Bittree ProStudio 4825f 2x24 TT patchbay by Arthur Stone
The Weakest Link?
A patchbay may seem like a mundane piece of gear but it's a critical juncture in the electrical audio signal path. If $0000's have been spent on primo slutty gear then the last thing that's needed is a weak link in the chain.
That danger of a weak link (broken connections, scratchy or intermittent noise) put me off patchbays and early on I heeded Hugh Robjohns' sage advice in Sound-On-Sound that this is gear that should not be done on the cheap. For me, the words 'patchbay' and 'evil' were synonymous.
When I needed to hook up the D-sub analogue I/O on my iZ RADAR Studio converters I had a difficult decision to make: I couldn't afford a mixer to do the RADAR sound justice; nor could I afford a top of the line patchbay and cables.
The problem I needed to solve was how to integrate all my analogue gear with the analogue side of RADAR (16-channels); after thorough research on Gearslutz, my only option was to assemble an XLR patchbay utilising an RME BOB (D-sub><XLRm/f) breakout box, 2x Art XLR patchbays, short XLR patch cables and long D-sub cables.
Whilst this is a great system (given my budget) that does the job, there are disadvantages too: it is clunky, there is wear and tear on the XLR cables, connectors and sockets (that purpose-designed patch cables would overcome). To achieve the XLR system with good quality cabling was not cheap either: half the price of a top-end patchbay.
The XLR system also takes up 3u of 19” rack space and needs to be solidly mounted to avoid stressing the cables. My XLR system isn't as slick as a purpose-designed patchbay.
Enter the Bittree ProStudio 4825f patchbay. It came out-of-the-blue for Gearslutz review (sorry I'm rhyming again!)
The interconnectedness of everything:
Coincidentally, a few weeks prior, the studio I collab with – The Analogue Cafe - was having new patchbays installed (due to unreliability in the much-used and abused existing patchbays...which were not cheap ones...no names). I enquired about the replacement and this is the first time I heard the name “Bittree” although if I'd worked in or been familiar with the film and entertainment industry in California (and beyond) I would have recognised the name as an industry standard for audio and video patchbays.
The Analogue Cafe had been introduced to Bittree by the guy who built their console – lets call him Bob. Bob knows about equipment and components and what's good and what's not: he singled out Bittree patchbays as having exemplary design and reliable components. They bought two.
So it was a pleasant surprise when I learnt I'd be reviewing the new Bittree ProStudio 4825f patchbay for Gearslutz: it's a 2x24 TT (bantam) configuration with 6xD-sub analogue I/O on the rear. A point of note is that the Bittree costs less than my XLR system (2x Art P16; 1x RME BOB) and only uses 2u rackspace or alternately used as a desktop or shelf device (e.g. sitting on a 500-series Lunchbox).
The short story is: I heard it was quality; I expected quality; it is quality. The main, single most important point, is that it will not f#ck up your sound. It won't devalue your gear by being the weakest link.
Bittree ProStudio 4825f current price (Sept. 2017):
$630. Bittree TT cables from $18 each: low capacitance 110 Ohms, flexible digital wire, AES-compatible, electroless nickel-plated for durability, custom colours and sizes available.
The cables are very good quality and good colour range.
That tells us the TT cables are in tight and secure.
30K minimum insertion cycles sounds good; depending on the workflow that'd be 5-10 insertions per session giving 3-6000 sessions. A decade or so at minimum.
The temperature range for operation is from freezing point to extremely hot...lets face it, you're gonna expire from frostbite or sunstroke before the 4825f dies on you. Seriously, in those temperatures I'd expect environmental control, cooling or heating – or, equipment designed to operate in extremes. It'll cope in most studios.
The unit's weight is comfortably light – to carry, to rack or to situated on a desktop; interestingly although the withdrawal force is >30N and the unit weight is 22.24N, the unit did not move at all when a cable was inserted or withdrawn; the rubber feet held the unit solid. The solidity is also due to the traditional, high-quality, folded steel construction. TT cables will add a kilo or two to the unit weight.
Another positive is the use of AES digital wire of a standard similar to video patchbays where integrity of signal is arguably more critical than audio; or at least is more obviously detectable in the visual spectrum.
All Bittree patchbays pass phantom-power but not recommended in half-normal applications, so planning is needed for microphone/preamp connections.
As shown (below) there are per channel normalling and grounding options (called 'shunts') and these are going to be useful for connecting a variety of equipment if grounding is an issue; for the review I left everything at default. Normally, the shunts are covered by the designation strips which keeps the fascia steamlined.
