Live sound snakes are something you should get real familiar with if you want to do sound. They are an essential piece of gear that will make your life 100x easier. But what exactly is it? What is it used for? What’s with the weird name? You probably have a lot of questions about them, which is why I’ve written this article!
What is a live sound snake? A live sound snake (a.k.a. – snake, for short) is a single cable with multiple sets of wires on the inside meant to run multiple audio signals long distances with ease – eliminating the need to run multiple long cables down the same path.
You can probably already see some benefits of using a snake. It can save you a ton of time, not to mention a ton of headache and monotonous work. But let’s go more in depth. Let’s talk more about what they are and how we can use them to make our lives easier!
What is a Live Sound Snake?
First of all, why the name? I wish there were a cool and profound reason for the name, but there’s not. Simply put, an audio snake looks like… you guessed it – a snake!
Now that that’s out of the way, lets talk about them!
Imagine this – You’re on a football field with 100 balls at one side. You’re given the task to move all the balls from one side of the field to the other. But you can only carry one ball at a time. Sounds dumb, right? It’s extremely inefficient and a waste of your time. Wouldn’t it be faster and easier if you could carry 4 or 5 at a time? Or better yet, use a truck to move them from one side to the other, all in one trip?
Well, that’s exactly what a snake does for us in live sound. It can move dozens, or even hundreds of audio signals from point A to point B all in one trip through a single cable.
How is This Done?
The way a snake does this is actually quite simple.
You probably know what an XLR cable is. If not, it is the cable you would use for a microphone. That’s why XLR cable is also referred to as “microphone cable”.
So imagine if you had 20 XLR cables, and you taped them all together. That’s how a snake is made. Well, not by taping cables together, but by grouping multiple cables together inside a single sleeve, thus creating a single cable with multiple connections.
Now, the connections on the ends of this snake can vary. It can be XLR connections, 1/4in TS/TRS connections, ethernet connections, power connections, snake heads, etc… Point being there are countless configurations.
What is a Snake Used For?
There are countless reasons you may want to use a snake. There are many industry standard ways of using snakes, and some people even use customized snakes for very specific situations and scenarios.
Here are some of the top industry standard snake practices –
From Stage to FOH and Vice Versa
Probably the most obvious use for a snake would be to get the signal of the instrumentation on stage to the console at FOH (front-of-house). This is often time upwards of 30, 40, 60, or even hundreds of channels of audio. You can imagine what a nightmare it’d be without a snake.
But just as importantly, getting signal from the FOH console back to the stage. This is important if you are running monitors from the FOH console. But also, that’s probably where the power amps are for your entire sound system. So signal needs to reach there too.
From Stage to Monitor Console and Vice Versa
Larger scaled events will typically have a console dedicated for monitors which works independently of the FOH console. This is probably the next most common use for a snake.
The instrumentation and vocals on stage must reach the monitor console in order for the monitor engineer to do his/her job. After the engineer has made their adjustments, he/she must then be able to send that signal to the appropriate monitors on stage so that the musicians (or any other person) can hear what they need. This can easily be dozens or hundreds of inputs and outputs.
And again, without a snake would be a complete nightmare.
For Drum Microphones
Another less common, but still fairly popular, use of a snake is for dedicated instruments that require many inputs, such as the drums.
It’s not uncommon for a drum kit to have 8, 10, 12 or even more microphones. Because of this, many people will use snake cables for the drums.
For Backing Tracks
Similarly to the drums, backing tracks can require many inputs. Many bands only use stereo tracks, so there isn’t really any benefit to using a snake.
However, some bands performing at a higher level often use stems. So it’s not uncommon to see 10, 12, 16 or even more stereo channels for tracks. Yes, I said stereo. Which means they would require 20, 24, 32 or even more inputs just for their backing track system.
This is a perfect scenario to take advantage of a snake!
Different Types of Snakes
There are a few different types of snakes you should be aware about. Learning about them and how to use them can greatly enhance your work flow!
