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How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables

Wrapping up a few odds and ends

Finishing up “best noise reduction” cables

If you’re doing the “best noise rejection” method where one of the center conductors is tied into the shield: When you make up the other end of your cable, the conductor that you tied into the shield will be soldered to the RCA’s sleeve (i.e. clamp arm). To clarify, the shield will be connected to one end of the cable only. This will send the signal (-) solely through the center conductor.

Have you seen those “tweak” DIY cables where they eschew shielded cable for singular wires twisted together either by hand or in an electric drill motor? In lieu of a shield, the twisted center conductors are supposed to accomplish the noise rejection. It works pretty well in most situations, but there’s no substitute for a good shield. Well, our “best noise rejection” method will allow you to accomplish the same twisted wiring as those “tweak” cables, since the dual center conductors are internally twisted down the length of the cable, while maintaining the shield. Win win.

The picture below shows what the prep’d cable will look like – the blue conductor will go to the tip connection (solder cup), the white one goes to the sleeve (arm assembly).

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-solder-25.jpg

Please note, it’s impossible to completely clip off the strands of the shield. That’s a problem, because if any part of the shield makes contact with the connector, then the (-) signal will be sent through the shield as well as the white conductor. Personally I’m not sure if that matters or not (I usually tie the second center conductor to the shield on both ends), but if you want to make sure the signal (-) is traveling only on the center conductor, then the shield cannot make contact with the connector on this end of the cable.

As you can see in the picture above, there is no shield visible at all. This is what we want. This can be accomplished by first shearing the shield as close as possible with the Xcelite 170M cutters, then stretching the jacket of the cable over whatever shield is left. This is done by gripping the cable a few feet back from the end with one hand, and with the other hand stroking the outer jacket from that point down to the end of the cable. The end result is the jacket is stretched and pulled down over the shield, covering and fully isolating it from the connector, as the picture shows.

Also note - in my opinion this does not matter, but some believe that the end with the shield connected to the RCA should be used only on the source side, not destination side (e.g. the pre amp, not the amplifier).

What about cable beautification?
Some people like to pretty-up their cables with techflex and heat shrink, like Otto did in the picture below. Looks cool as all get-out for sure, but personally I don’t get it. No one’s going to see it behind your equipment rack, and it only jacks up the cost and make-up time. But feel free if it floats your boat! The techflex and heat shrink would be added after the fact.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-pretty-cable-1.jpg
Courtesy of Otto

The heat shrink serves at least a couple of purposes, to secure the techflex in place, and to act as a strain relief, much as the spring does with the Neutrik and Radio Shack Gold connector. However, I’ve seen in my former cable-repairing career that if there is a cable failure due to breakage of the center conductors, it will be just past the end of the heat shrink, since that becomes the “hinge” where the cable is bent and flexed. So basically, the heat shrink just moves the potential breakage point downstream, as it were. In my opinion spring strain reliefs are better because they “soften” the bend by giving it a wider radius.

Another method to utilize the heat shrink is to send it under the barrel, instead of on top, as Owen Bartley did here.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-pretty-cable-2-enlarged.jpg
How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-pretty-cable-3-enlarged.jpg
Courtesy of Owen Bartley

Making “Y” cables
In Part 2 where we discussed the best RCA connectors (Post #5), I mentioned that the preferred technique to accomplish a “Y” split is at the RCA connector, not by splicing three loose cable ends together, which is what many custom cable makers do. You can make a “Y” cable by using a Dayton Super RCA connector with the enlarged 8.3 mm opening in the barrel and a low profile cable like the Canare L-2E5. The two cable ends to be spliced would be prep’d as described in Post #7, but with the center conductors and shields of both cables twisted together - before tinning. Here are a couple of pictures of the finished product.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-solder-27.jpg

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-solder-28.jpg

Actually, the center conductors should have been pushed into the solder cup a little further than shown here, so this isn’t exactly my best work.

