The forgotten art of muscle memory in audio engineering part -1

Muscle Memory? What even is that? According to Wikipedia — “Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning. When a movement is repeated over time, the brain creates a long-term muscle memory for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems….”

For musicians, every time you pickup your instrument to play major and minor chords, do you even have to think consciously about which finger to place where? It comes subconsciously. You can concentrate on the song you are playing and not worry about hitting the right chord at the right time.

Now, imagine if the position of the notes on your instrument are changed randomly. For example, instead of standard guitar tuning E A D G B E, someone changes the tuning slightly to F A D G C E. Or altering the position of every A and E for the piano. You will have to relearn your finger position for every chord and scale. You get used to that, only for the tuning to be changed again next week. And another tuning for the week after that. Will you ever be able to master the instrument or concentrate on a song? Every time you pick up the instrument, it would mean retraining your muscle memory. There is a reason why the CAPO exists.

For non musicians, think of driving a car. You had to consciously learn the brake, clutch and accelerator, till controlling the accelerator and the brake with the right foot, and the clutch with the left became muscle memory. Imagine the chaos if the accelerator is changed to the left pedal, the clutch to the middle and the brake to the right!

The hypothetical idea of changing notes on your instrument randomly is ridiculous because the tuning has been standardised for centuries and it makes complete theoretical and musical sense to play it the way it is. Same for driving.

Coming to audio engineering, when there was analog, the layout of knobs and faders on the mixer were pretty standardised. If you looked at channel 1 on the mixer, you had gain on top, then high pass filter below it, then the 3 or 4 band EQ section below, then the aux sends and finally the pan knob. At the very bottom, was the channel fader. This layout was repeated for as many channels as there were on the mixer — 16, 24, 32 or 48.

Any brand of mixer you chose, the maximum additions might have been a low pass filter, a ‘q’ on the EQ bands, and more aux sends. The most you had to move your fingers was an inch or so up or down. By the time you were familiar with running an analog console, your muscle memory was trained to make your hand automatically reach for certain places on the console based on what parameter you wanted to change. After a certain point, you didn’t even have to think of where the low frequency knob of the mixer was, or where the HPF knob was. It was like driving a car, or playing an instrument. You were only consciously thinking of the music being played and how you could make it sound better and fit the different instruments in and around each other. The technical part of moving knobs and faders happened completely subconsciously with the help of your muscle memory.

I remember having worked with larger consoles like the Soundcraft MH2 where it was so big that if you had a lot of channels to mix, you had to actually move physically a foot or more to the right to control the next section of channels. Even then, the same layout was followed, no matter to which side of the board you went. Kind of like tuning an instrument one or two whole steps down.

With the advent of digital, analog has slowly faded away and whether in studio or in live sound, digital tools and mixers have taken over in almost every genre of audio. While not trying to delve into the debatable topic of analog vs digital, I just want to draw attention to the workflow that digital has standardised (or not standardised) in the long run since it has taken over analog.

When you are mixing in a DAW (can be any), you are constantly scrolling up, down, left and right to find the channel where you want to change something. If you want to change the EQ, you have to open up another window — which itself keeps opening at a different position on the screen every time you open a different plugin — and take a second to first find where the knob is that you are looking for and then use your mouse to move it. It might not sound like a big deal as ultimately it doesn’t take more than a second or two to find what you are looking for, but every time you are looking for the knob or the fader, you are unknowingly taking your attention away from listening to the music. This creates a micro-level technical barrier between the mind and the muscle for a couple of seconds each time. All these seconds spent for every knob or fader that you are trying to change while mixing a song, which could easily be a 1000 times, add up.

Have you ever felt lost when you wanted to change some parameter but by the time you opened up the plugin, you had forgotten what you were trying to do? This would be absolutely unacceptable while playing an instrument on stage or driving a car in traffic. You are not performing at the level you could have, whether you realise it or not. Your mind is caught between knob searching mode and analytical listening mode making you less efficient.

In a live show scenario, it is even more of a barrier since you are always running against time. On an average you get around 45 minutes to mix an artist with a full band, sometimes more, but on most occasions, less. Whether you want to cut the frequency feeding back in the middle of the show, or you have to push the mids of the guitars exactly when the guitarist starts soloing, it has to be a reflexive act. Especially if you want to take your artist’s static mix to a dynamic performance, pushing and pulling the audience in every section of the song. To do that you have to rely completely on muscle memory and not waste those couple of seconds trying to recollect where the mid frequency knob on the board is.

So what is the solution to this oft overlooked issue? We will look at possible solutions and ways around in part II of this article.

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