If you are involved in recording music there will eventually come a time when you will need to buy an analogue audio patchbay. If you run a professional working studio you will already have patchbays to allow complete flexibility in routing signals, but even the project studio owner will need to re-route some of its signals on a regular basis.
This article gives practical advice on choosing and buying a patchbay. You may wish to read our article on interconnection and balanced/unbalanced signals first.
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The concept of an audio patchbay is easy to understand. Every piece of audio equipment, from synthesisers to mixing desks, interconnects via leads plugged into sockets which are usually located on their rear panels. If you need to change these connections you must remove and reconnect these leads.
So why is that a problem? ...
The solution is to run all the leads from your equipment to a centrally located series of sockets called a patchbay. Equipment can then easily be connected with short patch cords (or patch leads).
If you run a professional studio you will already have a comprehensive patchbay and know why. If you have a home studio and do not regularly change the routing of your equipment you may not need a patchbay for all your connections, but it is very likely that you will benefit from some of your equipment's connections being easily available.
A type B patchbay being wired up
Like many people who have moved from running a professional studio to having a project studio at home, I found that I no longer needed a comprehensive patchbay. But there are some connections that I regularly change, and having a patchbay allows me to do this without disrupting my creative processes. On my patchbay I have the following connections ...
Having these connections on a patchbay allows me to monitor the audio from my work computers (PC and laptop) and listen to my vinyl, and create and record different guitar tone combinations quickly. All my other equipment is connected directly and has never been changed.
As a general rule, you can route any signal through an audio patchbay except those which if accidentally patched to the wrong piece of equipment could damage it. Incidentally, you can buy other types of patchbay for MIDI, digital signals etc
|Line level - keyboards, synthesisers, samplers, drum machines, tape recorders, soundcard's, mixers, effects, dynamics, CD players, headphones etc.
Mic level - Microphones and pre-amps, guitars, bass and pre-amps, phono (record decks).
Digital signals - AES and SPDIF.
|Power amp outputs
Digital optical (obviously!)
MIDI Computer connections
Even if you only have unbalanced equipment you still need a balanced patchbay to make your studio future proof. This is because the time WILL come when you acquire a balanced piece of equipment.
Here is a quick recap on some balanced and unbalanced interconnection types ...
|Synthesiser / keyboard / rack||No||Yes|
|Guitar / bass||No||Yes|
|Outboard (effects, dynamics etc)||Yes||Yes|
|Computer audio interface||Yes||Yes|
Balanced/unbalanced connection theory is covered in Interconnection.
Normalizing is a wiring configuration whereby vertically adjacent sockets are permanently connected together even when no patch cord is plugged in. This allows you to have default connections which can be changed when required. When you insert a chord the connection is either broken or an additional feed of the signal is taken. Most patchbays allow you to normalise by either changing the alignment of each sockets PCB or performing a simple solder.
The theory of patchbay wiring and normalization is covered in this pdf article.
Patchbay's are categorized by the 3 different connector types they use.
These use the standard musical instrument (keyboards, guitars etc) and semi-pro recording equipment connector.
These connectors were used in the early days of telephone exchanges when connections were made manually by operators. They are very robust and hard wearing. The plug is physically similar to Type A but the tip is shaped differently and the metal is superior. You should never insert a Type A jack into a Type B socket.
Essentially a mini version of the Type B (GPO) jack. Developed by mixing desk manufacturers to allow a greater density of sockets in a given space.
|Balanced / unbalanced||Rear connections||Ease of wiring||Convenience||Cost||Reliability|
|Type A jacks||Balanced & unbalanced||Solder terminals or jack sockets||Simple||Good. Instruments can be connected directly to the front.||Low||Fair to poor. Cheap ones are a waste of money, the connections deteriorate soon.|
|Type B jacks||Balanced, but can carry unbalanced signals||Solder terminals or EDAC's||Simple||Good but front instrument connection requires Type A to B leads.||High||Excellent. Robust construction, brass contacts and large jack contact area.|
|Bantam||Balanced, but can carry unbalanced signals||Solder terminals||Tricky||Excellent and compact, but front instrument connection requires Type A to Bantam leads.||High||Good. Robust construction, brass contacts but small jack contact area.|
Close up of the rear terminals of a type B patchbay
If you are still unsure about what type of patchbay to buy, here are my recommendations ...
Patchbay type Buy a Type B GPO patchbay. They are incredibly strong and robust and will give you years of trouble free use.
Normalizing options You should ensure that whatever patchbay you choose, the full range of normalization options is possible.
Tie bar Ensure you get a tie bar to support your cables at the back.
From bitter experience I would suggest you avoid cheap type A patchbay's. They tend to be unreliable, become intermittent quickly and are NOT the cost effective solution they appear to be.
There are no absolute rights or wrongs but the following are a few sensible guidelines ...