If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I’m not a huge automation guy. I don’t like to “ride the fader” on every track in a session. I see the benefits of automation, and I certainly use it from time to time, but it’s not something I rely on heavily.

Part of it is simply laziness. (You can call it “minimalism” if that makes you feel better.) I tend to approach mixing with a sort of “Name That Tune” mindset. How few moves can I use to get a great mix? But it’s not efficiency for efficiency’s sake. In my experience minimalism ends up saving time AND being the best thing for the mix. My minimalist mixes sound great.

What does minimalism look like in action? It looks like getting a great-sounding mix with only the faders and pan knobs before ever reaching for an EQ or compressor. Minimalism keeps me from pulling up every track in solo and EQ-ing it to death. It forces me to think more about the big picture, to always have my eyes on the end game rather than getting bogged down in the details.

Details are important, to be sure. Sometimes you need to EQ a track to death. Sometimes you need to automate every vocal line to get it to sit on top of the mix just right.


“You Can’t Automate Art”

I was texting back and forth with my buddy Pete Woj the other night. (If you haven’t already, check out Pete’s website MixBetterNow.com.) We were talking about some of those “automatic” plugins out there. You’ve probably heard of them. They have mysterious names, and they only have a handful of knobs, each of which has a completely arbitrary name like “Impact” or “Warmth.”

Can you get a great mix with these? I’m sure you can. But what bothers me about those plugins is that they paint a less-than-honest picture of what it means to make great mixes, to create great music, to make good art. As Pete and I were rapping about this, I texted him this:

We live in a push-button culture. And that’s AWESOME when it comes to toasting bagels or doing taxes online, but you can’t automate art…You can get more efficient, sure. Instagram filters make everyone think they’re a photographer, and that’s awesome, but they can’t THEN act like they’re a real photographer and not learn PHOTOGRAPHY.

Don’t Write Me Off as a Grumpy Old Fart

Stick with me. I’m not one of those disgruntled old farts who believes everything has to be “like it used to be.” I really do think things like Instagram filters are awesome. They help average people create pictures that look way better than they would on their own.

But to create truly fabulous images on Instagram, you need to have an eye for photography. You don’t have to understand shutter speed and F-stop or whatever. But you DO have to have a good eye. A good eye trumps everything. “Composition” in the photography world is everything.

Few people would disagree with me on this. We recognize a good picture when we see one. We know that the picture was already good before the person slapped a filter on there. It’s not that hard to understand.

It’s not the same in the music world, unfortunately. People will see a video of Dave Pensado using X plugin to make his vocals pop. The vocal will indeed sound amazing. They then go out and buy the plugin, and their vocals don’t sound amazing. They don’t understand why.

There are two MASSIVE factors at play here, factors that people blatantly ignore, to their detriment.

Factor #1 – Dave is working with stellar vocalists and stellar vocal recordings. If you’ve never mixed incredibly well-performed and well-recorded vocals, it’s understandable why you wouldn’t quite get this. There’s a reason I say “Get It Right At The Source” annoyingly often. It’s the number one most important thing. Here’s the straight truth: If you copy Dave’s setting, using the exact same plugin, and your vocal track sounds like garbage, it’s because your vocal track sounds like garbage. And no plugin in the world will fix that. The art itself is bad. Fix the art before changing out the tools.

Factor #2 – Dave Pensado has about two more decades of experience than you do. That plays out in his being able to hear what the vocal needs in a mix. Then he just uses whatever tool is in front of him to make that happen. The tool is fairly irrelevant, as long as you put it in the master’s hand.

Completely Random Section

My daddy used to sing this song when I was a kid. Have you ever heard it? It fits really well with the vibe of this article. Here are some of the lyrics:

written by John Kramp / Myra Brooks Welch
Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group

Well it was battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer felt it was hardly worth his while,
To waste much time on the old violin but he held it up with a smile,
Well it sure ain’t much but its all we got left I guess we ought to sell it to,
Oh, now who’ll start the bid on this old violin?
Just one more and well be through.

And then he cried, “One give me one dollar,
Who’ll make it two? Only two dollars, who’ll make it three?
Three dollars twice now that’s a good price,
Now who’s gonna bid for me?
Raise up your hand now don’t wait any longer; the auction’s about to end,
Who’s got four, just one dollar more, to bid on this old violin?”

Well the air was hot and the people stood around as the sun was setting low,
From the back of the crowd a gray haired man,
Came forward and picked up the bow,
He wiped the dust from the old violin, then he tightened up the strings,
Then he played out a melody pure and sweet, sweeter than the angels sing,
And then the music stopped and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low, he said, “Now what am I bid
For this old violin?” and he held it up with a bow.

