Making the machine do the work
If you read the newspapers you would probably assume that automation, in the wider sense of the word, is coming to take our jobs and reduce humanity to slavery. That may be true – and this isn’t the place to get into those debates – but there is conversely something undeniably useful about having a machine do a job for you. It may be that automating a process frees you up from doing boring tasks, or it may be that it augments your work and allows you to take it in bold new directions.
For musicians, particularly studio-heads, automation is a wonderful tool which comes equipped with every major DAW like Ableton Live or Cubase and is easy enough to get to grips with. So put your fears over Skynet and other robot uprisings to one side and allow us to describe some ways of using creative automation in your DAW.
What is automation?
It makes sense to start with a short primer on what exactly we mean by automation. In the context of a DAW, automation is anything that you can program into your timeline which will make the DAW’s engine carry out a specific, evolving task. Anyone familiar with 3D animation will know the score here.
Picture the timeline, into which you import or record your audio. From here you can see the track laid out in a logical fashion. What automation allows you to do is tell your DAW to, for example, turn on an audio effect between 15 and 25 seconds on the timeline, or alter the volume of a specific track over time. By programming in the processes, the computer and DAW will do those tasks automatically.
While there are indeed numerous ways in which you can use automation to do all manner of wild and wonderful things, it’s worth pointing out now that there are also a lot of the more menial tasks and processes you can apply automation to. Stick with us here, this is the bread and butter of DAW automation.
Imagine, for example, you have two guitar tracks running straight to the master output, but when the chorus starts you want both guitars to have the same effect processed on them. You could record separate tracks with the effect duplicated on each, but the simpler way would be to have both tracks running into a bus track with the desired effect on. From here, you can program into your timeline when you want the effect to switch on, and both tracks will magically begin playing with the effected sound.
Everyone who’s ever played with a synth, be that a freebie plugin or a top-end Moog, loves a good synth pad. Pads are glorious, long, dreamy sounds which regenerate constantly, and form the backbone of many a good ambient song. They are also, if we’re honest, kinda boring if left to their own devices. However, using automation, we can introduce movement which elevates a simple pad into something which evolves and becomes entirely unique.
A good trick with pads is to incorporate movement by adding in effects. A simple tremolo works wonders here; apply the effect to the pad, and then experiment with raising and lowering the effect’s rate controls over time. This simple tweak can be made rhythmical by matching the automation to the drum beats, giving a really cool effect. Similar fun can be had with delay or other time based effects.
Speaking of effects… This is where a huge amount of fun can be had with automation. Consider this; every effect you have available to you will have multiple settings or parameters which can be tweaked and tinkered with to your heart’s content. And where there are parameters, there is automation.
From simple stuff like raising and lowering the decay rate of a pedal effect over time, through to more complex automation processes involving send and receive channels or MIDI, the beauty here is that the world of sonic exploration really is your oyster.
It’s easy to get stuck into too. Try composing a simple MIDI pattern, or recording a basic 4 bar loop, and then stuffing the tracks full of effects. To start with, turn each effect off, and then introduce them all gradually using your timeline. Experiment with different settings. The real draw of this is that a) you might stumble on a particular sound which you could never have achieved without automation and b) it’s really, really fun!
A slightly less exciting, but infinitely useful task for automation comes at the mixing stage. By now you’ve recorded all your parts, got your effects keyed in and you’re trying simply to balance the sound and make it all work together.
In ye olden days, recording engineers or producers would do something called ‘riding the faders’. This basically meant listening to the track in real-time, and physically raising and lowering the individual track levels in order to ‘mix’ the music. With automation this couldn’t be easier. Every track will volume and pan controls as standard, all of which can be automated with great ease.
Perhaps your track features a minimalist guitar part for the verse, before more instruments are introduced for the chorus. A compressor effect, automated to boost the guitar during the verse but then lowered or removed completely at the chorus will make the track sound professional, while also highlighting each section in a balanced way.
Creative automation. Sounds cool; is actually very easy. Let us know your examples of how you’ve used automation to bring your tracks to life.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.