Signal Routing and simple Logic

I know that many of you may be nodding off just from the title alone. There is no glory in wires, no swagger in logic. You can’t smell the bling. Aah but there you would be wrong.

If you went into a knife fight without a knife, you’d lose. Yes I hear you up the back saying you’d take the other guy’s knife. Yes maybe you would get lucky, but that would be unlikely if you hadn’t done the training. You see Chuck Norris got to be able to wipe the floor with the Bruces Willis & Lee, Arnie & Steven S because he learned how to fight; even more importantly the theory behind fighting.

None of this is hard but almost every day I see questions in forums as to why the signal chain broke or doesn’t work as expected. When I trained DJs it was the same, why can’t I hear the Spice Girls? Simple, you don’t really understand why you are doing what you are doing and you are assuming. Now don’t get me wrong I remember a day in a studio when a friend and I spent an hour thinking the drum machine was broken (damn Roland) but shame of shames the volume was set to zero! We kept assuming till lunch let us see things as they were. I learned a great lesson that day.

Assuming and Failed Logic

I know as humans we hate to learn logic. We prefer fuzzy logic and that is fine but fuzzy leads to wrong conclusions. Logic is cold hard fact. The first thing Harry Potter learns is not hocus pocus but science. You want to learn to make magic sounds then learn a little of the how and why.

We all know what assuming makes you and me. While I hate that saying it is true. Assuming is like saying I want a banana and it appears there in your hand. Most of us would know that is silly as bananas have to be collected from the shop in exchange for coin of the realm. Yet so many of us make that very leap day to day and go bananaless because we didn’t understand how to get the banana from thought to stomach.

I could attempt to detail all the steps between desire for yellow-bendy-fruit and deep-throating of said delectable delicacy but the detail would become so minute we’d all die of hunger. Our brain does lots of routine things for us like walking but only when we have learned to do those things. You can’t rock without signal rolling down the wires. I could give Chuck Norris a pasting if I studied fighting at least as hard as he did.

My point here is merely wanting something is not enough. If you want it enough you will be interested in how and why it works. You don’t need to know why life exists* or why the opposite sex makes your trousers uncomfortable* but you do need to know at least the working mechanics of your medium. We choose to record music so wires are our medium.

Signal Routing

I can hear many of you saying why wires? Wires are so Gary Numan and yesterday, we all use DAWs now and they auto-route. I’m not going into electrons but into the sense of paths and how to move  a signal from one place to another. Routing signals is the heart of what a Sound Engineer and Producer do and it’s only a matter of time before you want to do something interesting in your DAW. Let’s look at a simple rig.

We have Bobby Orlando in the studio playing a cowbell (how he loved that cowbell and we loved him for it). Mr O taps his cowbell** and we get a record. Simple. No, it’s more like this:

  1. Bobby puts stick to Bell
  2. sound propagates and Microphone picks it up
  3. Microphone is routed to Direct Injection Box (DI)
  4. DI is plugged into Mixing Desk Channel:
    1. Gain Stage
    2. Compression & Noise Gate
    3. Equalisation
    4. Insert Effects
    5. Send Effects
    6. Pan & Fader
  5. Sound goes to Tape (or Audio Clip)
  6. Sound is played back through Desk Channel:
    1. Gain Stage
    2. Compression & Noise Gate
    3. Equalisation
    4. Insert Effects
    5. Send Effects
    6. Pan & Fader
  7. Sound is routed to Master Bus
  8. Master Bus is routed to Amplifier
  9. Amplifier is routed to Speakers
  10. Speakers propagate cowbell sound back in to the room and we all make Disco shapes

“I sure hope we got a good take as that is a long list and confusing as hell. You said it was going to be simple” (whilst stamping foot in annoyance – no banana for you). I get that people freak out and think it impossible to learn as there are a lot of knobs on a console and wires in a studio (real or virtual). To try to see the whole first up is a guaranteed fail. This is why I broke it into a list.

Each thing in itself is simple enough. A Low E note is a simple thing. When we combine it with a few other notes we get “Smoke on the Water”. Music flows one note after another and signal routing does the same. Music is drawn out with rows of dots. Interestingly electronic schematics are drawn out with a similar thing called a flow chart. I have drawn one out for our Bobby O session.

Bobby O Cowbell Session
Bobby O Makes a Record

I used to make synths (in software). My first instruments were made on the fly. They were ok. I then started to have more elaborate ideas and I had to work out how to make them. I tried just letting them fall-out in the workspace like magic. I made a mess. I took to drawing synths out from MIDI Note On to Audio Out. There were quite a few boxes in some of those flow charts but I also made some pretty interesting synths. Over time I got better and better at seeing the big picture as I drew more and more maps of the little details. I trained my brain in understanding routing so I can now do a lot of the simple routing as easy as walking to the shop to get a banana.

So when a trainee DJ said to me that the Spice Girls weren’t coming out the speakers it wasn’t hard to know where the break was. However as these kids had to cope alone at a function full of jeering drunks, I made them follow the whole signal chain from CD to Speaker over and again till they found the cause. Rarely a blown amp let me tell you, but I was thrown for a while one night when the dancefloor moved and cut the speaker wire.

Many of those trainees wandered away quickly, but those who learned how the signals flowed and could see them in their heads made decent party starters. Equally they could be Synthesists, Producers, or even Kung Foo stars as they had the basics of learning.


If you can’t get it, instead of banging your head against the monitor, grab a pen and piece of paper and draw it out, every connection till it makes sense and you can see it in your head.

– – – – –

*for the sake of Rock n’ Roll and to create more music fans

** for the sake of accuracy I will remind everyone that Bobby O didn’t invent the cowbell in Disco or even ever likely play one as he had a drum machine (with the volume turned up)

Step two in this process is to be Organized

If you need more practice seeing in you head

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