Icon Research APB1
MIDI Controlled Audio Patchbay
Whether you're running a commercial studio or a bedroom recording suite'. a programmable MIDI Patchbay could revolutionise your working methods. Nigel Lord is on the patch.
Audio patching is one of the most tedious yet important aspects of any hi-tech music system. Icon's APB1 brings MIDI and accessibility to patching.
ONE OF THE more rewarding aspects of the advance in MIDI technology over the last few years has been to give a creative edge to what would otherwise be quite mundane pieces of utility equipment. In many cases, this has elevated the gear to the status of something you actually want rather than something you simply need, and helped close the gap which has always existed between this and the synth/sampler/drum machine end of the market.
It has also, I'm pleased to say, eased the pressure on the weary techno-scribe struggling to maintain the interest of his audience... Were I, for example, to tell you that the APB1 was simply an 8-in/12-out 2U-high rackmount patchbay, I think I'd probably be lucky to hold your attention for anything more than the first couple of paragraphs. Mention the three all-important 5-pin DIN sockets on the rear panel, however, and not only do we have a much more desirable piece of equipment on our hands, but we are also given the opportunity of evaluating it as a creative tool rather than an unavoidable necessity of studio life.
So what is the argument for MIDIfying patchbays? Well, anyone who's had experience of the first couple of hours of an (expensive) studio session taken up with patching in the relevant gear to the desk will testify to the tedium of this particular aspect of the recording process. So there's an obvious market for the APB1 in this setting - especially given its impressive signal-to-noise ratio (+122dB) and excellent distortion and crosstalk spec (THD: 0.0005%, Crosstalk: -93dB). But how easy is it to justify this level of control over patching in the kind of setups common amongst MT readers?
This, of course, is where cost enters the equation, and I suppose I'd better say from the outset that the APB1 doesn't come cheap. In fact at £499 (for the unbalanced version), I suspect it approaches the sort of price many people would hope to get away with spending on a desk itself. But if you've ever sat down and considered the advantages of MIDI-controlled patching, you'll probably have realised that strategically placed, a unit like this could actually offer a limited form of automation over the mixing process - both for recording and live work. And despite the considerable advances made in this area over the past couple of years, this kind of technology still doesn't come cheap.
Another determining factor could well be the frequency with which you need to change the signal routing of your system. To a large extent, this will be tied in with the facilities offered by your mixer: a limited number of effects loops and insert points and so on, might well demand regular patch changes. And there can be no doubt as to the huge savings in time and effort involved with full electronic switching of signal lines. Reliability also has to be taken into account; an immense amount of time can be lost in the studio trying to trace bad connections and faulty leads associated with manual patching. And once again, where time is money, this has to be a consideration (as does the exorbitant price of good-quality plugs, sockets and cable these days).
For the musician working alone, we need also to consider the creative dividend of being able to instantly put ideas into practice. I don't know about you, but there's nothing quite like the thought of spending half an hour around the back of an effects rack re-routing signal leads to convince me that adding a panned delay effect to the synth line in verse two might not be just what the song needed after all...
Finally, there's MIDI. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interfa... Oh you knew that? Well, the APB1's got one, and the rear panel has In, Out and Thru sockets to prove it. OK?
So there, in a nutshell, you have the argument for automated patching - and the APB1. It is, of course, inconceivable in this day and age that control should be effected by any other means than MIDI, but interestingly, Icon Research have also included an RS232 serial port to allow direct control from a computer should this be required. (This is also used for syncing two or more patchbays together, printing patch information and for remote control of the unit).
Front panel layout comprises a simple yet rather striking arrangement of fourteen large black push buttons and the LCD. Though backlit and capable of squeezing an impressive amount of information into its 2 x 16-character display, this really is no competition for the full monitor display, as facilitated by the monitor connection on the rear panel - this has to be one of the APB's strongest points. It must be pointed out though, that only the patching process itself can be displayed on screen - all other functions must be carried out using the LCD. This isn't the disadvantage it may at first seem, however, as it means you can leave the overall patch setup displayed on the monitor for all to see (another particularly useful studio feature), whilst carrying on with any other editing or programming on the unit itself.
"In a live situation, the APB1 could prove immensely useful in re-configuring an instrument/effects unit system in ways most of us would never dream of attempting."
In addition to the trio of MIDI sockets, RS232 and monitor connection (capable of supporting most computer-style monitors with no additional software), the rear panel sports the necessary power connections and the jack field for all the audio connections. It's functional, if not an area of particular aesthetic importance.
As convenient as this is, however, I cannot imagine anyone shelling out five hundred sovs simply to watch connections being made on the LCD (or monitor) rather than by hand. Clearly, the APB1 has much more to offer.
THE MAIN PATCH connecting/disconnecting functions are carried out quite straightforwardly by selecting the desired input and output(s) from a numerical list you scroll through using the Up/Down buttons. If you find dealing with numerical titles somewhat less than edifying (patching Input 3 to Output 8, and so on), all Inputs and Outputs may be given names of up to 12 letters each and then entered into an alternative alphabetic list. This, unquestionably makes the patching process much simpler and more intuitive, and is particularly useful where other people are likely to be using the setup. (Ever tried to decipher someone else's scribblings with a chinagraph pencil on the front of a patchbay?)
