Our Pathfinder is a unit like no other. It's the gray eminence of the mix:analog system, unseen but very powerful. It has no fancy VU meters, no knobs, and no switches. But it will still enable your record to sound just a tiny bit better. So, just what is it then?
A fancy patch bay.
The Pathfinder is a one-of-a-kind, automated, 32in/32out passive patchbay. From the very beginning, the mission of mix:analog is to bring you the best sound processing possible. To us, that means building a system that is a mastering grade setup as closely as possible.
But why do we need an oversized automated patch bay? For two reasons, mostly.
Ok, maybe three.
The first is to avoid three AD/DA conversions for a product like Rack1, compared to a case where every piece of gear would reside in its own AD/DA loop. Since our converter is the great-sounding Burl Mothership, it would not be all that bad, to be honest.
But keeping with the mastering grade spirit means every little bit helps. Passive interconnects will sound more faithful to your sound than any AD/DA conversion known to man.
By using the Pathfinder automated patch-bay there are no additional AD/DA loops and your session will not suffer from any unwanted AD/DA distortion.
Secondly, we have more gear than we have concurrent users on average. And these users would prefer to use more than one device at the same time.
So it makes much sense to rather get fewer but better quality converter channels for the same amount of money and switch the requested gear into the AD/DA loops dynamically. This benefits you directly as better conversion makes it possible to get more sound out of all the gear that is connected to it.
And the third reason is to eventually enable custom chains, chain reorder and individual true bypass functionalities. It's not something that will happen immediately, but an automated patch bay as part of your chain makes all of those nifty features possible.
With the Pathfinder we have the freedom to explore these additional features and ship them to you without fear of being limited by the quality of the conversion or the flexibility of its switching.
What makes Pathfinder "mastering grade"?
But why not simply buy a 32i/o converter and be done with it? Why the audiophile mumbo-jumbo?
If you look at mastering transfer consoles, they exclusively use passive, relay-based switching matrices to reorder or bypass connected processors. It's by far the most expensive approach, but the advantages are huge!
No unneeded de-balancing/balancing
Every time the signal goes from symmetric to single-ended and back again, the CMRR (common-mode rejection ratio) is compromised a little bit and more noise creeps into the signal chain.
Our Pathfinder patch bay is balanced throughout and does not include any parts that are single-ended. So the CMRR is as good as it gets.
In terms of studio-friendly amplitude levels, the headroom is practically infinite.
OK, the small-signal relays inside the Pathfinder go "puff!" at 220 volts (49dBu), but unless you plug the mains into your XLR, you're good. The Pathfinder won't clip or distort - anything else audio related connected to it will do that way sooner.
No unwanted distortion
Even if you put the best possible tubes, transistors or ICs in the signal path, some THD will inevitably occur when the levels get hot. And we don't want THD from the patch bay. Let the experts like the tape machines or the Fairchild 670 handle that and the patch bay stay completely neutral.
The Pathfinder is such a patch bay. Even though it is completely automated, there are no active circuits in the signal path at all - no transistors or chips, just relays.
Specific impedance coupling
This is especially important if you like the sound of vintage gear with loads of funky transformers. To illustrate - the sound of a Pultec -> 1176 -> LA2A chain will be decisively different if you put a buffering stage in-between every box.
The input and output stages will work in a different regime and consequently have a different color to them. All other automated patch bays we know of have buffers and chips inside them instead of relays and this will always affect the signal and impedance.
The Pathfinder is the only automated patch bay that switches the signal passively and retains the impedance matching correctly. You will have the same effect as if you plugged a cable between two units and it will sound 100% correct.
So with all that in mind, we decided to go all the way and make our own mastering grade automated patch bay - the Pathfinder. And not just a regular one, with 6 or 8 insert loops and a few order swap buttons.
We built one with a whopping 1024 cross-points, enabling us to route 16 stereo units in any possible order. And not only that; the routing of a certain chain can be changed remotely, on the fly, without any interruption to coexisting connections.
With other digitally controlled analog patch bays, you would hear clicking in other connections while changing the routes. This is OK if you are the only person using the patch bay, but for mix:analog it's very plausible that you will be sharing with at least 3 more people.
The Pathfinder is a "full matrix" patch bay which means that all the connections are independent and you will not hear any clicking from other users modifying their session.
More than one Pathfinder
I saved the best for last. We already have one Pathfinder in testing and the performance is great. In fact, if you have used RACK1 in the past 6 months, your signal went through the first Pathfinder we made.
The test was successful - the sound is pristine. But to truly develop custom chains and chain reorder functionality, we need more than one Pathfinder to really cover all bases. So we are happy to announce:
Our beloved Pathfinder is getting a sibling in the next few weeks! 🎉
We plan to put a lot of new gear online soon. The first Pathfinder is running out of i/o fast, so assembly of the second one is already underway! This means that when we'll assemble and install the automation for the next processor, we can put it online on mix:analog right away.
Everyone would like the next cool box to be online as soon as possible, right?