Friday, January 14, 2011


Spent a chunk of the day straightening out a tech closet. Which meant mostly a tangled mess of cables.

If you work with any amount of cord, cable, rope, wire, whatever, do yourself and your co-workers a favor and learn how to stow them.

What doesn't work: Coiling the cord tightly around the power strip or clip light or power tool. Maybe it feels all manly to yank that cord around and around, but it doesn't work. It puts permanent bends in the power cord so it looks like a big spring. And it comes off in the storage cabinet or tool box; and that spring shape is perfect for tangling with other things. Even when it works, it takes a long time to uncoil, and the cord won't stretch out properly but lumps all over the floor or workbench.

Worse: taking that long extension cord or audio cable or rope and coiling it about your arm. It doesn't stay coiled, and it just gets into tangles. Plugging one end of the cord into the other only makes things worse. And when you try to pull it out to use it, it turns into a bunch of loops and knots. So instead of being ready for sound check, you are struggling with a Gordian Knot. Not the way to have a happy client. Or a happy audience.

Here's what works; for long cables and cords that have no natural twist (that is to say, for _everything_ but natural-fiber rope), coil it in neutral lay. Which means, every other coil reversed (find a diagram online, or find someone to teach you). It uncoils like a charm; you can just drop the coil on the floor, take one end, and walk with it; the cables spools out without a single tangle.

DO NOT put the ends together (that only makes it harder to figure out which side to draw the cable from). DO NOT wrap the cable around itself to fasten the coil (that works great on braided rope, but is death to electrical cables). Fasten with tie line, a velcro cable tie, or, in a pinch, tape (the trick with tape, is; you start with the tape inside out, so you don't get gummy tape on the cable, then double the tape back on itself to finish wrapping it around).

Oh, and on that subject, Duct Tape is to be used to repair ducts. It is not to be used on floors, walls, and DEFINITELY not used on electrical cables! If you do mess up, Goo-Gone, or peanut butter, will help you remove the nasty residue it leaves. But it is still a chore.

By the by, if you ever tape cable down, here's a handy trick; don't pull the cable up, then try to get the tape off. That's a pain. Instead, pull the tape up first. Then pick the cable off the floor.

For stuff that is too short to be really worth spending the velcro ties on -- like short adapter cables, power cables, the cords on power strips and tools, the simplest and most elegant solution is to tie a knot.

Double up the cable (or triple it up) until it is a comfortable size to tie one overhand knot in. You might think putting a knot in the cable will shorten its life. Trust me, its a lot less stress than wrapping the thing around the handle of the drill over and over and over (which is what most people do). And it is much less stress on both the cable and most importantly YOU when it doesn't come loose in the tool box and ends up wrapped around your spare saw blades.

Some people just have to be fancy with their extension cords, and do a forearm wrap followed by the tight "hangman's" loops around the middle. I admit the bundle looks neat when done. But it takes forever to uncoil again, and it doesn't lay out straight. When you are trying to run power to a remote location every lump and kink in that extension cord is just wasted length.

However, extension cords are often so tortured they won't take a neutral lay. As nice as you try to coil it, it makes lumps. If you have one of these, then, give in to the urge to be fancy rope-knotting person, and daisy-chain it. A daisy-chain takes up space, and WILL come undone if given opportunity (say, kicking around the bottom of a tool bucket.) But it looks neat, and most importantly doesn't hurt the cable or put kinks in it; and it comes uncoiled fast and clean when you actually want it.

Which is the point of all of this. Life is too short to be untangling cables every time you open the tool box. And set-up is WAY too short to be struggling with a knotted-up cable. Who do you want to be, the person who says "Here's that mic you needed" or the person who is still ten feet short of the stage because their cable turned into a bundle of knots?

That's the biggies. There are a few other niceties you could follow. If you've got a lot of random audio cable, consider labeling them to length. Typical schemes are a modified "Roman Numeral" key with colored tape; each red band is five feet, each yellow 10', each green 25', each blue 50'. So a cable with a green and a red band is a 30 footer.

(When in doubt about color coding, use the rainbow as a mnemonic. The colors of the rainbow are always in the same order, traditionally named as "Roy G. Biv", for Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. Given the vagaries of Sharpies, spike tape, electrician's tape, or available spray paint, you may only have a truncated rainbow of four colors. Organize them "Pink, Green, Blue, Magenta" or whatever, and you will always remember what order they are supposed to go in.)

If you are in the sort of work where everyone brings cables and they all end up in use, then label them with your own name or a distinctive tape color or some other marking you can tell people about ("Keep an eye out for any cables marked with purple spray paint; those are all mine.")

In some applications it seems to make sense to put a random but unique numerical signature on each end of each cable. That way, when you've got six cables running under the rake, and you don't know which is supposed to be connected to dimmer #6, you can look at where "5763" is diving out of sight, and pick up the matching "5763" on the other end. But as smart as this seems, only one organization in a hundred every manages to implement something like this scheme. And, yes, I've been including this on my personal cables as I rebuild them with proper Switchcraft ends, but I've done less than half of them so far.

Oh, and on a totally different scheme, when you are wiring electronics, red is VCC (or supply voltage), green is ground, and black is data lines. Unless you are lucky enough to have more colors. Black is also very common for battery negative, but my feeling is people will figure out green pretty quick (especially if they know household wiring, for which the color code is NOT optional. Use the correct UL codes in household wiring or face some very, very angry contractors).

And learn to coil them properly. Remember; you almost ALWAYS have a lot more time when cleaning up, then you do when setting up a show. Coil the the cables in the off-times, so when there's a sixteen-piece band due for sound check in one half hour those cables will not be what slows you down. Get into the habit of stowing tools carefully. There will always come a time when you need that tool quickly. If you put it away in haste, it won't come back out of the box when you really need it. And for nothing else is this more true than audio cables.

(The title for this entry comes from a lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson on a very different subject!)

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