Stress issues
Notice in the pictures above that the center conductors are a bit slack – i.e. not stretched tightly between the end of the cable and the solder cup. This is done intentionally for the purpose of increased durability. The premise is based on the fact that the center conductor is fairly fragile compared to the much-thicker and more-substantial shield. In the event that the cable ever gets yanked or subjected to similar abuse, the shield will be what takes the brunt of the punishment, not the center conductor. Thus, the cable will sustain the abuse and not fail.

The hall of shame
Now that you’re a highly trained soldering expert, you’re sure to be amused by this stunning example of “what not to do” that I came across a few years ago on another Forum – see the next three pictures.

Frankly I’d be too embarrassed to post these pictures on the Internet if this was my work. This poor fellow shows every classic soldering mistake that there ever was. This is an example of everything done wrong from start to finish.

Right off the bat we can see our amateur chose a cable that’s too large for the connector, which is a 3.5 mm mini headphone plug (formerly know as a 1/8” stereo plug). Notice, there’s no way the cable clamp will ever fit around that cable. The cable has four conductors, which is totally unnecessary as only three are needed for this application, a headphone extension cable. A simple two-conductor low profile mic cable like the Canare L-2E5 would have done the job (with the shield functioning as the third conductor).

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-soldering-picture-bad-example.jpg

You can see in the first picture that he inserted the stripped wire ends into the holes in the terminal arms and looped them back. He thinks this will make the connection more secure. We’ll get to that in a minute, but the main problem is that he did not tin the wire!

Never, never, solder wires to a connector without first tinning them! And the connector! If you don’t, when you go to solder, the wire will never get hot enough for the solder to flow into it – and some of these pictures show that’s exactly what happened. The reason is that the point of termination to the connector (i.e. where the wire will be soldered – tip, sleeve, solder cup, etc.) needs to absorb heat too, in order for the solder to adhere to it (since it also wasn’t tinned before hand ), and therefore “siphons” off heat from the wire. Sure, you could leave the iron on long enough for solder to flow into the wire properly, but that will result in the terminal getting so hot it’ll melt the plastic or nylon inserts in the connector. In other words, the connector will be ruined. It will also most likely ruin the wire as well, melting the insulation.

The result of this poor soldering technique is that the wire never gets fully infused with solder. You have no way of knowing if the solder actually penetrated into the wire or if it’s merely sitting on top of the wire’s circumference. This connection may be electrically viable but it is not physically robust, as would be if everything had been properly tinned first.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-soldering-picture-bad-example-2.jpg

Plus, as we’ve shown, you only need enough solder to fuse the tinned wire and connector together – no more, no less. “Blobbing” on excess solder like you see here doesn’t result in any advantage or improvement in the electrical or physical connection. Indeed, it can result in a short circuit when you screw the barrel onto the connector.

So, what about inserting your wires – tinned or not – into and through the connector terminal’s holes and bending them back, like you see here? Will this make the connection more secure from stress or abuse? In a word, no. You might think it would make the individual wires more resistant to breaking, but such is not the case. The reality is that once the wire is tinned, it becomes much stronger than it was before. In the event of stress or abuse, the wire will not break or break loose at the point of termination. It can’t, because it’s effectively welded to the connector. What’s going to happen is that the wire will break a little further down, where it is not tinned. That’s right, the solder connection will remain intact; the untinned wire downstream is the weak link. Believe me, I’ve seen every kind of damage a cable and/or connector can sustain while I was repairing those countless dozens of cables from shows and concerts. Trust me, you will never - never! - see the cable fail at the point of the soldered connection! (Unless it was a cold joint to begin with.) The most common failure in cables that are abused or simply handled a lot is the center conductor(s) breaking just past the barrel of the connector, because this is the “hinge” point where the cable gets bent, twisted and flexed a lot.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-soldering-picture-bad-example-3.jpg

In addition, looping the wire through the holes in a connection terminal like this increases your chances for a short circuit, especially in the small, close-quarters connectors we use in home audio. It’ll happen when the barrel is screwed on – i.e. the short will occur between the barrel, which has continuity with the sleeve connection (i.e. signal [-]), and the wire protruding profusely from the hole-through terminal (signal [+]).

