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Making Audio Cables
#3055550 07/24/20 01:06 PM
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After fixing a bunch of electrical stuff around the house, I decided I'd like to make/adjust my audio cables. Mainly to put 90 degree/right-angle connectors on some existing ones, make some neat-short ones to help manage the cable mess in the studio - and also outfit an aluminum briefcase as a "portable" studio.

But I need advice, on what tools, connectors and other doodads I might need. I'm armed with a pair of pliers, a screw driver and a wire stripper - where do I go from there?

Sound, Studio, and Stage Island
Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055557 07/24/20 02:17 PM
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Oy! I could spend three or four hours typing a reply to your relatively innocent-sounding question, but I won't. What you need, in addition to tools, depends on what you already know and don't know. Your goals are right on, though, and the understanding of basic electronic assembly skills is something the I think everyone should acquire unless you're of the generation with a working system that's mostly digitally connected. That's a different set of skills and knowledge that should be saved for another day. I think there has been at least one short discussion on this subject in one of the forums here over the last year, so you might want to take a look for it.

Here are some questions for you to ponder over in order to start getting your cable construction project going:

Tools:

You'll be working with relatively small diameter wire, typically gauges #20 through #28. The pliers and screwdrivers that you use for working around the house aren't delicate enough for this sort of work. You'll also need soldering equipment - a good, temperature regulated soldering iron - often called a "soldering station" because the iron is connected to a base station that contains the temperature regulator and often some handy accessories like a tip wiper or solder roll holder. You'll need flux-core solder suitable for the size wire and connector you'll be working with (which may mean two different rolls of solder), and, for your DIY projects, you want to avoid lead-free solder, nice as it sounds for the environment. Use real 60/40 tin/lead solder. A third hand is also very handy, with a reasonable substitute being a weighted stand with a couple of flexible arms with clips to hold parts in place while you're soldering.


Connector Types and how they're wired:

It's not difficult to copy an existing cable that does what you want by wiring pin-for-pin between the connectors, but often you'll want a cable to connect an XLR to an TRS connector, or a balanced output to an unbalanced input, or such combinations, and there are various ways of doing this that depend on the electrical characteristics of the devices that the cable is connecting. There are articles about this, some good, some shy on accurate information.

Learn what the various connector types are called, how they're shielded, and how they're assembled. Don't forget to put the back shell on the cable before you solder the connectors on both ends. It's embarrassing to see a part you forgot left laying on the workbench.


Skills - Making good solder joints and laying out cables:

Practice, practice, practice. There are a few decent videos around the 'net that show what a good solder joint should look like and how to make it so.

Also, do a "dress rehearsal" before cutting a piece of cable to length. When measuring the length you'll need, allow for bends, neat dressing, and just being able to make things look neat when the new cable is in place. It's easy to under-estimate the length you'll need, sometimes by as little as a half-inch, and you don't want to have to do the job again.

Incidentally, since you mentioned right angle connectors, I'll tell you that many of them are a lot more difficult to assemble than their straight counterparts. Don't start out with that part of your project.

This is just a starter (and about 3/4 of an hour of typing). A good place to look for tools is Circit Specialists. I have no connection with this place, but they have a good selection of what tools you'll need, with decent quality and prices. Poke around and start dreaming.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Mike Rivers #3055564 07/24/20 03:32 PM
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Thank you Mike! That's great advice. Now I've got some work to do. cool

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055570 07/24/20 04:18 PM
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In addition to Mike's most excellent advice, if you want to spend more money but make life easier, Planet Waves have cable kits that are drop-dead easy to put together. You don't even need to solder.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055573 07/24/20 04:38 PM
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I will add a bit.
When shortening cables, leave a little extra length. Don't make them as short as possible, add 3-4".

Plan how you want to cable your setup. I have a rack that I went through and I decided to keep audio cables more towards the center and AC power (and wall wart) cables around the edges.
This has worked very well for my application. In some cases reusable tie wraps will be your friend, don't tighten them all the way. They are good for guiding your cables away from each other (AC power and audio should keep their distance!).

