Case Study: Teaching Signal Flow with Virtual Simulations

Educating students on the topics of consoles, patchbays and signal flow presents it’s share of challenges. Most scenarios the teacher won’t have hardware in front of the class. For those that do, there isn’t the capacity for the students to practice leading up to their first studio labs. Students will follow along in lectures about “voodoo” to the best of their ability. Only once they’ve been physically present in front of the hardware is when instructors start to gain confidence that their students are growing in their understanding of the environment.

What if the students were able to practice at home? 

What if the teacher could measure the growth of their students outside the labs? 

That way, everyone will be more confident when labs get underway. Right?

 

My background in tackling these questions is from the perspective of the student. Take my word as the “middle-man” between the teacher and student paradigm. 

I was the student that was being educated when I took the initiative to solve my own problem of lacking access the recording studio to practice when I wanted to. I created a series of virtual software simulations to encapsulate the core principles of working in the suites that were available to me at university. The simulations enabled me to explore deeper functions of the consoles and more advanced routing. This ended up being a solution to a global issue that most students lack physical time in studios.  Since conception, I’ve been sharing my software at industry events and schools around the world, influencing educators & students to use a new method of pro-audio learning via virtual software. The Soundcheck project was a winner in the Student Design Competition at the AES 137th Convention.

Before we dive into Virtual, let’s look at what some educators are doing!

From my many interactions with educators over the years, I’ve heard of all kinds of clever tactics used to demonstrate signal flow. For example: One recording educator from Austin Texas uses cardboard, putty and yarn to demonstrate patching and signal flow. Remarkable! Some educators have created interactive slideshows or pretzi’s to create interactive experiences that could potentially increase student understanding.

Where Soundcheck comes in, is a continued evolution of this research. Soundcheck is an interactive tool that could deliver the essentials of studio signal flow, consoles & patchbays! 

The First School Research Pilot

When I started to build relationships with audio programs is when I started to understand how this product truly translates in the classroom. Our first pilot was with the Institute of Audio Research in New York City. Educators were looking for ways to provide value to the students who wanted more access to recording studios. Using both Soundcheck & Virtual studio, I taught lectures and labs on the basics of signal flow, consoles and patchbay routing using virtual tools. Every student had their own studio loaded on their own computers. Once the students had some familiarity with Soundcheck, I would use Virtual Reality to demonstrate the same in a more realistic “world-scale” experience. The studio that’s available in Soundcheck2D comes to life in VirtualStudio3D.

 

There were 2 sets of 12-15 students in each class & lab for the duration of a week.

Experiment: Soundcheck in the classroom & labs

On the first day working with the students before beginning lessons, I conducted interviews to understand different personas. These students already knew the names of the basic studio terminologies. I didn’t have to explain to them what a console or patchbay was. 

Tasks: 

  • Add stems for playback 
  • Designate microphones
  • Play signals through the console and route the mix to the speaker output.
  • Use patchbay to route audio fx at different points in the signal path.
    • Before channel input
    • Inserts Send & Returns
    • Aux / Fx Sends 
    • Returns
    • Track Busses (for those that made it here)

Other Topics

  • Environments
  • Console Mixing
  • Normalled / Half-Normalled Patchpoints
  • Mono to Stereo Processors
  • Dynamic & Time-Based FX
  • More

If we are simulating a real studio experience there would be performers, microphones and multitrack playback. Soundcheck enables a user to treat an audiofile like it’s the live performer. Using the “Sources” tab users can add audio files and select microphones that illustrate the performers signal. The “microphone” signal playback through the console and I demonstrate the steps to operate sound input & output on the console without focusing on the extra details. Students need to first understand what is essential to verifying input & output.

(This is also a built-in tutorial in Soundcheck Session Guide):

  1. Input Gain  – Could be a line or mic signal.
  2. Stereo Bus – Sending the channel to the main mix.
  3. Channel Fader – Control the level being sent to the main mix.
  4. Monitor Bus Select – What mix is sent to speaker output.
  5. Master Fader – Raise the master volume of the mix.
  6. Monitor Volume – The volume the main main plays to the speakers.

The students were able to quickly perform these tasks.

