Recording Studio Signal Flow Explained (How It Works)

07/02/2020
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What happens to sound once it enters the microphone?

Long story short, it travels through a complicated chain of equipment and eventually re-emerges out your studio monitors.

But what’s the long version of that story?  Where EXACTLY does the sound go?  And WHY?

That’s the topic of today’s article. 

Let’s start things off with a little diagram I made.

Here’s how it works:  Start at the guitar, and follow the arrows through each step in the signal chain, until you arrive at the ear in the center.

recording_studio_signal_flow_diagram

Are ALL studios like this?

In the MOST complex studio setups, this is the exact path an audio signal must travel to reach your ears.

In simpler studios, you might imagine that the signal flow would be simpler as well.  The truth is…it’s NOT.  It’s the same.

Here’s why:

Take for example a simple audio interface: the Focusrite Scarlett.

Along with a laptop, a mic, and some monitors, this one box can comprise an entire studio.  But within this box, are extremely basic versions of all the other devices outlined in the diagram.

The reason you don’t need a separate mic preamp or digital converter is that BOTH are contained within the Scarlett.

It doesn’t mean there are less steps in the signal flow.  It just means that more steps happen within the same device.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s go through the individual steps of the process.

A step by step walk through the diagram

1. Microphone->Mic Preamp

The microphone picks up the sound, and a mic level signal is sent to the microphone preamp.  Since mic level signals are inherently weak, the preamp is needed to amplify it to a higher level.  The amplified signal is known as line level.

2. Mic Preamp->Hardware Effects

The mic preamp sends the line level signal to any number of analog signal processors including EQ and compression.  This step in the process is optional, and in less expensive studios, is often skipped in favor of digital signal processing within the DAW.

3. Hardware Effects->A/D Converter

The hardware effects unit sends the processed analog signal to the A/D converter to be translated into a digital audio signal.

4. A/D Converter->Audio Interface->Computer

The A/D converter sends the digital signal to the audio interface, where it is sent into the computer to be processed by the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).  Within the DAW, the signal is processed by any number of inserted plugins, and mixed with any other tracks in the session.

5. Computer->Audio Interface->D/A Converter

After all DAW process is complete, the signal is sent out to the audio interface and passed to the D/A converter, where it is reverted back into an analog signal.

6. D/A Converter->Headphone Amp, Monitor Management

The D/A converter sends the new analog signal to one of two places: either the headphone amp, or monitor management system.  This is the final step in the process before converting the signal back into sound.

7. Headphone Amp->Headphones

If and when the analog signal reaches the headphone amp, it is then sent to the headphones, where it is heard by the performer.

8. Monitor Management System->Studio Monitors

If and when the analog signal reaches the monitor management system, it is then sent to the studio monitors, where it is heard by the sound engineer.

And that, my friend, is a simple yet complete summary of the entire recording studio signal flow, start to finish.