Best to use a central power unit in your rack or case that everything plugs into so you have only one main AC cord coming out.

Connectors are NOT all the same. You want the ones that are practical for your application. If you are not using a printed circuit board, avoid connectors designed for that purpose (don't ask me how I know this!!!).

In general, Switchcraft connectors are straightforward to work with and give good results. They were good enough for Ma Bell, the US MIlitary, Fender and Gibson among many others.

Tin all your leads!!!!!!

Last but not least, if you make a mess of things - take it apart and try again instead of sending it to somebody who is much better at soldering than you are!!! laugh


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Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055661 07/25/20 03:07 AM
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I was going to say, "Boy, this is one for Mike Rivers!" A true expert on all things electrical/electronic...

I'd love to learn to make cables, but I don't do it often enough. I had mine custom-made but I have had to change them over the years (typically changing connectors). My needs radically changed from my first buy, so I had hundreds of feet of tough Gepco wire to reuse. I made good use of it to say the least.

Most of my studio is Gepco wire with Neutrik and Switchcraft connectors. I had some long Mogami MIDI cables made as well. I like my Gepco stuff and I can't complain, but if I were buying again, I might spend a bit more and get Mogami, Canare, or Belden.

Best of luck with your project.


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Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055691 07/25/20 05:24 PM
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Here's another tip. When dealing with cable where the outer shield is braided, it's tough to separate the strands and twist them together in an easy-to-solder wire. The best way I've found to "unbraid" the shield is to stick a pin in the space between braids just below where the cable was cut, and pulling upward to separate the braid. Go around the cable, separating the braids, and go further away from the end of the cable as you progress. Eventually, all the braid strands will be separated, and you can twist them together.

With any fine, twisted strands of wire, it's a good idea to "tin" them before attempting to solder the connection. Tinning just means to heat the twisted strand, and melt some solder into it. The solder gets absorbed into the strands by capillary action. Let it cool, and then you when you solder it to a terminal or whatever, it will be more like soldering a solid wire.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Anderton #3055709 07/25/20 06:50 PM
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Originally Posted by Anderton
Here's another tip. When dealing with cable where the outer shield is braided, it's tough to separate the strands and twist them together in an easy-to-solder wire. The best way I've found to "unbraid" the shield is to stick a pin in the space between braids just below where the cable was cut, and pulling upward to separate the braid. Go around the cable, separating the braids, and go further away from the end of the cable as you progress. Eventually, all the braid strands will be separated, and you can twist them together.

With any fine, twisted strands of wire, it's a good idea to "tin" them before attempting to solder the connection. Tinning just means to heat the twisted strand, and melt some solder into it. The solder gets absorbed into the strands by capillary action. Let it cool, and then you when you solder it to a terminal or whatever, it will be more like soldering a solid wire.


This is exactly what I do too. I use a small awl but a stout pin or needle will work just as well.
Thanks for defining how to "tin" a lead, I mentioned tinning but did not define it.

Soldering is sort of like painting, preparation makes a huge difference.


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Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055726 07/25/20 07:50 PM
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With 35+ years of experience making my own cables, let me add:

Use good quality raw materials. Plugs/jacks: nothing less than switchcraft and neutrik, beware of inferior counterfeits. Exterior cabling: I settled on Belden 8412 - it's a little awkward with the braided shielding and wrapping but I have yet to suffer a broken cable. Interior cabling: Canare L-2B2AT is low profile and lightweight, and is very easy to work with; I've made a few hundred since 2005 and have yet to suffer a broken one. Steer clear of raw cable with plastic insulation, they melt way too easily and I have had too many show a short from signal to shield because the melting extended out of reach inside the cable.

Wait until the solder connection cools before applying the cable clamp. The shield and clamp are often the same component, thus if the shield is still hot then the clamp is also, and any heat can damage the cable when the clamp is applied.

Assembly: The shield/ground wire is always the thickest and can withstand tension and twisting better that the smaller signal wires. Assemble the signal wires with some slack so that they are not subject to tension or twisting.

Forget gold plated plugs/jacks. Their plating is so thin that they are only rated for tens of repetitive insertion.

