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Setting up a Patchbay in your Home Studio

Increase your creative options with flexible signal paths

by Tweakheadz Lab


Your significant other barges in your studio and screams the usual blood curdling scream at that always annoying pitch.  There you lay on the floor, under the desk, and you aren't moving.  The SO probably thinks you electrocuted yourself again.  But you know you are alright, just trying to plug your new synth into inputs 7-8 of your audio interface.  "Don't scream so loud, I've almost got it more inch...c'mon baby get it in there...".  "What ARE you doing down there?"  "Now I'm fixing my dongle after it got pulled out!" <stony silence>  "That's it, I'm going to your mother-in-laws", pervert!


Oh there they go. <tsk.tsk.>.  There are a thousand reasons never to go behind your studio desk.  We know. You were just trying to connect equipment so you could record it. WRONG!  In the process of going back behind the desk, you stepped on a few cables and tripped over a power strip or two.  In short, you have now upset the studio's delicate wiring balance and it will now punish you for your clumsiness.  You should have been more careful.  Its dangerous back there.  You knocked out one of the thin little usb power supply cables and all your copy protection dongles lost power.  That meant a reboot.  More lost time. Then dongle reinitialization. Culminating in the dreaded trip to iLok, where you remember that you forgot your master password and username.  But it could have been worse. If you step on any cable at all it might stop working.  Or worst of all, once you sit down in the chair again you might realize a new untraceable 60HZ hum has been instantiated.  Now that might take all night to trace.  Thank goodness the S.O. left you alone to figure this out.    


LOL! OK, I promise there will be no more dongle jokes on the site. 

There are many reasons to get a patchbay and only a few why you should not.  First, lets start with a definition.



What is a Patchbay?


A patchbay is a hardware device that features ins and outs for analog audio gear. It allows you to easily patch the outputs of one piece to the inputs of another.  A patch cable is a short cable, usually 1.5 to 3 feet that is used on the front of a patchbay.  Usually the patchbay is in a rack mountable case.  The most common is the 48 point patchbay of TRS jacks, though other versions exist with RCA, XLR, TS and other kinds of connectors. 

While patchbays may seem like utilitarian pieces of gear as they produce no sound of their own, they actually allow the creation of unique signal paths that could not be done as easily without a patchbay.  By putting so many inputs and outputs in close range, it makes it easy to experiment and find novel audio effects without leaving one's chair in front of the console or computer monitor.


Why you should not get a patchbay


1. You are controlling cables by getting More cables.  More cables increases the odd of one going bad, ruining tracks, or just degrading the signal.

2. The shortest analog signal path is always the best (that is a rule) and by adding a patchbay and cables you are lengthening it.

 3. You already have more inputs and outputs than you need and access to them is easy.  Then forget it, you don't need a bay.


Why you should get a patchbay


1. You have more gear than you have inputs on your mixer or audio interface.  The fewer inputs you have, the more a bay becomes a blessing.  Lets say you have only a 2 input soundcard and you want to plug in your preamps when you record vocals and your synth when you want to record instruments. 

2. The back of your audio interface or soundcard is in a remote, inaccessible place

3. You have an analog mixer with inputs, busses, sends, returns and a lot of outboard gear, like effects units, compressors, pedals, samplers, synths and standalone audio recorders. You want total flexibility connecting them in a unique fashion for each project you do.

4. You need a way to split the audio signal to go to various processors. You use hardware samplers, vocoders, harmonizers and want to route the output of your sequencer to the input of these devices while not disturbing the original signal path. 

5. You have a modular multi track recorder with discrete channel ins and outs and want flexibility patching channels to your analog mixer. (This may require several bays).


Basic Patchbay RULES


Most basic bays have 24 ins and 24 outs on the front and back.  This is called a 48 point bay.  It has 96 jacks total.  With all these ins and outs things can get confusing, even for professionals.  Its important that you follow a few basic rules to keep things organized in your mind. 

Rule #1:  The top jacks are always for outputs.  That is you take the outputs of your audio interface and other gear and plug them into the top jacks on the back of the bay.

Rule #2 The bottom jacks always go to the inputs of your audio interface and to inputs of other outboard gear.

Rule #3 You never connect a front panel output (top) to another front panel output.  Likewise you never connect a front panel input (bottom row) to another front panel input. 


When you look at a patchbay from the front you should automatically think.  "The top jacks (the "a" jacks) are ALL outputs", The Bottom row jacks (the "b" jacks) are ALL inputs.


