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Getting Reconnected

December 6, 2012

THERE COMES a time in every personal studio where more effort is spent connecting gear than using it. That’s when a patchbay can save the day. This simple organizational tool lets you interconnect numerous hardware devices from one convenient location.

A patchbay has two rows of jacks aligned horizontally on the front and back of a rackmountable frame. Each front-panel jack connects to the rear-panel socket behind it, allowing signals routed into the back to be easily rerouted from the front using short patch cables.

Top to Bottom Patchbays are traditionally set up using the waterfall principle, where audio outputs are available from the top row, and the corresponding inputs are below. That way, signal flow is always clear.

Connections can also be made within the patchbay itself, allowing you to send audio signals from output to input without using patch cables. This internal connection is referred to as a normal (see Figure 1a). Studios typically use normaled connections for channel inserts, tape returns, or routing synths directly to channel inputs.

You can also use a normaled connection to patch your mixer’s aux send to your favorite effects processor. If you want to break the normaled connection and route another device into the effects unit, simply plug the new device into the input on the bottom row (see Figure 1b).

A half-normaled connection allows you to split the output signal by inserting a patch cable into the top row. The normaled path remains connected while the signal is simultaneously routed to the other device (see Figure 1c).

Fig. 1. Signal flow can be redirected within a patchbay.

We use the terms denormaled or open when no internal connections are made within the patchbay. This is used when you don’t need a device to be permanently patched to a destination (see Figure 1d).

A patchbay can also be used as a multiple or mult. This passive configuration connects several jacks together so that one input can be split in order to feed multiple outputs, similar to the way a Y-cable works.

If you need a combination of these features, check to see if you can change the normaling on the patchbay that you intend to purchase. Inexpensive models may require you to open up the device and switch jumpers or modify contacts on the circuit board for the patch points you want changed. A more convenient option from some manufacturers lets you change the normaling by reversing the circuit board, often without having to disassemble the patchbay to do so (see Figure 2).

Configuration Considerations Patchbays are available in a number of configurations and price points. Many are easy to setup, requiring you to merely plug your studio gear into the back panel using standard connectors. On the other hand, professional-grade patchbays typically require you to solder the rear-panel connections.

The least-expensive models use prosumer, unbalanced connections—RCA or 1/4" TS plugs, or a combination of both. These work well for project studios and other informal situations if the cable runs are short and your EMI-producing power supplies and wall warts, are kept at a distance.

Fig. 2. Normaled and half-normaled patching works inside the unit. The circuit boards are easy to remove and reverse. The diagram on top of this patchbay shows how
Balanced lines, however, provide common- mode rejection, so that unwanted noise gets significantly reduced. Balanced patchbays are available with 1/4" TRS, XLR, or tiny telephone (referred to as TT or Bantam) jacks. TRS patchbays are popular in personal studios in part because the patch cables are ubiquitous and the jacks are smaller than XLR jacks.

TT patchbays are used primarily in pro studios and utilize the smallest of the balanced connector types, therefore yielding the greatest density of patch points: 96 TT points per rack unit compared to 48 TRS patch points or 16 XLR patch points in the same amount of space. TT patchbays are usually wired using solder lugs or terminal blocks, which is time consuming to install and a more permanent solution than the plug-and-play designs.

When it comes to choosing the type of patchbay you want, consider the price of the cables as well. TT cables, for example, are the most expensive, while RCA and 1/4" TS are the cheapest. If you have soldering chops, making your own cables is a cost-effective way to go.

Plan Ahead Before buying a patchbay, determine the connections you need and how you want them normaled. Begin by creating a chart of all the inputs and outputs you’ll connect, including your mixer, interface, processors, and instruments. An extensive setup may require more than one patchbay. By planning the connectivity in advance, you’ll create a setup that is convenient to use and that will enhance your music making experience.

Gino Robair is the former editor of Electronic Musician.

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