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The Signal Flow of a Recording Studio

page 1 2 3

When you know the flow, you're ready to go

by Rich the TweakMeister

analog flow of electrons



zZounds Recording Department




Multitrack Recorders

Stereo Players/Recorders

Microphone Preamps

Signal Processing

Acoustical Treatments


The studio tweak lives in a world of electrons, and is able to follow them through thick and thin.  From the big, fat juicy voltages that make up analog signals to the tiny, rapid-fire ones and zeros of digital audio and MIDI, you need to learn to follow the path of the flow.  In the good ol' analog days this was easy as there was always a cable connecting things on the outside and a signal trace inside the gear.  Now it gets a little more complicated as the sequencer has virtual pathways through software mixers, effects, synths and processors.  But in the end, it once again goes analog and goes to the speakers.  The charts below are the basic building blocks.  Inside each block there may be hundreds, even thousands of switches, but you need to get the core basic flow down first.


the blackboard

The Simple Mixerless Studio

 Mixerless studio


The Software Revolution

What you see in the pic above is the basic essence of the mixerless setup.  With today's fast computers and with all the available music software, it is now possible to run a software only studio.  Notice there is no rack of synth modules and hardware samplers, no analog mixer or even a mixdown recorder.  The computer software revolution has replaced these items with software equivalents.  For the mix, the tracks in the sequencer are "bounced" internally to a stereo .WAV file.  This is often called "mixing in the box" or a software mix.

Does that mean that the hardware devices are obsolete?  No!  Far from it, actually.  As you get more serious with your recording studio you may feel the need to have hardware synths and samplers and other dedicated hardware devices.  The people who work with music gear everyday know that hardware is at a high state of the art, it's easier as it does not stress the computer, has more up-time and finally, hardware devices sound excellent.  It's almost funny that many of the top studios jocks want nothing to do with software at all, particularly Windows software, though that has changed a bit in the last few years.

Mixerless with Audio Interface vs. Soundcard with Mixer

Why is this important?  Its because you have to choose whether you are going to go with an audio interface by itself or a mixer connected to a soundcard.   This is one of those decisions you have to make at the beginning of your studio build, when you are least equipped to make it.  That's why we are going to spend some time on the next pages to give you some advanced intelligence on the issue.  Above you see the mixerless approach in it's simplicity.  Now lets turn to the mixer approach.


mixer based system

True Stories from Tweak's Lab

(or, why I should have got a Lexicon

I once invited a truly gorgeous female vocalist over along with some other ppl to record some tracks.  Imagine. There you are nervous as hell, trying to play your instrument, make conversation, set mic levels, think creatively about the task at hand, and then you try to arm your computer to record.  Uh-Oh, U Hit a wrong button, and WHAM, crash city.  You reboot (10 minutes on windoze, after enduring blue screen disk checks and a quick jaunt through safe mode) and it crashes again!) 

You reboot again and get a message that your software synths must be reauthorized before they will load (10 minutes).  Finally you have it all under control and the song loads.  Then your virus checker starts a 20 minute system scan because of the last 2 crashes....   Heehee!

Your vocalist by now has given up on you as some hopeless computer dweeb and is on her cell looking for escape routes.  Now if you had a hardware studio all you do is set up the mic, set the levels and let it rip.  Hardware studios are people friendly.  Your friends can see what you are doing and after the track is recorded they can watch you turn their performance to magic with a few tweaks at a mixing board. 

It's not quite the same when you are hunched over a small monitor muttering small profanities under your breath as you try to remember the directory you left the presets to your effects plugin!  Everyone is waiting for you and you hear giggles and snickers behind your back. As you hit PLAY but NOTHING HAPPENS! You HIT RECORD and you CRASH AGAIN! Someone behind you EXPLODES into LAUGHTER Now you are sweating, confusion sets in --you scream...  

the scream

Its far easier to hand her the mic reach over to a rack, find the send to the Lexicon (reverb), and turn the dial a quarter turn, then turn to your guests to see the look of astonishment on their faces at your simple act of pure magic.    

