If you take a cursory glance at an audio patchbay, you might feel instantly intimidated. It might even trigger trypophobia, or the fear of small holes closely clustered together. In reality, though, patchbays are quite simple and play a crucial role in maximizing creativity in the studio.
All things considered, patchbays improve your workflow and help you get the most out of your gear. Audio patchbays are essentially the modern version of what telephone operators used to connect you to your Uncle Bob or your Aunt Fannie. The numerous holes on patchbays are called “jacks,” and these jacks allow users to seamlessly connect audio devices together by routing gear from one to the next effortlessly. This is accomplished with patch cables, or in some cases, via “normals,” or software. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s the scoop on patchbays: what they are and why you need them.
Solving the Mystery: What the Heck Is a Patchbay?
A patchbay is a simple concept: instead of moving cables around in the back of your gear when you want to change a signal path, you can make these changes on the fly all from the comfort of your chair with a patchbay. Nearly everything within a recording studio is connected to the patchbay. Depending on how many connections you have, you might even have multiple patchbays.
Imagine for a second that you are in the studio, and you have a brilliant vocalist singing a tune, but you decide you might want to try a different preamp or maybe a different compressor after the preamp. If you don’t have a patchbay, such inspired ideas can often come to a screeching halt because nothing can kill the vibe in a recording session like the engineer crawling behind his or her desk for half an hour trying to move cables around. If you crawl over a thumbtack, it might make you want to quit producing music altogether!
But with a patchbay, such creative ideas are unbelievably quick to execute. Grab a patch cable, route the output of your microphone signal to the input of a different preamp and in 3 seconds, and you’re in business. You can literally connect any signal to any signal. You can try the compressor before the EQ or the EQ before the compressor. You can even “mult” signals to process signals in dual paths simultaneously. For example, while tracking a vocal, you might want an uncompressed version of the vocal with the preamp output feeding the input of your interface or converter, while simultaneously sending the same vocal to a compressor and then onto a different channel of the interface or converter. Like magic, you now have a recording of an uncompressed, dynamic vocal alongside something with a bit more weight and character after going through a compressor. Then, inside the DAW (digital audio workstation like Pro Tools, Logic, or Ableton), you can blend these two signals in a process that is known as “parallel processing.” This technique alone can make all the difference in the quality of a mix. And not only is it easy to do with a patchbay, but it also makes using your gear more fun. You get more mileage out of the same equipment because you can always try different things on the fly without any of the hassles of crawling behind your desk or racks.
We always like to say that “Workflow is king.” An optimized workflow along with a great song is far more important than having all the most expensive gear in the world. And if you are lucky enough to have a lot of wonderful gear, having a well-designed patchbay scheme is critical to realizing the potential of your setup. The goal of a great workflow and patchbay design is to allow the gear to fade into the background, so the focus can be put where it belongs—on the music! As one of our favorite clients Wayne likes to say, “It’s the noise, not the toys!”
How Patchbays Work: The Fundamentals of a Functional Layout
Standard patchbays are divided numerically into columns, each with a vertical pair of jacks. The most common patchbays have 96 points, or “jacks,” on them. The top set of jacks are for outputs, and the bottom set of jacks are for inputs. As mentioned above, these patch points are merely extensions of the outputs and inputs of your devices. The fundamental rule is that connections flow in a cascading fashion from top to bottom and left to right.
Workflows can be starkly different from studio to studio and engineer to engineer. Depending on what the objectives and skill sets are, two setups might have nearly identical gear but very different workflows. It’s critical to understand whether someone is mostly tracking or mostly mixing, or doing a lot of both. It’s equally as important to know what gear exists now and what gear might be planned for down the road. One of the easiest things to do when building up a recording setup is to “spend good money after bad,” because there wasn’t sufficient thought put into the sustainability of a growing setup. If your workflow needs to be thought through from the ground up every time you purchase a new piece of gear, good luck finishing that record you’ve been working on for 3 years already!
Using a patchbay, you can quickly experiment with a diverse palette of sounds based on your chosen signal path. Patchbays let users effortlessly change the order of equipment on the fly.
