October 13, 2020

Understanding the Audio Signal Chain

Written by guest contributor J. Bleese

The audio signal chain refers to the path of an electric audio signal. Knowing how this chain works is useful for any student, teacher, or anyone involved in learning or teaching music. Apart from mastering recordings or setting up live performances, you can also use this knowledge in troubleshooting audio issues in online classes or any other instances that involve signal chain flow. In fact, this basic knowledge can empower young, budding musicians to innovate new musical compositions by altering sounds through signals.

How does understanding this flow help musicians in the studio?

Let’s begin in the typical studio set up where the signal chain starts. Converted into an electrical signal by the mic, the sound travels down the mic cable to the microphone panel, effects pedals, or straight to a computer. An easy way to understand how this works is by comparing signal behavior to the water running through some pipes. The longer the water or the signal has to travel, the weaker the pressure becomes, which affects the integrity of the output.

Furthermore, the source of the signal can also greatly affect how well it can flow towards the output. For instance, the signal from acoustic guitars tends to be weaker compared to electric counterparts. So, acoustic guitarists in full bands need acoustic pedals that can bring out the string dynamics of their instruments without getting drowned out signals sharing the same output. Instead of just increasing acoustic volume which may lead to unwanted feedback, pedals can strengthen the signal to produce the intended sound. Another key way in which the signal changes through the flow is the amount of modifications it undergoes. The more modifications are involved, the more complex the signal flow becomes. Outside the classroom, this is perhaps best observed through electric guitarists with multiple pedals.

The ideal pedal board set up requires gain pedals like the classic overdrive and compressor pedals to be closer to the guitar or the source for more direct signal modification. Meanwhile, more complex effects pedals like delay or reverb are more suitably placed near the end of the chain, where they can modify the signal as a whole. Although this is the ideal order of pedals for a clean and crisp sound, both students and teachers with a higher understanding of how the signal chain works can change the signal flow and come up with new configurations, tones, and compositions.

Okay, but do I know any of the musicians who *actually* use these techniques?

You can learn a lot by simply listening to the works of renowned guitarists like Jack White and Tom Morello, who are famous for arranging pedals in unorthodox ways to achieve uniquely expressive tones. Meanwhile, guitarist David Gilmour of the legendary psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd took signal chain innovation to another level back in the ‘60s when he accidentally plugged in his wah pedal backwards and chanced upon strange new ways to modify his instrument’s signal. Being the electric guitar wizard that he is, Gilmour used his discovery for his now iconic otherworldly guitar solo in the song Echoes. And today, musicians experimenting with signal modification still exchange notes on the different ways they can build upon Gilmour’s work.

Apart from guitars, pedals, and microphones, the modern world is replete with strange new tools and instruments that can help students in both understanding the audio signal chain and figuring out new compositions. There’s the Landscape Stereo Field, a synthesizer that’s played by putting your fingers on electronic touch plates to create and break signal connections. In essence the Stereo Field uses the player’s body as part of its circuitry, resulting in unique signal pulses and distortions with each new pair of hands.

Today, there’s no shortage of ways for students to learn and experience signal-based innovation or composition. Whenever electronic instruments are involved, a keen understanding of the signal chain works as a key that can open new doors of musical education and expression.

Post solely for use by Give A Note
Written by guest contributor J. Bleese


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