And then he cried out, “One give me one thousand,
Who’ll make it two? Only two thousand who’ll make it three?
Three thousand twice you know that’s a good price,
Come on, who’s gonna to bid for me?”
And the people cried out, “What made the change? We don’t understand.”
Then the auctioneer stopped, and he said with a smile,
“It was the touch of the Master’s hand.”

For Love of the Tools

I love gear. I love the feeling of coming home with a new guitar pedal, or trying a new microphone for the first time. I get it, I really do.

There has never been a better time to make music. Music technology has evolved to a point where it’s accessible to almost everyone. The problem is that people tend to focus more on the technology part and less on the music part. They obsessively learn how to use the tools without giving any attention to improving their art. They stock up on fancy paints and brushes but never actually PAINT anything.

Like I said, I love the tools, but only to the extent that they help me make music. When I become more obsessed with the pedalboard than with playing my guitar, I know it’s time to re-calibrate FAST. I’m moving off track into dangerous territory.

Let’s get back to the ART, shall we?

Let’s focus less on tools and even techniques, and more on becoming prolific artists.

If THAT’s your focus, the rest of the the pieces of the puzzle will magically fall in place.

QUESTION FOR YOU: What does this article stir up in you? What’s your gut reaction? What does it make you want to do? Leave a comment below.

Joe Gilder
Home Studio Corner

37 Responses to “One Thing You Can’t Automate”

  1. Bart Hamill

    That’s Great, Joe!!! Now when I bring home a Rickenbacker that looks like it was run over by a Double Axle Flatbed… I can tell her it was all your fault.

    Shine it on, Bud

  2. Bryan Hoogenboom

    I love what you’re saying here. A minimalist approach, to me, just sounds natural. It just seems appropriate for something as emotional as music. I always wonder what is happening under the hood of the “one knob wonder”, and I am certain that with a little thought and education, I can achieve THE SAME results with stock plug-ins. I understand that some plug-ins sound different (“better?) than others in the same category, but I believe I can get as close as my experience will allow to the same result.

    As to what the article stirred up, I have been contemplating my role as a musician for some time. I’ve been a guitar player for 35 years and I can sing OK. Songwriting is not a strength. But I found that over the last several years, I haven’t had the passion to pick up a guitar and play, much less polish technique. I would noodle occasionally, but it all sounded the same to me. I never even turned on my radio in the car. I began experimenting with recording just to try to “spark” something. And you know, music became somewhat like the old violin. It once again stirred emotion and passion much like it once did. My radio is still quiet – mainly because there is not 1 db of dynamics in anything coming out of it. But when I start digging into a song in my studio – whether playing and tracking, or mixing – there is nothing else in the world. Just me and a song. I can only hope that anyone who listens to the results can connect with that emotion – plug-ins or buck naked.

    Touchy feely – sure – but you asked what this article stirred, so…

  3. Marco Castellanos

    Hello everyone!

    I truly believe that some things that matter the most only come with the experience that experimentation or education brings in… Things like:

    a) the ability to listen and determine what does the mix need… Eq, level, compression, automation, delay, reverb, panning, saturation, etc…

    b) the ability to know wich tools can let you achieve what needs to be done…

    c) and the ability to know when is enough of your intervention, and is time to stop…

    On the other side: I also believe that we are constantly evolving to a more professional or seasoned mixers in the correlative measure we’re exposed to experimentation or education, so what we think today is the holy grail of mixing, maybe tomorrow can be seen outdated; wich in the end lead us to the understanding that we are living on relative stability and that the only constant is change and evolution and the constant need of a open and well trained to learn mind.

    According to the use of plugins, I believe that maybe there’s some misunderstood about the so called “stock” plugins; for example, in Pro Tools there are DigiDesign plugins that can be called in all the mean “stock”, but it also has Air plugins wich are not “Stock” in all the sense of the meaning… So “stock” is also relative and any way we pay for theme, that’s one reason why Pro Tools is so expensive… (I’m a Pro Tools user). But I think the essence of this topic is, the constant anxiety to buy new plugins almost like if we were just plugins collectors, without knowing how to use properly these knew tools, or in the worst situation, thinking about them like the magic and mysterious key to great mixes… We all have our would be there at some point, for example when I was starting at mixing I bought EzMix from Toontrack, and I got more or less better mixes, but then as I got better at mixing without noticing it, I stopped using it because I was learning to use other tools like simple Eq’s and compressors and to understand the how, when and why things work in mixing.