I have had more jack failures than anything else especially the normaling contacts. On the rare occasion I have had to replace a switchcraft plug because the tin plating had worn off and exposed the raw brass core, which oxidizes.

I have cables I built in 1981 that are STILL working.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055732 07/25/20 08:35 PM
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I used to build my own cables but haven't in a long time. Since my last couple moves I've never got a test bench setup back together and actually sold my o'scope and some other equipment, however, I do plan to get a test bench setup together again after the move out of state next year, the one I hope to be my last. It's kind of sad because when I have a cable go bad now I just toss them out even though they'd likely be easy to fix.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055748 07/25/20 10:47 PM
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When I was on the road we made and repaired our own cables. You couldn't count on a music store being in town and having what you needed so we had a fishing tackle box with jacks and plugs and lengths of cable in the trailer.

I still do phone plugs/jacks and some others, but would rather not do XLR and I've never done a 5 pin DIN MIDI cable.

Cables have gotten so inexpensive, and with lifetime guarantees, keep spares and sending the broken ones back saves a lot of time.

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Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055766 07/26/20 02:34 AM
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5 pin DIN cables are easy, you only need to wire up two of the pins and a shield - no different from stereo TRS, except DIN plugs are actually easier overall.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055790 07/26/20 02:18 PM
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The thing I dislike about XLR is that there is no way to make a good mechanical connection before soldering. I suspect 5 pin DIN plugs would be the same (please correct me if I'm wrong).

When I took electronics in school, the rule was "always make a good mechanical connection before you solder". I've soldered XLRs by pushing the wire in that little tube, but my teachers voice always nags me in the background grin ... Actually I just feel better if the mechanical connection is good.

I found RCA plugs that have good solder lands but I've never found an XLR that way (but I admit, I haven't really looked for one).

The nice thing about making your own cables is that you can make them exactly the length you need.

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Re: Making Audio Cables
Notes_Norton #3055818 07/26/20 05:31 PM
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Originally Posted by Notes_Norton
The thing I dislike about XLR is that there is no way to make a good mechanical connection before soldering.

True. However, you can flow solder on the connector and tin the wires, then heat them up to get a good electrical connection. Meanwhile, the plug itself has ways to hold the wire in place, so the mechanical connection at the pins isn't that important - you can yank on the wire as hard as you want, and nothing [should] go wrong.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Notes_Norton #3055823 07/26/20 05:48 PM
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Originally Posted by Notes_Norton
The thing I dislike about XLR is that there is no way to make a good mechanical connection before soldering. I suspect 5 pin DIN plugs would be the same (please correct me if I'm wrong).

When I took electronics in school, the rule was "always make a good mechanical connection before you solder". I've soldered XLRs by pushing the wire in that little tube, but my teachers voice always nags me in the background grin ... Actually I just feel better if the mechanical connection is good.

I found RCA plugs that have good solder lands but I've never found an XLR that way (but I admit, I haven't really looked for one).

The nice thing about making your own cables is that you can make them exactly the length you need.

Notes

I have an X-acto widget with two adjustable arms and alligator clips on the end of each one. It doesn't create a mechanical connection but it does stabilize everything so you are not trying to solder while holding things in place.
A good clean solder joint is a mechanical connection, with 3 of them in an XLR cable they are pretty reliable.


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Re: Making Audio Cables
Notes_Norton #3055828 07/26/20 06:15 PM
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Originally Posted by Notes_Norton
When I took electronics in school, the rule was "always make a good mechanical connection before you solder". I've soldered XLRs by pushing the wire in that little tube, but my teachers voice always nags me in the background grin ... Actually I just feel better if the mechanical connection is good.

That rule is BOGUS and your teacher was WRONG. I have made a couple hundred XLR cables with no failures except for badly oxidized pins, which is not a product of my workmanship.

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I found RCA plugs that have good solder lands.

RCA interconnects are BANNED from my pro audio system. The best cable build will not improve that lousy plug/jack mating design. Of any interconnect I owned, RCA has been the worse.

