Welcome to Day 27 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Once you’ve set the levels and panning for your mix, and you’ve dialed in the EQ and compression to just the right amount, you’re done, right?

Not quite.

What you have right now is what’s called a “static mix.”

There’s a “secret weapon” that you should know about. It’s called automation.

Most of you probably know what automation is, but do you use it in your mixes? Or is it something you think doesn’t matter? Well, I have a few reasons why you SHOULD use automation in your mixes.

But first…

What IS automation?

Automation is simply the process of recording fader movementss (volume adjustments) that are then executed automatically by your recording software.

Back in the analog days, people paid BIG bucks to have consoles that featured automation. It was a HUGE undertaking to install a computer, motorized faders, etc. into these analog consoles. Prior to automation, engineers had to manually move all the faders in real-time as they printed their final mix. (Eddie Kramer talks about doing this with Jimi Hendrix. He actually had Jimi manning a few faders during mixdowns.)

Nowadays you can automate everything from fader levels to EQ settings, but for the purposes of this article, I’m simply referring to volume automation.

Why automate?

Good question. I’ll give you three reasons:

Sometimes Compression Isn’t Enough

The reason you automate is to “bring out” certain instruments during the mix. You may not want the violin to be really loud throughout the entire song, but during certain sections (between vocal phrases, for example) you’d like it to stand out for a moment.

You might try compression to control the volume of the violin, but automation is really the better choice. It preserves the sound of the audio and brings out the violin in exactly the right places, without squashing it to death with automation.

Your Mix Needs to “Breathe”

With a static mix, everything is at a set volume for the entire song. While this could still provide a nice-sounding mix, chances are this mix needs to breathe a little bit.

By writing in some automation, you’re allowing elements to come in and out of the mix, you’re drawing the listener’s attention from one element to another. You’re keeping it interesting.

The More “Musical” Approach

If you’re like me, and you record mostly with overdubs (rather than all the instruments live at one time), you really need automation.

When a band plays together, each member learns when to get louder and quieter. They learn to play off of each other rather than fighting to be the center of attention. A good band makes automation less necessary.

If you’re overdubbing everything, though, there’s a much smaller chance that the musician was able to really develop that “live” feel, since you recorded everything one instrument at a time.

By using automation, you can recapture some of that live feel and make your mixes sound much more musical.

Day 27 Challenge

Use automation on a mix you’re currently working on and report back here. Also…leave a comment telling us what you’re going to do!

  • David

    This is something I have been dismissing for to long. This is why I like doing this stuff, really interesting. Playing guitar is my thing but recording and mixing is a way to preserve your efforts.

  • Preshan

    Automation is awesome! I use it on all my songs, and usually automate stuff right at the end of the mix. I love playing with LFO mod rates on synths etc. Most of the time though, it’s just fader automation.

  • Arjun Ramesh

    This is always my weak point. Automation is something that I have always had trouble with, especially when playing the “red light” game. Usually, I stick to static mixes, although, I know that there is so much more that I can do with a mix using automation. I have used it before and have gotten some great subtle results, which was exactly what I was looking for. But, somehow, I strayed away from it, like I did with subgroups. Lately, I have just automated the Master Fader to fade out towards the end of a song. But, I hope to revisit a mix session and will see what kind of automation I can do to it. I already have a few things in mind.

  • I automate volume, pan, and efx sends. I haven’t yet automated parameters within an effect, which is possible within SONAR.

  • Frank Adrian

    I use automation extensively for volume control – the ability to add a dB or two to a particular word or phrase can really help a mix. You can also use it to bring in and out higher noise sources (think single-coil pickup guitar solos) in a less obtrusive manner. I also use panning (although usually to move sound sources from one static point to another – almost never as an effect). I’ve also done a few things like automate reverb wet/dry mix when I’m too lazy to set up separate wet and dry tracks. I’ve occasionally been tempted to automate EQ, but have never actually stooped to doing that.

    I’ve read about the old days when you had to have the whole band around the mixing board to move the faders at once to get a mix (and even then you couldn’t count on the drummer not to do the wrong thing… Sorry, couldn’t resist). That seems like it would have really sucked. Oddly enough, the engineers back then must have thought so, too, because they sure spent a lot of money on automation before the advent of the DAW. With Reaper (and, by now, probably most of the DAWs out there), you can automate almost any parameter of any plugin, but really, I don’t do much more than volume and panning. Maybe I am becoming a secret Luddite after all, though I wouldn’t give up my DAW for anything because of the ability to automate quickly and cheaply.

  • Bob Sorace

    If you watch the VH1 Classic show on the making of Pink Floyds Dark Side of the Moon, they talk about how “a mix was a performance in those days.” You’d have the producer, the engineer and the band all with their fingers on the faders.

    Crazy, thank God for automation!

  • Matt Needham

    I use all sorts of automation in my mixes. Volume, pan, mute are just the basics – in DAWs like Sonar, you can automate almost anything!

  • Edith Ballistics

    Joe, the first session I ever recorded was in the late 70s on a classic Neve console, and we later mixed it on a Neve / Necam console with automated faders. It was a God-send then, and it remains one now. Balance and blend are great things for automation, but I especially like using automation to create dynamics on MIDI tracks to help that ‘breathe’, for example moving the volume of a Hammond B3 up and down in a musical way (eg. as an experienced player would use their volume pedal). Next favourite use is moving things around in Pan (dramatically to create spacial effect or subtly for organic movement).

  • Matt

    Automation is a great tool as long as you don’t get too OCD about things. LOL I use it with all my mixing.

    • That’s so true about everything with audio. 🙂

  • Cush

    Back in the day (like 2 years ago), I actually used automation for EVERYthing. This is because I had no idea what compression was. I still use it a fair amount for volumes on guitar parts and backup vocals.

    I would say tho, that I definitely use it most on panning (create some pretty cool transitions doing that), effect bypasses, and effect settings. The only really big problem that I have with Logic is that they’re autotune plugin has to be automated. So instead of being able to just process a note or short passage quick…I actually have to write the automation telling it what note/scale to use and sometime change the response time. This can be really annoying when working with pitchy singers that like to say “good enough”

    Also, typo right here?
    ” It preserves the sound of the audio and brings out the violin in exactly the right places, without squashing it to death with automation”

    Great post, Joe. I love me some automation.

  • Al

    Ah Automation…..I’ve been forgetting to use it for quite awhile now.
    So, thanks for the reminder. And yeah I’m definitely going to use it on a few songs to fix some certain levels instead od Comp.
    Actually I’m going to post a link after 31 days to show a before/after comparison.
    Thanks Joe for …let’s say everything 🙂
    Cheers~