Patchbays are often the source of some confusion for the up and coming sound engineer. Some even wonder what the patchbay does in a studio. The different types of patchbays available (analog or digital, ordinary ¼ inch, longframe ¼ inch, bantam 3/8 inch…) and their configuration (normalized, semi normalized or not normalized) adds to the confusion. This is somewhat ironic considering patchbays are really there to facilitate the engineers’ work by allowing the audio connections from all the gear in the studio to be conveniently located in one place and easily accessible to the engineer. In addition all connections are done with the same type of connector so reducing the need for adapters and, because the connections are all centralized at the patchbay, cable length is no longer an issue when connecting equipment that is physically distant one from the other. Today I can help you figure out if you need a patchbay and look at the costs and some of the advantages and disadvantages of setting up a professional or semi-professional patchbay. Next time I’ll go through some tips and advice you might need if you are planning on adding a patchbay to your setup.
A 3/8 inch bantam patchbay offers more patch points than a ¼ inch patchbay
When do you need one?
The patchbay is there to facilitate your work, by increasing your workflow, encouraging you to use the gear you have already invested money in. In a home studio (a small mixer, one or two effects units or compressors, one or two synths, a sound card and loudspeakers) most devices are ‘hardwired’ together and that is fine to start. So when do you need a patchbay?
- when the number of outboard units (compressors, effects racks, pre amps… ) and sound sources (synths, microphones, recorders…) increases,
- when you are using many (say eight) of the outputs of your mixer,
- when it becomes awkward to repatch equipment for different projects,
- when it becomes difficult to accommodate a new device (synth, compressor, reverb unit etc) a client brings in,
- when your gear is sophisticated your setup has to be flexible too. For example you need to have easy acces to the side-chain input of a compressor or the “omni outs” of a digital mixer.
- when too often you find yourself slipping behind your racks of gear trying to connect a cable that is too short,
- when you find yourself connecting different cables together in order to have the right connector or right cable length needed to plug into your gear (for example an RCA out to a XLR in!),
Once the patchbay is setup, you can spend more time doing what you really enjoy doing, whether it be recording, composing, mixing or designing sounds. You can use the creative (right) side of your brain and let the inspiration flow more easily if you minimize (or eliminate) the technical tasks that use the left side of the brain. Those technical tasks (like running behind a mixer to plug in a keyboard with a cable that is too short) interrupt the creative process and kill the inspiration not to mention that they don’t impress your clients. Another great thing about patchbays is they can grow with your needs. This means you can start small with one patchbay and expand as your needs change.
Prices and hidden costs
Here is a break down of the costs of buying a 2 x 24 semi-professional A-gauge patchbay. It is also possible to make your own cables and save some money: if you buy cable and connectors in bulk and solder your own cables.
2 x 24 patchbay (75$US to 120$US)
1 snake with 24 ¼ inch to ¼ inch connectors, 20 feet long (240$US to 420$US)
1 snake 16 XLR to ¼ inch, 10 feet long (115$US to 240$US)
1 snake 8 ¼ inch to ¼ inch (45$US to 120$US)
16 1,5 foot patchcords (50$)
Total: between 525$US and 950$US
The patchbay itself is not the most expensive item. The hidden cost of a consumer A-gauge patchbay is the cables! Not the patchcords used on the front of the bay (see my price estimates) but the snakes (a total of 48 lines) used to connect the gear to the back of the bay. This brings us to one of the disadvantages of a semi-professional A-gauge patchbay: as the number of connectors in a signal path increase, the reliability of the connections decreases. There are twice as many connectors in a A-gauge setup than in a soldered B-gauge setup so the chances of a loose connection increases. However, if you do not move your patchbay around or if you don’t repatch much in the back, bad connetions should not cause too much trouble.
The hidden cost of a professional B-gauge patchbay is the installation. The patchbay costs more upfront than an A-gauge patchbay but the biggest cost when using a B-gauge patchbay is the installation that follows: either you pay someone to solder the connections from your gear to the rear of the bay or you do the soldering yourself and that takes knowledge, preparation, a soldering iron and mostly time. Don’t forget, if you are using a professional patchbay (as opposed to a consumer one), it is probably because you want quality and reliability. Your soldering skills had better be up to par.
Advantage and disadvantage
The major disadvantage of A-gauge patchbays is that they don’t last. Being built on more or less cheap circuit cards, soldering points on the cards or the cards themselves can become loose. You should not be surprised if, because of the wear, some patchpoints become noisy or intermittent.
There is an advantage with A-gauge patchbays: you can easily replace your patchbay if it becomes too faulty because you simply need to unplug the connectors in the back. Also, being so affordable, a brand new A-gauge patchbay probably will not bust your budget.
If you are considering adding a patchbay, check out my next article for some tips and advice on organizing your patchbay.
Questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org