Sure, many connectors, especially 3.5 mm and 1/4”, have a protective cardboard or plastic sleeve inside the barrel to prevent this. But notice in the pictures how the termination arms are spread far wider than the connector itself. See those threads on the connector? That’s as wide as everything is going to be when the barrel is screwed on. When the barrel is screwed on it’s going to squeeze everything together, and that could very well cause a short as one terminal bends and makes connection with another – or rather with the blob of solder on another.

I’ll give this guy credit for even trying to tackle a 3.5 mm head phone plug, which is one of the more difficult and tedious connectors to solder. With most of them, there isn’t much room “under the hood” so the tolerances are really tight.

If you need to make a 3.5 mm cable, either mono or stereo, Canare’s F11 (mono) and F12 (stereo) connectors are hands down the best available and easiest to work with. Canare had the good sense to realize, “Just because the plug itself is small, that doesn’t mean the barrel has to be.” That’s right, the F11 and F12 feature a full-sized barrel with an opening that can even accept the full-sized Canare's L-2T2S cable recommended in Post #2. You can see the difference in barrel sizes in the pictures below of a common and Canare 3.5 plugs.

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Maintenance issues
As previously mentioned, the best thing you can do to preserve your soldering tip is to clean it each time you put it down, and especially before you turn off the iron at the end of a project. Burned rosin is a corrosive agent, and leaving it on the tip will eventually ruin it.

Even if you do take care to keep the tip cleaned, they don’t last forever. If you notice that the iron is taking a long time to heat up, or never seems to be hot enough, that’s an indicator that it’s probably time to replace the tip. But before you do, check to see if the set screw is tight, if there is one.

Aside from that, it’s a good idea to keep some of the specialty tools, such as the Xcelite 170M shearcutter and 103S wire stripper, designate as “for soldering use only” or perhaps other light-duty uses. This will keep their cutting edges sharp. Especially, don’t use them to cut any solid-core wire heavier than telephone wire. Gauges any heavier (numerically smaller) will very likely gouge the cutting edge.

The 103S strippers have an attached arm that’s designed to keep the handles locked down in the fully-closed position for more compact storage. I suggest, do not use it! I found that storing them with the handles locked down would make the torsion-bar spring break after a couple of years. This might not be the case for the casual user, but it certainly was when I was an installer, using them on a regular basis and locking them down at the end of the day. Once I started storing them with the handle open I have broken no more springs, and I’ve been using my current pair for more than 10 years now. Fortunately, if you do break a spring Xcelite has a free-replacement warranty.

Please direct any comments and questions to this DIY cable discussion thread.
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How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables

Part 5: Soldering XLR and 1/4” connectors

Once you’ve mastered soldering RCA and other home audio connectors, you’ll find the XLRs and 1/4” connectors typically found in pro audio equipment are pretty easy. As with RCAs, the key to a successful project is to properly prepare the cable for the connector you’re using. Once that is done, soldering to the connector is a piece of cake.

I won’t go into the full detail of stripping, prepping and tinning the cable here – refer to Post #7 for that.

First up we’ll look at 1/4” connectors. These come in two varieties, TS (tip/sleeve) and TRS (tip/ring/sleeve). These are also commonly called “mono” and “stereo,” respectively.

One of the unfortunate and shortcomings in just about every field of audio has been the chronic practice of utilizing common connectors for multiple applications. For instance, the ubiquitous RCA connector has been used for line level audio, video, coaxial digital signals, and even for speaker connections (no kidding, back in the ’60s). In musical instrument applications, the “mono” or 1/4” TS plug has been used for both low-level electric guitar inputs and high-level speaker connections. The “stereo” or 1/4” TRS plug has been used both in home audio for headphone plugs, and in professional audio for balanced signal connections.

