Frank Wells
Lynn Fuston’s feature article in this issue on audio control applications for touch screen technology, coupled with a recent online discussion on digital console operating paradigms, led me to ponder again the concept of signal flow and non-linear control topologies. With analog consoles, the signal flow somewhat followed the control layout of a console, though with dual in-line faders, output matrix switching above input controls and so on, that only went so far. Still, once signal flow had been mastered on a given analog console, the concepts were fairly transferable to other desks within the general class.

Audio schools still typically teach signal flow beginning with analog console models then apply those concepts to digital consoles. That is a reasonable starting point, but with modern digital desks, there are often significant operational differences between brands. Then when you add in control surface layering, shared controls and control features that are not practical in analog (if even possible), the learning curve can be steep when moving to a new digital console. Non-standardization of labeling and nomenclature can further complicate the process (even with analog).

Digital Audio Workstation signal flow and operation can also vary wildly between brands, even as there are some commonalities in the displays of most DAWs. The signal flow has a studio-encompassing analog equivalent, but the feature sets of DAWs include additional, now mandatory, capabilities that have no traditional counterparts. Becoming a true master of a given DAW is even more intimidating than the task of learning a new console, as the functions are even less standardized, including where the various controls and buttons reside within the GUI and how much is buried inside a menu tree.

True to pattern, new technologies both give and take. Mostly what’s taken is time. But that initial learning curve is typically mitigated in the long term by greater efficiency, assuming one doesn’t overindulge the temptation to fix things with technology when the project would have been better served by the engineer taking more care when recording, also assuming competent musicians. The capabilities we have today offer an amazingly satisfactory cost/performance ratio. Never have so many been able to do so much for so little, and there’s very little to keep anyone from playing. That’s the give.