Aug 29, 2002 12:00 PM, Brian Knave


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You can warn a child not to touch a hot stove, but until the kid chars a finger or two, the concept of getting burned usually remains just that, a concept. For some of us, the same principle applies to audio concepts. Until we've seen--or better yet, made--the connections ourselves, textbook how-to's often go in one ear and out the other. That's why, when I set out to expand and reconfigure my patch bay recently, I first investigated the ins and outs of a few up-and-running patch bays to get some ideas. What I learned proved useful enough to share in this month's column. So whether you're setting up a patch bay for the first time or are feeling the need to reconfigure your old one, perhaps the following profiles of patch bays will give you an idea or two, as well.

The purpose of a patch bay is to ergonomically simplify the studio so that all (or most) audio connections can be accessed and rerouted from a single, easy-to-reach location. Ideally, once the patch bay is configured, you no longer have to crawl behind racks of gear to hook up a desired signal processor or preamp. The ability to make quick, easy connections reduces frustrating "find the hidden patch cord" assaults on your creative flow and can even inspire experimentation. (Want to see what it sounds like when you brutally compress the flanged reverb you've assigned to an effects return?) Furthermore, by providing extra points of entry into the signal path, a patch bay extends the functionality of your mixer and other gear.

Because every studio is different, there is no "correct" way to configure a patch bay. Instead, you set up the bay to accommodate the gear you have and the way you like to work. Certain connections are pretty standard, such as the mixer's main stereo outputs being normaled to a 2-track recorder's inputs, but variations on the basic theme are endless. (For a detailed explanation of normaling and an overview of patch bays in general, refer to Scott Wilkinson's "Square One: Patch Me Through" in the September 1995 issue of EM.)

There are a number of things to consider when setting up a patch bay: the type of instruments you record, the way your studio is laid out, your goals and techniques as a recordist, and how many audio inputs and outputs need to be addressed. Let's explore some signal routing possibilities by looking at patch bays from three studios.

Steve Oppenheimer (better known as Steve O), senior editor at EM, is a keyboardist whose 8-track home studio is about as jam-packed as they come. Steve uses three 48-point patch bays to manage his gear, two of which we'll examine up close. The third is fixed in the back of a portable rig and was primarily developed for gigs and sessions at outside studios. (For a close-up on road-ready racks and patch bays, see "Racking Your Brain" in the November 1994 issue of EM.)

Oppenheimer's studio, a one-room operation with just enough space for the engineer and a guest artist, is typically used for sequencing and vocal recording. Synths, samplers, and drum machines dominate the productions. As an added requirement, Oppenheimer also needs to patch in new gear on the fly to accommodate his never-ending flow of EM equipment reviews.

Like many home studios, Oppenheimer's revolves around a Mackie CR-1604 compact mixer (rack-mounted with a Rotopod adapter so the jackfield is situated just below the patch bays) and an Alesis ADAT. This is a powerful and proven duo, but as 1604 owners know, the match is not exactly made in recording heaven. For example, although versatile for its size, the 1604 doesn't have true subgroups or direct outs. You can obtain direct outs from a 1604 by plugging halfway in to the channel inserts, but a better solution is to "break out" the insert points onto a patch bay (see Fig. 1a). Breaking out the inserts is accomplished by running Y-cables to the back of the patch bay from TRS plugs inserted all the way into the channel inserts. The result is access to both the sends and returns for each channel.

As seen in Figure 1a, Oppenheimer has broken out the inserts for channels 3 through 8. The sends are then multed to the corresponding ADAT inputs. Note the "Ys" inside the patch points--that's where the mult cables are permanently inserted into the front of the patch bay. Mult, of course, is short for multiple. Because these jacks are half-normaled, the sends coming into the top rear of the patch bay go to multiple destinations: the ADAT tracks and the mixer's insert returns. This allows a signal to flow uninterrupted through a mixer channel from send to return--so it can be monitored--and still be routed to tape. For example, the signal from Synth 1 can be routed into mixer channels 3 and 4, and from there to tape via the mults.

