Before the software revolution; mix engineers who wanted something to change at some point in the song had to manually move faders and knobs as the song was being recorded.
Nowadays we use automation. If we want something to change at a given point, or over time, then we can simply draw in a few points and be done with it. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s intuitive. Automation has changed the way we produce music.
In this guide I’m going to take you deep into automation. We’ll cover everything from its uses, a few facts and myths, how it can be used in your workflow, and more.
What is Automation?
As artists, we all like to explain concepts differently. I asked a few friends what their definition of automation was and here’s what I got:
Automation can be used for controlling and plotting parameters throughout a track within your DAW, which is extremely useful for channelling flow and creating energy in a production. Using automation is a useful tool for adding variation and extra detail in a project. – Joshua Ollerton
Automation is a way to create organic-sounding evolution and movement in music. It allows the producer to intricately sculpt the track to create impact of tension while opening the doors for many other more creative uses. – Monoverse
A process which allows you to program knob-twisting robots to affect any number of parameters while you sit back and sip coffee – Levi Whalen
I find automation to be one of the greatest “supplements” in music production. It seems that there is only so much you can do within closed-environment applications and plugins that automation opens up unexplored territories and endless possibilities. It provides you with enhanced control and precision which essentially producers larger inputs in power and energy for your creations. The extra amount of energy that automation supplies could be the difference between an influential or non-influential piece. – Nesian
Facts & Myths You Should Know About Automation
Where can automation be used? What other benefits does it have? My producer friend told me this about automation and I’m not sure it’s correct!
Here are a few facts about automation, followed by three myths that I’ve heard before.
[Fact] It pleases the listener
We all have short attention spans, especially when listening to music. If something doesn’t change or evolve quickly enough we’ll get bored.
Automation makes a track sound more dynamic. It helps guide the listener from one section of a track to another by giving clues as to what’s going to happen next.
If you’ve read my Ultimate Guide to Build-ups then you’ll have noticed that I dedicated an entire section to automation. Automation is almost always used when one wants to create tension, and as we all know – tension pleases the listener.
[Fact] It’s a sound design tool
Most people think of automation as a mixing tool, which is understandable. However, it’s also used across the board. Sound design benefits from automation in many ways.
You might argue that internal modulation inside a synth defeats the purpose of automation, but modulation is often time-consuming and not the best tool for the job. Automation can be used in the sound design process to morph a sound over time, de-harsh certain portions of the sound, alter the amplitude, and more.
[Fact] It’s a compositional tool
There’s quite a crossover between automation in composition and automation in mixing. For example: is automating a filter cutoff a mixing decision or a compositional one? The answer isn’t clear, and people will give different answers. But one thing’s for certain; automation can be, and is used in the compositional process. You could be automating a MIDI effect, the parameters of a transitional effect, or bringing up a low-pass filter on some white noise to create a simple riser.
[Fact] It’s a mixing tool
And finally, automation is a mixing tool. Volume automation, dry/wet, decay times, EQs and filters, the list goes on. You could get away with not using automation in the mixing process, but why would you want to?
[Myth] It’s hard to use
20 years ago it was difficult, but due to rapid advancement in technology and developer focus on efficiency and simplicity; automation has never been easier to use. It may be difficult for the newer producer to know where and how to implement it, but that’s what this guide is for.
[Myth] It isn’t necessary
This is half true. Automation isn’t necessary to make music, but it is necessary if you want to make interesting, exciting, and dynamic music.
But you know, if you want to make boring and lifeless music then go right ahead.
[Myth] You should only use it if you’re experienced
I’ve heard this one thrown around quite a lot, surprisingly, and I have no idea why. Automation is not a difficult concept to grasp. Certainly not as difficult as compression, phasing, or even EQ. New producers should dive into it straight away and get as familiar with it as possible.
In short, use automation, even if you feel like you’re getting ahead of yourself by doing so. The sooner you get used to it, the better.
A Visual Look at Automation – Common Types
There are four main types of automation: fades & curves, binary, steps, and spikes.
Fades & Curves
Fades & curves are probably the most common types of automation. You probably picture these in your head when thinking about automation (or when dreaming about it after a long day in the studio).
Fades & curves are often used to automate:
- Dry/wet on effects
- ADSR values
- EQ and filter parameters (you’ll often see a highpass or lowpass curve)
Think for yourself: what’s a unique way to use an automation fade or curve? Comment at the end of the article!
Sometimes a fade or curve just doesn’t cut it. You want something that happens instantly. On and off. This is where binary automation comes into play (I’m sure you could call it something else, but binary sounds awesome).
This type of automation is often used to automate:
- On/off on synths and effects
- Mute/unmute on sounds
- Highpass and lowpass
- Synth functions (such as wanting an extra oscillator in a certain section)
- Misc transitional effects: glitch, bitcrushing, etc.
Binary automation is great, but often you want something more specific than just on or off, true or false. Enter step automation.
Step automation is one of the less common types of automation. I often use it for changing synth parameters, such as synced LFO rates, or oscillator pitch. Here are a few other uses:
- Dry/wet on effects
- A/B crossover on synths or effects (some plugins allow for an A and B setting which can be switched between and even crossfaded)
- Synced rhythmic effects (gating effects, LFO, stutters, etc.)
You’ll find that in some genres this type of automation is used more. For example, you’re less likely to use it in smooth, flowing ambient music compared to fast, choppy glitch hop.
