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
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,
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
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
|Fig. 1. Signal flow can be redirected within a patchbay.
We use the terms denormaled or open
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
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
warts, are kept at a distance.
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.
|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|
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
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.