coupling transformer. It doesn't need power, it breaks earth loops, you don't unbalance a balanced line, you can match impedances, and you shouldn't have to worry about what audio level is going into it. While some will argue that a transformer will colour the sound, I'll counter that since I've never seen the audio mixer operator leave all the equalisation flat, the sound is going to be coloured, anyway.
The only problem I find with using transformers, is that they can pick up hum from being close to a noise source. Though, on the other hand, they can eliminate hum picked up by the cable leading up to them.
The alternatives are:
Active direct injection boxes, which have an amplifier in them that could be driven into distortion by strong signals, or introduce their own noises to weak signals, so you'll have to have attenuation controls on them. They need a power supply, they can't easily break ground loops, and they can still colour the signal.
Or to unbalance the line by directly connecting the signal lines together, the grounds together, and the out-of-phase signal line to ground. This risks all sorts of noise problems, and you can only safely connect an unbalanced source to a balanced input that doesn't supply phantom power. And it's a very bad idea to try grounding half of a transistorised balanced output stage, to connect to an unbalanced input, as you can destroy the output stage. Connecting the out-of-phase line to a dummy load to ground, rather than directly to ground, is a better approach. Though you can still get noise problems, thanks to impedance mismatching between the source and input stages.
One approach that I often use, for connecting low impedance balanced outputs to higher impedance unbalanced inputs, is to connect dummy loads on both poles of the balanced output to ground, then tap across the signal wire and ground to the unbalanced input. That keeps the balanced output stage happy.
Using a transformer is the simplest and easiest solution.
What about connecting balanced microphones to unbalanced inputs?
Usually, you'll find you can get away with simply running an unbalanced line between the microphone and the equipment, if it's just a few metres long. And you'll find lots of cheap dynamic microphones come with a cable wired that way (a balanced XLR to fit into the microphone body, and a five metre cable leading to an unbalanced ¼ inch jack to plug into an amplifier or mixer). This often works well, until you find yourself in a hostile environment (e.g. there's a lighting dimmer nearby), or you have to use a longer cable (which will pick up much more ambient noise than a shorter lead would).
The simplest solution, again, is to use an audio transformer. Place it as close as you can to your input stage, it's (now) giving you a balanced input at your equipment, so that your long microphone cable (now) works as a balanced line. Balanced lines are much better at rejecting noise and interference than unbalanced lines. In some cases, they can reliably reject noise that's actually stronger than your microphone audio signal. Probably not entirely, but enough that it's no-longer a big problem.
You can buy bare audio transformers, for building into your own equipment (so you could convert the input stages of a cheap mixer, if there was space inside the box), or for making up your own adaptors. You can buy transformers in boxes, so you can wall-mount them next to fixed installations. And you can buy them built into plug and socket adaptors, for field work and temporary problem solving. If you're going shopping for any of these, what you're looking for could be called any one of these names: DI boxes, direct inject boxes, audio coupling transformers, impedance matching transformers, or microphone transformers.
For schools, churches, etc., having to make do with simple unbalanced input audio mixers, and having hum problems from long leads going all over the place, it'll save you a lot of grief by putting audio transformers in the signal path to convert your unbalanced inputs to balanced lines. And you'll find using well-constructed XLR leads to be much more reliable than ¼ inch jacks, especially if you have to join cables together. But, if you're faced with having to buy quite a few transformers, especially good quality ones, you may find it cheaper to buy a new mixer.
Should you convert an unbalanced signal to balanced, if it's going to connect to an unbalanced input?
This is another of those questions commonly faced by people running audio equipment on the cheap in churches and schools. And the answer is, it depends…
If you don't have any noise problems, it isn't worth it. If the cabling is fairly short, it probably isn't worth it. If the cabling is long, or goes through a hostile environment, then it probably is. And if you have hum or noise problems, it's definitely worth seeing if you can get rid of the noise in this manner.
At your unbalanced equipment, connect a transformer as close as reasonably possible, this will (now) give you a balanced audio connection. You do the same at both the source and input stage (e.g. you put a transformer close to the output socket of an electronic piano, and likewise at the input socket of your audio mixer). And you run balanced audio cable between the two of them.
At the input stage, you may need to experiment between connecting the long cable's shield to the centre tap of the input transformer, the ground of the unbalanced input socket, or both. But, typically, it'd connect to the mixer's ground (easily done through the unbalanced input socket). DI boxes usually come with one or two switches for that purpose (earth lifting).
Alternatively, you may do the grounding of the shield's at the source end of the line. Sometimes you may need to ground both ends.
NB: Grounding a shield to reduce noise pick-up is probably not going to work if your equipment, itself, isn't connected to ground, somewhere (either through its own power cord, or through something else that it's connected to).
You get two benefits from converting, like this, to a balanced line: Reduction of noise picked up by long cabling. And using a transformer gives you a way to eliminate hum caused by earth loops between the equipment.
Ground lifting to solve hum problems
If dealing with a hum from a ground loop problem, for safety's sake leave the mains earth properly connected to your equipment, the signal cabling are the only ones that you should try experimenting with. And about your only chance at overcoming hum loops are if your equipment is connected together though balanced audio connections. If it's not, you'll want to convert the output using a transformer, and doing so will probably resolve the hum problem.
Normally, all your patch leads carry balanced audio over two wires between the equipment, with a shield around them that connects the chassis of the equipment together, but has no connection with the signal. Sometimes the multiple shield connections, from several patch leads, creates a noise problem, and you need to lift off some of the shields, so that they only connect at one end of the cable. You may end up with all the shields only connected at one end, and perhaps only one of them connecting to the other side, or maybe none.
Others have experimented, and come to the conclusion that it's better to lift the grounds at the receiving end. I have had the opposite experience, especially when you have to deal with connecting ungrounded mains-powered equipment to a mixer, and even more so when they use a switch mode power supply (they are very noisy). Which end to disconnect probably depends heavily on whether the noise problem is being generated by the equipment you're connecting, or whether you're trying to shield the cabling from external noise. In any case, be prepared to experiment.
If you can come to a consistent best practice for your equipment, it's easier to manage. e.g. Try to either always ground everything at the mixer, or always ground everything at the external equipment, then label any of the unusual connections (identify special patch leads).
An alternative approach is to not lift grounds, but to deliberately ground the chassis of equipment together with a heavy guage wire. The idea is that any ground loop current will go through your grounding strap rather than the audio leads. If the equipment doesn't have a grounding connector, then put an earth lug under one of the case screws. This technique can even help with equipment that has an ungrounded two-prong mains plug, just by bonding all the equipment together to a common ground.