There’s no set “right” or “wrong” arrangement, but there are conventions that make for a sustainable design. Generally, patchbay designs follow logical signal paths such as mic sources that feed mic preamps, which then feed interfaces or converters. From there, the outputs of converters may feed a mixing console or a summing mixer or monitor controller. Finally, outboard gear tends to be organized in a fashion where the outputs are found right above the inputs so that those pieces of gear can be found easily to patch in and out of.
However, patchbays aren’t all about using patch cables. Most patchbays are actually capable of some internal routing based on settings that are configurable. These settings are called “normals.” Let’s take a closer look at the options that exist and the case uses of each.
The Traditional Mic Setup: Full-Normal Configuration
A full normal setting dictates that the top row of the patchbay (an extension of an output) automatically feeds the coinciding bottom row of the patchbay (an extension of an input). This means that if the output of a microphone source is in the top row in slot 1 and the input of a preamp is in the bottom row in slot 1, the microphone will be connected to the preamp input without any patch cable being required when a setting of full normal is set. The connection is simply routed through the patchbay internally just like if your microphone was connected directly to the preamp. You may be asking yourself, “So what? My mic is already connected to my preamp. Why do I need the patchbay in between?” It’s when you want to patch to a different preamp that’s not directly below the mic jack where the patchbay comes in handy. You can patch over to a different preamp in input 2 on the bottom row with a patch cable, and voila! Now you’re using a different preamp, and you never left your seat!
In summary, in the full-normal configuration, each output flows directly below to the corresponding input by default. That connection is only broken when a patch cable is inserted into the top jack (at which point you are choosing to take that signal to a different input).
The Split or Mult: Half-Normal Configuration
A half-normal connection is similar to a full-normal configuration in that they behave the same way when no patch cable is involved. However, unlike with a full-normal configuration, a half-normal configuration doesn’t break the top-to-bottom connection when you patch out of the output device in the top row. Remember the parallel compression idea mentioned earlier? This is accomplished with a half normal, whereby the same signal can feed the “normal” input in the row below while simultaneously being routed to a different input, so you can do two things with the same sound at once. Fun stuff! It’s important to note that it’s best to avoid splitting mic-level signals because they are not robust enough to split without compromising some sound quality. However, any signal that’s line-level can be split without any issues. You maintain the full volume and signal quality even when splitting the signal.
The Isolated: Non-Normal Configuration
Patch points are also changeable to a “non-normal” setting. In this specific mode, no direct signal flows from the top jack to the bottom jack by default. Instead, the top and bottom rows of the patchbay are unrelated or isolated from each other. Patch cables must be used for routing signals to and from these jacks because no signals normal to them by default. This configuration is most often used to organize the outputs and inputs of “outboard gear” like EQs and compressors that are used to process signals. As alluded to earlier, setting up patchbays this way can help make sure that as your setup grows or changes, you won’t have to redesign the whole layout.
Summary of Why You Need a Patchbay
First things first, once you learn the basics of audio patchbays: what they are and why you need them, you can easily integrate one into your studio setup. Second, you can cut your time tinkering with messy, tangled cables. You don’t have to crawl on the ground or behind your rack ever again. Third, you have the freedom to try any of your equipment anywhere in your signal path whether you are recording, mixing, or mastering.
Patchbays allow you to design your studio’s layout and workflow to complement your space, your gear, and your skillset. If you have more than a couple of pieces of gear, you owe it to yourself to integrate a patchbay. Once you do, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without one.
If you are ready to take the plunge and get into the world of patchbays, we have options for you. The most modern version of patchbays is actually controlled by software, so you don’t even use patch cables but instead drag and drop your signal flow with a mouse or with a touchscreen. At Pro Audio LA, we know patchbays inside and out, and as a custom manufacturer of cabling, we can both design the patchbay for you, as well as build all the cabling for you to connect between the patchbay and your gear. Browse through our current offerings of patchbays or purchase a consultation from us so we can work with you on creating a customized solution. We’re here to help you make better music, more easily, and allow you to have more fun doing it.