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Make Your Own Cables and Save Big!

CablesDIY

This post focuses on how to create your own cables using raw connectors and bulk cable.

There are some great advantages to making your own cables: you determine the quality, you choose the length, it’s usually cheaper, and you learn in the process.  Cables are one of the most marked-up categories of things sold in stores.  My first job was cashier at a CompUSA and I was shocked that the USB cables sold there had nearly a 1,000% mark-up.  It’s not much different in the audio world.  Cables are sold with high margins to make up for the low margins on more price competitive, expensive items. I find that I can save between 60-85% by making my own cables, when compared to cables of similar quality in the store.

What You’ll Need

  • A soldering iron.  I recommend not skimping too much, getting something with at least 35-watts of juice and a variable temperature knob.  There’s not too much more annoying than not being able to melt solder with a low watt iron or frying a pc board with a too hot iron.  I got a new old stock Weller soldering iron station on ebay for like $12.
  • Some solder.  The lead free variety is a pain to work with, I’ve found.  I like standard rosin core, light gauge solder for cable making.
  • Connectors for the kind of cable you want to make.  I like Neutrik brand connectors, personally. They usually are simple screw-on designs and are durable.
  • Cable.  Cables for pro audio work generally come in 24, 22, 20, 18, 16, and 14 gauges.  Gauge refers to the thickness and lower gauge numbers are thicker.  The longer the cable, the thicker the cable should be.  Cables for speakers should be thicker to account for the wattage involved.  The kind and quality of cable depends on your application.  The next section will deal with the specifics of that.

Cable Rant

I am not one of those people who believes that better cables equal better sound quality… with a few exceptions: more insulation will help cable reject noise and really, really cheap cable can sound bad.  But, as long as the cable is decent, I don’t believe that high-end cable will make any difference sonically.

What does differ in cable quality is construction and durability.  If your cables are for an installation where they will not be moved much, cheaper cables can probably suffice.  Something like this would be fine for mic line installs, for instance.  If your cables are singles that will be moved around and patched/unpatched, they should be high quality. For this I recommend some higher quality Belden or Mogami cable.

How to Solder

Soldering is an art form.  Below is an excellent intro video on the subject.  I learned a couple things while watching it.  While not all of the information in this video applies to soldering connectors on cables, you’ll be prepared to work on more diverse projects in the future.

With XLR connectors in particular, heating up the connectors too much can actually melt the plastic around the pins, deforming the connector.

Where to Solder

XLR cable pins

XLR

Many connectors have their pins labeled, such as the XLR connector to the right. XLR connectors are balanced, so they are meant to be paired with three conductor shielded cable.  The shield is the bit that surrounds the cable, while the main conductors are the wires contained within.  Pin one is to be soldered to the shield, where pins two and three are soldered to the conductors (these are the phase-reversed ‘hot’ signals).

TS/TRS

(from Wikipedia):

Unbalanced Output Unbalanced Input Unbalanced Insert Balanced Stereo
Tip Signal Signal Send or Return signal Positive/”Hot” Left channel
Ring Ground or No Connection Ground or No Connection Return or Send signal Negative/”Cold” Right channel
Sleeve Ground Ground Ground Ground Ground
RCA

RCA connectors are basically the same as unbalanced TS connections, which would use cable with a shield and a conductor (coaxial cable).

Technique

It’s probably a good idea to have a vice or some sort of device to hold the connector while you handle the solder and iron (don’t close it too hard or you’ll crush the connector!)

Most electrical solder will melt easily around 550 degrees.

With screw-on connectors such as Neutrik’s XLR connectors, place the threaded portion on the cable before you solder or you’ll have to remove the connector to fit the cable through!  If that was confusing, you’ll figure it out once you get going (I make this mistake all the time, still).

The first few cables will take a while but you’ll get better and it’ll get more efficient each time.  Then, it’ll even get fun!