Learn How to Use a Patchbay

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Written By Tanya

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You’re tired of reaching behind your desk and wriggling under your rack to adjust the path of your audio signals through your massive collection. You’re not wrong.

It’s not worth it to deal with the dust, spiders, cat hair and other unpleasant surprises, especially when there is an affordable, genius solution available.

You can see why a patchbay is an essential piece of equipment.

You will need to be able to use the equipment, no matter how well you wire it up or if someone else did.

It’s more than being able use one. It is important to learn the correct way. This is how all professionals have learned it.

Because structured wiring is becoming more popular, patchbays are increasingly important. Structured wiring allows homes and businesses to run cabling through their walls and floors.

These cases do not allow for rewiring so even casual users are starting to face the problem of using a patch panel.

Collaboration and communication are essential for recording high-quality audio and music while the creative juices flow. It is therefore important to unravel this mystery and put it back together in our heads the same way as others.

Before we begin, I want to remind anyone new to the idea of a patchbay to read our article The Best Studio Patchbay & Live Audio.

We do this because, before we go into detail about any model, we provide a summary of all you need to know, including how to use it.

This article will take a closer look at the method. Although the concepts are still easily accessible to all levels of recording engineer skills, the explanations and examples will be more complex. We’ll assume that you already know what patchbays, patch cable, and jacks are, as well as recording station cable types like TRS, XLR and TS.

Next, we’ll narrow down the options (and reduce confusion), then provide some tips and tricks to help you stay organized. Finally, we will explain the three modes that each series can use, then show an example with a walkthrough. The Samson S–Patch Plus is a great TRS rack-mounted Patchbay.

The Three Patchbay Rules

To make it easier to manage all the options, you need to set up your patchbay so that your options are greatly reduced. It also helps you to align yourself with other professionals, and keeps you organized.

You must follow these three rules when setting up your patchbay.

  1. Top Jacks are used to output
  2. Bottom Jacks are used to input
  3. Connections are only available from the top to the bottom

Let’s talk about each one in detail, even though they are self-explanatory. This sets the stage for the discussion and tips on modes.

RULE 1: TOP JACKS ARE OUTPUTS

Imagine the audio signal coming from the top front and going into the top back. Because the top jacks receive the output from any piece of gear and send it to the front top, they are also called output jacks.

This rule, which is followed by all professionals, will ensure that you only deal with the signal outputted when you are patching the top rows. The signal is sent from the microphone or keyboard, into the top back and out the top front.

Only the top outputs are considered, from the front.

RULE 2: BOTTOM JACKS ARE INTOUTS

Now you have your signal coming from the top row of your panel’s front. The next step is to plug in a patch cable, and route it down to the bottom row. This is exactly the opposite of the top row.

This is for inputs to your gear. The signal flows into the cable and into a bottom back jack. It then exits into an input in another piece.

Only the bottom, from front to back, are used as inputs

RULE 3: CONNECTIONS ARE ONLY OCCUR TOP TO-BOTTOM

You won’t need or want to repair a cable that runs from one top jack to another because outputs are located on top and inputs on bottom. Bottom to bottom connections are the same. They do not happen.

Only patch cables can be used to connect a topjack to a below jack.

These are the three basic rules that make a patchbay workable. It would be nothing but pure pandemonium.

These three rules should never be broken. Otherwise, you will end up having to climb behind the rack to find out how you wired your gear. These rules and the tips will ensure that you don’t get stuck wondering where your gear is.

Patchbay Organization Tips

You can reduce chaos by limiting top jacks to outputs while bottom jacks are limited to inputs. There’s still plenty of confusion and wasted time. These tips will help you save time and ensure that your patch panels do what they are supposed to.

Label your Jacks: This is the most important. A 48-point panel is the smallest patchbay that you will use. This means you will have as many jacks to remember. A labeling system is necessary as you won’t be capable of remembering everything. You can write across the front of some bays with dry-erase strips.

