Patchbays- The Nerve Center of your Rack

Ok, let’s be honest here. How many of us have such a mess of cables behind our gear that we hate to go back there and repatch something? Say you have this awesome guitar sound and you are about to record a song to your multitrack. This means that you have to get up, possibly pull some furniture away from the wall, risk exposure to dustballs…mammoth spiders…cobwebs, and then search through a spaghetti of wire to find the correct cable to patch in. How about trying to patch in a compressor over your entire mix? It’s such a pain to get back there, kink your back out, and scrape your knee on the cabinet just to get some even levels over your mix. Does this all sound familiar? This is something that I know about first hand, and I suffered through it for quite a while, as I am sure many of you are doing. Fortunately there is a simple answer…in the form of a device called a patchbay.

A patchbay is this wonderful, rack-mountable unit consisting of cable jacks on the front and back. These jacks are aligned in dual rows on top of each other stretching across the length of the patchbay, with each row generally having 24 jacks. It will be helpful if you think of the jacks exhisting as vertical pairs, since there is most often an intimate relationship between the two. The purpose of these connections is to permanently plug in all the gear and inputs / outputs into the back that you often repatch while recording or mixing. You can then use short patch cables in front to route the signals to and from all your equipment where you want them to go. You have now accomplished all of your necessary patching without even getting up from your comfortable seat in front of the monitors. Of course, there is a little more detail involved with understanding a patchbay, so I am going to go into those specifics next.

First of all, there is no standard on how you set up your patchbay. You own the gear, and only you know how you prefer to work. I will mention that commercial studios normally designate the top row of jacks as the outputs of your gear and mixer, with the bottom row then becoming the inputs. This is a helpful tip for organizing your unit, and is also important when dealing with normaled and half- normaled jacks. Ok, I know I probably just lost you on that one so I will go over those terms.

Normaled, Half-Normaled, and Denormaled Jacks When we talk about normaled, half-normaled, and denormaled jacks, we are really talking about how the signal flows through the jack itself. This has everything to do with the way the connections are soldered or connected on the PC board inside the patchbay, but for the purposes of this article, I will just explain how a jack treats an incoming signal rather than explain how to solder the connections.

 

Normaled

Normaled jacks are those where the top jack in back is automatically routed to the bottom jack in back when the front jacks are not used. For example, let's say that you have the outputs from your delay unit plugged in the back of the patchbay into jacks 1 and 2 on the top row (remember outputs on top, inputs on bottom). Lets also assume that you have the aux returns to your mixer plugged into the back of the patchbay into jacks 1 and 2 on the bottom row. With no patch cables used in front, the delay unit is always connected directly to your mixer via the aux returns, because the top row is internally feeding signal to the bottom row. There is no need to patch anything in the front because it is already hooked up. A normaled patch also allows you to connect the outputs from another unit that is not a member of those pairs into the bottom jacks 1 and 2 in front. Doing this breaks the normal internal connection between the top and bottom jacks, and now routes the new signal through to the aux returns of your mixer. Pretty cool!

 

Half-Normaled

Now, a half-normaled connection is similar to a normaled one, and that is where a lot of confusion arises. Let me first set up the scenario. Imagine that you have one output track of your multitrack plugged into the top jack of 3 in the back of the patchbay. You also have the input to your mixer channel 3 plugged into the bottom of jack 3 in the back of the patchbay. As with normaled patches, the top jack of each pair is internally connected to the bottom jack so that in this case, the output of track 3 is automatically routed to the mixer for playback. The difference here is that with a half-normaled pair, you can insert a patchcord into the top jack #3 in the front and the connection to the bottom jack in back will NOT be broken. This allows you to have two copies of the output track and bring the 2nd copy into another mixer channel to process differently while the original goes to its original corresponding mixer channel. Of course, if you are doing this so that you can route the outputs of track 3 to another mixer channel other than channel 3, then you have to plug a cord into the bottom jack in the front and leave the other end unconnected. This is called dead-patching and the purpose is to break the connection between the back top and bottom jacks by routing the back bottom jack to the front bottom jack (This is assuming you only want one copy of track 3 to show up on your mixer).

One situation you would use half-normaling jacks for is when you want to have two completely different EQ settings on your single vocal track during different parts of your song. It would be too tough and slow to change the EQ back and forth during the mix so you can have two separate channels with lead vocals, EQ them differently, and just mute the one not being used during different sections of the mixdown. This also allows you to have different effects on your instruments during different sections.

