One of the key ingredients to an audio system is cables. Audio cables can be very expensive. They require specific ends for specific purposes, and the cable itself requires a protective shielding to keep out unwanted noise.
Cables with good quality shielding and quality ends can cost a pretty penny. Being able to make and repair your own cables is a very useful skill that every musician and sound engineer should be familiar with.
Making Your Own Audio Cables
We will now review the DIY process to soldering ends for both XLR and ¼” TRS/TS cables.
(Below is a diagram of an XLR end.)
I will start by explaining how to solder an XLR. The first thing that you need after obtaining your cable and XLR end, is a soldering iron and some solder.
Second, you will want to figure out a way to safely and securely hold the XLR end in place as you solder the wire the end. A small vise works best, but in a pinch you can also use a pair of pliers or ideally a vise grips. Remember that the prongs will get very hot, so try not to touch them.
The next step is very important. It is very easy to absentmindedly forget this next step and have to start all over. Take the back piece of the XLR end and slip it onto the end of the cable. This will later screw on to the prong end which you are soldering to. If you forget this step and finish soldering, you won’t be able to put the back piece over the prong end and will have to undo your work.
The next step is to strip back the jacket on the wires. It is often helpful to tin each end as well. Take a little piece of solder with your soldering iron dab a little bit onto each individual end of all three wires. You will have a black jacketed wire, a red jacketed wire, and a bare wire with no jacket.
After you tin each one, carefully lay the correct color, corresponding to the correct number, on the nubs inside the XLR end. There will be three nubs, one for each wire. Each nub will be numbered one through three. One is always ground and goes with the bare wire that does not have a colored jacket.
Two is alway your hot end, and goes with the red jacketed copper wire. Three is cold and goes with the black jacketed copper wire.
Place each color one at a time with its corresponding number and dab a little piece of solder with your soldering iron on the wire to hold it in place. Make sure that no copper strands or drips of solder cross over to a different number. If even the smallest hair of copper wire or bit of solder touches the wrong nub, the cable will not function properly.
Once all three colors are securely soldered to their assigned number, then slide the back piece that you put on the cable in the beginning and simply screw the two pieces back together.
The final and most important step is to always test every cable that you build.
Next we will move onto a ¼” end.
(Below is a diagram of a ¼” end)
The next most common audio cable is the ¼” TS and TRS. TRS is a balanced cable and TS is unbalanced. In this discussion we will review how to solder a TRS cable since making a TS cable is essentially the same, just without the ground wire.
Place the TRS end in the vise. Then unscrew the back piece and slide it onto the cable. Next strip back the jacket and tin each end. The color coating will be the same as the XLR cable. You should have a bare ground wire, a black jacketed copper wire, and a red jacketed copper wire.
The TRS end is made up of three parts, tip, ring, and sleeve. The sleeve which is the bottom part goes to the ground wire. The middle piece is the tip, which goes to the red wire. The top and smallest piece is the ring, and it goes to the black wire. Add a dab of solder with your soldering iron to each wire as you attach each one to it’s correct piece on the TRS end.
Once this is complete, there should be a strain relief on the TRS end which is to be fastened to the cable. Finally, screw the back piece on to the end and test the cable.
Written by Ian Lund
Ian Lund is a freelance audio-visual technology journalist and telecommunications content writer.