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.
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
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
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.
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