MIDI PATCHBAYS ARE a comparatively new idea although the reasoning behind them is old indeed. In recording studios old and new the principle of flexibility - the ability to connect almost anything to anything else - is as basic as it is essential. The trouble is (and always was) that the connections for a room full of gear are spread all over the room. Not only that, but many of them are tucked away on the back of equipment stacked up against the walls. Such a simple idea, then, to bring all these inaccessible sockets out to one centralised point of interconnection: a patchbay.
A decade ago we'd have been talking almost exclusively about audio patching. Now, with MIDI pervading almost every area of making music, we're faced with having to patch MIDI too. So now you need two patchbays. Or do you?
Leaving that question for a moment, let me introduce you to P&R Audio's PB40M. The PB40M is a 1U-high, 40-way (20-position) patchbay, using standard quarter-inch jacks (as opposed to smaller Bantam jacks) on front and rear. Nothing too remarkable there. A closer inspection of the unit provides the first clue to the considerable attention that's been paid to its design and construction. The top of the bay is covered to keep dust (and any other foreign matter such as wire and solder) out of the jacks. Ingeniously, the upper cover is the same piece of metal that not only forms the front panel but also provides the mounting for the circuit boards at the back. For the uninitiated, the circuit boards that carry the audio signal (one per patch position) are usually mounted via the front panel jacks. Doing it the P&R way, cards can be removed by loosening just one jack at the back instead of two at the front. And why might you want to remove a card? Well, one feature of patchbays is "normalisation" - where a signal can continue through the bay to its usual destination until you insert a jack into the front panel to divert it. Consider it a kind of default patch. Alternatively, each position on the bay can simply be an extension of the equipment's rear panels. The way in which you usually have to configure a patchbay is by cutting or soldering in a wire link to alter the signal path; with the PB40M all you have to do is remove a card and re-mount it back to front. An oft-repeated engineer's prayer has been answered.
Another possible reason for wanting to remove cards from the PB40M might be to replace them with the alternative cards P&R Audio have to offer. While the standard PB40M comes as a 40-way mono unit, you can substitute stereo cards from the PB40 (stereo model) in any of the positions. And if you're using the bay to route any digital information, you can slot in cards with gold-plated sockets to optimise the signal path. Alternatively, you could treat the sockets to a coat of Stabilant 22; it's nice to have options. Where MIDI comes into the equation is with P&R's plans to release DIN-to-jack cables which will also allow you to use the PB40M as a (simple) MIDI patchbay. Now, the scope of such a method of MIDI patching is pretty limited by the standards set by large-matrix MIDI patchbays with onboard merging and patch memories. In fact, the PB40M approach to MIDI patching prohibits even Thru-In chaining, but if your needs are simple the facility to configure a mix 'n' match patchbay that is cost-effective and occupies so little space should not be underestimated. After all, who wants to lay out cash on an eight-by-eight MIDI patchbay, for example, only to use three positions on it?
Summing up what should be a simple review of a system which allows you to connect one piece of gear to another, you have to concede that P&R have done their homework well. The design is little short of inspired, and the options offered by P&R's "extras" make the patchbay particularly flexible. Another small indication of the company's attention to detail is the inclusion of a selection of stickers for marking up the PB40M's front panel - no longer are you faced with the prospect of spending an hour putting illegible chinagraph hieroglyphics all over the front panel. Obviously not every contingency could be covered here but all the obvious ones (inserts, outputs, inputs, fx sends and returns, and so on) are. Why, there are even a few with MIDI written on them. Now all you've got to worry about is the wiring...
Prices PB40M, £64.95; PB40, £74.95. Both prices include VAT.
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