Jez Ford patches things up with the audio routing system from 360 Systems
Jez Ford plugs the new Audio Matrix 16 from 360 systems - An essential piece of hardware for an efficient set-up or an extravagance?
Wires, wires, wires. Coiling from instrument to effects, twisting from effects to amp, tangling from amp to desk. Leads, cables, lines - call them what you will, there are invariably too many of them and they're always in a mess. Even the tidiest of systems can descend into chaos after even the smallest of rearrangements.
But what can you do? If it's all got to work then how can you connect it all to achieve a tidy solution without losing versatility?
An answer has arrived from across the Atlantic in the guise of the Audio Matrix 16 from 360 Systems of California. The unit is a rackmounting patchbay that takes 16 inputs and offers 16 outputs, all switchable under software control.
It looks great, a stylish 2U high unit with smart legending and understated colouring. The display lighting is by LED numerals, large and clear enough to be read from a distance - essential for a racked accessory and a feature that some manufacturers have yet to grasp.
The inputs and outputs are all mono 1/4inch jack sockets and are lined up on the rear of the unit. These 32 sockets are the main reason for the Audio Matrix being 2U high - the displays, internal circuitry and remaining sockets could otherwise have been fitted into 1U with only a little squeezing. Having said that, the insides of the unit are as thoughtfully and professionally constructed as the exterior. It should prove reliable and rugged.
The input and output socket pairs numbered 15 and 16 are duplicated on the front panel, 360 Systems very obligingly recognising the need for a degree of transience in all things. This means that while most of your connections can be safely inaccessible at the back of your rack, the input of instruments and outputs to the main amp (say) can be grabbed the moment they go wrong. Alternatively it enables an extra effects unit to be easily slipped in without disturbing your permanent set-up. Sensibly too, the front panel sockets override their duplicates on the back.
So how does it all work - what does it actually do? Well the main beauty of the Audio Systems 16 is that it is user programmable with 100 memories plus one bypass setting, each having 16 different routes (input to output) held in its clever little head. For those who worry about such things the patch data is held in a non-volatile 32K SRAM.
The upshot of this is that at the touch of a patch number you can totally reroute everything so that, say, different instruments go through different effects, or different noises go to different channels of a multitrack, or different tracks are muted between desk and master recording.
What is particularly handy is that, as with all the best accessories these days, the memories can be switched by MIDI so that you can keep all these changes on your sequencing software and they'll happen without you realising. Pretty knee-stroking stuff yes? One large shout at 360 Systems however - put a MIDI THRU socket on the next model if you please! They must know it's an error because the manual suggests using a THRU box. There's plenty of room on the back and the electronics is hardly short of 5V buffers... the omission is nothing short of lazy.
Setting up each memory is fairly simple. You change modes to exit normal operation by tapping the mode select pad on the front panel. This cycles a red LED through the various modes that do things I haven't told you about yet. Selecting audio path we start defining our paths by changing the three big red number displays, you select path 1 from input 10 to output 12 for instance, and so on until up to 16 paths have been chosen. Then you store the whole lot to one of the memories.
A couple of small points reveal careful design and testing - an edit buffer stops you losing everything if you press the wrong thing, a memory protect checks that you know what you're doing. You have to keep your concentration as well since the store function gives you only four seconds to complete the operation before it identifies you as an imbecile and makes you start again.
Especially for those of us still left who go out on the road the Audio Design 16 also has 27 chain memories. A chain memory is a carefully ordered list of patch numbers that can be kicked through on stage using a footswitch. Each chain can hold up to 32 patch numbers which should be enough scene changes to perform Supper's Ready let alone your average rock number. And a Micro Music Badge of Supreme Cleverness to 360 Systems for including a bit of internal logic to check on power up whether your foot-switch is normally open or closed, a touch of inspiration there.
Changing patch numbers is not the only use to which the Audio Design 16 puts MIDI. Along with the audio path numbers that are stored in each memory, you can define up to eight MIDI patch change instructions to be sent in a burst from the MIDI OUT socket to other effects units when that memory is selected. These instructions could in theory also alter sounds on synthesisers but if your system is complex enough to use this box, the chances are that synth MIDI INs will be filled with computer or keyboard generated signals anyway (keeping merge boxes out of the equation).
This is an extremely useful function. It means that instead of putting all your equipment on one enormous MIDI chain through each of your many MIDI-equipped units individually, you can send one program change to the Audio Matrix and it will send eight further instructions down what is effectively a parallel MIDI chain. It takes a bit of thinking to get everything organised correctly, but it can very neatly separate your MIDI operations into two sections - noise makers on one chain and effects on the other.
I know what you're thinking. Once you're getting that complicated, you're thinking, you'll fill those hundred memories in no time and you'll spend half your life reprogramming. Well yes you would... except that you can dump absolutely everything as a systems exclusive to your computer. So store the entire RAM on disk with the song/album/live set it refers to and next time you need it you can dump it back again. Great stuff, no worries.
So that's what it does. Does it help solve the problems of lead labyrinths and chaotic cabling? To a certain extent it does, since you can rewire by software rather than by pulling the plugs out. However to get the full benefits of such versatility everything must be wired individually to and from the Matrix whereas before one effects unit could cascade into another. This means that in fact you need more wires than you ever did before, particularly in these days where all effects are stereo. Let us be grateful that quad never caught on.
As far as audio quality is concerned, the Audio Matrix is beyond reproach with a signal/noise ratio of 102dB and THD of 0.01% across the AF bandwidth. However the switch between memories is accompanied by a click, quiet but definitely audible. That could be a problem for professional studio use although it would usually get lost in the mix.
The most annoying things about the Audio Matrix 16 are the things that it doesn't do. Although it will happily buffer one input to as many outputs as you wish, you cannot ascribe more than one input to a single output - you cannot add two inputs together. This can be a real problem for the home recorder who wants to send two inputs off to his only digital reverb unit.
What if 360 Systems had included volume as a programmable variable in each path? You could put the Matrix between 16-track tape machine and desk, control it via MIDI from your synchronised sequencer and you've got the next best thing to a computerised desk which memorises your mixes. You could dump each mix to disk, including all the effects settings. Power indeed, and an addition 360 Systems might think about if they produce a MkII in the future.
The Audio Matrix 16 looks good, it has been designed thoughtfully, it performs its job reliably and with a number of useful extras thrown in. The price? £599. This seems reasonable on a studio budget but may prove somewhat excessive for the semi-professional and home markets. An 8x8 matrix might prove a successful successor, as the Microverb has proved to the Midiverb. It's worth checking out, but make sure you really need it before pledging your plastic.
Product: Audio Matrix 16
Supplier: Argents, (Contact Details)
Price: £599 inc VAT.
Review by Jez Ford
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