Using Automation For Better Sounding Mixes
In an earlier post about routing effects, I mentioned that there were a lot of mixing techniques that I did not learn about until I had been producing for a few years. Another technique that really changed the quality of my productions is automation. After I started applying this technique the results were evident and had a dramatic impact on my sound.
For those unfamiliar, automation is basically your DAW or console’s ability to memorize changes in fader positioning as your track progresses. In simpler terms, it is the ability to record specific level changes throughout a song. Automation is not limited to only volume level changes. With modern software DAWs such as Pro Tools, Logic, or Fruity Loops among others, automation can be performed for just about any knob on any plugin or virtual instrument you wish to control.
To put the process into a more visual perspective, I’m sure you’ve seen some old Dr. Dre music videos where the faders on his mix console move by themselves up and down the board. This is automation.
Before recordable automation technology was devised, engineers had to make these changes manually. Often using multiple eight track tape machines, this called for multiple sets of hands to make synchronized level changes together in real-time, a painful amount of precise work which can be achieved much easier today.
Importance Of Automation
Automation has many applications and allows the mixer an incredible amount of control over a track. Effects plug-ins such as EQ or compression are great, but without automation they are generally limited in that they are simply using some numerical equation to do their job in a very static way, for the entire track.
For example, let’s say you add an EQ to a vocal track to filter out some of the lower end frequencies. Now let’s suppose that you want to re-introduce some of these lower end frequencies to certain parts of the song, notably when the bass drops out. With automation, you can program your DAW to send a signal to the EQ, telling it to bring back these low frequencies whenever you wish.
In essence, automation is a way for the audio mixer to have full control over any volume or effect level of any specific track, which can help to produce a much more dynamic and sonically pleasing piece of music.
Applications Of Automation
Listed below are a few common uses of automation which can be invaluable ways to take your mixes to the next level:
Volume Level Automation: Perhaps the most simple and common use of the technique, automating volume levels is useful in many ways. One of the most common uses is fading. Though many DAWs these days have specific tools which let you fade the volume of a track in or out, automating it manually is great if you want a very specific kind of fade. For example, let’s say you want the volume of an instrument to fade in on “quantum” levels so that it jumps up in increments instead of on a slope. With automation, you can define these exact parameters, something which is beyond the realm of a standard Fade tool. Similarly, if you want a song to fade out in a non-linear way, automation can give you the exact control you need.
Another application of volume automation is creating your own rhythmic effects which cannot be attained with a conventional plugin. An extreme vibrato or tremolo effect which is out of the realm of a plugin can be achieved with automation.
One of the more creative uses for volume automation is the ability to make certain digital instruments sound more natural. This is especially useful for MIDI instruments, which can be very limited in their dynamics and natural sound. Let’s say you’ve programmed a nice string progression which sounds far too flat and needs more movement and dynamic. With volume automation, you can program automation curves which slowly dip the volume up and down, sounding more natural than a tremolo plugin which usually keeps the movement forced to a specific tempo.
EQ Automation: Automation can also be extremely useful with equalization. Again, the possibilities are endless, but there are a couple of great examples worth mentioning.
In our first example, we talked about using automation to control changes in an EQ plugin. Used in this manner, we can remove and re-introduce certain frequencies of a track depending on which other instruments are playing. This is a great way to duck out frequencies which fight each other, but bring them back when these instruments are not playing.
EQ automation can also be applied to high or low pass filtering/shelving EQ. This is an extremely common application in EDM music. Many songs in this genre begin with the high frequencies filtered out of synth and pad instruments, which are slowly filtered back in as the song builds to an epic climax. This technique builds energy, as a lot of energy is added to a song once high frequencies are introduced. The image below shows an automation lane of a track in which the EQ’s high cut parameter was automated in a linear fashion, opening up the frequencies as the track progresses from the intro to the first verse.
EQ automation could also be used in a more creative way. High or low pass filters, shelving, or even bell shaped cuts could be automated to continually sweep back and forth to create a customized filter sweep effect, which can add a lot of movement and interest to a track.
Pan Automation: Other than controllable parameters for specific effects or plugins, most DAWs have two main automation parameters equipped on every track – Volume and Pan. Pan automation has some great creative and mixing uses.
When mixing, pan automation can be a nice way to make some space for songs which have a lot of competing sounds. Let’s say that you have a mix which has vocals, strings, guitar, drums, a synth pad, piano, and more sounds, and the piano and vocal are the main focal points of the song. You’ve already carved out spaces for each sound, yet it still remains cluttered. One idea is that you can use pan automation to move the piano slightly to the right or left whenever the vocal track is playing, and move it back into the center at the times when there are no vocals. This concept can be used with any combination of sounds in order to make room for everything, yet give certain sounds the limelight when not competing.
Creatively, pan automation can be used many ways, including creating a “swaying” movement of a sound from right to left and back. Or let’s say you have an impactful one-shot sound which you want to alternate left and right each time it hits. One final example would be moving a slowly evolving sound from one side to another, to help it to stand out and give some life to a track.
Vocal Track Automation: 99% of the time, the vocal track is the most important aspect to a song. In high end mixes (or any mix, for that matter), it usually garners more attention and care than any other single track in a song. It is the one track which cannot be re-done or duplicated by anyone else but the singer. It is also the one track which has the capacity to contain the most amount of dynamic range, where every word must be audible yet not too loud.
For these reasons, automation is an engineers best friend when mixing vocals. It allows the engineer to be extremely specific when mixing each and every word, if necessary.
Let’s say that some compression is added to a vocal track. While the compressor can be very good at what it does and is extremely useful, it is still very limited to its settings. There will be many cases when the compression will work perfectly for some phrases of a vocal performance, but may prove to be a bit too much or not enough for other sections. Compression can also causes some unwanted audio effects which are only audible during quieter segments. This is where automation is perfect, allowing the engineer to control the compressor at every phase.
Volume automation of vocal tracks is also very common. Sometimes a vocal track will have some very loud or quiet parts which may be too dramatic for a compressor to even out, requiring specific volume control through automation.
How To Use Automation
Because every DAW or console is different, performing an automation will depend on your specific setup. The process for each DAW is beyond the scope of this article, but I would at least like to explain the two main methods of automation that today’s DAWs offer: Recording and Drawing.
Recording an automation is done by first syncing a knob or fader from your MIDI controller or hardware plugin to the parameter of the track you would like to automate. Next, make sure your track is armed to record the automation, and click the Record button. While recording, you can then move the knob or fader to your liking, and the movements you make will be recorded onto the track.
Drawing an automation is the method I find myself using more often. This is done by creating an automation lane for the track you wish to automate, and then using your DAW’s Draw feature along with your mouse and keyboard to draw in the automation curves by hand.
The image above shows an automation curve in Logic X which I drew in manually. To see the lanes, first click the button at the top (“Show Automation Lanes”). Next, select the parameter you would like to automate (“Select Automation Parameter”). In this example, I chose to edit the Volume. Lastly, select the “Draw” tool from the dropdown menu at the top right, and you can then begin drawing your curve using your mouse.
Automation is a very important technique, and the best way for you to change the values of effects throughout your song. It changes your effects from having a static, non-changing impact to a dynamic one, and is a great way to open and close spaces in the mix in relation to the activity of other instruments.
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