Simultaneously, a submix from Alt 3 and 4 can be sent directly to ADAT tracks one and two. Alt 3 and 4 outputs are also multed to the inputs of Oppenheimer's sampler. This allows him to readily sample a layered patch constructed from any number of synths, effects processors, or tape returns. Finally, note that mixer channels 1 and 2 are not patched into the bay, as Oppenheimer prefers to leave those inputs dedicated for vocals and other miked instruments.

The middle section of the patch bay shown in Figure 1a provides access to the tape returns. This configuration not only gives Oppenheimer access to tracks 1 through 8 during mixdown (for patching in, say, a compressor), it also provides a handy place to plug into if he just wants to practice on one of his keyboards or try out some new gear.

Except for the four empty jacks on the left (which are free to accommodate new or visiting gear), the patch bay shown in Figure 1a is half-normaled. Most of the patch bay shown in Figure 1b, however, is denormaled. Denormaled means the normal connection from top to bottom has been broken; in other words, no signal gets through unless the two jacks are patched together. Denormaled patch points are typically employed to access effects processors and other outboard gear. Equally cool, they also allow you to connect a series of effects. For example, with Oppenheimer's set up you could bring a signal out of tape return 1 into FX 2, out of FX 2 into the parametric EQ, out of the EQ into FX 3, and out of FX 3 into Mackie channel 9. Obviously, such elaborate signal routing would be a hassle without a patch bay.

The next patch bay we'll look at brings together the inputs and outputs of a sizable, 24-track home studio. The studio is owned by Jeff Campitelli, studio drummer and rhythm guitarist for axeman extraordinaire Joe Satriani. As is common in larger studios, Campitelli's setup employs a custom TT patch bay. (TT is the abbreviation for Tiny Telephone, the professional-standard 1/8" jacks that allow large patch bay systems to fit into compact spaces.)

Campitelli's studio houses a Mackie 24•8, three Alesis ADATs, and numerous outboard mic preamps, signal processors, synths, and sound modules. To accommodate routing all these signals, the bays shown in Figures 2a and 2b are half-normaled and cover every tape input and output and the corresponding channel sends and returns. The bay shown in Figure 2c is also half-normaled and covers insert sends and returns, while the bay shown in Figure 2d is denormaled and is split between effects sends and returns and mults. Campitelli has configured six mults, each made up of one input and three outputs. Therefore, a signal going into mult patch point 1 is output through points 2, 3, and 4. This provides considerable processing flexibility, allowing Campitelli to send, say, a snare track to three different effects units.

Note that Campitelli's patch bay, though larger than Oppenheimer's, is actually more straightforward. In part that's because Oppenheimer uses his patch bay to get around the limitations of the CR-1604. But despite the differences, some connections are the same. Campitelli's bay shown in Figure 2e, for example, is denormaled to accommodate effects inputs and outputs--as is the case with Oppenheimer's effects setup. Campitelli's outboard mic preamps and compressors (see Fig. 3a) are configured the same way too, with ins and outs denormaled top to bottom.

In Figure 3a, we also see Campitelli's simple yet versatile main-mix input/output section. Balanced outputs are normaled into the DAT deck and unbalanced outputs into a cassette deck. DAT and cassette deck outputs are normaled back into the board through the 2-track and External inputs. A final mix is automatically routed to DAT and cassette simultaneously.

The right side of the bay shown in Figure 3b connects seven synths and/or sound modules into the board's line inputs. Because the signal flow is half-normaled, it's no problem accommodating a guest musician's synth--you simply plug into the bottom jacks. This breaks the half-normal and directs the new line-level signal to the board. Finally, the left side provides access to inserts for the mains and each of the eight buses (submasters). By patching all inputs and outputs into a central hub (not shown is a section covering the Mackie's 24 direct outs), Campitelli has configured a flexible patch bay that allows for easy rerouting of any signal.