 

Denormaled

Denormaled jacks have no real tricks. They are designed to send input from the top and bottom back jacks directly to the front jacks. That is to say...the back top jack directly feeds the front top jack and vice versa with the bottom jacks. The top and bottom jacks do not connect at all internally. Period. Denormalled pairs are often used to give you a pair of patch points for, example, a signal processor such as a reverb unit that is not normally inline with your mixer aux jacks. Your reverb unit is simply plugged into the back of the patchbay to provide you with convenient patch-in points in the front. This way you can use short patch cords from these points to process a signal from another point in your patch bay.

 

Patchbay Models

Thankfully, there are many different models of patchbays to fit your needs and wallet. They range from having 32-48 jacks (16-24 jacks per row), and the ability to switch these connections between normaled, half-normaled, and denormaled varies on the brand of patchbay you buy. Some require soldering to set it up initially, while most come pre-soldered for you. Some bays come completely normaled or half-normaled without the option of changing any single connection. On many models, each pair of jacks (front and back) are connected to a removable PC card (circuitboard) which allows you to change the orientation of the jacks for different configurations. In this case, a single colored jack signifies the orientation of the PC card in its slot to make it normaled, half-normaled, or denormaled. This usually requires taking the bay out of your rack and unscrewing the metal cover to move the PC boards. Neutrik offers a 48 jack patchbay for about $100 that has a removable front panel so you can change the PC cards around without removing the patchbay from your rack. Pretty nice! Another company called Re'an makes a 44 point patchbay that also has a cable tester on it. Other companies include Carvin, AP, Fostex, DBX, Furman, Tascam and Switchcraft. Just make sure that you study their specs to make sure you're getting what you need. You may also need to buy multiple patchbays to give you all the patchpoints you need to hook up your gear.

Patchbay cables, which are usually about a foot in length, are also easy to buy, and are sold by companies such as Hosa, Re'an, and A.P. Audio. It is also probable that you can buy patchbay cables from most of the same makers of the patchbays themselves. Sometimes, the connections on the cables and jacks may get a little grimy from dust and dirt, and in these cases, I recommend that you insert the cables into the jacks several times to clear off the connections. This works well, and is a better and cheaper alternative to buying cleaning solvents.

One final note about patchbay models. Most of the bays I have described use balanced 1/4" jacks. You can also buy patchbays that instead use balanced TT jacks (tiny telephone), which are smaller and allow you to have many more patchpoints on each row. While most commercial studios use them for this reason, it may be expensive to buy the correct TT-to-1/4" cables to utilize this, so consider the additional cost for cabling before buying one of these patchbays.

Setting up your Patchbay

As I mentioned before, the way you set up your patchbay is determined by the complexity of your studio, the gear you have, and the frequency of patching you may need for each piece of equipment. Some gear may never need patching at all. In that case, simply connect it up permanently, avoiding the patchbay altogether. For example, one persons set-up might have a stereo recorder permanently connected to a pair of subgroup jacks on their mixer. You, on the other hand, might want to patch something between your stereo recorder and the mixer, and in this case, it would be easier to use the patchbay. Studying the way you work beforehand can make a big difference when the patchbay arrives, and you begin hooking it up! Now here is a little dose of reality. You may think that, for a hundred bucks, you can do all this stuff, and greatly ease your signal routing woes. Not exactly. In addition to buying a patchbay, you will need to also nearly double the number of cables you are now using, since every unit now has to go to and from the patchbay. That can be expensive! However, I personally feel that the added flexibility and convenience is well worth the price. Besides, it looks pretty cool when you show your studio off to friends!

As mentioned above, most patchbays have balanced jacks, and I have not seen one that is unbalanced. I suggest that you use balanced cables to connect your gear to the patchbay. (Don't let me confuse you though, because you can use unbalanced cables. I just recommend balance cables because of their inherent nature to reduce noise.)

I would start designing your setup by making a list of all your components, and figure out which ones you want to have attached to the patchbay. Make sure you have the correct number of cables to attach everything. Remember to plan out which jacks you want to have normaled, half-normaled, and denormaled. This will save you a lot of aggravation after you finish and figure out something is set up wrong. I would also figure out which component jacks should be next to each other in the patchbay itself, because some shorter cables cannot reach from one end of the bay to the other. For example, you could position your aux sends and returns relatively in the middle so it's within easy reach of all other points.

