Even in today’s computer‑based studios, a patchbay can change your life. We help you choose the right one.
With so much of what we do today carried out ‘in the box’, the humble patchbay is growing rarer outside of professional studios. It’s understandable: many of us now don’t use mixing desks, we use a fraction of the outboard gear we once did, and audio interfaces can now offer enough connectivity that dedicating inputs and outputs to different hardware devices — so they can be accessed directly from your DAW — is possible for all of us.
But patchbays remain very useful. They come into their own whenever there’s a disparity between the numbers of sources and destinations, and they’re also helpful when you want to establish a default signal path that you’ll only need to change from time to time. And they save you having to scrabble around in the dark, under a desk or at the back of a rack! In this article, I’ll take you through the essentials of planning and setting up a patchbay. I’ll also consider some of the possibilities and benefits of using them in a modern project studio.
Choosing and configuring a patchbay might seem daunting to anyone who’s not done it before, given the various physical formats and the notion that ‘normalling’ might be complicated. But a patchbay is actually really simple: it’s nothing more than a manual routing matrix. You insert patch cables in sockets on the front, to route signals between the different devices you’ve connected at the rear. A complete studio installation might involve several separate patchbays, but each unit typically comprises two rows of sockets. Usually, sources (equipment outputs) are presented along the top row, and destinations (equipment inputs) are on the bottom row. But this is not an absolute rule: if a situation requires a different arrangement just make sure it’s clearly identified so that everyone can see what’s going on.
For patching balanced analogue audio, professional studios have traditionally employed B‑gauge or ‘longframe’ patchbays. This extremely robust design was developed for manual telephone exchanges, and uses a distinctive ‘PO316’ quarter‑inch (6.35mm) brass plug with three contacts (tip, ring and sleeve). It’s easily distinguishable from the more common but less robust A‑gauge TRS jack (ie. headphone jack) by its small‑diameter rounded tip. Professional‑quality longframe patchbays are expensive, though, and usually have to be professionally hand‑wired into the studio installation.
Where space is at a premium, notably when the setup involves a large‑format console and lots of analogue hardware, a reduced‑scale alternative is often employed: the TT (Tiny Telephone) or Bantam format. The TT/Bantam plugs share the PO316 design but are smaller in diameter (4.4mm). TT patchbays aren’t quite as robust as B‑gauge types but still more so than A‑gauge jacks, and double the number of sockets can be squeezed into a given rack space. Some TT/Bantam patchbays require professional wiring, but others are available pre‑wired with multi‑pin connectors at the rear (such as AES59 D‑subs) to make installation neater and more practical. Again, they can be expensive.
Most amateur or semi‑pro project studios, therefore, tend to use A‑gauge patchbays, which employ the domestic quarter‑inch ‘headphone’ TRS plugs. Given the typically much lighter use in a semi‑pro context this less robust format isn’t usually problematic, and it’s often more convenient, too, as most A‑gauge patchbays also have A‑gauge sockets at the rear, for simple plug‑and‑play installation/reconfiguration. There are also variants with D‑subs or solder pads for hand‑wiring of the rear connections. Some A‑gauge models also include a solder‑free means of reconfiguring the input/output pairs... and that brings me neatly on to that mysterious word, ‘normalling’.
Obviously, the point of a patchbay is that any source can be routed to any destination using a patch cord (sometimes...