Let the Fun Begin


By following the 3 rules you should be able to connect different paths with confidence that nothing is going to blow up. You can then patch away.  When you are in the heat of creation, take a moment to pause and scan the front panel of the bay and think "Is there anything special I want to do here?" using your unique audio paths.  Patching in a new path takes about 3-4 seconds. What can you do?  Sure thing, slam the guitar track back through your amp and record with your mic; route the synth through another synth's filter; chain up and casacade your effects boxes in a huge effects loop; sample that vocal phrase straight off the audio track into your MPC and whack the crap out of it with your thumbs. We are talking hardware plugins here.  Heh, you never know what you've never heard till you bust out a bit and a patchbay is one great way to do that. 


Some Tips


Here is a tip before you set up your own bay and it defies common sense.  As long as you label things, and you must label things somewhere, don't get all hung up about the order of devices.  While you SHOULD connect the ins and outs of your audio interface (s) you don't have to always connect the in and out of everything.  Like on a synth, you only usually need the outs connected, unless it has a sampler or vocoder in it.  In a word, don't make your patchbay BORING with stuff you are unlikely to ever patch.  Plug in the stuff you know you want accessible, even if its a $30 crap distortion pedal with the bottom taped on, even if you have to leave out that $250 rack of preamps that you hate.

You set up the back of your patchbay to configure your studio's "default" signal paths, the way you want things wired most of the time.  When you want to change or patch in other gear outputs to inputs, you do it on the front of the bay.  You want to never have to go to the back of the bay, and only patch things into your recording paths with short patchbay cables or directly from gear you don't have plugged into the patchbay.


The 3 modes, NORMAL, HALF-NORMAL and THRU defined


To keep it simple we are going to talk about the bay set up in NORMAL mode for 1-12. 13-16 are in Half Normal Mode, 17-24 are in THRU mode. What do these things mean?  Deep breath now, here we go:

In Normal mode the output (top back) jack automatically flows to the input (bottom back)  UNLESS there is something plugged in the front "a" (top) jack.  As soon as the plug is inserted in  the top front jack, then the signal path is broken. 

In the HALF Normal Mode where the output signal to the inputs jacks is NOT broken when you insert a plug.  Basically, half normal mode splits the signal where you still have the original path and a new path.    

In THRU mode, the signal in the top back goes thru to the top front only.  It does not go to the lower back inputs.  In thru mode you must patch from the "a" output to a "b" input to have any audio connection at all.

Note: some bays may be different and may not have all the above modes


Ok, to help some of you new guys out I am going to set up a perfectly functional patchbay with common gear in the example below.  I'll give examples of all the modes and attempt to inspire with some patching ideas.



Tweak's Example Setup for a 48 point patchbay


Top Back-Outputs

Bottom Back Inputs

Top Front A Outputs

Bottom front B inputs

1. External Mic preamp Line out 1 (Normal Mode)

1. Audio Interface in 1

a1: If you want your preamp to go to somewhere other than  audio interface In 1 then plug in a patch to the destination, like b13, b 15, b17,

b1: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

2. External Mic preamp Line out 2  (Normal Mode)

2. Audio Interface in 2

a2: To sing through your synths analog filter patch a2 to b24, then take the output of the synth and plug into b2

b2: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

3. Multi effects box OUT L  (Normal Mode)

3. Audio Interface in 3

a3:You want to send the effects to your Motif input for sampling plug a3-4 to B13-14

b3: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

4. Multi effects box OUT R  (Normal Mode)

4. Audio Interface in 4

a4: take a4 to the distortion pedal at b22, then take the out of the pedal back to b4 for recording

b4: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

5. Yamaha Motif out L  (Normal Mode)

5. Audio Interface in 5

a5:You want to sample the Motif on your MPC plug a5-6 to b17-18

b5: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

6. Yamaha Motif out R  (Normal Mode)

6. Audio Interface in 6

a6: Plug nothing in a5-6 and the motif always goes to audio interface Input 5-6 where it can be monitored and recorded in your sequencer.

b6: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

7.  Compressor output Left  (Normal Mode)

7. Audio Interface in 7

a7:Becuase we are in Normal Mode inserting a plug in a7 breaks the connection to the audio interface and the compressed signal sourced at  b14-15 can be routed to another "b" pair of inputs.  

b7: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

8. Compressor Output Right  (Normal Mode)

8. Audio Interface in 8

a8: as above

b8: Any top row jack can be plugged in for recording

9. Audio Interface Out 1  (Normal Mode)

9. To Monitor switcher L IN

a9: You could patch to b19 to record to the 2 track

b9: patch from a19 to monitor the 2 track

10. Audio Interface Out 2  (Normal Mode)

10. To Monitor switcher R IN

a10: You could patch to b20 to record to the 2 track

b10: patch from a20 to monitor the 2 track

11.  Audio Interface Out 3  (Normal Mode)

11. To Multi effects box IN L

a11: To bypass the Multi effects box plug a11 to any other B destination, for example to the sampler at b17

b11:Patch in b11-12 whenever you want the multi effects box in the chain

12.  Audio Interface Out 4  (Normal Mode)

12. To Multi effects box IN R

a12: To bypass the Multi effects box plug a12 to any other B destination, for example to the vocoder at b21

b12: as above

13. Audio Interface Out 5 (Half Normal Mode)

13. Motif input Left

a13:With NO plugs in a13-14 AI Out 5-6 will automatically go to the Motifs sampler inputs and they are always ready to sample, just as in normal mode

b13: To sample or use the FX processor on your Motif plug in your "a" level source here