Quote
The nice thing about making your own cables is that you can make them exactly the length you need.

Not a wise approach. One of my friends did this and when he re-arranged how studio he had piles of "custom length" cables he could not use. I settled on standardized cable lengths - 3ft, 6ft, 12ft, 15ft, 25ft. That has served me well.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Anderton #3055831 07/26/20 06:22 PM
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Originally Posted by Anderton
5 pin DIN cables are easy, you only need to wire up two of the pins and a shield - no different from stereo TRS, except DIN plugs are actually easier overall.

There are good and bad DIN jacks. The worse ones have no cups in the solder ends, which makes it a PITA to assemble wire to pin.

TRS plugs can be a challenge. It took me some trial and error to arrive at a reliable assembly technique.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Notes_Norton #3055833 07/26/20 06:30 PM
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Originally Posted by Notes_Norton
The thing I dislike about XLR is that there is no way to make a good mechanical connection before soldering. I suspect 5 pin DIN plugs would be the same (please correct me if I'm wrong).

When I took electronics in school, the rule was "always make a good mechanical connection before you solder".

Yes, that was the rule, and it's still a good rule to follow when soldering reasonably heavy gauge wire - which is what we were using in those days because there was little miniaturization. Making a good mechanical connection is a way of avoiding movement while the solder is still in its "plastic" stage. But times have changed, and so have soldering techniques.

Today it's perfectly OK to tin the half-round channel and the wire, put the wire in place, and "sweat solder" them together. You can make an excellent joint.

I remember (and still have a box full) of RCA plugs where you had to tin the center conductor, insert it in the hole in the pin, heat the outside of the pin, and flow solder inside through the little hole in the outboard end of the pin. And then you needed to leave enough braid to wrap around in the groove of the rear of the shell and solder that in place. I really disliked those, but once you got the knack, it was a really robust solder joint.

The mechanical connection to the socket??? Always questionable with RCAs.

Re: Making Audio Cables
The Real MC #3055943 07/27/20 05:40 AM
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Originally Posted by The Real MC
RCA interconnects are BANNED from my pro audio system. The best cable build will not improve that lousy plug/jack mating design. Of any interconnect I owned, RCA has been the worse.

I am glad to know that my hatred of RCA connectors is not just my own personal quirk.

I still have a couple of pieces of gear I want to test and they have RCA jacks. Fortunately, quad RCA cables are abundant and $3 at thrift stores. The odds are pretty good at least 2 out of 4 will work.
The truly odd duck among them is a Henry Engineering "The Matchbox HD" which is a pro build and converts RCA in to XLR balanced outs and vice versa. It also provides balanced XLR buffering/amplification, I need to test everything and then decide if I have any use for it. I don't own any stereo gear good enough to patch into my studio stuffs.


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Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3055972 07/27/20 01:06 PM
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Another solution to those pesky RCA jacks is to get an adapter with a male RCA on one and and a female Phone on the other.

And I remember those fill the pin RCAs Mike. I really disliked them.

I have a little device I call "Mr. Hands". A weighted base with a stem, a T bar, and two alligator clips. All the joints are moveable and can be tightened with a thumb screw. I can hold the wires in place, have one hand on the soldering iron, the other on the solder, and Mr Hands holds everything in place.

This isn't mine but it's very similar

[Linked Image from hw.menardc.com]

And I still feel better with a good mechanical connection before soldering.

In my road kit I have a couple of Switchcraft jumbo 1/4" phone plugs with screw terminals. Although I also carry extra cables with me, these could make an emergency "the show must go on" repair in the unlikely event that I have multiple cable failures. In all the years I've been gigging, I've needed them once or twice and they saved the day. Cables are better now with strain relief near the plugs, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.

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Re: Making Audio Cables
Notes_Norton #3055978 07/27/20 01:35 PM
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Originally Posted by Notes_Norton
Another solution to those pesky RCA jacks is to get an adapter with a male RCA on one and and a female Phone on the other.