As you can imagine, this has been a constant source of confusion, as each of the abovementioned applications require a specific and appropriate cable, even if they share the same plug or connector. The main thing to keep in mind is that any cable used for line or mic-level signals must be shielded, and that mic or signal cable is light-duty and should not be used for connections between an amplifier and speaker.

TS/mono 1/4" connectors
The cable for a 1/4" TS connector is prep’d much the same way as a RCA, except that the shield is typically longer. The picture below shows both center conductors of a mic cable tied together. Naturally, one of conductors can be tied into the shield, as outlined in Post #8.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-ts-cable-prep.jpg

Here’s what the finished connector should look like after soldering. Note that the cable’s outer jacket is far enough forward to be gripped by the cable clamp. Also notice that the center conductors are not stretched tight. I leave them a bit long when prep’ing the cable, so as to give them some slack. The idea is that the shield is much more robust than the center conductors, which are thin and relatively fragile. In the event that the cable ever gets yanked or is subjected to similar abuse, the shield will be what takes the brunt of the punishment, and the cable will not fail.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-ts-cable-soldered.jpg

After soldering, use your pliers to secure the cable clamp, screw on the connector barrel, and you’re done.

TRS/stereo 1/4" connectors
Soldering 1/4" TRS connectors is a bit trickier, but not much. With a TRS cable you’ll be using both center conductors – i.e., you won’t tie them together.

My favorite 1/4" TRS connector is the Switchcraft #297. It’s an excellent plug with a superb build quality, but in stock form it’s a bit cumbersome for soldering. With the barrel removed you can see that one of the tabs sticks out at a weird angle, and there is a plastic protector covering the arm (shield connection) that’s basically just in the way.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-switchcraft-297.jpg

So I’ve always modified the 297 a bit. The first thing I do is clip off the angled tab with my 8” side cutters.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-connector-prep-1.jpg

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-connector-prep-2.jpg

The next thing we want to do is get rid of the useless shield protector. We’ll clip this with our Xcelite 170M cutters.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-connector-prep-3.jpg

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-connector-prep-4.jpg

After the connector is prep’d it can be tinned. Tin the inside of the two tabs, as that’s where we’ll be soldering the wires. The arm will be tinned for the shield just behind the clipped-off protector.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-connector-prep-5.jpg

Once the connector is prep’d, we can move on to prepare our cable. The center conductors need to be long enough to spread between the two tabs on the connector. Better to have the center conductors a bit too long with some slack than too tight. Here’s what the prep’d and tinned cable end will look like (with the center conductors perhaps a bit longer than this). The shield lead will be shorter than the center conductors.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-cable-prep.jpg

You’ll probably want your connections to follow accepted signal (+) and (-) protocol, for both cable and connector. For cables, the red conductor will usually be signal (+), and black will be signal (-) (as an example – there is no industry standard for mic cable center conductor colors). For the connector, the tip is signal (+) and the ring is signal (-). If you’re unsure which tab is tip or ring, use an ohm meter to check continuity.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-diagram.jpg

Here’s what the connector will look like after soldering. I got this example a bit “tight.” More length on the center conductors is acceptable as long as the cable’s jacket can be fully secured in the cable clamp.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-trs-soldered-close-up.jpg

By the way, any good 1/4" connector will include a cardboard or plastic sleeve under the barrel that slips over the connections. Do not forget to use it!!!

XLR connectors
We've previously discussed the importance of using good connectors, but this is especially critical with female XLRs . A lot of people make the mistake of buying cheap female XLRs not realizing that they are total junk, living on borrowed time. Take a look at this picture that compares a cheap and quality connector:

The bottom connector is a Switchcraft, the top is a no-name something-or-another. See the little ball at the business end of Switchcraft? The Switchcraft has two of those, and they are spring loaded. The purpose they serve is to maintain a tight pressure connection in the socket they are plugged into.

