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Teaching on an analogue console & visual bias

During his time as an academic, Tom Waterman, chief technical officer at Audient, taught budding sound engineers on many consoles.

By Tom Waterman, chief technical officer, Audient Ltd, UK

During my time as an academic I taught budding sound engineers on many consoles. For a while there was a trend that saw students feel more at home on an analogue mixer and look befuddled and confused on a digital (layered) console. About 4-5 years ago I saw a polarity inversion in that trend, with younger engineers more comfortable with touch-screens, digital mixers and DAW software – looking befuddled and confused when sat in front of an analogue console such as our ASP8024.

My first teaching was done on an ASP8024 and during my time with the console I found its ergonomic layout, simple operation and wide open sound quality a real bonus. Give someone a few hours on an analogue console and befuddlement becomes enjoyment, with a pure & simple connection to the music. We are humans, we are tactile and consoles facilitate a different experience to a screen. Obviously modern music production has moved a long way with DAW platforms and many could argue that a console is a large and optional expense. However in a tracking session where speed and workflow are essential, a console offers a “muscle memory” tool to get the job done.

The ASP8024 has sold very well into education and so has its smaller brother, the ASP4816 for which I am thankful from both sides of the industry (as a manufacturer and an engineer). Students who get to experience the sound and ergonomic workflow of an analogue console in my experience often end-up with improved listening skills as well as a solid understanding of signal flow (something we all too often take for granted in the digital domain).

I used to make my students re-draw out the block diagrams for the ASP8024 console and start to approximate what each circuit block “should” be doing – this always seemed to have a hugely positive effect on their “in-studio” troubleshooting skills. Musicians and sound engineers should not be afraid of circuitry and technical understanding – it makes you no less “musical” and likewise technical students should not be afraid of “harmony, theory and musical understanding”. A thirst for knowledge is an important thing to have in a world that is constantly moving forward with technological advancements year after year.

Students and end users should rightfully embrace the future – the now. Digital tools, powerful recall, touch screen control and near unlimited creative processing. However, experiencing and carrying forward the good aspects of analogue mixing should still be an essential part of a sound engineers education. When so many of the digital tools are designed to emulate the sound and workflow of beloved analogue classics – it makes sense to experience those first to educate the ears and to develop workflow experience and expectations of the end result.

I have seen large benefits in workflow and approaches to physical interaction with an analogue console – without thinking too much, an engineer can manipulate the “rub” between two sounds side by side adjusting two EQs or two faders with two hands at the same time. This is natural and fluid. “ITB” (in the box) mixes are often created by focusing on one parameter or sound at a time and this can often lead to lengthy, fiddly mix sessions as opposed to fluid, ergonomic balances and in a mix – balance is king. Control surfaces go some of the way to reduce this, but more often than not they try to be everything to everyone and end up convoluted and not as immediate as the finite and rigid layout found on an analogue console.

One of the largest benefits to teaching on or using an analogue console is that you learn to touch / interact by feel and listen only with your ears, not looking at screen is a big deal. Several of my mix engineer peers still use consoles and deliberately hide the DAW screen behind them. Both the DAW and console can lead to great results, we know this, but a console still offers a unique experience that changes the “window” to the music.

For further information about some early studies conducted into visual bias – please subscribe to this Audient blog that outlines the effect that “looking” at your waveforms and EQ curves can have on final musical output.

We humans are quite heavily visually biased (check out the McGurk Effect for example) and as such, using a console can limit the amount of visual distraction we’re exposed to. If you are an academic and interested in where to go next in your teaching facility, consider the huge benefits and experiential grounding that an analogue console can bring to your students.