After selecting the input and output(s) you require, the connection (or disconnection) is made using the appropriate button, and the current status is indicated by a symbol immediately after the output number. Closed and open arrows indicate (respectively) a connection or no connection, whilst a skull and crossbones alerts you to the fact that the output in question has already been connected to an input. A press on the Enter or Cancel buttons confirms or deletes the action and returns you to the Viewing Connections display on the LCD.
Once a complete patch has been established, it can be named and stored in the APB's non-volatile memory (along with a further 149 of its fellows), and instantly reinstated using the Recall button. It can also be replicated, if required, using the Copy button immediately above this, or modified further using the Edit button to its right. All connections may be muted apart from the one currently displayed in the LCD (or highlighted on the monitor) by pressing the self-latching Solo button (replete with status LED): to mute connections including the one currently displayed, the Clear button (again self-latching with its own status LED) is depressed.
As you might have gathered, the on/off action of this latter button means that the patch is not actually cleared at all, and a further press will recall it instantly. It does, however, serve a very useful secondary purpose as a 'panic' button which allows you to quickly switch out an entire patch should some erroneous connection be made which sets up a speaker-threatening feedback loop.
FUNCTIONS BEYOND THOSE connected with the setting up, editing and copying of patches and so on, come under the general title of "utilities", and, as such, are accessed by repeatedly pressing the button labelled... yes, you guessed it, Utilities. Included here are the APB1's fairly generous complement of MIDI functions which include the setting of receive and transmit channels (including receive "off"), the setting up of MIDI program change tables (for assigning program change numbers to each patch), and the enabling of a Transmit MIDI Patch Number function which automatically sends a program change number each time a patch is recalled. This isn't user-definable and corresponds strictly to the number of the patch (ie, patch number 17 transmits program number 17) - up to the MIDI data limit of 127. Beyond this (up to 150), no program numbers are transmitted.
"If you've ever considered the advantages of MIDI-controlled patching, you'll probably have realised that a unit like this actually offers a form of automated mixing."
A further utility accessed here is the sequence table which can store a series of patches in any order you wish, and step through them on receiving trigger signals from the front panel Enter key or note-on or program change messages via MIDI. I say sequence table, but there are actually 50 such tables available on the APB and each may be comprised of up to 50 patches.
Finally, we have the Print Patch utility, which, as its name suggests, allows you to execute screen dumps of patch setups via the RS232 port on the rear panel. I have to say I didn't get round to using this particular function during my time with the APB. but it's the sort of facility which again is likely to be put to good use in the studio where such information could be filed along track listings for future reference.
WHAT HAS TO be remembered about the APB is that the eight inputs may be connected to any or all of the 12 outputs, and this clearly makes it far more versatile than the kind of straightforward 16+16 patchbay most of us are familiar with. However, considering that you often see such units in banks of two, three and even four, you're forced to consider whether the APB's 8-in/12-out system is likely to fall short of most people's requirements.
The obvious solution, I suppose, would be to opt for a dual system incorporating both the APB and a manual patchbay (or two). In most setups there are a significant number of connections which, though you wouldn't want them hard wired, seldom need to be rerouted, and these could be fed to the manual patchbay in the normal way. I think I'd have to say I'd find this rather galling after parting with five hundred pounds for the APB1, but it would certainly be a viable and very flexible system.
For those who can afford to go all the way, two or more APB's can, as mentioned earlier, be synced together in a master/slave(s) configuration. However, as in all such cases, I cannot help but feel there would be an awful lot of hardware being duplicated unnecessarily. Surely, the obvious solution where the precise number of in/outs required by each user is likely to vary considerably would be to produce an expander for the APB which operated as a true slave unit?
Having said that, I could well imagine two APBs being used as a stereo pair, especially in a studio environment where the outlay could be more easily justified. I'm not, however, sure whether this would necessitate the use of a second monitor - the preliminary instructions which came with the unit seemed a little sketchy on this point - but I shall assume it wouldn't.
FOR THE MUSICIAN who simply wishes to bring one more facet of his or her setup under MIDI control, I see no problems at all. In a live situation, the APB1 could prove immensely useful in re-configuring a system in ways most of us would never dream of attempting. And in the studio too, it should certainly help maximise the potential of limited outboard gear. As alluded to at the beginning of this article, it wouldn't take long to devise ways of using the APB1 as an integral part of the mixdown process, and thereby automate a significant part of the operation. Running alongside one of the current generation of software sequencing packages, the creative potential of the APB1 is vast, and this has to be taken into consideration when considering its fairly hefty price tag. Indeed, beyond its inherently limited 8/12 format. I could offer no significant criticism of the APB1 whatsoever.
Price £499 including VAT
Review by Nigel Lord
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