When it comes to cable with Pro grade audio you will eventually come across the prospect of building your own audio cable. While there are advantages to building your own cable there are also several down sides to it as well that you will need to consider before making a decision. This article aims to discuss a few of the advantages and disadvantages of building your own audio cable.
The first thing you will notice is that the cost of building your own cable is about half that of what you will pay retail. Although, this gap is reduced if you purchase materials from a store rather than a direct from a distributor/supplier. So finding a good bulk distributor/supplier or shopping around for the best price is definitely something you will want to look into.
Choice of Parts
The second advantage is that you get to choose your own parts. The better wire and connectors you choose the longer and more punishment your audio cable will be able to take. Most store bought audio cable doesn't come with a braded shield around the internal copper cores so getting higher quality wire will reduce noise picked up along the cable. While this is not necessarily something that largely effects balanced microphone cable, it does effect unbalanced instrument cable. A breaded shield also gives greater strength to the cable which means that the copper cores don't degrade and fall apart from use as quickly.
Good quality connectors can be reused and last for a very long time. Even after cable stops working quality connectors can be removed and reused on a replacement cable. This means that you only need to purchase replacement wire as you already have connectors. Cheap connectors also tend to make connector rattle; with microphones, worse as they aren't always made with the right diameter.
Custom lengths of cable can also be made if you build your own cable. Obviously the longer the cable the further you can go without needing connectors but on the down side the longer the cable the more expensive it is to replace as more wire is needed. One of the many benefits of shorter lengths of cable is the ability to remove a small section if a section stops working or is damaged. However, shorter lengths also require more connectors and connectors can often be expensive. So when thinking about custom lengths you need to take seriously how the length will affect cost and the usability of the cable.
Cable Doesn't Come pre Bent from Packaging
We have all been there you buy a new audio cable and it has been packaged into a tight oval. This tight oval then unrolls into an unwinnable mess which takes months to train into being rolled up properly. The tight turns in the oval shape also unfortunately mean you have bought a cable that is now pre-damaged by bend stress resulting in a shorter life span. When you buy the correct wire off the reel or a reel of wire you don't have this problem. Although you do still have a small amount of cable training to do. This training normally takes only a few un-winding and rolling the cable back up for the cable behaves its self.
Reparability and Skill Level
Cable you build can be highly reliable although this does depend on your soldering skill and the quality of materials. If you do a bad job putting together the cable then it's not going to last long. One of the few advantages store bought cable has is that you're are guaranteed a certain level of quality. Soldering in any form does take practice. It's not hard to learn but it's hard to master. Soldering XLR, TRS and TS is definitely on the easier side though, although you can still damage connectors buy overheating them or using too much solder. If you want to learn how to build your own cable then I'd suggest watching a couple of soldering tutorials; the EEV Blog soldering tutorial is good although there might be a little too much technical jargon. If you want something to practice on then I'd suggest you start by pulling connectors off cable that no longer works and putting the connectors onto fresh wire. This will allow you to practice soldering and have something that in the end works.
When most people learn to solder they start out with a standard pencil iron. They are cheap and they are a pain to use. Jumping to a soldering station will make life so much easier; particularly if its temperature controlled. You will find that the standard pencil irons won't be able to heat up TRS connectors as they don't produce enough heat to bind the solder to contacts on the connector or be able to heat up the combination of grounding wire, solder and ground contact on an XLR connector. Initially equipment wise you, may be in the red for the 30 or so pieces of cable you make but you need to be aware that investing in equipment will eventually save you money.
It does take time to learn how to build cable, it takes more time to build good quality cable and it takes even more time to get good at building good quality cable quickly. Building cable is not for everyone. If your time is worth more than spending it on getting to a point where you're building good quality cable then building your own cable is not for you.
Yes counterfeit parts do exist particularly online so be careful when buying parts for under cost that the manufacturer is selling to distributors/suppliers. If the price is too good to be true it's more than likely that the part is counterfeit. Avoid eBay; buying connectors on it's a proverbial minefield.
Lack of Places to Buy Parts
I live in the shadow of Brisbane and even I only have 3 places where I can get connectors from. The cheapest and my personal favourite store being up to 40 minutes away from where I live. So understanding the logistics required to get parts is critical. Depending on where you live will dictate how hard and cost effective it is to get parts. If you have to drive to pick up parts then you need to factor in the fuel cost and wear on your vehicle against the savings you will make. If you have parts couriered to you than this will also eat away from savings. Alternatively, if you buy parts online then the post cost will eat away from possible savings. So in the end store bought cable may end up being cheaper than building your own. Although cost alone shouldn't be the only factor. Quality should be equally considered as well.
Zach Radloff lives on the Gold Coast and is studying IT and Multimedia at university and is also a qualified Live Production, Theatre and Events Technician.
Zach Radloff's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/zach-radloff.html