Pete laid the foundations for debate in Patching I and Patching II, and you’ve been responding with plenty of questions since! So in this final instalment I’ll do my best to answer some of those, and throw in a few final nuggets that we couldn’t fit in previously…
“I don’t have that much gear… Is it worth it?”
Unplugging/replugging always seems to happen in a rush right? The innards of studio racks are rarely enticing places, and mid-session changes usually result in unimaginable piles of audio spaghetti, even if you only own a few pieces of equipment. If everything is running via a patch, the back of the rack can be tidied up (an art that we know as Cable Management) once and stay that way, with all the changes being made quickly and neatly at the front. You’ll end up with a tidier studio that’s miles easier to maintain. Whilst on the point of maintenance it should be noted that lots of audio equipment isn’t built with masses of plugging/unplugging in mind and the wear and tear on input/output connectors, particularly jacks, can be significant. Conversely, most decent patchbays are built with exactly this in mind.
“I’ve seen some Yellow studios with what looks like a patch with XLRs on - What’s that all about?”
Good spot! We developed these “Mic Patches” for use in smaller studios where there is regularly a need to plug in microphones in the control room. Signals from a live room (or elsewhere in the control room) can be routed to any preamp with short XLR patch cables, but in addition to this one can just plug straight into the premp inputs in the control room! Lots of people find this a really intuitive way of working - in larger studios we regularly provide one of these patches for the mic signals and then a GPO or Bantam for line level signals. Whilst in much smaller studios we have effectively used this style of simple patch for all signals - they do take up more room and you don’t get the benefits of normalling discussed previously, but it can be a neat way to keep a small number of signals all in one place!
Custom Wiring Vs Off-The-Shelf
It’ll come as little surprise to you what our answer is here, but I’ll try to be as balanced as possible! Having a high-quality jackfield soldered to specification is hard to beat from a reliability point of view and for having everything exactly as you’d like it to be. It’ll probably cost you a little more, but it’s nearly always worth it.
The lower-cost alternative is to purchase a jackfield that presents you with a number of connectors on the back to link your equipment to. These usually utilise PCB connections rather than solder terminals; bringing the cost down, but often having some negative impact on long-term reliability. The A-gauge TRS units we touched on in Patching I are by far the cheapest here and consequently have extremely short lifespans - each individual case is different, but they are often a false economy.
Units like the Mosses & Mitchell Flexipatch offer a higher-quality alternative here which we’ve found to be much more durable if the mating EDAC cables are well made. However, layout changes (which seem inevitable as studios evolve) can result in cables being split between multiple EDAC connectors, which in addition to looking pretty scary, isn’t the most robust cabling solution!
We’ve actually developed a best-of-both worlds alternative here…. Our YT MasterPatch rack breaks out soldered jackfields (more durable than PCB) onto EDAC connectors, but the flap-down rear panel enables really easy modification of what signals go where. This enables you to have a single neat cable going to each area of the studio; and then when things move, they can be easily moved on the rear panel.
Digitally Controlled Analogue Patches
There are a few interesting offerings appearing here, with units like the Signex ARC32 effectively replacing patch cables with buttons and facility to recall specific patching layouts a couple of button presses. The Flock Audio patch works in a similar way, but brings the patching out via an app, allowing you to deal with it from your host computer. Clearly, they’re an attractive proposition for people working on multiple simultaneous projects with varying routeing requirements, however much like the off-the-shelf patches discussed above, their reliance on PCBs, and the in the case of the Flock Audio, reliance on your computer & firmware etc. present considerably more reliability risks compared with traditional jackfields. Many professionals remain of the opinion that as the nerve centre of even the most basic studio, the reliability of the jackfield shouldn’t be compromised. And whilst conventional jackfields can seem daunting to the uninitiated at first, they remain incredibly intuitive for most. We’re yet to come across a digitally controlled alternative that offers a comparable user interface.
Are they the future? It seems unlikely right now, but we’re happy to be proven wrong… Let us know if you’ve had a more positive experience!