Using automation in music production and mixing

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Have you ever seen a sound engineer pushing the faders and controls on a mixer console or a midi controller as a song plays? Or you have seen some faders and knobs on a mixing board moving by themselves while a song was being played in a studio? Or have you ever wished you could make some real time adjustments to some parameters like volume, panning, filters,  e.t.c., either on your DAW’s mixer or inside your software synths as the song plays on while mixing? That is what automation in modern DAWs can do for you.

What is Automation?

Simply put – automation enables the console or DAW to record the audio engineer’s adjustment of faders and knobs during mixing or post-production editing. This movement of certain parameters are often in a bid to do real time adjustments to make the music more dynamic and captivating rather than being stagnant and boring. Oftentimes the most automated controls are volume and panning, especially on analog mixing boards. But modern computer music production through the use of DAWs has opened a whole lot of automation possibilities. This in turn, opens up a window of opportunities for a lot more creativity and innovation in music making.

Modes of automation

There are different modes of approach to writing automation, though not all DAWs come with this function. Which mode of automation you use will be determined by what you are trying to do with the automation, because the various automation modes behave differently. Here are the four types of automation:

Auto Write: This is the default automation mode. This is the suitable mode to use when creating a particular automation for the first time, or when you want to overwrite an existing automation.

Auto Touch: writes automation data only while a fader is touched. Faders return to any previously automated position after release. This mode is good for making minor adjustments to a previously written automation.

Auto Latch: this mode starts writing automation data when a fader is touched, but unlike the auto touch mode which springs back to previous position before touching the control, this one stays and records the current position after the control/fader is released

Auto Read: the digital Audio Workstation “performs” the written automation by displaying the movements of knobs and sliders during playback.

Most common uses of automation

Automation can be used for two purposes; either as a problem fixing tool or as a creative tool. Both can be achieved in the following ways:

Volume Automation

Volume automation is used for balance in loudness level of either the elements of a song or the song as a whole for dynamism. It can be used for a “fade in, fade out” effect. It can be used to make a certain instrument more prominent or pushed to the background or just to create some sort of audio effect, all at a given point in time in a music. At times, instead of pushing compressors too hard to balance out louder and quieter parts of a song,simply “vocal riding” with volume automation can do the magic without compressing life out of your music.

Pan Automation

Panning is movement of audio sound through the stereo field of left,right, or center. So pan automation can be used to separate a certain element from clashing with another instrument with the same tonality at a point in the song. This can be done by spreading them out in the opposing stereo field at the point they are both playing. Automating the pan control for pingpong-ish inter-swapping movement of sounds between left and right channels can also be used to create exciting effects to make a song more interesting.

Activate/Unmute and Deactivate/Mute Automation

This can be used to automatically turn on or turn off many parameters in a mix. Automating this can be used to activate or deactivate effects or some instruments  at a point in time in a music.

EQ and filter Automation

This mostly falls in the creative part of automation for special sound effects, though it can also be used to fix some problems such as filtering out unwanted frequencies or shaping out a desired tone as the song goes. As a typical example, let’s say you want to filter out an undesirable harshness or boominess that only occurred in a certain part of a vocal performance. You sure will not want to filter out that particular frequency throughout the whole performance because it will take away much and make the entire vocals sterile. Thus, best thing to do is to automate the same EQ you are processing the track with to notch out the unwanted character at that particular point in the song. An example of filter automating as creative effect, is automating the high pass and low pass filter for sweeps, risers, and some sort of radio or telephone voice effect at a point in a music.

Delay send automation in music production and mixing in FL Studio
Delay send automation in FL Studio 12

The above are the commonly automated parameters and basic uses of automation in music production and mixing. It should however be noted that there’s no limitations to the extent of creativity exploitable in modern computer music age. No matter what DAW you use, be it Logic, Pro tools, Fl Studio, Cubase, REAPER , and so on – they all have easy and unique ways of writing automation. With the DAWs, almost all knobs, buttons and parameters of any given application is automate-able whether on stock or third party plugins. From envelopes such as attack, decay, sustain, and release, to output fader, mix knob, to Send/return control etc. There’s no limit to how creative you can get with automation. It is a secret weapon the pros use in making fantastic music and mix. So why don’t you explore this simple trick and see how better you can make your music sound with it? Costs you nothing to try out, just make out time for it. By the way, you should take a moment to check out our list of 10 best VST plugins released in 2017 and top 10 best DAW music production software 2018 . Happy music making.

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