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Patch Bays: A Beginner’s Guide

Patch Bays: A Beginner’s Guide

As your recording setup grows from a laptop with a few plugins to include more outboard gear, the process of getting behind your desk and changing cables to adjust the signal chain becomes more and more time-consuming. This is when recording professionals and amateurs alike should invest in patch bays, which allow for quick and simple connections to be made on the fly from an arm’s reach. We’ll take you through a quick guide into what patch bays are, how they work, and the different kinds available.

What is a Patch Bay?

A patch bay is a hub that allows you to control your inputs and outputs from any device connected to it. In most cases, the patch bay comes in rack format, so it can be set in the same rack as the rest of the outboard gear in use. Once in place, all the connections from other pieces of hardware are made in the back, with the front reserved for the user to create or add to the chain using patch cables.

Types of Patch Bays

When looking into a patch bay setup, you’ll come across different types based on their “normalling” capabilities. Normalling refers to how the patch bay in question deals with signal flow in and out of the patch bay. Some allow you to control the types of normalling, while others are strictly made with one type of normalling, so it’s important to know what they mean before purchasing.

Full-Normal Patch Bays

For a full-normal patch bay, the traditional setup includes running your device outputs to the top row on the back of the patch bay, allowing you to then route through the corresponding inputs below it. If a patch cable is connected in the front, whether to the input or output, that original link in the back is broken and it is instead routed directly through the patch cable.

Half-Normal Patch Bays

Much like a full-normal patch bay, a half-normal patch bay routes the output on the back through the corresponding input below it. Unlike the full-normal patch bay, that link is not always broken with the use of a patch cable. When you insert a patch cable into the bottom row, the input jack, the link will be broken and the input device will receive only the signal connected by the patch cable. However, when a patch cable is connected to the top row (output jack), the original link is not broken. The signal continues to the normalled input with a duplicate of the signal running through the patch cable. This comes in handy in a dry/wet recording, which is where one signal is fully affected with other pieces in the signal chain while the other is not.

Non-Normal (or De-Normal) Patch Bays

A non-normal patch bay is when none of the points are routed until a patch cable physically routes them. This is a more time-consuming setup and requires many more patch cables, but allows you the greatest flexibility to route complex signal chains.

Some patch bays, like the Hosa MHB-350 Patch Bay Module allow for you to choose the normalling you need, like half-normal or de-normal.

Throughput Patch Bays

Sometimes a patch bay isn’t necessarily to create complex chains, but simply to hide cable clutter behind the desk or rack and turn the corresponding jacks on the front into direct “throughputs”. Throughput, or “point-to-point” patch bays like the Hosa PDR-369 and MXL-369 XLR Patch Bays, allow all the connections to be made behind the patch bay so a single cable can be used when any of the inputs or outputs are needed.

Make a Plan for your Patch Bay

When setting up your patch bay, the best starting point is to see how many inputs and outputs you will need, then what kind of normalling will be required, and finally drawing out the wire diagram to know how your connections will be made. Some patch bay manufacturers even offer blank templates to help you visualize and plan your signal routing.

It’s also important to know whether you plan on running any mic setups that require phantom power so you can get the right patch bay to accommodate those requirements.

Patch Cables

Once you have your plan, you will know approximately how many patch cables and what length you’ll require. Several different patch cable types are used with patch bays, but the most common are TT Type TRS cables and ¼” TRS cables. It’s important to check if your needs and patch bay are TRS (balanced, stereo) or TS (unbalanced, mono). If you have a TRS patch bay, you’ll need TRS patch cables otherwise you won’t be able to pass a true balanced signal.

Organize, Organize, Organize

The purpose of a patch bay setup is to keep your signals clean, but also your physical environment by cutting down cable clutter. Don’t overlook how helpful simple organizational tools can immediately solve headaches. Some of the obvious ones are using scribble-strip tape to label the equipment or output assigned to each jack on the front. You can also label the cables themselves. Cable ties and split looms will keep cable clutter under control behind the desk, as well. For cables not in use yet, rather than stuffing them somewhere or having them sprawled around, you can invest in a cable holder to keep your space tidy and your cables quickly accessible.

To purchase Hosa patch bays and other organization tools, visit our Shop page. Happy patching!

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