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There's two types of people on this planet when it comes to patchbays:
Both types are crazy to me (no offense to the people with the DIY skills).
My plan today is to explain why you don't want to buy a cheap patchbay or better one in used condition.
The reasons are many, but the main one is that you're looking at a contraption with somewhere along the lines of 48 jacks, wiring for them all, and the expectation that they'll hold up and not break after you push in and pull out patch cables thousands of times per jack.
The last thing you want to do is have to check every jack on a used bay or have one randomly break on you with a cheap one.
These are meant to be time savers, not headache creators.
So don't "jack" yourself up by trying to take a shortcut. I want to quickly explain how they work and how to use them for the unsure, and then jump right into the reviews of the respectable "value options" and a couple of the absolute top of the line.
Here's the scenario without a patchbay:
"Sweet, I got this new compressor. Let me screw it into the rack. Perfect. Now I need to climb behind the rack to run the insert from the preamp to it... Wow, look at this dust. Hey, my cat puked back here... twice. Got it! It's plugged in, but I managed to yank out three other cables in the process. Okay, I'm done. Oh man... I forgot to plug in the power jack... Let me climb back in there."
Here's the scenario with the best studio patchbay you can get your hands on:
"Let's see, I'll put the patch cables in first before I slide this new gear into the rack... done. Now all I need to do is plug this cable into this jack and boom, I'm ready to rock."
Life really can be that simple. But first you need to understand what one is and the conventions of cabling your gear through one first, because it can be confusing at first. Let's rock.
A patchbay is a series of hardware jacks that help you organize the inputs and outputs of other analog audio equipment while quickly rerouting your audio signal through any combination of your other gear.
Note: Sometimes you'll see these called a patch panel, patch field, jack field, or patch bay (two words). The music industry refers to them in the way we will through this article.
The typical audio patchbay uses TRS jacks patch cables, although you can find versions that use XLR jacks, RCA plugs, mono TS jacks, and plenty of others. We'll confine the discussion to the common 48 point TRS patchbay, which is generalizable to every other style. We will mention a couple of XLR options in the reviews, though.
You may find yourself wondering, "what are patch cables?" They are just like every other recording studio cable but shorter, usually 1.5 feet to 3 feet. They're short because they're only used on the front of the patchbay, and any more length than that would create a mess of dangling cables...
...Like that monstrosity above.
Let me preface this entire section by saying that the pros far outweigh any of the cons. I'm just trying to be educational here.
Really, the last two points above are solved by following my recommendation of not buying a cheap or used patchbay and making sure your buying decent patch cables. If you don't skimp out you'll be good for life, or with extremely heavy usage you'll minimize your incidents to just a handful over the lifetime of operation.
When you first look at a patchbay it can be overwhelming because your brain tries to take it all in at once, and that's way too many variables to juggle. It's actually much simpler than it looks, as you'll see below.
The entire game becomes dead simple if you follow these three rules. Every professional sets themselves up this way too, so it's crucial to be on the same page as everyone else so you can communicate and collaborate effectively.
Rule three can use some further explaining as it's the core of how you use a patchbay. For instance, your preamp may output your mic's signal to a top row jack on the back of the bay. You can then use a patch cable on the front top row to run that signal to the input of one of several compressors of your choosing that are all connected to the bottom row.
In most cases, you can think of the jacks connecting through the patchbay, which is to say that jack #5 on the top of the back connects to jack #5 on the top of the front. You can manipulate this with the "modes" that we'll discuss below but most of the time you won't use them outside of normal mode.
What's amazing is you've just taken all of your outboard gear and turned them into hardware plugins, as opposed to software plugins.
That's it. I'd reckon 90% of your confusion and possible goof-ups have been restricted by these three rules. But there's more ways to rein in that last 10% of disorder.
Label Your Jacks: First things first... you will need to label your jacks somehow. Some patchbays allow you to write directly on a dry-erase style strip across the front. You may find you like to use some tape instead. Another option is to recreate the layout in a spreadsheet software, type in your labels there, and print it out to keep near your desk. It doesn't matter how, but you have to make labels or you'll never remember which jack deals with which piece of gear.