I worked with an engineer who was also a bit of an audiophile. He replaced all the RCA jacks in his system that he could with BNCs when he discovered that on much of his gear, the RCAs were mounted to the chassis in 3/8" diameter punched holes, the same size as one of the BNC configurations. For chassis that were too tight to mount BNCs, he reluctantly made BNC-RCA cables. At the time, we were working for a company that made telemetry receivers for the original Cape Canaveral space shots, and there were lots of Ampex instrumentation recorders to record the received data.

Quote
And I remember those fill the pin RCAs Mike. I really disliked them.

Those were all I knew for many years. I got used to them and I'm sure I still have several of my home made RCA pin cables that are still working just fine - at least as fine as the jacks are still working. That was the weak point in the common stamped-out RCA chassis mount jacks.

I have a little device I call "Mr. Hands". A weighted base with a stem, a T bar, and two alligator clips. All the joints are moveable and can be tightened with a thumb screw. I can hold the wires in place, have one hand on the soldering iron, the other on the solder, and Mr Hands holds everything in place.

This isn't mine but it's very similar

[Linked Image from hw.menardc.com]

And I still feel better with a good mechanical connection before soldering.

Quote
In my road kit I have a couple of Switchcraft jumbo 1/4" phone plugs with screw terminals.

I have a few of those in my stash, too. I also, somewhere, have a couple of XLR cable connectors that can be assembled with just a screwdriver. I don't think I've ever used one in service, but it's good to have for an emergency.

Since you pretty much work by yourself, at least for the sound gear, you probably have your own system for identifying faulty cables that you discovered on site. I tie a knot in one end, but a friend of mine who used to run a commercial sound company used to take a knife out of his pocket and cut the connector off one end of the cable. Too many 'bad' cables were just getting tossed back into the cable case and discovered bad time after time.

Re: Making Audio Cables
The Real MC #3055996 07/27/20 03:58 PM
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Originally Posted by The Real MC
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The nice thing about making your own cables is that you can make them exactly the length you need.

Not a wise approach. One of my friends did this and when he re-arranged how studio he had piles of "custom length" cables he could not use. I settled on standardized cable lengths - 3ft, 6ft, 12ft, 15ft, 25ft. That has served me well.


For me the benefit of neat and manageable cabling outweighs the very infrequent need to change out a cable. I do leave a small service loop but when I integrate a new piece of equipment so what if I have to make a new cable, or 6? It's part of the fun in having a home studio. I'll often resize (cut) the cables for the new configuration or store them for some future application. Having some modular gear tends to make use of these pretty quickly.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Markyboard #3056005 07/27/20 04:36 PM
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Originally Posted by Markyboard
Originally Posted by The Real MC
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The nice thing about making your own cables is that you can make them exactly the length you need.

Not a wise approach. One of my friends did this and when he re-arranged how studio he had piles of "custom length" cables he could not use. I settled on standardized cable lengths - 3ft, 6ft, 12ft, 15ft, 25ft. That has served me well.


For me the benefit of neat and manageable cabling outweighs the very infrequent need to change out a cable. I do leave a small service loop but when I integrate a new piece of equipment so what if I have to make a new cable, or 6? It's part of the fun in having a home studio. I'll often resize (cut) the cables for the new configuration or store them for some future application. Having some modular gear tends to make use of these pretty quickly.

I just have one 8 space rack, not filled. It made a big difference dressing all the cables down to a reasonable length inside the box - both audio and AC power. Anything I swap out or add will be able to use the cables I've already made, they are a little longer than needed to accomodate that. Tie wraps to "route" cabling has helped too.

I would hate to go back to what I had before with all standard lengths!!!!


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Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3056062 07/27/20 08:35 PM
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Another tip: never connect pin 1 to the shell on XLR plugs. Pin 1 is signal ground and shell is chassis ground, in most cases shorting them at the plug is a bad idea.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Notes_Norton #3056069 07/27/20 09:30 PM
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Originally Posted by Notes_Norton
When I took electronics in school, the rule was "always make a good mechanical connection before you solder".

