How to: Make XLR cables

Making your own XLR cables is a great way to ensure you’re getting a quality product built to your exact specifications. One you get good at making standard cables, making custom adapter cables is a piece of cake. I’ll show you how to make a standard XLR cable below.

Equipment:

Raw cable (such as Canare L-4E6S)

XLR connectors (such as the Neutrik X series)

Wire cutters

Wire strippers

Coax stripper

Needle nose pliers

Scissors

Spudger or dental tool

Clear heat shrink (optional)

Hot air gun (for the heat shrink)

Soldering iron

Solder

Tools:

Tools

Tools

I have a collection of wire cutters and strippers. I recommend a set of large cutters, a set of small cutters, and a stripper for 30-20 ga wire. The needle nose pliers are useful for holding the wire while you solder, since the wires tend to get hot.I personally use a DataShark coax cable stripper with an adjustable blade. Any coax stripper with a single stripping blade will do. Most coax strippers have dual blades for stripping RG6 or RG59 cable, but that’s not what we want.

The soldering iron I use is a temperature controlled (350-850 degrees), 50 watt Weller. Nothing can really be damaged here, so a temperature controlled iron isn’t necessary.

I would recommend some type of clamp. I have a helping hands from RadioShack, but the alligator clamps aren’t big enough to hold an XLR conector. You would be better off with a clamp from Panavise, like the Panavise Jr. I’ve also used a spring clamp with good results, but be careful you don’t melt the rubber pads. I picked up a Panavise from eBay for cheap since I made this tutorial, and that’s what I’ve been using since with great results.

Cable:

I prefer Canare L-4E6S cable. It’s inexpensive, durable, flexible, and relatively easy to work with. It’s called “star-quad” because it contains 4 wires in a star configuration. These wires are color coded (blue and white) and are twisted together. Because of a physics property called inverse wave cancellation, when the signal is carried on two wires at the same time, any interference will hit the two wires slightly differently, and cancel itself out. Mogami and Belden also have their own “star-quad” cables, but I find the Canare L-4E6S to be the best.

Connectors:

The Neutrik X series connectors are probably my favorite. The XX series are slightly wider, which precludes me from running them inside my boom pole. For more rugged connectors, the Switchcraft A, AA, or AAA series are excellent. The A and AA require more assembly time and are a pain to field service, since you need a small flat head screwdriver. The AAA connectors are twist lock, but chunkier than the A and AA.

The Neutrik X series (NC3MX and NC3FX is what I use here) have 4 parts, the boot, the strain relief, the insert, and the shell. The strain relief is split down the side so you can put it on last. The shell goes on from the front, over the insert. The insert gets soldered to the wires, and the boot screws down and holds everything together.

The Switchcraft has a boot, insert, and shell. Since the boot is attached with screws, it acts as the strain relief as well.

Assembly:

The first thing you want to do it put on the connector boot. If you don’t do it now, you will have a problem after you strip the cables. You’ll have an even bigger problem after you solder on the connector.

If you want to add a label, add the heat shrink now, too.

Next, measure how much to strip off. On the Neutrik X connectors, lay the cable along the connector and measure to the bottom of the word Neutrik. This is about the 18mm specified on the data sheet. Use the coax stripper to cut the outer sheath. Make sure the blade isn’t cutting too deep, you don’t want to knick the braid.

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Measurement

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Strip

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Stripped

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Or in this case debraid a cable. The first way is to pull apart the braid one twist at a time. This takes long but is easy to do. The second way is to push down the braid so that it expands. Next use the spudger, dental tool, or pencil point to push the braids apart, creating a hole. Next tear the paper and start pulling the individual wires through the hole. This method introduces more risk to the shield, but is faster (especially once you get good at it.) Either way you do it, you will have to snip off the cotton threads and paper. They are there for insulation and to make the cable more flexible.

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Soldering involves melting metal (solder) in order to join two other pieces of metal (wires, in this case.) Solder is made of low melting point metal. The stuff I use is Sparkfun’s special blend, which is a mix of tin, copper, silver, and antimony. If you don’t know how to solder, then learn. It’s easy to do, but it takes practice, especially with very fine wires like this. I will continue assuming you know soldering basics.

So now we strip the wires. I usually take off about 3-5mm. Twist the blue wires together and tin them with solder. Do the same with the white. If you used method 1 for the shield, twist it back together and tin it as well. If you used method two, just pull it until it tightens and gets thinner, then tin it.

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Grab your connector guts and tin the contacts. This is where I clamp it into my spring clamp. It makes it a lot easier to solder. Solder the shield to pin 1, the white wire to pin 2 (+), and the blue wire to pin 3 (-). I usually do the shield last, because it is the longest wire, and it needs to be trimmed.

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Assemble the connector by adding the shell and strain relief, then tightening the boot, and you’re all done. If you want to add a label, just print out a label on some paper, trim it and slip it under the clear heat shrink. THen shrink it with your hot air gun.

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About Edward Carlson

Film and television Director of Photography working in Los Angeles, CA.
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