Good audio cables don’t have to be expensive audio cables. With just a few tools, some parts, and a little bit of work, you can build your own cables that have the same performance as top-end ones. Creating your own cables is relatively simple, particularily if you already know how to solder. Soldering master or not, it helps to know about the parts and process before you begin. So let’s start with the parts.
Connectors and Cables:
The three most common connectors you will come across are XLR (usually found on a microphone cable) and 1/4″ (usually used for instruments). XLR is balanced and the connectors will be either male or female with 3 pins. 1/4″ on the otherhand comes in two styles: balanced TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) and unbalanced TS (tip, sleeve). Balanced just means that there’s two wires to carry sound versus unbalanced which has just one wire. Balanced cables also provide a stronger signal with less noise. Check out Redco Audio to learn more about connectors. They are a good place to get all of the parts for your own cables too. As far as connector brands go, Neutrik is well respected.
The type of cable to get will depend on the type of connectors that will be used with it. Cables, like connectors, are either balanced or unbalanced. XLR and TRS connectors use balanced “mic” cable which itself comes in two versions, standaard and quad. Quad Mic cable is only necessary for very long cables used in a live setting. For the studio, standard mic cable will work fine. TS connectors are simpler since they are unbalanced. These types of connectors use “standard instrument” cable. You can tell standard instrument cable since it only has one copper wire going through the middle. When it comes to buying cables, it’s sold by the foot. Canare and Mogami are both are highly regarded manufacturers.
Tools and Assembly:
Building a cable basically comes down to first matching the cable type to the connector type and then soldering the parts together. For a balanced cable, three wires are soldered to three points on each connector. Use the diagram up to match the cables (then hope it works). If you’re using quad mic cable, the four copper wires will need to be doubled up into two sets of two, then soldered in the same fashion as non-quad cable. Unbalanced cables are easier since they only have two wires to connect. The single copper wire in the center is connected to the “tip” of the 1/4″ TS connector while the braided shield wire is soldered to the “sleeve” of the TS connector. That’s it for the theory of building cables.
The actual building part isn’t too hard. If you already know how to solder, the work is relatively simple: cut the cable, strip the wire, solder each wire to the appropriate connector and finally, re-assemble the casings. If you don’t know how to solder then you must learn how. It’s not hard and you will probably find it a useful skill to have for other things. The photo below gives a basic idea of the tools you will need. All of the tools should be less than $30 at RadioShack. Next, teach yourself soldering from videos online. It’s not hard to learn. Be careful not to burn yourself though, or let the soldering iron burn through it’s own power cable.
It helps to “tin” the ends of the individual wires before soldering them to the connectors. “Tinning” means to put solder on the tip of the wire that is about to be soldered. The points that you will be soldering these wires to can be tight (particularly on 1/4″ TRS connectors). You can use the bits of pre-applied solder on the wire tips to attach the wire to the connector. Once the wire is roughly attached in this manner, the apply additional solder in the usual method for a strong connection. It’s easier done than written so experiment and you will see.
The ground wire on both balanced and unbalanced cables start off as a braided mesh surrounding the inside copper wire(s). This braid needs to be undone and twisted into a wire before it can work as the ground wire though. One efficient way to do this is to use a small “electronics” screwdriver as seen below. First puncture the braid at the base where the exposed cable meets the outer sheath. Then slowly work your way wedging the screwdriver towards the end of the cable. When done properly, this will make a rough split through the braid. This technique may take a few practice runs to perfect.
No More Monster Cables:
As you can see, making your own audio cables is not hard to do. It takes a little bit of time to learn, but once you do, it’s a skill you will have forever. No longer will you be at the mercy of Monster Cable. You will now be able to freely choose connector types, cable lengths, and brands. After your first set of cables are finished, you will never have to think twice about cables again.