I've commented on this previously here, but I was just thinking about a soldering philosophy this afternoon that I often employ, and that when building. modifying, or repairing something, make your solder connections as if you'll have to take them apart some day (maybe even that day). It's not hard to bend a hook in the end of a piece of wire, stick it through a hole in a terminal, and crimp it down so that it holds steady. But once it's soldered, if you want to remove it, you'll have a wrestle to get it unhooked, working with the hot soldering iron and likely a pair of pliers.

Slip the tinned wire through the tinned hole in the tinned lug, flow the solder nicely around it so that you have a sound joint, and it'll last a lifetime if needed, or pull apart easily when the time comes.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3056070 07/27/20 09:37 PM
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Originally Posted by The Real MC
Another tip: never connect pin 1 to the shell on XLR plugs. Pin 1 is signal ground and shell is chassis ground, in most cases shorting them at the plug is a bad idea.


Excellent tip Michael. On the Neutrik XLR connectors I use I’m not sure how you would do this but on other brands I could imagine this being the case.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3056081 07/27/20 10:47 PM
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Neutrik has changed their XLR cable connector design many times in the years that they've been making them, and I've had annoying problems assembling nearly all of them. That's why I use Switchcraft A3M and A3F. Heat the terminal, puddle up some solder in the "solder cup" terminal, then slip in the tinned wire. Hold it still until the solder sets (that's the hardest part) and you'll have a solid connection.

Try that on a Neutrik and if you don't work really fast you'll melt the plastic base. Also, the collet-style cable clamps that Neutrik has been using keep breaking on me.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Mike Rivers #3056085 07/27/20 11:02 PM
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Originally Posted by Mike Rivers
Neutrik has changed their XLR cable connector design many times in the years that they've been making them, and I've had annoying problems assembling nearly all of them. That's why I use Switchcraft A3M and A3F. Heat the terminal, puddle up some solder in the "solder cup" terminal, then slip in the tinned wire. Hold it still until the solder sets (that's the hardest part) and you'll have a solid connection.

Try that on a Neutrik and if you don't work really fast you'll melt the plastic base. Also, the collet-style cable clamps that Neutrik has been using keep breaking on me.

Strange- I haven’t bought any in a number of of years as I always have ample stock on hand. I do hear you about melting the plastic. I think early on I experienced that when the pin or socket would turn in the encasement. Mostly with the shield as I recall since this requires more heat. But I’ve never had issue with the strain relief collars.

Re: Making Audio Cables
Groove On #3056098 07/28/20 01:13 AM
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I play live to make my living, and cables eventually fail. So the better the connection, the better the strain relief, and the more rugged the cable, the less they will fail.

And if you have a problem at set up, rule #1 is "It's always a cable." Rule #2 is "There's more than one bad cable".

In my duo I have cables for 2 mics, 2 guitars (that go through amp sims before into the rack -that's 2 more cables), Thunder tactile MIDI controller, WX5 wind MIDI controller (with footswitch controller, and 2 pedals), 4 synth modules, one FX unit, one Sonic Maximizer and two powered speakers. That's a lot of cables that before COVID got moved many times per week (I do one-nighters).

I have small jumper cables from the back of the mixer to the front/bottom of the rack, so (1) I don't have to take the back off and (2) if a phone jack fails, I don't have to take the mixer or a synth module apart to fix it.

Here is the rack - a spare (used) mixer is in place. I have a few and rotate them as they need repair, which isn't often, but eventually they go. I'd be very happy if I find a good 12 channel rack space mixer to replace these old Samsons with. All the new ones I find are really 10 channel (8 mono + 2 stereo) and I need 12.

[Linked Image from nortonmusic.com]

The extra two jacks are for external mic (for the client if he/she wants to talk) and if I bring a keyboard.

All the cables inside are cut close to size, as the rack would develop quite a rat's nest if they were all long.

What works in the MIDI studio (at home) rarely works on the road. One-nighters are hard on gear and harder on cables.

Notes


Bob "Notes" Norton
Owner, Norton Music http://www.nortonmusic.com
Style and Fake disks for Band-in-a-Box
The Sophisticats http://www.s-cats.com >^. .^< >^. .^<

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