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Flock Audio Patch

Software-controlled Analogue Patchbay By Matt Houghton
Published April 2021

Flock Audio Patch

Never has working with a hybrid analogue/in‑the‑box setup been so easy.

Canadian company Flock Audio grabbed my attention when they announced their digitally controlled patchbay back in 2017. Named simply Patch, the system has matured a little since then and Flock have added the Patch LT and Patch XT to their range — less and more expensive versions, respectively, which cater for different channel counts. The XT also adds an Ethernet control option, allowing it to be placed further from your computer than the other two, but in other respects they’re the largely the same product. Having recently gone through the, how shall I put this — trauma? — of planning and installing a traditional bantam patchbay recently, I was keen to see if the Patch offered a better way, and Flock kindly loaned me one of their standard 1U 32x32 models for review.

Hardware

Essentially, Patch is a digitally controlled analogue routing matrix (there’s no A‑D/D‑A conversion involved) that can be used to ‘patch’ an analogue audio signal from any one of its 32 inputs to one or more of its 32 outputs. It can handle instrument, line and mic‑level signals and can even supply phantom power. The routing and control side of things is managed using a Mac/Windows app, which leaves the front panel mercifully uncluttered. In fact, there are no physical user controls to concern yourself with other than the on/off rocker switch, which has a blue status LED. There are, though, three more LEDs, labelled Host Signal, 48V Phantom Power, and External 48V Warning. The first lights blue to indicate a good connection with the control software. The second lights blue when Patch inputs are supplied 48V phantom power (there are plenty of safeguards), and the third lights red to alert if you’ve inadvertently engaged phantom power on a preamp that’s connected to the Patch.

The only other features of note on the front are one pair of XLR outputs and one of Combo (TRS jack/XLR) inputs. These allow you to hook up mics, instruments or processors quickly, without having to get around the back of your rack. Those front‑panel I/O are always assigned to channels 31 and 32, which are also accessible using the rear‑panel connectors; you choose which are active using the app. On the rear, all 32 analogue I/O are on four pairs of AES59 (Tascam‑format) DB25 connectors. There’s also an inlet for the external switch mode PSU’s connector (with locking sleeve), and a USB‑B socket for USB 2.0 communication with the app. With the right cables, then, connecting your hardware to the Patch a simple matter of hooking up eight multicore cables. Install the app, connect the Patch to your computer using the USB cable and you can get started.

On the rear, all the gear connects via AES59 DB25 connectors.On the rear, all the gear connects via AES59 DB25 connectors.

The beauty of this system is that you don’t have to be so careful with the planning of your patchbay as usual: you can reconfigure your routing using the app at any time, and that makes the whole concept of ‘normalling’ almost redundant. That said, you can, of course, specify a default routing on startup!

Soft Centre

The Patch app automatically recognises which model of Patch you have connected, and if there’s more than one it offers facilities for configuring and colour coding them. At the time of writing, the Patch app was a standalone application only, and I almost immediately found myself wishing for a plug‑in version, so that the settings could be stored and recalled automatically with each DAW session. Happily, when I enquired about that, Flock’s CEO and founder Darren Nakonechny confirmed that they plan to release just such a thing very soon.

The setup screen of the Patch app, where you can specify the gear you’ve connected and configure stereo pairs, link inputs and outputs, and enable the phantom power feature.The setup screen of the Patch app, where you can specify the gear you’ve connected and configure stereo pairs, link inputs and outputs, and enable the phantom power feature.Setting things up in the app is all very intuitive and unless you’re trying to do something ambitious you’ll barely need to refer to what is a clear and detailed manual. You first specify which gear you’ve connected to which physical I/O by typing the name of the hardware (or an abbreviation) into a text box for each input. You can choose with a click of the padlock icon whether the corresponding output should automatically be labelled the same. That’s a helpful time‑saving touch and ensures consistency, though note that if you click the lock for an already differently configured pair it will overwrite the output label. And you can also choose whether to have the channel numbers displayed, or only the gear names. Finally, a single click is also enough to pair adjacent input/output boxes for any stereo equipment.

One of the most interesting things about the Patch is that it caters not only for your outboard effects and processors, but also mic preamps and devices such as mics and DI boxes which require 48V phantom power (Flock recommend using an inline booster preamp for mics, since the Patch is designed to operate at +4dBu line level, though in practice it wasn’t always essential). The Patch supplies the phantom power, and routes the mic/DI signal to a connected mic preamp, so you’d have the preamp’s own phantom power switched off. Some people are a little nervous about letting ‘spook juice’ flow through a patchbay, but the risk is largely down to the use of TRS plugs/sockets; as you insert a jack, the wrong parts of the plug and socket temporarily make contact. Here, there are no such connections to cause problems. Still, some gear and vintage ribbon mics won’t enjoy having 48V put across their outputs, and the Patch system has a couple of safety features to prevent that happening by mistake.

First, phantom power is switched off for all I/O by default. To switch it on, you must first flip a global 48V Master safety toggle at the bottom of the setup screen. With this set to On, you can toggle each individual channel’s 48V Safeguard control. Any gear for which you’ve activated phantom power remains clearly labelled in all views and when you first fire up the app it will also warn you if phantom is engaged. Drag the gear in that slot elsewhere and the 48V is turned off automatically. There’s also that warning light on the front panel. So the risk of sending phantom power where it’s not wanted is about as low as possible.