Analog and Digital Snakes
The audio world is certainly no exception to the advances of modern technology. Nowadays, digital snakes are becoming more and more popular. I’ve written a section below dedicated to analog and digital snakes. But I wanted to mention them here just to make you aware that they exist.
Split snakes are very useful in certain instances. But first, what are they?
A split snake “splits” each input so as to have more than one copy of each input. So on a 2-way split snake, there would be 2 copies of every channel. For example, one copy could be used for FOH and the other for the monitor console.
Or a 3 way split snake – it would have 3 copies of each input. You could use one for FOH, one for monitors, and one for a broadcast mix engineer.
A split snake allows each of those engineers to work independently of each other. Split snakes are very common, especially in higher level productions.
Stage Snake (a.k.a. – sub snake)
Stage snakes (a.k.a. sub snakes) are also a very useful.
Stage snakes are used to receive signal from the microphones and other inputs on the stage. These then route to the, typically larger, main snake which then goes to FOH and/or other places.
Stage snakes are typically small, low profile, and lower input count. This is simply because they are used to subdivide the stage into sections. You need a few inputs from here and a few inputs from there, etc…
Stage snakes help with organization and stage cleanliness.
Analog vs Digital Snakes
Now to open up another can of worms… analog and digital snakes.
I saved this for last because I wanted to keep it easy and simple to understand the basics of snakes. But now that you know and understand them, it’s time to talk about this.
As you can probably tell, our world is becoming more and more digital every day. With are smart tv’s, pocket computers (cell phones), and houses you can control with your voice, it’s no secret that technology is advancing rapidly. And the world of audio is no exception.
It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was using analog snakes. Well, what does that mean anyway?
An analog snake means that if you have 64 input channels available on the snake head, then you have 64 wires running through your snake cable all the way to the console that it’s plugged into.
This was the standard for many years, but not much anymore. Analog snakes still have benefits though. They’re much easier to understand and make work properly. They are also much easier to troubleshoot. If something is wrong with channel 1, then you switch to another channel… done!
That said, they also have their downsides – one of the biggest being their size and weight.
Imagine – you have a 64 channel snake you need to run from the stage all the way to FOH, which is 150 feet away. If you account for slack needed on both ends, you are easily going to need at least a 200ft snake. At 64 channels, that is going to be EXTREMELY big and heavy because it’s literally a roll of copper. 500lbs? 600lbs?
Not great for saving space or weight.
Digital snakes are achieving the same goals – getting inputs from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. But the way in which it does it is completely different – it’s digital!
Digital snakes are becoming more and more popular every day in the world of audio. Digital snakes work by converting each input into a digital signal. This is called A/D conversion. Then, this digital signal can be sent via ethernet straight to a console, or sent to a networking switch or router. Either way, it will eventually end up at the console.
And the great thing is that this can support hundreds of channels and (depending on which digital audio protocol is being used) can be sent to any amount of consoles you want to use!
Imagine the same scenario above – you need to send 64 channels of audio to FOH from the stage that is 150ft away. Ok, no problem! Let me go grab an ethernet cable… which weighs a total of probably 10lbs and can fit in my backpack!
That is amazing!
That said, although digital is great, it doesn’t come without its downsides.
The cons of a digital snake are what you’d imagine from any kind of technology – bugs, glitches, setup and troubleshooting. Although bugs and glitches are not a common issue these days with digital snakes, it does still happen.
If you’re not familiar with the specific snake and console you’re working with, it can be a real pain to set up sometimes. This is because every manufacture does things a little differently. Digital snakes are not a plug and play system. It requires an extensive setup process. And I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent troubleshooting an issue and trying to find out what I did wrong, only to find out I just need to reset the console or snake.
The ol’ turn it off and on method!
Click HERE if you like to learn more about them!
As you can see, live sound snakes are a vital part of any professional sound system. As live sound engineers, they make our lives a lot easier and our work a lot more efficient. And in such a fast-paced environment, these things are priceless!
I hope I’ve helped you understand the basics and given you some ideas in how to improve your workflow!
Thanks for reading!