    Other great way to grow in our career is to compare our work with commercial and professional records within the context of mixing or mastering sessions in a given situation; I bet for this because, for example when I was starting mixing I used to love my mixes to sound with the “smile” EQ curve lacking of the mid frequencies, and I really hated pro mixes because to my taste at that period of time, they sounded too mid rangy to me Lol! But I had to learn how pro mixes sound, how well recorded and mixed kicks, snares, guitars, etc sounded like! The same with coloration and saturation, so I set as a personal goal to first learn the skills to be able to emulate that pro sound and then to innovate it to a personal sound.

    Thanks for reading until the end.

    • Marco

      Please forgive me, I forgot to say that my favorite plugins and the ones I use almost in every mix or master, are:

      From “Pro Tools”:
      1. Eq7
      2. Dynamic III compressor
      3. Mod Delay III

      From Waves:
      1. RVox
      2. Wetter and driver from the “One knob” series (sorry) Lol!
      3. C4
      4. L3 ultra

      From T-Racks:
      1. Classic EQ for mastering
      2. The metering

      From Slate Digital:
      1. Virtual console collection
      2. Master bus compressors collection
      3. Virtual Tape machine
      4. FGx mastering console and
      5. Virtual mix rack

      From blue cat:
      1. The EQ4

      From Sample Magic
      1. Magic AB

      As you can notice, I was a plugin collector!

      But I really use these plugins.

    • Joe Gilder

      Great point about not liking pro mixes. THAT’S where a lot of people need to start. We don’t know what a good mix sounds like. Gotta start there.

  4. Xan Angelfvkk

    Ah yes, these new “superstar” plugins. It seems like the plugin manufacturers have run out of ideas and are more-or-less packing compleat plug-in chains into one plug-in. And giving it a fancy title (and/or celeb producer endorsement!) & controls with generic names that affect a variety of parameters internally without you really knowing what.

    As a simple example a “warmth” knob could be increasing the gain to a saturation section of that plug-in while simultaneously reducing the master output level and even adjusting some EQ, following rules as defined by the algorithm of the software.

    It seems to me that most of these plugins could largely be recreated just by chaining suitable simple plug-ins together in the right order. Stock plug-ins would most likely be fine. You would have more individual parameters to adjust but at least then you can take full control of the sound for your style of mixing, and the material you are working on.

  5. John Aylward

    Intriguing post that poses a few intriguing questions. As long as you are getting the results that you want using little automation Joe, then you should feel fine about it (horses for courses). As long as you feel you couldn’t better your mix in the allotted time that you have, you’re on the right track.

    As for tools (plugins in particular). I think most of us who have been recording and mixing for a few years have fallen under the ‘marketing’ spell of X plugin. Be it for the ‘authentic’ look or what they tell us it will do for our mix. So I echo what has already been said; get
    the sound you want going into the box, then good production, etc…

    Unfortunately, life is such that we go through it wanting to do it ‘our way’ most of the time. Telling someone who is new to mixing not to buy the latest plugins is going to fall on deaf ears most of the time. They have to learn the lesson the hard way (as we all do), by burning their cash on the latest plugins only to find down the line that they could do it all with stock
    plugins anyway!

    Keep up the good work Joe.

  6. Alan Collins

    What you are saying or suggesting…It’s what I’ve always, intuitively, believed…but all too often I have been challenged by others into thinking I’m not right. You mention painting – I started my adult life as a painter…I trained in the art of painting which included the use of ‘tools’ associated with the craft…I tried everything (experimented) but was often frustrated by the possibility of the mindset where ‘anything goes’ – that I could splash paint around any old how, in any old fashion, and so long as I was happy with the result, then that’s all that mattered? NO! Without meaning, without intention, without control…the results would be meaningless. Yes, there are ‘happy accidents’ – often used in the creative process – but when those accidents are empty and are just accidents, and those accidents are presented as art…what real meaning do they have beyond the limited pleasure they may give? Most creative processes use a ‘language’ – that language is conveyed using tools of all descriptions, but it is the human experience and expression behind and through that language which gives the outcome (art) meaning? In my later years I have become interested in ‘sound’ and music…but only as another vehicle for giving expression to that ‘human feeling’…and as with the painting and not wishing to paint colourful blobs just because they look pretty or interesting, so in sound I try not to make ‘noise’ just because it sounds good or interesting. So long as I am in control and it’s meaningful, then I try to use the tools at my disposal to convey what it is I think you mean by ‘ART’?

