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Patchbay Power

Article from Making Music, May 1987

Look at all those leads, what a mess, eh? You may well need a patchbay, a simple bit of gear that'll tidy everything up

All those leads getting you down? Tired of ripping your studio apart every time you want to move your chair three inches? Martin Sheehan routes his typewriter ribbon through a sheet of A4 and opines upon the patch bay.

AS EACH new piece of equipment is added to a music generating and processing system, be it recording, multi-keyboard or whatever, the number of possible connection configurations of those units is multiplied. For this reason it quickly becomes advantageous to have some sort of centralised signal routing system for even the most modest of set-up.

The most common method of achieving this form of government is to install a patchbay.

Rather than a valeting service for denims the patchbay can be thought of as a sort of telephone exchange to which all signals are sent and from where they are subsequently routed to their appropriate destinations. The use of a patching system comes into its own when the routes taken by the signals are not always required to be the same. For instance, during gigs, your DX7 may normally go through the delay unit while the Fender Rhodes piano goes to the chorus unit. If the drunken vocalist suddenly has a turn and announces the revival of the old Supertramp number you used to do in the pubs, you could end up needing the echo unit on the piano rather sharpish. A patchbay would allow the appropriate connections to be made without the need to grovel around under the keyboards and behind the FX rack.

Apart from use with multi-keyboard set-ups, the use of patchbays on stage can be beneficial with electronic drums and the high-tech guitar-whizz rig. Still in the realms of live music, the effects rack for the PA will doubtless sport a patchbay, although it is in the recording studio that the patchbay becomes entirely indispensable.

Even in the home studio, once the effects unit count goes above a couple, the amount of unplugging and re-plugging that goes on will soon make a patchbay pay for itself — if only on patches for knee-worn denims.

Patchbays are available in a plethora of glorious forms, including fancy miniature gold contact versions costing many thousands of pounds. The most common form, however, is that of a horizontal row of about 16 or 20 vertical pairs of standard ¼in jack sockets mounted on a 19in rack mounting plate. The connections to the rear of these jack sockets may be jack sockets again, phono sockets or occasionally solder tags for hard wiring. The mixer and effects units' outputs and inputs are connected to the rear of the patch-jay, and short patchleads are used to make the appropriate inter-connections between these pieces of equipment via the jack sockets on he front.

Not every configuration of signal path has to be set up on the patchbay using patchleads. A system known as "normalisation" can be employed whereby the equipment remains routed for its most common function when no patch-leads are inserted. In a normalised patchbay the top socket of each pair is connected straight through to the bottom socket. So if we take, for example, the channel insert points from the mixer, the insert send will go to the rear connection of the top socket of one of the patchbay pairs, and the connection from the bottom socket will go back to the channel insert return and there will be no break in the signal path. It will be as if the patchbay were not there and while no patchleads are inserted the input channel will operate as normal. If a compressor is now required fo be patched in on the channel insert, a patchlead will be connected from the top socket on the patchbay and taken to the compressor input. Another lead from the compressor output is taken back to the channel insert return on the bottom socket of the patchbay. The compressor is now patched in to the channel insert.

A patchbay is normally configured such that the signal between top and bottom sockets is only broken when a plug is inserted into the bottom socket of a normalised pair. This is known as the "sniff and break" method. The "break" refers to the break in the circuit when the bottom socket is used, and the "sniff' refers to the fact that the top socket can be used to take a split feed. This is possible because the signal path between top and bottom connections on the back of the patchbay is unaffected when only the top socket is used. A typical use for the "sniff' facility would be to give a split feed for stereo automatic double tracking (very sexy on rhythm guitar). The dry signal is panned to one side whilst the sniffed off part is fed to an echo unit and delayed for around 30 milliseconds before being returned and panned to the opposite side. This is much quicker and more practical than messing about with split leads.

Not all patchbay sockets are used in the normalised mode. A major function of most patchbays is to carry the input and output connections for the effects units. By tradition it is usual for the inputs to use the top sockets while the outputs use those below. Normalisation is not a good idea here as many effects units object to having their noses up their own bottoms, a situation which can cause some of them to go into oscillation.

Some patchbays can be ordered as normalised or non-normalised, but as a mixture of the two types of connection may be required on the same unit, it is quite common for them to be supplied in the normalised mode with de-normalisation being effected by the user, armed with a pair of snips. The simple removal of a wire link will often turn normalised pairs abnormal (non-normal?). As a rough guide to what's normal for normalisation, things that are usually routed to the same destination, such as insert points and connections between mixers and tape machines, will be normalised but things such as effects units that could be called upon to perform all manner of tasks at varying points in the audio chain will not be.

With the advent of MIDI and the trend towards more electronic control, the electronic patchbay has emerged. Not only can complex patches be set up and recalled at the touch of a button but a series of patches can be programmed and stored in memory for remote recall. These patchbays will simplify life for the gigging musician as well as speed up studio production.

As for whether the things you do now could be better done by using a patchbay, there is an easy way to decide. Keep note of how often you plug and re-plug things. If it is more regular than just the number of times you set-up or break-down you could usefully consider putting one on your birthday list.

Previous Article in this issue

Technically Speaking

Next article in this issue

A Letter From Prezhnev

Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - May 1987

Feature by Martin Sheehan

Previous article in this issue:

> Technically Speaking

Next article in this issue:

> A Letter From Prezhnev

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