Don't Worry About the Order: When I first started dealing with patchbays, I wanted all of my best preamplifiers to the left, followed by the lesser ones I used for drum mics. Then I wanted compressors, and so forth. All was well until I bought another awesome preamp. Then the dilemma arose... Do I go through the hassle of moving all of the gear one slot to the right or do I just slap the new preamp in all the way on the right and quit being anal-retentive? As long as you have a labeling system, the order doesn't matter!
Only Patch In Gear You'll Use: Setting up your bay is a pain but it's a really fun one because you're finally getting organized. The temptation is to patch in everything you own, but don't. If you really want, you can get a second bay to patch in the infrequently used gear, but for your main patchbay only add your regularly used gear. Otherwise you're increasing chaos instead of solving it.
Don't Feel Like Your Inputs & Outputs Have to Match Vertically: I fell for this trick of the mind at first. The outputs and inputs of your devices don't have to be stacked on top of each other. You can have an output of an equalizer on the far left of your bay and the input on the far right. You can use this to your advantage in Normal mode, as discussed below.
Use Short, Color-Coded Patch Cables: It's a near impossibility to visually trace one cable end to the other visually when there's 30+ dangling and they're all black. The solution is to use color-coded patch cables. They come in all of the colors of the rainbow, plus black, white, and gray. That divides the possible locations by 10 so you can quickly find the other end of the cable and get right back to work. It's insanity to not use these. I have seen other solutions such as colored rubber bands wrapped around jacks and paper labels taped on, but they all pale in comparison to the simplicity of colored patch cables. Keeping them short minimizes the jungle of madness that will accumulate behind your rack as well.
Now that we've done all we can to get organized outside of the patchbay, let's take a look at how you can configure the inside to increase efficiency and sensibility.
On a scale of 1-10 in terms of confusion, I'd give the concept of patchbay modes about a 5. For most of us, we can use Normal mode only and be perfectly happy, which reduces the confusion back down to a 1. Let's look at the three modes and what they do:
Normal mode is where you'll live most of the time if you only do simple mixing tasks with analog gear and finish up inside a DAW with software plugins. This is what most of us do now, while even more mix entirely in the software realm (what fun is that?).
I'm assuming that if you're unfamiliar, you thought that these patch devices all worked in Thru mode by default, but that's not the case. Let me show you why with the simplest example possible.
To really wrap your head around this, forget about Thru mode. It doesn't really matter for the most part, especially if you're keeping faders or gain knobs at negative infinity (you should be) on your mixer or interface inputs if you're not using them.
I'm going to concoct an imaginary 8 point patchbay in the table below. That's four sections of front and back jacks. I'll have 1 & 2 in Normal mode and 3 & 4 in Half-Normal mode. If you can grasp this, then you have mastered the patchbay and you're ready to deal with 48 point bays and higher, since it's all the same.
There's no conventional name for a column of jacks other than labeling them by their number from left to right. I'm going to call them "panels" here for the sake of being as clear as possible.
|Panel||Top Back (Output)||Bottom Back (Input)||Top Front (Output)||Bottom Front (Input)|
|1 (Normal)||Reverb||Audio Interface Input 1||N/A||N/A|
|2 (Normal)||Compressor||Audio Interface Input 2||N/A||N/A|
|3 (Half-Normal)||Mic Preamp||Reverb||To 4-Bottom||N/A|
|4 (Half-Normal)||Synthesizer||Compressor||N/A||From 3-Top|
Let me explain this with words. First, realize that I've thought out which modes to use on which panels. This vastly simplifies the patching process. If you don't think it out (you'll figure out your own setup over time) you can achieve the same results but it'll require more cabling around.
Our goal in this scenario is to record vocals and commit them to the mix as they are. It's acapella so we aren't even going to use an equalizer. What we do want is to have a raw take at a lower volume that has reverb on it to keep the sense of natural dynamics going while we layer it with a louder compressed version of the same take.
Our XLR mic cable is always plugged into the preamp (you can get an XLR patchbay if you want to pull all of those inputs to the front, too!) so all we need to do is consider the preamplifier's output in Panel 3. It is in Half-Normal mode, so we can let the signal split off into the input on the back automatically, which is the reverb processor. The reverb output is in Panel 1 in Normal mode, which always flows the signal to the output if there's no jack plugged in. This is perfect since the audio interface's first input is there. We have automatically routed the raw signal to the reverb and can record it after setting the levels.