  7. Graham Dean Satterthwaite

    It Makes me realise how much time I have wasted. I have neglected my art, I need to focus on the music and get back to more writing. I think I left my music in a locked cupboard somewhere a good while back, time to fix that, Thanks for the pointer. Graham Dean Satterthwaite.

  8. Jey Mayberry

    I’m not against the shiny new mysterious plugins, but I feel like if you’re going to be able to use them, then you should know whats going on, and be able to try to recreate the experience with more straight-forward plugs, just EQ, Compression, Saturation, and Reverb. I’m not a fan of using the one knob type plugs because if i sit down at another computer, with completely different plugs…im screwed because I’ve become reliant on the tools i own. I completely agree with all the magic coming from the engineer, and not so much the tools. YOU make the decisions. You really can’t automate art.

    • Craig Higgins

      Your Honor, I am guilty!!

      I actually moved to a computer based DAW only a year and a half ago (switching from a Korg D3200 stand-alone). I had avoided third party plugins due to iLok hassles until I discovered the Waves site and its ease of purchase/installation for their plugins. I dipped a toe in with the CLA-La2a on sale, and each week bit carrot after carrot of on-sale plugins until I own probably 75% of their lineup. The prospect of collecting takes over and anticipation is sometimes greater than realization. I am not sorry I bought these wonderful products (mostly on sale) but it can distract from the actual music-making. I especially am wary of the “all in one” type magic box plugins that don’t let you see what is truly going on under the hood. For example, if a bass has some troubled frequency areas that can be corrected with an EQ, if I slap on the mystery box, will its curve undo what I have done? I find I am avoiding using those types of fix-all plugins even though they can hype a sound and work well in some instances. As for the abundance of plugins collected, many I have not even delved into since buying, so in a way, I ignore them and keep reaching for what is needed instead of wanted.

  9. Luke Braxton

    Wow, cool article Joe! This only makes sense to me after starting the new series you are doing “Mix Together”. I am making two sessions, one session to run ahead and do what I’d do without your influence to compare and learn, and another session to follow exactly what you are doing and imitate that. While running ahead I was impressed with the quality of the recording of the raw tracks, and when mixing them I noticed that I didn’t need any or only minimal automation (actually the song would sound amazing without any) Just by getting the volume of the faders right on each track and some panning the song sounded great! This was my exact thoughts and conclusion yesterday after mixing your song. “I need to get my recordings sounding better at the source!” It made mixing fun, easy, and I was able to get creative without trying to fix anything!

    BIG UPS JOE, Love ya work, Keep it coming!

    • Joe Gilder

      Luke, you’ve just described EXACTLY what I hope so many people experience. It’s why I talk about “getting it right at the source” all the time. People want to focus all their attention on mixing without giving serious thought to the recordings themselves. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back. I consider myself LUCKY that I’m not caught in the never-ending feedback loop trying to make great mixes out of crappy recordings.

  10. david rodrigues

    i agree with much of what you say. I’ve wasted countless dollars on that new shiny thing that will take me to the next level. There have been few things that really helped. What I learned was that there are some great tools that are regularly released and some may in fact help me. That said, what really needed to happen was to spend a lot of time learning how to use those tools properly and when to use them.

    I’ve really stalled on new purchases. Partly because I just don’t have the extra money anymore but also that I spend time researching and weighing the benefits I could gain from it.

    Now I find myself spending more time using what I already have and revisiting things I’ve bought before and never fully explored. It’s gotten me really excited doing things like using stompboxes as outboard inserts and generally maxing out the abilities of the great things I do own. Now when I think of new gear, it’s more calculated and purposeful.

    To beat that old drum we hear so often, learn how to use the gear you have and learn how to use it well. I know I’ve been surprised to learn things I could do with gear/plugins I already own.

    • Joe Gilder

      Great points. And there’s certainly something to be said about buying tools that spark new creative ideas. A buddy of mine was just telling me how great Native Instruments Maschine is as a creative tool. I certainly don’t need it, but I could see how it would open me up to a new world of sounds and production approaches that I currently don’t use.
      But, of course, it’s not an EQ plugin. It’s not a mixing tool. It’s a creation tool.

  11. stefanheller

    I started old school – being the assistant engineer on large film sessions where we mixed a 120 piece orchestra direct to 3 track magnetic tape, using 8×87’s on huge booms to capture the balance and sound of the orchestra. Having set-up my own digital recording studio many years ago and transitioned from running software on an atari 1040STFM (great midi timing on those beasts) to my current mac pro setup.