14 Audio Interface Out 6 (Half Normal Mode)

14. Motif Input Right

a14: In Half Normal Mode: AI out6 still goes to the motif but also can be connected to another destination by plugging a14 to a b jack.

b14: To sample or use the FX processor on your Motif plug in your "a" level source here

15. Audio Interface Out 7 (Half Normal Mode)

15. Outboard Compressor Input L

a15: In half Normal Mode you will automatically route AI Out 7-8 to the compressor but can still route the pre-compressed signal somewhere else

b15: You want a Mic preamp to go through the compressor before they are recorded plug a1 or 2 to B15 or 16

16. Audio Interface Out 8 (Half Normal Mode)

16. Outboard Compressor Input R

a16: Send a patch to your guitar amp line in at b23


17. Akai MPC Output L (In THRU mode so the sampler output does NOT go to the sampler input --which would be crazy)

17. Akai MPC input L

a17: Connect to b1-9 when ready to record

b17: plug in any "a" level source to sample to the MPC

18. Akai MPC output R (In Thru Mode)

18. Akai MPC input R

a18: Connect to b1-9 when ready to record

b18: plug in any "a" level source to sample to the MPC

19.  2 track recorder Out L (Use Thru Mode)

19. 2 track recorder In L

a19: patch to B9 to monitor the deck

b19: Record any top output by plugging into b19

20. 2 track recorder Out R (Use Thru Mode)

20. 2 track recorder In R

a20: patch to b10 to monitor the deck

b20: Record any top output by plugging into b20

21 Vocoder Line Out (Use Thru Mode)

21. Vocoder line input

a21:  You would patch this vocoder output to b1-8 when you were ready to record it

b21: Any line source you want vocoded gets plugged in here, such as from a1,a2, a5, a6, a11-16

22. CD Turntable Out L/R (Use Thru Mode)

22. Distortion FX pedal input

a22: patch a22 TRS to b17-18 with a TRS to dual TS adapter to get some chop n screw samples to the sampler

b22: Try routing a vocal through an old guitar distortion pedal.  Then take the output of the pedal to B1-9

23. Stereo Synth Module Out L/R (unbal)

(Use Thru Mode)

23. Amp Line input

a23: To record your module as audio connect a TRS to dual TS cable and plug into b1-2, b3-4, b5-6 or b7-8

b23: Send any output you want to you amp, then re-record it with your Mic  and preamp for that "cab" sound.

24. Amp Line out

(Use Thru Mode)

24. Analog Synth filter input

a24: When you want to record the signal from your amp, plug to b1-9

b24: plug in any "a" level source to route to the filter



After looking through the above chart you should be getting a sense of all the different creative options that open up just by being able to easily connect one piece of gear to another. 


Some Final Connections:


1. Note you can plug in TRS stereo jacks into a single jack if the gear is unbalanced.  You might adapt your RCA jacks on DJ gear line level gear with an RCA to TRS adapter.  Then patch with a TRS to dual mono TS to adapt to gear with 2 outputs.  Doing this has no penalty and allows you to connect more gear to the bay

2. Oh yeah, make sure you write down what is plugged into the back of your patchbay.  You will refer to it often.  You certainly do not want to go back there to see what you plugged in.  After all, we never want to get the significant one more upset than they need to be. 



Leave feedback on this article at Studio-central

Guide Article- How to set up a Patchbay



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Tweak's Articles on Essential Studio Concepts

Hooking Up Audio
MIDI Basics
The Many Functions of MIDI Data
The Audio Interface
Signal Flow Computer-based Studio
Signal Flow of an MPC Hip Hop Studio
Signal Flow of a MultiTrack Studio
Assembling Your Studio Rig
Studio setup in a Nutshell
5 Hot Tips
Building a Quiet Room
Understanding MIDI Interfaces
The War on Hum
Multiple Video Displays
Latency and how to Deal
Word Clock
Everything About Cables
Digital Audio Converters
Bit Depth and Sample Rate
Studio Monitors
Impedance for Musicicans
How to setup a Patchbay
Room Acoustics Basics
Studio Monitors Price List
Acoustic Products
Catalog of MIDI Interfaces



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