I had probably played guitar for a good 10+ years before it occurred to me that
instead of tossing broken cables, I could either fix them or repurpose them. The lightbulb came on shortly after I took my first job in the audio world. One of the mic cables I had pulled out had a short in it so I went to toss it in the garbage. The lead engineer over the session said, “Why are you throwing that cable away? We have a soldering iron in the drawer over there.”
Since that day, I haven’t thrown away a single cable. Instead, I have a “cable recycling” bin. Okay, it’s really just a box full of old cables, but whenever I need a cable with some obscure length, I pull out the old cable box and my wiring kit which consists of a soldering iron, wire strippers, needle nose pliers, electrical tape, a few screwdrivers and assorted cable plugs (TS, TRS, XLR, RCA, etc.)
Before I move forward with my tutorial, please realize that cables that aren’t put together properly can fry your gear… Additionally, using the wrong type of wire or the wrong gauge can also damage your gear. Proceed at your own risk. As a rule of thumb, all cables that I create are only used for the same purpose as the original cable, ie. instrument cables continue to be instrument cables and speaker cables continue to be speaker cables. Without too many confusing details, instrument cables are high impedance low power and speaker cables are the exact opposite, low impedance high power. They are not interchangable.
TS instrument cables (unbalanced)
These are by far the easiest to make. Whenever I setup a new pedal board, I make all of my cables. I generally don’t arrange my pedals to follow my signal chain, so the standard 4″ cables don’t cut it. To get started, all you need is your cable, the basic tools I mentioned above and 2 jacks. You can purchase most jacks from www.Parts-Express.com or on www.ebay.com for a few dollars. Your TS cable has a center conductor wire which will be insulated and an outer shield or ground.
You’ll want to strip the cable back about an inch. This should expose the shield, pull the strands to the side and twist them together, you can now strip about ½” from the conductor wire. It is very important to make sure that the two wires do not touch each other. Depending on the type of jack you use, you may need to slide the back half of the jack and the plastic insulator tube onto the cable before you start soldering since you won’t be able to put them on after your jack is soldered on.
Now, solder the conductor wire to the tip of your plug and solder the shield to the sleeve. If you use 90 degree jacks like the one above, you technically don’t even have to solder the sleeve, but I generally do just to be safe. Once you’re done soldering both ends, assemble the jack. If you use the straight jacks, you’re done. If you use the 90 degree style like I did, you may want to wrap the connection in electrical tape. You’re now ready to go.
TRS cables (balanced)
Preparation is much the same as the TS cable, except you now have two wires that are carrying signal. The hot wire (positive) will have red or black insulation around it, the cold wire (negative) may be white, clear, or some other color. As with our last cable, strip and twist each wire, making sure they don’t touch each other. The red wire goes to the tip, the white/clear/whatever goes to the ring, and the shield once again goes to the sleeve, pretty straight forward. (sorry, I don’t have a photo of this one one hand)
XLR cables (balanced)
Just like TRS cables, your XLR’s will have three wires. One difference here is that instead of using male plugs on both ends of the cable, you will be using a male on one end and a female on the other. If you look closely at your XLR plugs, each pin will be numbered.
XLR’s are generally wired as follows, Pin 1 – ground or shield, Pin 2 – hot/positive (red or black), Pin 3 – cold/negative (white or clear). The most important thing is making sure that the same color wire goes to the same numbered pin on each end of your cable.
It may take a few tries to get soldering down, but once you have learned the basics, you’ll never have to throw a cable away again. Instead, you’ll be living in a world of odd length cables just like me.