You can also write on the sticky notes’ top and stick them there if you don’t have sticky notes. I prefer to make a spreadsheet that I can easily re-label. My spreadsheet is kept in a drawer on my desk, so it’s always available.

Only patch what you use: For those with multiple bays, you can ignore this. However, for those who have only one or two bays, it is important to only connect the items you use frequently. This will reduce the number of bays available, which in turn means fewer mistakes.

It is better to keep your most used gear together than to spread them amongst all the other effects pedals and stuff you don’t use. You can purchase multiples of the same gear, but designate one to be your main patchbay. Then you will have a secondary one and a tertiary one.

Don’t Worry About Order: Although it may sound contradictory to the previous tip, it is actually quite the opposite. Your gear will be grouped according to frequency of use. But, don’t worry about other concepts such as keeping your preamplifiers in the same place.

You’ll get a brand new piece of gear. Are you really going to wire your entire bay to just slide down one jack so that your compressors can be right next to each other?! We label the jacks because of this! You should group them by the frequency you use them, and not by their type.

Do not match top-to-bottom: This rookie error is caused by not being able to properly use the three main modes (as explained next). Although it is common to prefer to stack gear vertically for both output and input, this is not the best way to use a patchbay. In the next section, we’ll explain why.

Use Color-Coded Short Patch Cables: Using short, color-coded patches cables is the best thing for organization. These cables come in seven colors, as well as white, black and gray. When you want to find out where each cable goes, you can divide the number of inputs or outputs that you are trying to track down by 10.

You can tape labels to the jacks or wrap colored rubber bands around them, but this doesn’t make it easy to visually identify the location of the cable. Colors are easy to identify. You’ll also have less jungle behind your rack if you make it as short as possible. Hot Wires 1.5ft Balanced Cables

Let’s now see how you can organize the patchbay’s exterior. We’ll change the modes of the Jacks to make the interior more organized.

Normal, Half-Normal, and Thru Modes

We have just sorted out a lot of confusion. Now we are going to add more. It is easier to use your bay once you understand it. The three main modes of use are represented by the three different ways that the jacks can be wired together.

Some patchbays allow you to change the mode of your computer by using a switch. Some patchbays require that you physically manipulate the jacks. Some won’t allow you to change the mode.

It’s fine, though. You can keep using Normal mode and still be happy. However, you will need more patch cables. If you are able to learn how to use the other modes, you will be able to dial in the magic and save yourself time and effort. Let’s talk about each mode.

  • Normal Mode From when a patch cable has been inserted, the top output jack transmits the audio signal to. The cable intercepts the signal and sends it through the cable.
  • Half-Normal mode: The top output Jack sends the audio signal down to , even if a patch cable has been inserted. This allows you to split the signal to send it to two inputs. However, a patch cable to the front input will cause the splitting to be disrupted.
  • Thru mode: Only sends the signal back-to-front. The signal will not reach a dead end unless you connect a cable to transmit the signal to an input.

Most of the time, Normal Mode or Half-Normal Mode will suffice for your needs.

Half-Normal Mode is where most of us spend our time. We record and do basic mixing, equalization, and cleanup work in the box. The signal is then sent to the interface where we complete the mixing in the box.

If we wish, we can also pass the box back. Half-Normal is preferable because it can be used as a send to an additional bus on a mixer. Although it is the most difficult to comprehend, once you get it down, you will be able to use it as a send to an auxiliary bus on a mixer.

Many newcomers think that the jacks work in Thru Mode by default. But, this is not true.

Why are Normal and Half-Normal so important? They are useful. This can be illustrated by following the example setup, which is provided below.

Walkthrough & Example Patchbay Setup

This is a very basic setup. We will only use a 12 point patchbay. You can handle as many points as you like if you can get your head around 12 points. It is important to be able trace the signal out, in, out, in, through your gear, and through the jacks.