    I agree with “getting the source right” – nothing you do will really “polish a piece of crap” …if it looks like crap and smells like crap…it is crap … you can mask the smell, but never truly get rid of it 🙂

    Simple is always better (and I am the worst to talk, having hundreds of plugins that I never use, but thought “oh that is a cool xxxx” and bought it!) and I find myself going back to simple eq, compression and not really paying a huge attention to meters until I REALLY need to (like…OMG it is distorting – lol)

    Anyway – nice article, and really should be something we all aim to do …get it right to being with and everything will fall better into place.

  12. Modis Chrisha

    great post…my answer would be too long…you simply said all that needs to be said!

  13. Eric Passmore


    My only reaction to this article is that I think it’s important not be a “x” guy…..”I’m not really a reverb guy”….”I’m not really into wide mixes”…..”I hate stereo delays”….”I don’t really automate things” etc

    I think it’s important to define yourself as a mixer but to take a permanent stance on things ignores what a song might need…..and they often need automation…or editing….or drum replacement…don’t they? In fact, the more I do this the more I feel that automation is what separates pro mixes from good amateur mixes (and editing).
    I guess if you truly feel that doing hardly any automation helps your mixes then by all means don’t do it…..but I don’t see how that’s possible….and if it is due mostly to laziness then I’m truly stumped….we gotta serve the song!….even if it means carrying out some tedious tasks 🙂

    Again, we can choose to be whatever we want….and the world will shape around that….but if it’s our goal to always improve as mixers we need to be open to new techniques and approaches….I think it’s limiting to just decide you’re not into automation, especially if it’s root cause its laziness 😉

    Joe, you rock….so please don’t take these words too seriously or personally….I would make a similar comment about Graham and his “hate” of reverb….never got that!!! It’s reverb!!!…..an essential mixing tool….and by deciding you hate it you’ll never get better at it 🙂

    Bottom line…..this is just my gut reaction….music is art and art is subjective….so is mixing…totally your own world

    …..but don’t shut things out or they’ll never find you when you need them (and I think we all need automation)


    • Joe Gilder

      Great points, Eric. My point isn’t that my way of not using automation is right or wrong. My point is that I ONLY serve the song. Most of the time I’m able to get the mix that I want to hear without using tons of automation. That’s all.

  14. Raul Cabral França

    As human connections – we were talking about that on your video about fear -, we can’t automate art either. That’s another insight, Joe, thanks for sharing with us.

    I remembered Andy Gullahorn. We worked on a song of him at Dueling Mixes, and you said he was one of the best songwriters you knew. Due to your endorse, I went to Spotify and started listening to his songs.

    Take the song “Not Too Late”, for instance. It’s simply an amazing song. Well written, well played, well sung, well arranged… guess it was kinda easy to mix. And it’s one of the songs I love listening to most. Joe, as you know him personally, please let he know.

  15. Ric Zarro

    Ben said it all, write a good song, arrange it, work on it. (practice, practice, practice)

    Take the time needed to record it properly and the rest should fall into place, plus or minus a few glitches. And work on your mixing craft any chance you get, don’t over complicate the process with technical jargon. At the end of the day are you still “tapping your feet to the beat”?

  16. Ben Holmes

    Hey Joe. Great post 🙂
    I have recently removed LOTS of plugins from my DAW after reading magazine articles with greats from the past who made some of the worlds greatest records They were saying things like “I used an 1176 on everything, I had to, It was all we had”.

    I think this is very much the same as you are saying. If the music is good, the production is good and the recording is good then the mix will, to some extent, take care of itself.
    Yes we need good tools because without them you cant do justice to the well recorded, well written and well performed song BUT….how many compressors do you need ??? Does it matter which tape emulation you use???

    I was spending far too much time “auditioning” compressors for the vocals which, in the end, no one would ever have noticed anyway.

    Write a good song, with good structure and record it well……you are 90% there.

    • Modis Chrisha

      Agree….I am a writer and composer for classical music. Here is the point: When an orchestra is playing the conductor is the one responsible for the “automation” while his/her musicians are playing. They did not have automation in the last centuries and didn’t need it, it is written in the “notes”. Every detail which has to be taken care of should be cleared out before a performance or recording takes place. When the well planned, organized, professionally played and recorded session ends, 90% is finished.
      Sure some adjustments needs to be done but generally, the recording must be almost finished.
      Difference….by the time you bring in lots of electronic gear, effects and digital instruments….here you need the opposite, tons of automation and adjustments…


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