Creating your signal path

When working in the studio, the signal paths you create are going to depend on so many factors and will determine the quality of the sounds you record. Understanding what a signal path is a fairly simple concept. Simply put, it is the order to which an audio signal is put through to get to its end location. In a recording environment, your end location is your DAW. For a guitarist, their end location is the audio signal coming out of their guitar cabinet for the world to hear. If you’re a Live Sound mix engineer your end location is the audience in your venue.

Signal paths can vary from minimal to extremely complex setups. Understanding the basic setup and routing though will lead you to creating some interesting sounds in your career. Below we will look at some common signal paths you will encounter in the studio and live situations.

Recording Signal Path

Getting sound into your DAW or studio console will always follow a specific route. Because there can be so many variations of a signal path in the studio, outlined below is the basic connection:

Instrument – microphone – preamp – DAW

Let’s take a look at the model above using a guitarist as an example in the studio. The guitarist will find his desired sound through his setup. The recording engineer will then place a microphone on the amplifier cabinet. That microphone will then be sent through a preamp to take that signal and amplify it to an audible level which will then be sent to the DAW for recording.

At its very simplest this is what a signal path looks like in the studio however many experienced recording engineers will place certain elements like compressors, equalization or any other type of effect between the microphone preamp and the DAW to further control the sound before it is recorded.

Guitar Signal Paths

We will now look at what a guitar signal path looks like. In this example, the end location is not a DAW it is the audio heard from the amplifier.

Guitar – ¼ cable – efx pedals – Amplifier – Speaker Cabinet

Conclusion

Understanding signal paths will help you early in your career as a recording engineer because you will always understand where to start. It will come to a point where signal paths will become second nature and you won’t even hesitate where to begin when in session with a band. There are so many types of signal paths in the studio that it will take years to name them all. All you need to understand is that a signal path is the route the audio takes to get to its end location.