The electrical audio signal either passes through the 4825f from D-sub in to D-sub out unhindered (normalled); or will do so only if a cable connects the top and bottom sockets (non-normalled); or, signal through unhindered plus a Y-split enabling audio out from front/top socket (half-normalled). In practise, gear can be connected in quite complex ways per channel and this is well-implemented on the 4825f.
A short history of the patchbay and TT cables:
Patchbays or (patch panels) were mainly first used in the telephone industry (exchanges) where signals could be manually routed by an operator without the need for expensive mechanical switching gear.
Patchbays can use RCA phono-connectors (unbalanced), un/balanced jack or XLR connectors; other cables and connectors are used for specific projects but the telephone and pro audio industries have moved towards the smaller diameter 'tiny telephone' or TT connectors – this size (4.4mm) achieves a good balance between patchbay real-estate and area of connectivity between jack and socket. Although larger jack sizes (6.35mm/ 1/4”) have a greater connectivity area and can be more reliable, the TT connector has a slightly different shape (more rounded) which is less likely to cause shorting of the signal when plugging in.
Positives and negatives of patchbays:
+ easy routing of audio signals; allows gear to have multiple applications; reduces wear and tear on gear I/O.
- mechanical components and/or cables can fail and lose signal, become intermittent and hard to detect.
Despite my early concerns about patchbay reliability, the 4825f build-quality and Bittree's design and reputation countered many of the perceived negatives of patchbays in general. Bittree's connectors have a failure rate of less than 0.0001%. The design accounts for metal 'memory' in the spring connection: “Solid-gold switching contacts are welded and electrically-bonded to the spring leaves providing superior durability and higher electrical current ratings than...pressed-on foil approach...”
Bittree's history in the pro video industry and why this matters for audio:
Bittree started in 1978 in Glendale, California and it's design, manufacturing is based there in the centre of the entertainment industry. Bittree's founder and CEO Glenn Garrard started out in Motown Records, Detroit, building and maintaining speakers and tape machines; he moved to Los Angeles in 1972 when Berry Gordy Jr. relocated Motown there.
Bittree “offers an innovative line of audio, video, and data patchbays for use in broadcasting, postproduction, and pro A/V operations. Tailored for use in the post-production, pro A/V, systems integration, and radio and television broadcasting fields, Bittree’s patching solutions are rigorously tested to ensure long-term functionality and dependability, especially for mission-critical operations and live events.”
Bittree gear is also military spec: ensuring proper performance, and ease of maintenance, repair and operation, and logistical utility. Mil-spec is not a panacea for all ills but it is a good indicator of standards in design and construction.
Bittree's website is informative about current patchbay technology, and has more detailed FAQ's. In the blog, general manager Ari Baron is interviewed by Anthony Vargas: https://www.bittree.com/blogs/news
Ari discusses the Bittree's aim for the 4825f to bridge the gap between professional audio applications (industry) and desktop (home/project studios), and he emphasises its role as 'a central-nervous system' of the studio; it “integrates, connects and coordinates all sonic activity within its space. Without it you move around the studio like a jellyfish.”
This is exactly what I found in use...not exactly a replacement for a mixer but, with imagination, far more flexible than just connecting gear. All the signals/gear pass through that small, configurable space.
The 4825f (mnemonically-pleasing to say) just slotted straight in to my existing system – the difference being that the actual patching could now be done using the purpose-built Bittree (rather than my Heath-Robinson XLR system).
The 4825f was easy to install: I first decided on positioning - on the desk at arms reach (with a Focusrite Saffire and KRK Ergo monitor controller on top) and then connected 4 D-subs (out of the 6 available) for analogue I/O. The I/O normalled path (straight through in the absence of TT cables patched in) was 8 channels from RADAR to the DAV mixbus and 8 channels from the XLR patchbay into RADAR.
If it were a fixed installation (rather than for review) I would have racked the Bittree using the rack ears (extra cost accessory) and wired the outboard gear directly rather than through the existing XLR system; also I would be using the full 16 channels I/O to and from RADAR with the remaining 8 Bittree channels for connecting outboard gear.
For a 16 channel system (with additional 8 channels for sends/auxes), one Bittree 4825f will suffice; for 24 channels a larger 2x48 channel ProStudio (or multiple units) will be required unless there is an existing mixer or patchbay that can be integrated.
The Bittree TT socket connectors are rock solid and this is due to the internal mechanism (pictured) and the engineering tolerances of the plug and socket. Differences measured in microns (approx 0.000039 inches or 1/1000th of a millimetre) can make or break the functionality (and enjoyment) in use.