Now look at the cheap connector. It has no spring loaded balls. All it has is a couple of "bulging tabs" to ensure a good connection (for lack of a better term - one of them seen here circled in green, between the two dark strips). The problem is that over time, the tabs will collapse, and you end up with a goose-loose connection that has a lot of flex and give. That in turn wallows out the plug's three sockets, which then can easily make and break connection. So basically, the whole mechanical structure of the connector is compromised.

So, don’t waste your time with cheap female XLRs. Use only a brand name like Switchcraft or Neutrik. (Note that the Neutrik connectors don’t use a bulging tab or a spring-loaded ball to physically secure the connection. Don’t let that deter you, they’re excellent connectors.)

As it is with any type of connector, the key to a successful XLR cable project is prep’ing the cable. Typically the pinout for audio XLRs will be Pin 1 = shield; Pin 2 = signal (+); Pin 3 = signal (-). However, older pro audio gear made before the 1990s may be Pin 3 = (+), so know what your equipment requires before you make your cables. Combining old and new gear can end up with one of them having the signal polarity wrong on one end (NOTE: This applies to 1/4" TRS connectors as well).

Unlike the other connectors we’ve looked at, the shield for XLRs will be the same length as the center conductors.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-xlr-cable-prep.jpg

Keep in mind when prep’ing your cable that it should be correctly oriented for the connector’s gender. Since XLRs pins are arranged in a circle and the male and female connections mate to each other, their pin arrangements are different. One is arranged (clockwise) 2-3-1, and the other is 1-3-2. Cable orientation makes a difference when prep’ing the cable. For instance, the cable’s red center conductor will typically go to Pin 2 (+), and the black conductor to Pin 3 (-) (again, this is “for example” – there is no industry standard for the colors). With the correct orientation, once the cable is prep’d the red conductor will fall naturally to Pin 2, and the black to Pin 3. If you have to twist the conductors across each other to reach the correct pin, you have the orientation wrong. Nothing to worry about, just solder that end to the other XLR – e.g. male instead of female.

When tinning a male XLR, the solder cup will need to be fully filled with solder. In the picture below the left-side cup has been tinned; the right side has not.

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Here’s what the finished connection will look like.

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-xlr-soldered-close-up.jpg

During soldering, the easiest way to deal with a male XLR is to plug it into a female XLR. The female XLR can then be easily held in place by your “helping hands” apparatus (see Part 3).

How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables-xlr-soldered.jpg

Unbalanced XLR concerns
In a home audio system using both consumer and professional equipment, often the front end (pre amp) will have RCA connections, which is an unbalanced output. If you’re using a downstream pro audio processor, often they will have XLR connections only. So (naturally) you’ll need cables with RCAs on one end and XLRs on the other. Unlike balanced connections, the unbalanced signal sent from a pre amp via RCAs technically needs only two connections to operate. But as you’ve noticed, XLRs have three connections.

As previously mentioned, the pinout for balanced audio XLRs is Pin 1 = shield; Pin 2 = signal (+); Pin 3 = signal (-). However, with unbalanced audio signals the signal (-) is carried on the cable’s shield. So when making a cable with RCAs on one end and an XLR on the other, the shield should connect to Pin 3, with a jumper added between Pins 3 and 1. If there is ground-loop noise in the system, often it can be alleviated by not installing the jumper.

You would have a similar connection with an RCA to 1/4" TRS cable, with the latter’s tip carrying the signal (+) and the ring carrying (-), and a jumper between the ring and the sleeve (i.e. the arm where the shield is normally soldered). However, with the possible purpose of eliminating a ground loop, there is no reason to use a RCA/TRS cable. The same connection can be functionally achieved with a RCA/TS cable.

Please direct any comments and questions to this DIY cable discussion thread.
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