Can you think of an example where step automation might be used?
Fades are too slow, binary is too limiting, and steps are too abrupt. What’s the solution? Spikes. You can think of spikes as a micro-fade or curve, because that’s technically what they are.
Spike automation is often used for:
- Transitional effects (filters, distortion, reverb)
- Short filter automation (e.g. bringing up a filter cutoff quickly)
The best thing about spike automation is that it looks brilliant, so even if you don’t need to use it in your track – just make a blank midi channel and automate it to increase the aesthetic value of your project file (don’t actually do this, it’s a waste of time).
The #1 Rule of Automation
When adding automation, you need to have a reason for it. Don’t add automation because you feel there isn’t enough in your track. Add automation for specific reasons.
I’m going to add a highpass fade during this build-up because it helps add tension and gives the drop more impact.
I need to add some dry/wet binary automation on this reverb at the end of this 16-bar phrase to signal to the listener that a new idea is being introduced.
I’m going to add a few filter cutoff spikes to this saw pad, as it’s sounding static and boring.
Having this internal narrative allows you to work fast, and be critical. You won’t over-do it, and you won’t feel out of your depth.
Bouncing and Automation
There’s nothing worse than having your CPU freeze 80% of the way through your track due to a load of instruments and automation.
But there is a fix, and it’s called bouncing (also referred to as freezing and rendering). Bouncing MIDI down to audio heavily reduces CPU load. It also goes hand in hand with automation.
Let’s say we wanted to make a riser. Your typical EDM type saw riser. I’d first grab a synth, dial in a simple patch, and create a MIDI clip.
Then I’d probably automate some pitch bend, a low-pass and high-pass filter, and maybe a touch of reverb.
At this point I could leave it. 3 or 4 automation clips just eating up resources (and causing a mess). But I could also bounce it down to audio and forget about it.
You’re probably wondering – that sounds great, but what if I want to make changes to it?
There’s no denying that audio has its limitations. Applying pitch-bend to audio is far less effective than applying it via MIDI. And often you’re going to want to make a change to a sound that you’ve bounced out. I recommend duplicating the track before bouncing it down. For example, I’d take the riser, press Ctrl + D on my keyboard to double it up, render out the duplicated track and then mute the one in MIDI. I’d also freeze the original track to save resources. This way if I want to make a change I can simply go back to the original, edit it, and bounce it out again.
The Three Layers of Automation
I’ll touch on workflow as that’s one of the main focuses of this website. Automation is a slow process. It’s often boring and frustrating; something that many of us dread after putting together a decent arrangement and composition.
To counter this, you can think of automation in terms of layers, which there are three of. There’s problem solving automation, flow automation, and creative automation. Working through these layers in logical order not only allows for faster workflow, but it also means you’ll know what to do where, and (hopefully) be less bored and frustrated as a result.
Problem solving automation
Problem solving automation, funnily enough, is used to solve problems.
It’s the first layer of automation you’ll want to implement in your production workflow. For example: your intro might be too full of energy, so you automate a high-pass on your kick to reduce the low-end content. Or your lead might sound too dry in one section, but too wet in another. Automating the dry/wet of a reverb and/or delay will solve this problem.
You have to be careful here though as it’s easy to get stuck in more creative uses of automation which aren’t going to help your workflow if you haven’t fixed the fundamental problems yet! Solve the obvious problems before adding more complex and “flashy” automation.
The next layer is flow automation. This is where you’ll want to smooth things out; especially your transitions. You could also consider this as problem solving automation, but you’re addressing less obvious problems. It’s like sanding and smoothing a piece of furniture you’ve made. It’s already built, but you want to refine it.
Flow automation typically includes automating filters, effects, and volume. Fades and curves will be used extensively when working in this layer.
AKA the fun part. After fixing all the main problems and making sure your track flows smoothly, it’s time to add the icing on the cake, or to go back to the furniture building analogy – to add stain and gloss.
There really are no limitations here, but you don’t want to detract from your song too much. I find the best way to add creative automation is to think subtractively, rather than additively, because after the first two layers of automation your track should be pretty much complete.
Creative automation is about adding flair and complexity. It’s the final part of the process where you’re showing off your competency as a producer.
When Should I Add Automation?
You know about the three layers of automation, but when in the production process should you add them? After the mixdown? Before the mixdown? After the arrangement?
It’s up to you. However I highly recommend that you view problem solving and flow automation as part of the mixdown itself. If you’re someone who mixes as you go, then you’ll probably add automation as you go too, and that’s great! But if you’re like me and almost always do a final mixdown, then I recommend refraining from any heavy automation until then as it will only slow down your workflow.
Despite all this, there’s always going to be automation that you have to add while creating your track. If you remember in the “facts & myths” section of this post I stated that automation was a sound design tool as well as a compositional tool. You certainly don’t design sounds after your mixdown, or compose after doing the mixdown. You’ll need to add automation throughout your workflow, but I recommend saving the brunt of it for later.
Thinking Outside the Box
You know the basics of automation, you know where and when it can be implement, and you’ve got a few ideas to go away with. Now it’s time to expand on that. Start thinking outside the box – what if I used automation on this? What if I automated a fade over the whole track?
These kind of questions lead to creativity and originality, as well as enjoyment.
What’s one unique way you use automation? Share below.