For a different take on patch bay configuration, let's look at a section of the custom TT patch bay at Studio 684 in San Francisco, a commercial studio owned by EM contributor Buddy Saleman. Studio 684 is a 16-track facility centered around a Trident Model 65 16 x 8 x 2 console, a TASCAM MS16 1-inch analog deck, and two ADATs. Sixteen routing switches let the engineer choose between 16 analog or 16 digital tracks, or a combination of the two formats.

The first thing you'll notice about Studio 684's patch bay (see Fig. 4) is a different layout: functions are grouped side by side as well as top to bottom. But a more important difference is that all the patch points are denormaled. The advantage of denormaling is that guest engineers are not constrained by what you consider normal. In other words, they can set up connections to their needs, desires, and quirks. And if they like to tote along a favorite mic preamp or pair of monitors, these can be easily incorporated into the system. That's why denormaled patch bays are more often found in large, commercial facilities--because on any given day of the week a different engineer may be at the helm.

The downside, of course, is that to mix or record in a studio with all denormaled patch points, it is first necessary to patch together all the gear you'll be using. For example, to print a final mix to DAT on Studio 684's patch bay, you first have to patch the L/R stereo outputs to the L/R DAT sends. To record a DAT mix onto a cassette tape, you have to connect the DAT returns to the cassette sends. It takes a bit more time and thought to use a denormaled patch bay; however, the slight inconvenience is offset by increased flexibility.

To get a feel for using Studio 684's patch bay, let's go through the steps of processing a vocal during mixdown. First, patch tape return 16 to line in 16 so that the vocal is returned on mixer input channel 16. (You could also choose to patch the vocal on tape track 16 to any of the input channels on the mixer, and effectively reconfigure all the tape tracks to a desired mix sequence on the console channel strips.) Next, turn up the gain on channel 16's aux send 1 and patch a cable from aux send 1 to FX 1, input 1. (Note that FX 1 is quad unit with four discrete processing channels.) Now patch cables from FX 1 outputs 1 and 2 to the returns for subgroups 7 and 8. This puts the effect on subgroup fader controls 7 and 8--an excellent routing option in this case because the Trident Model 65 has 3-band EQ on its subgroups. (In other words, you can EQ the effect!)

If you want to compress the vocal a bit, simply patch from insert send 16 to compressor input 1 and from compressor output 1 to insert return 16. You could also create multiple effects by chaining the signal through two or more processors, or, for more control, by routing each effect to an individual subgroup. The possibilities are virtually endless, which is one of the reasons to use a patch bay in the first place.

As we've seen, some commercial studios favor denormaled patch bays so visiting engineers can readily customize connections. But for configuring a home-studio patch bay, a more sensible approach is to determine the studio's "normal" setup. Finding this optimal arrangement may require a fair amount of trial and error, but once you've established what's normal, a patch bay that's mostly normaled (or half-normaled) let's you "permanentize" that setup. Thereafter, you can easily deviate from the norm by inserting patch cables.

Like studios in general, most patch bays are works in progress. Therefore, keep in mind that the patch bays shown here are almost certainly not finalized, nor are they intended as recommended setups or models of patch bay perfection. But, by examining them closely, you can see how other engineers have configured working patch bays for their studios and therefore develop some tangible plans for your routing needs. Hopefully, each drawing will be worth a thousand words.

While writing this piece, Assistant Editor Brian Knave dreamed he was trying to patch input and output cables to his ex-fiancée.

Confused about normaled and half-normaled patch connections? Don't sweat it; here's a mini tutorial. A normaled patch connection passes any signal appearing at one front jack directly to another one. For example, if your DAT recorder was normaled to your console's stereo bus, the stereo mix would automatically be routed to the mixdown deck. No patch connections need to be made. However, if you do patch into a normaled jack, you break the normal connection and the signal will now be sent wherever you decide to route it.

A half-normaled connection allows you to break the normal and still have the signal go to the normaled connection and whatever destination you choose to route the signal to. In other words, you can split one signal and send it to two different places. (This application is commonly called multing.) A denormaled patch configuration means that no connection is made until you connect two patch points by plugging a cord into the appropriate jacks.

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