Signal Flow & Music Notation-part 1

by John Hinchey on 05/26/2010 · 4 comments

in Learning software, Trouble Shooting Software

Laurie discovers signal flow

One Really Important Concept

If you could learn one concept that will shorten your learning curve and get you out of the weeds 9 times out of 10 when you are trouble shooting music notation software issues, it’s understanding the concept of signal flow.

You probably first learned the basic concept of signal flow at a young age. Depending on your ranking among your siblings you may have found this to be really entertaining or really annoying. For me it went something like this: I have the garden hose. I attach one end to the water spigot outside our house. I bend the hose in the middle, crimp it off and hide it behind my back. I open up the spigot all the way. I call my younger sister Laurie and tell her to look into the other end of the hose. I quickly let go of the crimped hose section. The water now rushes down the hose out of the open end and into Laurie’s face. I am entertained, she is annoyed. The short hand notation of this signal flow chain of water would be: spigot>hose>Laurie’s face. (Take note of this short hand, I will be using it a lot in my blog posts.)

I was introduced to the audio version of signal flow by my good friend, audio engineer/Renaissance man Bill Gywnne. In audio the concept is source (instrument or microphone) to chain (the route the signal takes from the source, to the output) to output (the speakers which transform the signals into sound). So a basic signal flow chain would be something like this: synthesizer>cable>mixer channel 1>main output of mixer>cable>amp>cable>speaker. So if you play a note on your synthesizer and you don’t hear it come out of the speaker, what do you do? You start at the beginning of that chain and make sure each step is functioning. For example, it could be your synth has the output slider turned down, the cable could be bad, the channel of the mixer could be muted etc.

Signal flow is everywhere in your everyday life, getting from your house to the gig, getting funds from your bank account to the electric company, getting the Guiness out of the keg and into a glass, and on and on. Once you are aware of it you’ll see it everywhere.

So what does this have to do with music notation software? Everything! Music notation software (all computer software) is programming. Programming is just a series of events. You go to a concert and receive a “program” it’s a sheet of paper that lists the series of events, songs 1-4, intermission, songs 5-8, end. In the concert there are thousands of signal flow chains going on within this program that make the concert happen. The men and women who program your notation software come up with a logical program of signal chains so that when you press middle C on your midi controller a middle C appears on a staff in the correct octave and of the correct duration. Well designed software keeps these patterns of signal flow very consistent within it’s programming. If you can see the patterns of signal flow in your music notation program, you are well on your way to shortening the learning curve. And just like in my audio example above if you can trace the signal flow through the chain of events, you can solve almost any problem that crops up.

My intent here is not just to give you answers but more importantly to give you the tools to find the solutions for yourself.  Tracing signal flow is one of the most useful tools I know.

Come back for my next few blog posts and I’ll point out some of these signal flow chains in Sibelius and Finale. So you can spend more time composing (or walking your dog) and less time with process of getting those notes onto the paper.


P.S. Don’t feel bad for Laurie. I have been paid back at least 100 fold for that prank!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Don Hart May 27, 2010 at 7:29 am

Love it, John! Looking forward to more from you.

2 Joyce Rouse June 25, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Voila! Thank you for solid logic. Great writing style, SUPER explanation.
More, more, more!

3 Allen Long September 24, 2010 at 11:20 am

Thank you, John, for sharing tools with us! Your explanation was VERY helpful to me.

4 Bill Gwynne December 22, 2010 at 2:06 am

Hinch, just got around to reading the bulk of your blog posts and I’m very impressed! Props to Pam as well. Thanks for the mention btw.

Great job and keep them coming.

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