DAW Fundamentals — Automation

The Element of Movement

Static sounds have their place in music, but fluid changes are usually much more interesting. Automation is able to change the parameters of anything in a DAW over time.

A Little History

Automation used to be a real pain. Engineers recruited others to man faders and knobs on the console and hardware effects units; they’d work together to move every necessary parameter in real time, making sure to take thorough notes so someone could reproduce the performance in the future. As with most new technology, the first machines to record automation were clunky and sometimes degraded the sound quality (the VCA-based units starting in 1970, followed by the NECAM console, by NEVE).

Now that we have mixers with motorized faders and DAWs that can easily record all automation with perfect recall and no loss of quality, the expectations are pretty high. A song without automation runs the risk of sounding dead.

Riding the Fader vs. Drawing Tools vs. Using the Mouse

The classic use of automation is to set the parameter on the track to Write mode, hit record, then move the assigned fader/controller in real-time. This is the most organic, and in some instances the quickest, way to write automation. However, just like some people don’t record MIDI performance in real time, you can use any one of a number of tools to draw in automation. You can also use the mouse to create each point in the automation and drag it around; this is most common when you want a linear change.

Various tools for drawing automation in a DAW

Freehand, Line, Parabola, Square, Triangle, Sawtooth, and Sine tools.

Common Uses for Automation

Leveling out a track: Compression does a pretty good job at bringing up areas that are too low and bringing down areas that are too high, but it’s often too mechanical to do it justice. This is especially common with the lead vocal. Waves makes a plug-in that does this automatically, but even that automation could need editing after it’s finished; it’s a good place to start though, and teaches more or less how to do it yourself. This is a good thing to do with basses as well, to level out the differences between various pitches (usually the product of an ill-treated room).

Changing the Focus: Depending on the arrangement, different instruments and sounds should come in and out of focus. The obvious use is to duck other instruments when a solo begins, then bring them all back up when the solo ends.

Adding Dynamics: This mostly consists of boosting instruments when they should be accented, but also includes ducking instruments to get them out of the way or to add interest (sometimes quiet is the most interesting). The main goal is to have enough contrast and variation that the song is as compelling as possible. 

Bringing Effects In and Out: A classic example of this is to bring in a long reverb just at the end of a vocal phrase; if it is there the entire time, it’ll create too much of a mess.

Morphing Effect Parameters: Synths are very common candidates for this, since every part of their sound can be automated. A simple example is to lengthen the sustain parameter of a synth at the end of a phrase. A mod wheel is a great tool for this; besides being all the time for synths, it’s also used to write in expression levels of virtual string instruments.

Add Dynamic Contrast to the Entire Song: When everything is compressed, it’s common for an entire song to be relatively static in overall levels. It can be very compelling to automate the master fader so that verses are down -2/-3dB, choruses are down -1/-2dB, and the climax of the song is at 0db. Don’t expect the chorus or bridge to go anywhere if there’s nowhere to go.

Resources for this Section

This guide covers automation in detail and is useful for every genre of music.