But we also want a compressed version of the vocal take, so we run a cable from the output of Panel 3 on the front and patch it to the input of Panel 4 on the front. Since Panel 3 is in Half-Normal mode, we aren't interfering with uncompressed reverb take. We're splitting the signal into the compressor, which has its output in Panel 2 in Normal mode. And since the second input of our recording interface is on the bottom of Panel 2, we don't need to do anything to record that final, compressed result. We can then layer and mix the volumes to taste in our DAW software.
Now, that may still be a bit confusing for newcomers to the concept and that's okay. Read it a few times and think it through and it'll start to make sense. From there it's just a matter of being able to think through one signal at a time, and you're ready for a bay of any size. If you're ready and want a bit more complicated example, check out or expanded version of this topic in the article How to Use a Patchbay.
Our goal here is to cater to the majority of readers concerned with organizing their music studio racks, which means we'll focus largely on 1/4 inch TRS bays and a mention of a couple great XLR bays since most of us have arrays of preamps as well. I do want to mention that there are tons of types out there, basically one for each type of cable you can imagine. You can also have custom patchbays created for exorbitant amounts of money. But for most of us we just need a reliable, high quality 48 point TRS bay.
Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, and make your purchase.
There are a handful of items I don't suggest buying used, and this is one of them. We're talking about 96 different jacks and 24 panels to be flipped into different modes (or switches for that), grounding clips, and lots of other tiny mechanisms. Unless you plan on testing each piece and hopefully not discovering that a handful aren't working, you'll want to buy new. These are cheap enough and your time is worth it.
Let's get it cracking!
The Samson S-Patch Plus has one feature that sets it above the rest. It's built as strong, it's fully balanced, it's got the same passive 1/4 inch TRS jacks... but each set has a switch to change the mode.
With most patchbays you have to physically unscrew each set of jacks and flip the card over to change the mode. Here, each set features a 3-way switch right on the front to toggle between Normal, Half-Normal, and Thru mode. That is convenience, especially for first-time buyers who need to experiment. It takes a long time before you settle in on a permanent set up, and pulling the chassis out of the rack each time to flip jacks is a little much.
Personally, I slap them all in Half-Normal mode and leave it at that, but I didn't at first and you probably won't either. It doesn't hurt that this ones a beauty either. Like all of these, this one is a 19 inch wide bay that takes up one unit in your rack. For the extra $10 or so bucks, the switches are a huge frustration saver. If you're looking for one and only one, this is your winner.
What I like about the Neutrik NYS-SPP-L1 is that it is built like a tank. This is actually my main patchbay at the moment that I chose for patching in and out of the most. All of these feature sturdy, stable jacks that can handle the workload, but I have a special place in my heart for my Neutrik because it feels just a bit more sturdy. It was the first I ever bought and it has yet to fail me.
This is one, like the next two, where you have to flip the panels to change the mode, which means you have to pull it out of the rack. That usually means pulling out all of the patch cables too. Once you know which modes you want where it's fine, but at first it can be a pain. But they ship these with all jacks in the Half-Normal mode because it's the most versatile. You can do everything you can in the other two modes in Half-Normal and there's no real reason to change it unless it confuses you.
Interestingly, the entire instruction manual is essentially printed on the top of the bay, but you can't read it if it's in the rack! But when you pull it out it's very convenient as it has diagrams for each mode and tells you how to change them and deal with grounding clips if you want. I'm very happy with my Neutrik beast and you would be too. You can save a good $20 with this option if you're happy with Half-Normal mode or are willing to flip the jacks around before you throw it in the rack.
The ART P48 is an attractive option visually and functionally. It's kind of a mix of the two above. It does have switches to toggle modes but there's a caveat: you can only use Normal and Half-Normal (Thru is limiting anyways, I'm not even sure why it exists), and the toggle is on the back! It's a push button solution where a depressed button indicates Normal and having it popped out is Half-Normal.