Areas of confusion: Naming conventions amongst different consoles or a varied sort of grouping. (Track Bus vs Sub Group)

In the next lesson, we explored the patchbay and how it was actually a part of the signal path before the signal reaches the console. Now using Soundcheck, I was demonstrating a patch from the microphone panel to an external channelstrip with a preamp unique to that specific console. Students were quick to grasp this concept, but were also quick to ask why a patch cable wasn’t necessary for the mic to reach the console even without an external pre-amp! This inevitably introduces the topic of normalled & half-normalled patchpoints. This is something that Soundcheck thrives at demonstrating. Now students were reorganizing the layout of how the microphone signals would spill onto the console. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be happening! Session setup is the first thing students will do when they enter the studio for labs. Keep in mind we are in the classroom preparing for the lab. 

In the next lesson we explored the Aux Sends. This presented another patching challenge as Aux Sends were not instructed to return on a channel strip rather than at Stereo Returns in the master section. This isn’t a terribly complex concept but, students needed further instruction. They don’t seem immediately comfortable with the idea of the master section right away. That’s fine. They need to be building this confidence in their knowledge of the console as more exercises are performed.

Students were able to activate and use the EQ’s on their own. That is pretty self-explanatory on the channelstrips. However, the Inserts patches presented the first remarkable finding. Demonstrating an insert patch looked very similar to the patch we had just done before. Only now that path was further down the signal path. Some students were able to perform the Insert exercise but, some used the microphone signal to come back in via the insert return! See image below. Channel 9 is an incorrect patch however, this is the exact kind of mistake we want students to be making in the virtual domain before entering the studio. Once I explained the difference to those who needed a little more individual attention, they were on their way! Channel 16 & 20 demonstrate the correct patches.

For labs, students again used Soundcheck but, now alongside the hardware they already had on campus. This offered them a chance to see two workflows and how they are different side by side. Though their lab patchbays were not necessarily as advanced as the patchbay in Soundcheck, their hardware patchbays offered destinations that aren’t labelled as they are in Soundcheck. At the time, Soundcheck did not offer a MULTS set of patchpoints. All the students were quick to comment on that difference! They needed to explore other ways to MULT the signal which in Soundcheck could be achieved via TrackBusses!The varied workflow was an added benefit to the learning. Students were then allowed to mix to their heart’s contempt. Seeing all the students work from my chair was easy to monitor the progress and pitfalls. Their actual instructor helped monitor and guide the students.. Majority of the students achieved all the tasks and were mostly practicing at this point rather than learning. To see all the students’ screens with the consoles lighting and patch connections made was extremely gratifying. 

There were two sets of 15 students. Each with their own Soundcheck simulation running performing sets of 20 patches at minimum. That’s 600 patches in the classroom! Then again in the lab. In a best case scenario, the students have laptops and can practice at home to be more prepared for the next day.

Virtual Reality in the Classroom

With the students already having an understanding of Soundcheck,  they were now ready to experience the workflow in a real-world size scenario via Virtual Reality! The advantage of operating a studio simulation in VR in the class is the captivating engagement it offers everyone. The technology is exciting. Whether or not the students are wearing a headset, they can see what’s being done on screen similar to a camera being set up overhead above the hardware. The difference here being this is fantastic for classrooms that don’t have hardware.

The same tasks from the Soundcheck exercises were demonstrated in VirtualStudio.Only now there is a 3D sense of space. Being familiar with where to find console functions, patchbay and outboard gear is essential. I allowed some students to have their go at VR so other students could see some mistakes prior. This ended up being a goal winner. 

Virtual Reality Practical Exam

Following the class demonstration of Signal flow in VR it was time for students to receive their individual studio time in the virtual domain! Students were asked to perform all the same functions they had been learning in Soundcheck until this point. The commonalities in workflow allowed for a seamless transition from 2D to 3D once students were familiar with how the environment could be engaged with the technology. The students could have used a follow up studio practical. We focused on Soundcheck in this trial. Virtual Reality was a bonus to our Pilot!

Guest Workshop with IRKO

To conclude the week of workshops we hosted award-winning producer IRKO. We discussed working in studios and the different workflows he has encountered in his career. He then demonstrated a mix using VirtualStudio in VR. Now the students we’re seeing through the eyes of the engineer! Not just a fly on the wall anymore!