Ok, keeping in mind that all of these connections will be made on the back, one convenient scenario is to have all of the following run through your patchbay:

1) All the outputs (or direct outs) of your mixer on the top row with the inputs to the multitracks below it. Keep channel 1 of the mixer over track 1 of the multitrack, and so on. Make this a half-normaled connection so they are internaly connected. Again, it's pretty much standard to have outputs on the top and inputs on the bottom.

2) All of the individual track outputs of your multitrack over the inputs to the open input channels of your mixer. Again, keep track 1 of the multitrack over the first input you plan to use for mixdowns on your mixer, and so on. Again, a half-normaled connection.

3) The outputs of your aux masters over the inputs of signal processors that you want to have permanently connected at the bay. This should probably be a half-normaled patch so that if you ever want to send the signal from the aux master to another processor, you can patch into the top jack on front and deadpatch the bottom one. Then route the signal to your new processor.

4) The outputs of your signal processor (that we just talked about) over the inputs to the aux returns on your mixer. I would make this a normaled patch to leave it normally connected, but which would also break the internal connection from top and bottom in back if you plug another processor output into the bottom front jack.

5) Your mixer main outs over the two-track recorder inputs. Using a half-normaled jack allows you to make two copies of a mix by inserting cables into the top front jacks and running them to another recorder's inputs while still maintaining the internal connections to your normal recorder.

As for hooking up dynamic processors like compressors and EQ units using your insert jacks, you should use an insert cable (this is assuming that each of your mixer channels has an insert jack). This may get a little tricky so let me first explain insert cables. Insert cables are an unbalanced Y-type cable that has a single 1/4" TRS plug on one end (TRS standing for Tip, Ring, Sleeve), and then on the two arms you have separate 1/4" TS and RS connectors. On this cable, the single end is both a send and receive plug, where the tip is the send (output) and ring is the receive (input). On the Y side, the TS connector is now the output from the mixer and the RS connector is the input back to the mixer.

Now, you could buy insert cables for each one of your channels, plugging the TRS end into the unbalanced insert jack of the mixer, and the other two into the patchbay. In this case I would put the insert outputs (tip) on top of the insert inputs (ring). However, in order for this to work, the top jack must be normaled to the bottom one. This is because the full signal path on that channel is now diverted from the mixer into the insert cable, and must find it's way through the patchbay back to the mixer in order for the signal to get to tape. If nothing is patched into the front of those jacks on the patchbay, using a normaled patch will allow the signal to flow through unobstructed. Also, if there is a compressor hooked up to the front jacks, using a normaled jack won't allow any uncompressed copies of the signal to go directly to the bottom jack in back like a half-normaled jack would.

You can hook your compressor up to the patchbay using 1/4" TRS cables, one for each input and output for each channel of the compressor. Make this a denormaled connection since there is no signal going through the compressor when it's not used.

This is a good basic setup. If you have any other dynamic processors, signal processors, a sonic maximizer, or anything else, hook those up too if it meets your needs. Just remember that you don't need to put everything in there; only those units that you are used to patching differently, the way you normally work with them.

In my patchbay, I have the following plugged in: Aux sends/returns, all inputs/outputs of signal processors, the inputs/outputs of my DAT, cassette deck, and CD burner, mixer RCA inputs / outputs (for listening to, and for re cording to cassette tapes), a couple of sub-outputs from my mixer, and my microphone preamp. Sometime soon, I plan on following my own advice, running all my mixer inputs/outputs through my patchbay, as well as my 8 track inputs and outputs.

 

Conclusion

So as you can see, the possibilities and flexibility provided by a patchbay can be a real lifesaver when dealing with a lot of gear. For about $250, you could have a nice patchbay setup, and the ability to expand endlessly beyond that. There are literally hundreds of ways to setup your patchbay, and as your studio grows, you may have to redesign the configurations, but that is part of the fun of having a nice studio. Believe me...once you incorporate a patchbay into your setup, you won't want to work without it! Happy recording.

 

About Ken Lanyon (Slider)

© 2000, Ken Lanyon, All rights reserved.

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Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.”
Plato