There a very few hard and fast rules in the audio world, besides maybe "More CowBell" and never use channel one of the mixer in a rehearsal studio. Everyone has their go-to pieces of gear for a particular instrument and tricks for getting greatest snare drum sound you have ever heard, but as far as I can tell there are no rules what so ever as to how to arrange and wire-up a patchbay.
When I was planning the purchase of my Audient 8024HE console, one of the big questions was whether to get the optional attached patchbay or not. After talking with the guys at Audient and after trying the desk in a real world recording environment I decided to pony up the extra cash and opt for the patchbay section and I have to admit it is one of the best gear decisions I have ever made.
What Does A Patchbay Do?
At it's most basic, a patchbay brings the connections from the rear panel of your gear (be that outboard racks or your mixing console) onto a panel where using what we now call patch cables or cords we can link all our units together without the need to fumble around the back of the racks to connect the gear, keeping it all nice and tidy.
So why would we add more connections and solder joints when we can "hard patch" it all together? Well, it turns out that we like to use our gear in a number of different ways. One minute we could be tracking using a compressor as an insert on an input channel and in the next we could be using the same compressor on our master bus. Changing this configuration by messing around the back of our rack in at best a pain in the ^%$£! so we use a patch panel or patchbay, or old people like Mike call them jackfields, to make changing our routing nice and simple and nice and tidy.
Normalised & Half Normalised Patchbays
Normalised and half normalised are terms that you might hear when engineers get very geeky and talking about how they have configured their patchbays. Once again without diving in too deep, normalising and half normalising are techniques used to allow connections (or routing) to be made in your patchbay whilst there are no patch cables inserted. Meaning one configuration is set when there are no patch cables connected, which you can change when you start plugging cables in and so override the preset configuration. There is a lot more to it that that, but this is not a complete guide to configuring every brand and type of patchbay, this article is about how I have chosen to use the patchbays that are built into my Audient ASP8024 console and these are not configurable as either normalised or half normalised. So moving on...
The Rules I Have Employed
In talking to many of my friends and contacts in the industry I have gleamed some of the more commonly used conventions when it comes to arranging and setting up ones patchbay.
1. Sends on top, returns on the bottom.
There are three rows of user configurable patchbay on the 8024. One of the conventions is where ever possible the upper row is the send and the lower row is the return. So on a pair of rows, it's out on the top and in on the bottom row. This will make more sense when we look at the rear of the 8024 patchbay and you see how the connections are made.
2. Patch numbers, not gear names.
Thanks to my friend Steve Genewick for this one. Steve told me how at Capitol Studios in LA the patchbays (of which there are a great many) are not labelled with the name of the piece of gear but labelled with the patch line number. This is because the gear in the commercial studios can change so often they would be forever re-printing the patchbay labels to keep up with the changes in equipment. By using patch cable numbers they can just mark the gear with its input (I) and output (O) cables to keep track of where it appears on the patchbay. I have tried to employ this principle and you can see in the images below that my compressors are marked with their Input and Output patch number. If you have a fixed rig then you might prefer to do as Mike has done and label everything by equipment. It's your choice.
3. Keep records of your patchbay routing.
It's all very well having all your gear linked to your patchbay but if you have no idea where it is linked to then it's no use to man or beast. I have a very simple system where I note the colour of the tails of the cables linked to the back of the patchbay. I then note which patch numbers (in banks of 8) it is linked to and the gear it is linked to. I will at some point get around to making this a little more "formal" but for now I know what is linked to where and with what type of connection.
The Audient ASP8024HE Patchbay
The patchbay or patch panel that can be supplied with the Audient ASP8024HE console is, to say the least full featured. Each channel has 8 different input and output options allowing me to "tap" the signal path at every stage. Couple this will access to the tape I/O path, the monitoring, auxiliaries and external speaker I/O and you have the ability to route audio any way you should want to. The other bonus of the built-in patchbay is the 144 ways of user configurable patch.
This is presented on the rear the console as 18 x 25 pin D-Sub connectors. The top row of D-Subs are the Tape Returns from the DAW Interface. In my case, these are coming from 24 channels of my Antelope Orion32HD.
What Is Routed Where
By good fortune (luck) I had a number of D-Sub to Male XLR, D-Sub to Female XLR and D-Sub to Jack cables left over from an installation I did a number of years ago (and they say it does not pay to be a hoarder) so I have used these in my own set-up.
1-8 on the patchbay are my insert sends. These go to my pair of Warm WA-76 units, my UA 6176 (dynamics), my Warm EQP-WA EQ's and my pair of DBX 160A's. Below this 49-56 are the returns from these units. It does get quite cluttered but by keeping good records and removing any cables from the patch as my needs change I am able to keep it tidy and know where everthing is routed to.
The 8 Green and 8 Blue patch lines 97-112 are the 8 sets and returns to my Apollo 8P Thunderbolt interface. I have been routing this interface through the patchbay for very practical reasons. Those being that normally my main Pro Tools interface is my Antelope Orion32HD which has D-Subs on the back. The Apollo 8P only has 1/4 inch Jacks so as I already had the cables in place I used these and then had to route the green outs of the Apollo to the Tape In of the last 8 channels of the desk. The Blue inputs to the 8P come from the Multi-Track outs of in the top left of the patchbay.
Keeping It Flexible
Adding a patchbay to your studio is not going to make it look sexy and it's is not going to make you a better producer or engineer but what it will mean is that as and when you want to change the way you use any of your much-loved outboard gear you will not have to strap on a head torch and go diving around the back of your racks. I hope this has been helpful to you. If you do have any moments of patchbay genius or if you do find that there are some cast, or set in stone rules please do let me and the community know by adding these to the comments below. But do remember, if you buy a patchbay to also buy plenty of patch cables.