We’ll forget about Thru Mode because it’s obvious. The Normal Mode will have the top and bottom jacks, and the middle and third sets of three jacks in Half-Normal Mode.

Let’s start by taking a look at the table below. This is our patchbay, turned on its right side, and all cables in and ready for use. The front and back are visible for clarification.

PanelTop Back (Output).Bottom Back (Input).Top Front (Output).Bottom Front (Input).
1 (Normal)KeyboardMixer Input 1N/AN/A
2 (Normal)ReverbMixer Input 2N/AN/A
3 (Normal)CompressorMixer Input 3N/AN/A
4 (Half-Normal)Mic PreampReverbTo the 5-BottomN/A
5 (Half-Normal)N/AEqualizerN/AStarting at 4-Top
6 (Half-Normal)EqualizerCompressorN/AN/A

Let’s suppose you are a solo singer-songwriter using a digital piano with some vocals. This patchbay setup is on stage with you. You have a mini-rack for mixing so that the sound guy doesn’t ruin your performance.

You have two inputs, your keyboard and your voice via a microphone. You don’t have to worry about mixing the keys because your keyboard has pressure sensitive and weighted keys. Then you can turn on some reverb and leave it alone. You should be focusing on your vocals.

It is simple to use the keyboard. The keyboard’s output is fed into Top Back 1. You won’t need a patch cable as you won’t be routing the signal any other place.

The first set of jacks in Normal Mode flows the output signal from the keyboard down to the Bottom Back 1 and then through the cable to the input on the mixing board. This is Normal Mode’s magic, not Thru Mode’s which would have required an additional patch cable.

Vocals can be more difficult because you need to do two things. To simulate the dynamic range of your vocals for your listener, you will need an uncompressed and non-equalized version to run through a Reverb Unit. This is more intimate and realistic.

Your “main take” should run through a compressor to be squashed like an insect so that everyone can understand. It needs to first run through your EQ to clean it up. The preamplifier must have both versions!

First, connect the XLR cable from your mic to the preamp. The output of the preamp is connected to Top Back 4. The fourth set is in Half-Normal Mode. This allows you to split the signal. It will flow into any cable that is connected to Bottom Back 4 or wherever you send it using a patch cable.

The reverb effects processor accepts input from Bottom Back 4. The reverb unit’s output leads to Top Back 2. When it is in Normal Mode, the signal goes to Bottom Back 2 and the mixer then takes the second input. Done.

We still need to EQ and compress the output of the preamp. We run a patch cable from Top Front 4. This takes the pre-reverb version and splits it off. This output is then sent to Bottom Front 5 via a cable. It leads directly out of the back to the equalizer’s input.

There is EQ work. We can see that the equalizer’s output leads to Top Back 6. The sixth set is in Half-Normal, which drops the signal to below no matter what. We don’t even have to use a cable to reach the input of the compressor. It is cabled from the Bottom Back 6.

We just need to run the compressor’s output to Top Back 3 so that it drops into the third mixer input. The job is done. Now, let’s get the sound guy to adjust the levels.

Last but not least, we want to manage our own mix for our monitors on stage. We made a mistake. We could have set the first three jacks to Half Normal Mode and run the output to our personal 3-track mixer, then output it to the monitors.

Perhaps next time! We only needed one patch cable to complete the process, even if we wanted. This is what a well-organized patchbay looks like in your rack.

This is how to use a patchbay

The guide below may help you to understand and simplify the complex world of patchbays. You may already have access to a bay if you are reading this.

You may be still on the hunt. You can take the time to read our reviews of the top patchbays at different price points (you may skip the top section which is largely a summary).

It may take some practice or looking at another tutorial in order to fully manipulate these monsters. But once you learn how to use a Patchbay correctly, everything will be different.

You won’t have to stop your flow when you are in “creative mode”, or jump into “technology mode” to get some gear. Keep rocking and patch those suckers up on the fly. Thank you for reading our patchbay guide.

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