Really helpful is that you can import and export different lists of hardware. Not only does that make it easy to reconfigure signal paths for, say, recording and mixing sessions but, since you don’t have to have the Patch connected for the app to work, you can do all your housekeeping and session prep from another computer, without tying up the unit/computer in the studio.

You can easily drag and drop to audition different mic and preamp combinations.

Drag Race

Once you’ve labelled the gear, everything is single‑click, drag‑and‑drop simple. Your gear is listed on the left (helpfully, particularly for XT users, it’s searchable) and to the right is a horizontally scrollable grid with 32 vertical signal Paths. Grab your gear and drag it into one of the 10 cells of each Path (you can add more) to create a basic signal chain: drag one item into the first cell and another into the second, and the outputs of the first are automatically routed to the inputs of the second. Any devices that you’ve designated as stereo will occupy cells on the same row of two adjacent paths. And dragging on to a populated cell instantly substitutes the gear that’s there. Clicking on the gear in a cell toggles the bypass for that input/output between on and off, with bypass being indicated by the cell turning darker blue. This allows the signal to flow direct to the next device in the chain.

The app’s main GUI, where you drag and drop gear to establish different signal paths. The green P logs denote the main signal path, while the yellow M indicates a mult to the next Path.The app’s main GUI, where you drag and drop gear to establish different signal paths. The green P logs denote the main signal path, while the yellow M indicates a mult to the next Path.

A neon‑like green P icon confirms that the signal is flowing along the vertical Path but that’s not the only possible routing. An M icon mults (duplicates) the device cell’s output signal to the input of the device in the adjacent path (the cell to the right), lighting bright yellow when engaged. That’s a more powerful tool than it sounds, enabling you to create and easily keep track of some pretty complex parallel processing chains, or to capture alternative processing paths after a single mic and preamp.

Also worth noting is that you can leave gaps between gear cells; the signal will still flow to the next unit. This is helpful in a couple of ways. First, it allows you to keep your interface tidy when working with Paths of different lengths. For example, in a mixing setup you might have all your interface outputs in the top row and all its inputs in the bottom row, and analogue signal chains of different lengths set up in between. It also means that you can make better use of the Mult facility, as you can tap the signal from any point in a Path and insert it at any point in the adjacent one.

The presence of phantom power is indicated in the main GUI screen by a ‘blue‑neon’ 48V label beneath the cell; it’s greyed out when not enabled, and if you click on it when in that condition you’re warned that you’re about to engage phantom power. One benefit of the phantom being supplied by the Patch is that you can easily drag and drop to audition different mic and preamp combinations; I had fun comparing different mics I’d set up on a guitar cab, for example.

Easy Does It?

The demo review system, with the 1U hardware mounted in a rack case, and the pop‑up hardware setup screen displayed over the main GUI.The demo review system, with the 1U hardware mounted in a rack case, and the pop‑up hardware setup screen displayed over the main GUI.I could probably go on for quite a while, enthusiastically describing the different routing possibilities I explored using the Patch, but it wouldn’t be very relevant. Really, the point is that you can route any analogue source to any analogue destination at any time, and save and recall signal chains and whole patchbay setups pretty much instantly. It’s perfect for switching between regularly used recording and mixing configurations, for example (though obviously you have to recall your gear settings separately). It’s also perhaps worth pointing out that you can do all of this in the same place you do everything else now — at your computer, sitting in the listening sweet spot — and it all sounds clean and quiet. In short, I found that it saved me way more time and created way more ‘thinking space’ than I’d imagined a patchbay could.

Obviously, it can’t do everything. For instance, there’s no option for routing digital audio signals or MIDI, which might make integration of some devices easier. I’m sure people could suggest ways to build on the concept further too, and Flock have a Feature Request form on their site. But as a direct replacement for patchbays that handle mic, line and instrument sources, the Patch already excels and my only real misgiving would be the channel count: I shudder to think how much it would cost to build a Patch system to replace my full bantam patchbay setup! That said, if you have the money, you can build it, and if not then the Patch could still find a home alongside existing bays.

Importantly, neither the app nor the hardware crashed or glitched once during the lengthy test period, and the whole system always seemed rock‑solid, reliable and intuitive. It’s a great concept, executed beautifully.

Alternatives

There aren’t many similar analogue audio routers on the market. The obvious competitor is UK‑based CB Electronics, whose X‑Patch range is capable of much the same thing and has some other features the Patch doesn’t, but it lacks the mic and phantom power support. SSL also had an X‑patch with fewer channels, but that is now discontinued. And if your channel‑count needs are more modest, Tegeler Audio’s Konnektor is worth a look.

Pros

  • Elegant, hassle‑free analogue routing system.
  • Signal paths and patchbay setups can be saved/recalled.
  • Supports mics and phantom power.
  • Three options to meet different user needs.

Cons

  • None.

Summary

An elegant and effective digitally controlled patchbay system that could oil the wheels of any studio using analogue outboard gear alongside a DAW.

Information

Patch £2599. Patch LT £1699. Prices include VAT. Patch XT expected to be circa $9,999 excluding VAT.

SX Pro +44 (0)1462 414 196

sxpro.co.uk

www.flockaudio.com/patch

Patch $2599. Flock LT $1650. Flock XT $9,999.

www.flockaudio.com/patch

Test Spec

  • MacBook Pro Retina 2018.
  • Mac OS Mojave (10.14.1).
Published April 2021