"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

A Beginner's Guide to Cables: Part 4

Toby Roworth

Feb 6, 2012

After 3 weeks of talking about cables, I'm finally here at the end, discussing how to make a cable, and then how to build a useful cable collection.
Building a cable
Most connectors are attached to the cable by soldering. However, some, such as Speakons, are screw-terminated and others can be crimped, although this is rare.
After cutting the cable to length, the first thing to do, before anything else, every time, don't forget this, is putting the boot onto the cable, at both ends. This is easy to forget, and the only bit of the cable that can't be reassembled afterwards. Silde the boots onto the cable, and move the several inches along, to keep them out of the way. If there's one key thing to do here, it's put the boot onto the cable!
Next, strip the cable's jacket. This varies from connector to connector, so look at the instructions on Neutrik's website if unsure, but 15-20mm is normally about right. Then twist the screen conductors toggether, and cut off any filler string. The "tin" the newly-twisted shield by holding the soldering iron to it and applying some solder, until it flows in-between the strands of copper. Then strip the inner conductor(s) by 5-8mm, and tin them also. Tinning makes it far easier for the solder joint to take, so try not to skip it. Neutrik's jacks have a large tab to solder the screen to. This is easier to solder to if the screen is fanned and tinned, rather than twisted.
Now solder the tinned cables into their contacts. Best soldering orders and pinouts for common cables are at the bottom of the page. If you have a decent soldering iron, melt some solder into the contacts bucket first, to assist the solder wicking, but if your soldering iron isn't very hot, then this makes the process far harder. Push the cable into the contact (for NCxFXX connectors crimp the two tabs over the cable) and then gently heat with the iron, whilst holding solder against it. Once the solder melts, and has flown into the joint fully, remove the iron and keep holding the cable until the solder cools enough to hold it. Should you be using cheap connectors, beware that the cheap plastic holding the contacts can melt quite easily, so very gentle in heating.
Assemble to connector, as per instructions, and then solder a connector to the other end, and then coil (see below).
With practice, this is quite easy, and cables can be made quickly.
Coiling a cable
Coiling a good cable, with practice, is very quick, and happens naturally, with virtually no thought or effort.
Coiling a bad cable, even with practice, is slow and unpleasant, but when done enough can "train" it into a good coil.
Musicians are notoriously bad at coiling cables, and tend to use the "round the elbow" technique. This is very bad for the cable, so don't ever do it. If you ever see someone coil a cable round their arm, throw the cable back at them and show them how to do it properly.
It's not too easy to explain, even when showing someone, but the magic words "follow its natural coil" help a lot!
To coil a cable (assuming you're right handed):
  1. Pull the entire cable through your hands, into a pile on the floor, and undo any knots you find. If you found knots, pull it through your hands again. This step isn't absolutely necessary, but tends to help remove twists and tangles.
  2. Hold an end of the cable in your left hand, with your thumb pointing up and the connectors dangling down.
  3. Turn your hand so your thumb is pointing away from you, and your fingers are flat, pointing right
  4. Grab the long end of the cable with your right hand, about 2-3 feet from your left hand
  5. Move your right hand towards your left, whilst using your right thumb, fingers and wrist to twist the cable away from you, so it forms a coil
  6. Drop the coil you've just made onto your fingers on your left hand
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 until the whole cable is in your left hand
  8. Neaten ends
  9. Optionally wrap a couple of turns of electrical tape around the cable to keep it together
Building a collection of cables
A good cable collection make a lot of PA easier. I now take mine to most gigs where I can't guarantee a good set of cables, and it's payed off several times.
Cables are best in black, as it blends with the stage. However, it can be worthwhile to mark your own cables, so they down get mixed up with in-house cables. This can be done with labels (which should be heatshrinked over, as otherwise they'll try their best to remove themselves), or coloured boots/rings, which look very professional, as they're factory-fit, but only work if no-one else uses the same colour. On that note, I use yellow, so if you're going to gig with me, don't, to avoid confusion!
So a quick run-down of what makes a good cable collection: Round-up
Over the past month I've looked into all the important parts of cables. For further information, talk to me in person, should you see me, or look in the catalogues, which should be available for free from Neutrik/Sommer's websites.
Appendix: Cable construction tables lists
For any cable, simply look up the pinout for each end and solder it!
XLR (normal)
Pin 1: shield
Pin 2: hot
Pin 3: cold
XLR (stereo line)
Pin 1: shield
Pin 2: left
Pin 3: right
XLR (mono line)
Pin 1: shield
Pin 2: signal
Pin 3: signal
XLR (phase invert - one end only)
Pin 1: shield
Pin 2: cold
Pin 3: hot
XLR (poor man's DI)
Pin 1: NC
Pin 2: signal
Pin 3: shield
Mono Jack (normal)
Sleeve: shield
Tip: signal
Stereo Jack (normal)
Sleeve: shield
Tip: left
Sleeve: right
Stereo Jack (balanced)
Sleeve: shield
Tip: hot
Sleeve: cold
Stereo Jack (mono, plugged into stereo out)
Sleeve: shield
Tip: signal
Sleeve: signal
Stereo Jack (mono, plugged into mono out)
Sleeve: shield
Tip: signal
Sleeve: shield