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Automation: Enhancing, Creating Motion, Adding Flavor


This post focuses on making your tracks sound more dynamic with automation.

Automation has been with us for a long time. Before there were computers, it wasn’t too uncommon to see engineers, producers, and assistants all at the board to move faders and push buttons in real-time as the mix ran its way through the board. These days we have computers to do the handiwork for us, we just have to know when and how to automate our work.

Automation can be used for creation motion, enhancing performances, customizing sounds, and adding flavor with effects.

Creating Motion and Enhancing

Automation can be used to ‘ride’ volumes or to create panning effects for added emphasis. If, for instance, you would like to emphasize the swelling of a string section’s performance you can ‘push and pull’ the volume to increase the natural dynamics of the group. Panning, when used sparingly, adds motion. A sudden pan can be a dramatic way to indicate transitions. Slow pans can be used to prevent recurring sounds from becoming annoying – like shakers or incidental samples. Automating mutes can be an effective way of reducing the noise in a cluttered mix (especially if working with analog tape). With digital consoles and in DAWs it’s possible to automate EQ and inserts, allowing for sweeping filters and lo-fi to hi-fi transitions. Try slowly increasing the gain on a distortion plugin to crunch things up or ride the resonance of an envelope filter to add funk.

Vocal Performances

One particularly powerful trick is to ride the volume of a vocal track to achieve a more consistent volume throughout the performance. By emphasizing and deemphasizing certain words and phrases, one can reduce reliance on compression to achieve evenness. This is very effective for sparse tracks where the vocal needs all the space and airiness it can get. Compression, in these circumstances, can be counterproductive.

Customizing Sounds

Splitting a given track into two faders can be useful for achieving two drastically different sounds in different sections of the song. One application for this would be the transition from full-on snare to cross stick on a snare drum track. One fader can be EQ’d to bring out the crack of the cross stick while the other can emphasize the thump and body of the full hit. Simply automate the mutes to switch between the two. I have even seen this technique used in mastering to apply two different treatments to different sections of a song.

Applying Effects

Automating effects can be used subtly or dramatically, depending on the desired outcome. Try setting up a high feedback delay on a send and return it on an automateable fader. Automating the volume or mute on the return can produce dub-like moments or trance-like throbbing texture. Doing something similar with reverb can suddenly interject new spaces and depth to sounds. On the other hand, removing effects that have been present can really break a song down nicely for a breakdown or lull. Creative automation of effects comprises much of what makes the best electronic music special.