The Signal Chain in Home Recording - dummies

By Jeff Strong

The signal chain is the path that your sound travels from its creation (your guitar, keyboard, or voice) to your home recorder. This path often includes several steps — and pieces of gear — that need to be optimized so that you don’t end up with too much or too little sound going to your system. Here’s the straightforward signal chain for a mic going into a studio-in-a-box (SIAB) recorder.

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In this example, the sound originating from your voice enters the microphone, travels to a preamp-equipped input in your device (where it’s amplified), is converted into digital information within the device, and finally gets sent into the recording software section of your recorder and the hard drive (where it’s stored).

The key to a good instrument or mic sound is getting each signal in the chain set to its optimal level. This particular signal chain involves just two places where you can make adjustments to your signal levels:

  • The source: In the example, the microphone’s placement has a huge effect on the signal level that goes into your computer. Moving the mic just a couple inches can have a significant impact on your signal level at the preamp.

    A good, solid level keeps you from having to crank up your preamp too far, which causes noise. If the level is too hot, though — hot in the sense of a solid signal between –12dB and –6dB — you risk getting distortion at the mic. This same concept holds true for keyboards or other electronic instruments, as well as guitars plugged directly into your interface.

  • The preamp-equipped input: You adjust this level to get the right level in your recorder.