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Teaching Audio: Time For A Paradigm Change?

What can analog systems offer that’s still relevant and necessary for helping students transition to any future recording system?

By Barry Hill February 8, 2018

For years I’ve maintained that learning signal flow on an analog console is the best foundation for venturing into the digital world. DAWs are based on consoles, after all, so it made sense.

Older engineers had a fairly easy transition by looking for the same operational patterns they were used to. It’s all there—assigns, inserts, sends, returns, busses, and so on—just buried behind menus, pages, and often-unlabeled soft keys.

Some years ago I completed a research experiment comparing students with professional engineers. The idea was to see how well they could figure out various operational tasks in Pro Tools. My working assumption, based on mental model theory, was that professionals knew what they needed to get the job done—they just had to find the relevant functions in the software.

Sure enough, I had a couple of engineers who didn’t use Pro Tools, but knew they needed a send or output bus. With a little searching around they found it. Students, on the other hand, lacking similar experience in signal flow and operations, were less certain of how to solve the problem and fished around a great deal.

This seemed to confirm that an analog paradigm was the best approach for training new generations of engineers; actually seeing the controls on the console, turning up an aux send, and physically patching a compressor provides a tangible, tactile awareness of where signals are coming and going.

And so I’ve spent a great deal of time in my first year recording classes trying to get across concepts such as channel/mic path vs monitor/mix path using the very education-friendly Audient ASP4816 and 8024 analog consoles, we plug a mic into channel 4 and route it to track 9, emphasizing that anything that happens to a signal going to Pro Tools for recording must be done in the mic path, such as inserting a compressor or EQ.

All monitoring, including cue mix, must be in monitor path, which means finding the correct channel (is it 4 or 9?) and ensuring those functions are selected to the correct signal path. I provide signal flow diagrams, we bootcamp setups in class, they have step-by-step instructions to follow…and I wonder now whether I’m holding on to something that’s not as relevant anymore.

Most future audio engineers will never touch an analog recording console. DAW controllers don’t follow the dual-path channel design, so it doesn’t apply. Sure, signal flow is key, but relevant signal flow is what’s important.

They need to learn that a mic preamp always comes first. How to patch an outboard compressor through their interface. How to use sends for adding reverb in a mix. How to bus a kick into the sidechain of a compressor on the bass.

But mic path vs mix path? I dunno anymore…maybe I should start students with a control surface and just focus on getting good recordings, learn how to use various processing, and develop their ears.

Most schools do this, but often because they didn’t have the resources to buy ”real gear.”

It’s cheap to set up a DAW with a couple speakers. My selling point was that we taught “serious audio engineering” fundamentals that were critical for anything they might run into someday. And I still believe that touching an analog console is better than trying to “see” the virtual routing in a DAW.

There’s a balance between holding on to fundamentals that matter and embracing a new paradigm of working in audio.

Where’s the line? What can analog systems offer that’s still relevant, and necessary, for helping students transition to any future recording system that’s yet to be designed? Or is it time to move on and treat these consoles like tape machines—a very cool vintage thing to play with, but not really necessary to produce audio. Let me know… in the meantime I’ll be cleaning my patchbay.

About Barry

Barry Hill
Barry Hill

Barry Hill, D.Ed. is a long-time audio educator and engineer who serves as professor and director, Audio & Music Production, at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.
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