I 'lost' 2 channels of audio for 30 mins; couldn't figure it out. Finally I realised 2 jacks were a few millimeters out – they felt solid but needed a really good push. It was difficult to spot them at first as they didn't particularly stand out of line with the others and there are a lot of sockets and cables partially blocking the view. I think the answer is muscle memory. After a few uses I learnt to connect properly but maybe something to be aware of on first use. Considering the advantages of a firm connection, no points were lost for ease-of-use.
Bittree for 500-series users and beyond:
The 4824f was designed specifically to fit perfectly with the API 500-6B 6-slot Lunchbox Chassis; also, it is well-suited to a variety of positions and gear systems besides. I don't own/use 500-series but I understand the mechanics of it and it's easy to see how the 4825f fits into that audio ecosystem – either from rack D-sub to D-sub or D-sub to XLR.
Bittree have specifically targetted the 4825f as a patching/connection solution for 500-series users (although the solutions are equally as applicable in home/project studio use or as multiples for larger studios/projects).
I used it on the desktop with a small interface and monitor controller on top and it gave good size/functionality value. Alternatively it can be racked (using optional ears) and placed remotely if patching is seldom needed e.g. fixed installations.
I can also see the 4825f as a router for connecting synths/keyboards or for matching mics with pre's – perhaps even modular systems too. The normalling and grounding options increase the range of potential applications.
So this is quite a critical device for the analogue audio signal path; simple but effective. Despite only connecting things it is solid and sexy enough for slutz. Not industrial chic by any means but it won't detract aesthetically.
It's a great solution for someone with (my) low budget to connect equipment and manipulate audio paths without losing fidelity of sound. Sure, I'd prefer a nice analogue mixer with lots of sends/auxes but that'll have to wait for now, and even with a great mixer I'd still want the 4825f – so it's a good investment buy for building up a studio from humble origins without compromise.
This seems a great solution for professional studio patchbay use (although that isn't my natural habitat); probably more utility for the home/project studio market due to it's footprint but if I was kitting out a studio then multiples of this unit (or the ProStudio 2x48) would work well, especially for mobile studios due to it's footprint and weight. Existing patchbay users will recognise the value in the 4825f.
A further use would be for fixed installations.
Bittree make a full range of patchbays and I'd recommend checking out the website if the 4825f isn't the exact spec you require. In addition to TT and 1/4” frames, custom orders can be built. Bittree also manufacture and sell a range of cables specifically designed for their product standards – the TT cables supplied for the review felt very good.
So a very positive experience with the Bittree ProStudio 4825f; I no longer think patchbays are evil. They can be a force for good too. Thank you Bittree, for restoring my confidence in the humble, but critical, patchbay.
Sound quality: 5/5 I didn't hear any difference between the Bittree and without. Perfect. Absolutely no hint of any instability or corruption of the audio signal. My faith in patchbays is restored.
Features: 5/5 Despite the 4825f's plain, practical look, the normalling switches – cleverly concealed – add all the functionality needed in terms of routing and grounding (which can eliminate unwanted noise). I can't really think of anything extra that would not hinder the function: to route the electrical audio signal. The D-sub connectors allow a variety of I//O options: XLR; jacks; un/balanced, for the specific requirements of the studio and gear.
Ease of use: 5/5 Although the TT connectors are rock solid and need a firm push and pull of the patch cable, it is possible to think a cable is fully-inserted when in fact it is 1/8” (4mm) out; this is less easy to spot when the sockets are all populated and the patch cables obscure access. I don't think it'd be an issue after a learning period (muscle memory, etc.) but I doubt I will be the only one that had to track the problem down. On the positive side, once in, the cables need a firm action to remove them. This ensures a good connection and an uncompromised audio path.
People with large hands/fingers might find it a bit cramped but not too bad considering only 2 rows of sockets/cables.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 There's just one proviso with this score: I haven't used the unit for 10 or 20 years but based on my engineering experience (ex-toolmaker), Bittree's industry reputation and hands-on experience with the 4825f I would expect it to last that at least. Although the 4825f is priced at the high-end of the prosumer market it feels and performs like pro gear and it's worthy of the best you've got.
The real value here is the trickle-down technology from a company that arguably produces the worlds best and most reliable patchbays; multi-milltion buck projects rely on the integrity of Bittree's gear and for the first time it is available in a form that makes sense for general studio applications.
Credits and references:
Les demoiselles du téléphone, aspect d'un bureau téléphonique parisien vers 1900. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
Jellyfish. S.E.A. Aquarium, Marine Life Park, Sentosa, Singapore by Smuconlaw: used under Creative Commons 3.0