Whether you’re a producer adding ear candy or a mix engineer giving a song forward motion, these 7 advanced tips for creative automation will help you create dynamic mixes that move and breathe.
By Mike Levine
The automation features in your DAW are incredibly powerful. The ability to automate virtually every mixer and plugin effects parameter provides you with unprecedented creative control over your mix. Whether you’re a producer looking to add interesting ear candy, or a mix engineer wanting to give forward motion to a song, creative automation can be a loyal friend. If you take advantage of its capabilities, you can create dynamic mixes that move and breathe and maintain the listener’s interest. We’ll offer 7 advanced tips to do just that.
1. Animate Your Transitions
You can highlight new song sections or the transitions into them (or both) by automating changes to the speed and intensity of effects like modulation and saturation. Waves’ Kaleidoscopes plugin offers a wide color palette of modulation FX and is an excellent choice to be the processor in such situations.
Check out this example of an electric piano part as it transitions to a modulated chorus. As the modulation begins in measure 4, several different parameters, including Depth for the Chorus (Effect 1) and the Flanger (Effect 2), Flanger width and Overdrive, rise gradually to a higher, more intense setting as it goes into the modulated section.
Here’s the keyboard part soloed so you can hear the results of the automation more clearly:
2. Automate Synth Parameter Changes
If you’re looking to spice up a synth part, automation can help give it additional motion and life. You could use the knobs on your MIDI controller to send the automation, automate it in real-time from inside your DAW or draw in the automation.
The latter gives you more precision. If your DAW supports drawing automation using shapes, you can add patterns that would be impossible to create by turning a knob.
If you think of all the editable parameters on most soft synths, there’s a lot of potential to add both subtle and not-so-subtle changes. For example, say you have a synth patch you like but want the filter to sweep at specific points in the song. You don’t have to know how to program that within the synth. Automate the filter or resonance parameters moving in one direction or another in the parts of the song where you want the sweep to happen. Use latch mode so that when you release the knob, the value remains at its last point.
In the following example, you’ll hear a sequenced synth sound from Element 2.0. On the fifth bar, the filter resonance was automated using Pro Tools’ square wave shape (drawn in with dotted-eighth-note quantization) on the 5th bar. In bar 7, the line was drawn sending the resonance all the way to its highest setting by bar 13.
Meanwhile, the Cutoff frequency was also automated. It starts to change at bar 6, where a very tight triangle pattern starts, quantized to 8th notes. Then, at bar 7, its value drops much lower and is then automated with a dotted sixteenth-note square-wave pattern.
3. Control Delay Throws
If you want to initiate a delay throw on a single line or multiple times throughout a song or section, you can automate the plugin to switch out of its bypassed state at just the right times to create the effect.
Once you have the time and feedback settings you want, play the section where the throw is to occur, starting with the delay bypassed. With the automation in touch or latch mode, turn off the bypass button at the end of the word or note you want to add the throw to.
You’ll probably need to experiment to find just the right point. If you activate it too early, the delay will capture some of the previous word or words. If you wait too long, you’ll only get part of the target word. If need be, you can edit to automation after writing it to get it just right.
In this example, at the end of a song of mine called “Screen Time,” I created a delay throw on a guitar riff, and it’s harmony, using H-Delay. I inserted instances on both tracks with identical settings except that I turned the harmony part’s output down a bit. Both delays start in bypass and then are activated as the song hits the last beat. However, you could also configure this effect with the delay on an aux and automate the send’s mute button.
4. Emphasize Drum Fills
Another kind of dynamic augmentation centers around drum fills rather than song sections. Fills help add flash and energy to a song, and if you make them stand out even more using simple volume automation, you can often inject some extra life into the mix.
Like with the previous tip, you have to be relatively subtle with your boost—maybe 1 to 3dB—or it won’t sound realistic. You want to make it feel like the drummer was energetic.
Here’s an example that includes some drum fills without any volume automation. Although the drum level is fine, the fills are getting a little lost.
And this is the same section with the fills boosted about 2.5dB to 3dB, which gives the music a little extra energy.
5. Master Your Vocal Levels
The vocal track is the centerpiece of most songs, and getting its level in balance, both with itself and with the instruments, is always critical. Automation provides the most precise way to accomplish those tasks.
Once you have your rough levels together for the whole mix, and have added whatever compression you want, set the automation on your lead-vocal channel to touch and ride the fader to even out any spots where the vocal is too loud or too soft.
In touch mode, which is provided in every DAW, as soon as you let go of the fader, it returns to its previous level. That makes it perfect for this application. You’ll probably need a few passes to get everything close, followed up with some breakpoint editing to get the exact results you want.
If you have the Vocal Rider plugin, you have an alternative workflow for controlling the vocal level. It allows you to set a volume range and automatically rides the gain to keep it within that range.
If you feed it with a sidechain signal of the rest of the mix, it will keep your vocal at the same relative level to the music. You could just set it and forget it, but there’s another option for even more control.
Vocal Rider has an Automation Write feature that, when turned on, will write all of its moves into the vocal track to a parameter called Rider Fader. Once you run through the song once with it in Write mode, you switch the plugin to Read mode, and it will follow the automation it wrote.
That gives you fast and accurate automation that you can then tweak via editing if needed. The Vocal Rider workflow lets you get your vocal-level automation written much more quickly and accurately than you can do by hand. What’s more, it’s not compressing the vocal, so it doesn’t color it. It’s simply turning the gain up and down.
6. Clean Your Endings
Did you ever come up with a cool delay setting with a fair bit of feedback that sounds great on the track, but when the song comes to a stop or a hard ending, the delay keeps repeating? This sometimes sounds cool, but more often than not it’s a little amateur-ish. Automation can rescue you in such a situation and polish your endings to sound more professional.
The simplest method is to automate the plugin to go into bypass mode right on the last beat. Or, if you want a controlled number of taps after the final beat, figure out the feedback setting that will produce it and automate that in.
7. Morph Your Reverb Settings
You don’t always have to use the same reverb settings on a given source for the whole song. Depending on the type of music and the arrangement, it can often make sense to change it either subtly or not-so-subtly between song sections.
You could achieve this without automation by moving the part of the vocal track where you want the changes to occur to a separate track with its own settings. But if you don’t want to split the tracks, it’s easy enough to automate changes in your reverb.
It could be as simple as changing the decay time between the verses and choruses. This can open up the space in the chorus and make the song feel like it’s peaking in a bigger, more exciting room. You could also introduce some compression or distortion to the vocal reverb in the latter part of the song to add some additional intensity. The changes you make could be subtle or more pronounced, depending on the circumstances and what you’re going for. H-Reverb has compression, distortion and modulation built into it, making it extremely flexible sonically and perfect for changing character mid-song.
Reverb changes work well on other sources, as well. In this example, you’ll hear H-Reverb on the drum track. At bar 5, when the second drum part comes in, the Dry/Wet gets wetter adding more reverb to the signal, and the Pre-Delay is turned on at 180ms to create an echo effect.
In this example, the automated changes to the reverb happen at the transition to the new section.
Here’s a portion of the drum part soloed. You’ll hear two measures before the reverb change and two after.
Want more on automation? Watch these tips for dub-style mixing in the box!.
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