Having these on the back means you can quickly change modes if you can reach the back of the rack. But the button is between the jacks, so if you have it cabled up you'll need a pencil or something to reach between and press the buttons. It's great if you're experienced and more convenient to switch modes even still, but those switches might as well not exist. But don't let that dissuade you. These are as every bit as good as the other options. If you prefer the way it looks over the others, go for it. There will come a time where you never change modes again.
The DBX PB-48 is old school and I like that. It's built well as is all of DBX's signal processing units. Like the ART P48, you only have the options to deal with Half-Normal and Normal, not the Thru mode. Again, that's fine by me. They boast this one as being noiseless since they've already dealt with all of the grounding straight into the rack through the ears but I've honestly never experienced extra noise in any patchbay. But at least they're going out of their way!
Like the Neutrik, if you want to switch modes you have to flip the jack panels. Each panel here is built like its own little unit, which is cool. There's no exposed interiors or electronics like others, but in the end it's just comforting but not necessary.
The feature that makes me call this "old school" is the dry erase strips supplied for labeling. Don't goof up and use an ink pen or sharpee! This is great especially if you have a set of acronyms in your head for your gear and channels. You're not going to have room to write a lot on there, but "L Main" and "Pre 2" can fit just fine.
DBX doesn't worry about what their gear looks like. That's not to say they're ugly, but they never sacrifice functionality and that's why they're a staple in the music industry. I have DBX compressors from decades ago that still work without fail. I admit that my DBX patchbay was moved to the bottom of the rack because I wasn't using it (I have more patch spots than I have gear at this point) but it suited me very well while it was in operation. I have no doubt that it will come back into play, because I'm currently lusting after some more compressors. This is one you can trust to last basically forever as long as you don't dropkick it across the room with cables patched in.
The ART P16 is an XLR patchbay, like the Hosa below, that serves to bring the inputs from the back of all of your preamplifiers to the front of your rack. All microphones (unless you're using some cruddy USB mic like an animal) need a preamp to bring their signal up to line-level. Some need phantom power too, which is a light power source, and that can pass through these jacks too.
I'm only showing two options for XLR bays, each having its own strength. The benefit of the ART P16 here is that it features 16 jacks. You'll want to think about how sophisticated of a mic setup you need, especially if you're recording full bands with drums. Those extra 4 inputs might save you from a headache.
The downside is that there are no clips to snap the XLR cables into place and hold them. TRS jacks have that built inside them, but here your cable can slide right out if someone pulls on it a bit. That's actually a good thing because it keeps you from damaging anything or pulling over a top-heavy rack. But at the same time they can wiggle loose over time and ruin a good take if you're not careful to double check before you start rolling.
Like every other bay in this list, this is built to be strong and dependable. All you need to worry about is preference. This one's pretty if you like that!
Just like the option above, the Hosa PDR-369 is for XLR connections. This largely is to run microphones to preamplifiers. Like it's counterpart above, this bad boy is solid and dependable, with a few differences. It's not as pretty, but that really has nothing to do with performance and this one can perform. I said each had an upside and downside to them. The upside to this one is that there are clips to hold the XLR jacks in place on the front and the back while the ART P16 didn't have that. That's what those silver buttons are at the top of the jacks. You press them in to release the cables.
The downside is that the Hosa features 12 jacks while the ART has 16. So that's your trade-off for the clips. If you don't need more than 12 mic inputs nor have that many preamps then you may enjoy the look and feel of this option a bit more. Both are great and do their job without flaw. Whichever draws your attention the most is what you should go with.
Newcomers to the recording and studio game tend to avoid patchbays. They think they won't need them, and they seem intimidating to understand. And then the day comes when you realize you've collected enough gear and your buddies want you to record their band. And upon that day shall ye remember this article. Return to it for a quick crash course on which to hurriedly purchase and how it's used! It really takes about 30 minutes to comprehend how they work and about 30 minutes to cable them into your rack and you're up and running.
The best patchbays, the ones you can trust to not fail you at the critical moment, are the most convenient piece of gear you'll ever collect. We all say that the goal is to bring our inputs and outputs to the front of the rack for the sake of speedy work, but the truth is nobody wants to climb behind the rack and contend with the jungle of cables. And that's worth it's weight in gold.