A Modern Mixer-based Recording Studio Setup

Don't let this scare you.  This is a DAW system based around an analog mixer.  Its tried and true and has been with us since the mid 90's.  As you see we have dedicated external synths (where you can add any midi module like the old 80's analogs, Proteus, Roland JVs, Triton racks,  hardware samplers like the emu e6400, akai s5000, etc) and a dedicated hardware mixer which takes all the audio outs and mixes them.  Note that the mixer goes back and forth to the sequencer's audio tracks through the soundcard or audio interface.  We have dedicated outboard effects units and compressors and preamps.  For the mix, the mixer's output is fed right back into the computer. That is what is called a "hardware mix".  Alternatively, you can also bounce tracks internally in the sequencer to render a stereo software mix in the box.  Either method results in a stereo .WAV file which can later be burned to CD or MP3. 

So where does that leave you?  If you are just starting out, hook up your soundcard, or get an audio interface with a breakout box that has a mic preamp on it, add a keyboard, a mic, plug in your guitar. Then get a software sequencer and hook it all up.  Mess around with general midi for a month and then see if you are still serious.  If you are, you might want to expand your soundmaking arsenal with soft synths and sampler or maybe a hardware synth.

If you like the hardware approach it's time to start thinking of getting a mixer.  If you are wanting to invite friends over to record, or even record bands, then you probably will want to go down the hardware path further to a digital 8 track or 16 track.  Why is that?  Can't a computer function as an 8 track?  Sure can, you can easily get a fast computer to do 16, 32 even 64 tracks if you want.  Heh, look at notes from my lab in the sidebar on the left. 

But if you are a one-person-performer/producer/engineer, and you like doing it all yourself, then the software studio has lots of promise.  There's a vast selection of software synths, samplers, effects processors that will fit right into your sequencer.  You can get effects with software that would take a 20 foot rack of gear to do in the hardware realm.  The sound of these devices gets better all the time, and there are some modern producers that actually prefer soft samplers to hardware for their sound.  If you are after new and otherworldly sounds you need to go down the software path.  Perhaps the main advantage is the awesome thing you can do with sample editors and soft samplers with plugin effects in your sequencer track.  The power is awesome and its right at the control of your mouse.  Perhaps the main disadvantage to going a software only route is that you must be computer literate. To keep your studio running you need to maintain your PC, deal with driver conflicts, be able to upgrade components, and most important, learn how to troubleshoot.  Heh, some computer tweaks are so cautious they won't even let their music computer touch the internet or network.  I think that's extreme, as often you need to connect to get drivers, download updates, etc. Just don't let the internet hucksters take over your desktop or start up folder.

Of course you can do a mixture of hardware and software, depending on your goals.  That's what I do.  Synths and samplers both hard and soft, grooveboxs and sequencer, outboard and plugins.  The power of the combination is sometimes overwhelming.  As you start out, I only give one piece of advice.  Keep it simple.  Expand only when you clearly see the need.  If you are like many of us you will have a burning desire to take your rig to the next level.  Always temper that desire with forethought and planning.


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Further Reading on MIDI and Audio

OK Class, here's your homework assignment.  Read the following articles as time permits.  When all of it makes sense you will be 100 percent up to speed. 

Best of Luck in your Music Making!

Cool Quote:

"Wide awake I can make my most fantastic dreams come true."

 Lorenz Hart (18951943), U.S. songwriter

Tweak's Articles on Essential Studio Concepts

Hooking Up Audio
MIDI Basics
The Many Functions of MIDI Data
The Audio Interface
Signal Flow Computer-based Studio
Signal Flow of an MPC Hip Hop Studio
Signal Flow of a MultiTrack Studio
Assembling Your Studio Rig
Studio setup in a Nutshell
5 Hot Tips
Building a Quiet Room
Understanding MIDI Interfaces
The War on Hum
Multiple Video Displays
Latency and how to Deal
Word Clock
Everything About Cables
Digital Audio Converters
Bit Depth and Sample Rate
Studio Monitors
Impedance for Musicicans
How to setup a Patchbay
Room Acoustics Basics
Studio Monitors Price List
Acoustic Products
Catalog of MIDI Interfaces