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):
Building a collection of cables
- 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.
- Hold an end of the cable in your left hand, with your thumb pointing up and the connectors dangling down.
- Turn your hand so your thumb is pointing away from you, and your fingers are flat, pointing right
- Grab the long end of the cable with your right hand, about 2-3 feet from your left hand
- 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
- Drop the coil you've just made onto your fingers on your left hand
- Repeat steps 4-6 until the whole cable is in your left hand
- Neaten ends
- Optionally wrap a couple of turns of electrical tape around the cable to keep it together
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:
- Lots of mic leads. XLR-XLR leads are a staple, and should be available in 3m, 5m and 10m lengths, with a few shorter ones to link equipment. They can be daisy chained if not long enough, but it is best to avoid this if possible. I try to buy an XLR lead with every new piece of equipment, so my rig'll always have enough cables to put it all together. A few with right-angled connectors can be nice, but isn't essential normally.
- A silent jack lead. One day, a guitarist will forget his lead, and you can be at the rescue! By using a silent jack, you're also prepared for an open-mic type events you might do, where you can guarantee you (or someone on the stage) will mess up at some point, and this lead will save a big pop/bang, and much embarrassment. If you play guitar yourself, it's just nice to have!
- A couple more jack leads, of about 4 or 5m. These are sometimes useful, but could be replaced with adaptor leads.
- As many speaker leads as you have speakers, and maybe a spare. The exact configuration of these depends on what your speakers and amps use, but when there are options, have as many speakons as possible. NL4s are more expensive than NL2s, but can be useful because they can be rewired for amps that are bridged. They're also much nicer to use, which I think's worth an extra £2 on leads that'll cost at least £20 each anyway. Speaker leads should be at least 10m, but 20/25m is preferable. Given that amps'll normally be at one side of the stage, it can be worthwhile having one lead 5 meters longer than the other to get it across the stage, or 10m if you work on large stages.
- A set of adaptors. Not all of these are essential, but you'll kick yourself if they're missing when you need them! All should be terminated with an XLR on the "other" end, but might need converting back to something else. If you can afford two of each, one male, one female, this'll save you having to work out which direction the cable will travel. As for length, 0.5m is about right, but 0.25 will do.
- Mini-jack. Have a few of these about, to connect iPods, laptops and the like into the rig
- Mono jack. These are mainly used to turn the other leads into something useful again.
- Poor man's DI. Still a mono jack-XLR lead, but by connecting the tip to pin 2 and the sleeve to pin 3, it might work like a DI, depending on how the equipment at the far end unbalances it. I've yet to try this in practice, so if you do, let me know how it goes!
- Balanced stereo jack. Two of these is nearly a must, as some mixers output their main mix bus onto jacks.
- Gender bender. These have the same gender of connector on each end, and allow funny cable runs to work, or in pairs can reverse multicore channels. You always need one more than you have, so there's no need for hundreds!
- Phase invert. These aren't needed often, as phase issues are normally caused by dodgy cables, but one or two can be useful. I'd mark these somehow though, so they don;t get used by accident.
- 2x mono jack. These are useful for splitting a stereo lead into two mono leads. They can also make an insert lead when combined with a balanced stereo jack lead
- 2x RCA. I forgot to mention RCAs for a good reason - they're rubbish! Neutrik's are about £15 for a pair, which is far too expensive, especially given that RCAs are nasty to use, and only tend to feature on low-end PA equipment, or annoying keyboards. However, a full set on converters needs at least one, maybe two of these, but I'd be more than tempted to get cheaper connectors.
- Multicore. Multicores are really expensive (several hundred pounds for even a modestly useful one), so should only be bought once you know exactly what you need on a regular basis. However, a decent multicore, with properly marked tails and a nice stage box would be the crown of any cable collection, and can save a lot of time when rigging a gig. I'm in the process of speccing a modular multicore, with multiple stage boxes, but I'm not expecting to build it anytime soon, as it'll probably cost as much as the rest of the basic kit I need to buy!
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
For any cable, simply look up the pinout for each end and solder it!
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)
Stereo Jack (normal)
Stereo Jack (balanced)
Stereo Jack (mono, plugged into stereo out)
Stereo Jack (mono, plugged into mono out)