Pros & Cons of Virtual Reality

 

Pros

  • Higher Interest & Engagement
  • More workflow variety to demonstrate
  • No liability of damages to expensive hardware

 

Cons

  • As long as it’s only the teacher using VR the students should be fine. However, if students wear headsets,  they can develop motion sickness, fatigue and overall loss in their ability to learn. For this reason we advocate for minimal use of VR in the classroom.

Conclusion

 

Virtual Simulations of recording studios are effective at demonstrating and evaluating signal flow and common studio operations. Through interactive engagement are key lessons made available for students to immediately practice as if they were in the suites. It’s easy to measure the performance earlier because from the onset of the lesson a teacher could identify students who under and those who might need more assistance before the next lab.

There is a common question whether Soundcheck or VirtualStudio can prepare a student for a particular console. Soundcheck nor VirtualStudio claims to prepare a student for a specific hardware. Rather, a student would be better prepared in the knowledge required to assess the signal flow of the hardware in the environment. There are components to each console that have been selected for the iconic workflow such as the master section of the AWX console. This console offers 2 stereo busses that can feed the main output. In order to assign the master facer or master compressor, a special set of controls must be engaged. This is specific to certain models of consoles on the market. Through simulation one could become familiar with that specific workflow.

Extra Reading : Personal Experience 

 

There’s no leaving out my own personal experience. Soundcheck was conceptualized when I was a student. Studying audio at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida, I was fortunate to have access to a wide range of hardware. When I received my graduation date I panicked… “What am I going to do if I can’t access all this amazing gear anymore? I’m going to forget everything!” I quickly started to work on my evolutionizing passion for sound which was making audio applications. Soundcheck & VirtualStudio were born! Accessible simulations studio environments in 2D & 3D. Because of these tools, I was able to utilize the labs more efficiently up until graduating. From my own experience the virtual simulation greatly improved my understanding of the environment and I was able to make more use of my time in Labs.

Within months of graduating, Soundcheck had received attention from leading industry brands and was a winner in the AES Student Design Competition at the 137th Convention. From there AudioFusion was born and both products were exhibited at leading industry events such as NAMM & AES. Surpassing my original expectations, we even had Virtual Reality ready to go! Wherever I could put the studio simulation I experimented with. I even attended a Web Audio conference just to further understand the potentials of the online medium. No matter where I went I was getting feedback from many audio professionals of all kinds! One thing that unites us as audio & musicians is the recording studio! The response and feedback of both products were astounding and revealed values originally unknown audio education.

As I’ve demonstrated these solutions across, I’ve connected with audio professionals of all kinds. The ability to visualise the studio concepts we were communicating helped my knowledge continue to grow. I’ve been a guest to many programs and now work with our partners to elevate their programs. Below are some highlights from industry events and demo/workshops at Univeristies.

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Some Highlights from Events

Here is a clip from a gaming conference I exhibited at. This young fan of music, 11 years old, had his first encounter in the virtual studio. Standing next to one of my educators, we were quite shocked at what happened once this kid started exploring…. His patch attempt is clearly wrong but it makes sense. That is precisely the kind of mistake students need to be making earlier than later. I wonder what his experience would look like when he’s 14 or 15! This is why I strongly advocate for educators to experiment with Virtual for their own needs. There is tremendous benefit for the student and there is almost always a surprise with every student encounter.

Would you let an 11 year old start patching in a studio like this? Do you think this kind access is an immediate benefit to virtual? I would very much like to know your thoughts.

A seasoned engineer gets back behind the desk! @SAE-Miami-Imsta-Festa

An educator from SAE Expression College tries an early iteration of Soundcheck.

Attendees crowded around our booth during the AES & NAMM Conventions. This was our first contact with the greater market. We learned so much from the first users whom we met at the shows.

An educator from Full Sail University demonstrates basic console operation for a student in a classroom.

Students collaborate in VirtualStudio multiplayer beta during Imsta Festa at SAE Miami. One student is in VR and the other is using the same computer.

A music technology student from NYU tries VirtualStudio in the Ambisonic Suites.

Business Schools students and local music professionals stop by to learn about Virtual Simulations at Harvard.