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What Is Automation? (+ 5 Creative Tips)

Automation is programmed change.

When we mix a record, the initial idea is to set the balances between every element in the arrangement. This includes setting levels, getting the tone of everything working with EQ, sculpting the dynamics with compression, and adding a little flavor to our elements with FX like saturation, delay and reverb. This is our primary mix.

Then we have a second layer of the mix process. I call this second process “making the moments”.

We go through the mix and automate levels and FX to change as needed. Maybe we need a little more drama in the pre-chorus? So we automate our drum reverb to come up in level. This means that we tell our computer to turn up the volume on the drum reverb return when the pre-chorus comes in. Maybe we want the audio to completely cut just before the chorus kicks in? We can use mute automation to silence every element for just a moment.

We use automation in two ways: practical and creative.

Sometimes we catch a moment where the drummer is just laying into the cymbals, so we automate our drum overheads to come down. Or maybe the vocal is just too quiet in a section because a bunch of new instruments have shown up — in which case we would automate the level of our vocals to come up. Those are practical examples. Or we might have a moment where we want to bring in a unique effect or create tension, so we automate a reverb or a delay as a creative choice.

1. Arrangements Change (so do levels and EQ)

Our verse is plodding along, it’s vocals, acoustic guitar, and light drums. Our chorus kicks in and now the drums are heavier, there’s a bass guitar, electric guitar, and keyboard in addition to our vocals and acoustic guitar. Do we think the same levels and tones we had in the verse will still make sense in the chorus? Probably not.

For one, our vocals have to compete with a lot more elements, so we’re probably going to need more level, and possibly heavier compression to fight those electric guitars if they’re heavily compressed/distorted.

Our acoustic guitar probably needed a healthy low-end presence in the verse since we didn’t have a bass guitar to make the record feel full. Now we have a bass and electric, so we probably don’t need as much low end in the acoustic.

As the arrangement changes, we need to adjust our balances and tone.

2. If the Arrangement Is Too Static: Automate!

Sometimes we have the opposite issue, the arrangement doesn’t change enough. The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all run together and leave the record feeling a little monotonous. Where the arrangement lacks, mix to the rescue!

Maybe the verse is booming away, just like a chorus. Let’s say we have vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, keys, bass, and drums. Instead of having them going full-on, we can automate the keyboard pan to be more in the center, we can lower the level of the drums, mute the electric guitar entirely, and maybe lower the bass a hair as well.

This makes the verse much smaller and more intimate and gives us somewhere to go. When we get to the pre-chorus we can start automating the drums up. And when the chorus kicks in we can bring in the electric, pan out the keys, and bring up the bass to make a really big climactic sound.

Or, we can do something a bit more experimental.

In Hip Hop, Pop, and EDM, it’s not uncommon to hear filters automated off and on with the corner frequency automated as well. When we switch from chorus to verse, we can automate a low-pass filter over the drums, and automate the corner frequency to gradually go higher and higher — creating both a new dynamic in the arrangement as well as a build within the verse section itself.

3. Automate For Emphasis

Sometimes when you want to emphasize something you need to change it in a way that makes it stand out. For example, if we write something and decide to put a certain word or phrase in italics or bold.

In a similar way, we can put elements in “bold” by using level or FX. One of my favorite never-fail-tips is to take the vocal tag of the hook (which is usually the title of the song) and automate the vocals up a dB just for that moment. I may also use mute automation to drop out some competing elements so that this moment really stands out.

For example, in the song “Scammers” by Akon, the hook ends with Akon saying “Don’t try to scam a scammer.” I drop the drums and automate the vocals up to make this moment particularly emphasized and memorable.

This is an exceptionally important concept because it really helps sell the song, and that is ultimately the end goal. We want the hook to be memorable, particularly the part that contains the title of the song! This is one of the very few times I will say you can always use automation to emphasize the tag of the record and it will never be a bad decision.

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However, the tag is not the only memorable or important moment. Sometimes a certain word or phrase in the verse will want a little extra sumthin-sumthin’.

A common example of this is in rap songs where the tail end of a line will get a delay throw — or an automated moment where just the word or phrase is echoed. This can be heard in many Drake songs, but very frequently in rap in general. But delay throws aren’t the only way to do this.

If we go back to Scammers in Olamide’s second verse he says “salaam alaikum salah”. It was the end of his 4-bar phrase, and while I didn’t understand the context I recognize the importance of the Arabic/Islamic greeting. So I pitch-shifted this phrase down to sonically put it in bold. Immediately after Olamide says “Yo!” with a break before his next phrase. I chose to emphasize this as well. But I couldn’t do it with pitch-shifting because that would effectively de-emphasize the previous phrase. So I chose to go with a more typical delay throw to energize the moment.

We can use other elements for emphasis as well. Sometimes punctuating a moment with a reverb throw on a snare drum can help add a sonic exclamation mark. At the end of Olamide’s verse, right before Akon comes in, the drum pattern switches up. I automated some very heavy compression (it actually distorts a little bit if you really listen) on this drum fill to build maximum tension before it drops out and allows Akon to make an entrance.

4. Embrace The Space

One of the most important types of automation is for reverb & delay. A mix is really never complete without an automation pass on your ambience.

Well … I’m exaggerating. Some types of music you can kinda just leave the reverb where it’s at — particularly if it’s a style that’s partial to a natural “in the room” sound, like Singer-Songwriter/Acoustic. But for anything where we can be “aware” of our signal processing — Rock, EDM, Pop, Hip Hop, etc., the way the space moves is extremely important.

As sections are more intimate and quiet we are going to want less reverb and subtler delays. As things intensify we probably want to exaggerate our space for emotional impact.

One of my absolute favorite and most brilliant examples of this is “Rise” by Katy Perry. There’s a number of delays and reverbs working together that come in and out and become a song element, dictating the movement of the verse as much as the vocal itself. Now, in this song, the reverb/delay is actually a feature of the record. In most songs, the ambiance is not as prevalent, but it’s still going to move to help tell the story.

I like to automate my reverbs even on drums to help tell the tale. In the song “Whispers” by Ella Renn there is a very subtle reverb on the kick drum. You don’t really hear it at all in the first verse, but it picks up a bit in the pre-chorus, and then comes up fully for the chorus. Then it dips back down a bit for the second verse and repeats the pattern.

5. A Song Is A Series Of Moments

You can never make a record too interesting.

While it’s important to allow the patterns of a song to settle in the listener’s ear, it really doesn’t take long for that to happen. Once the patterns are established the excitement of a record comes from breaking those expectations. Once the basic mix is set, listen to the record through and mark down EVERY moment that there appears to be any sort of lull in the energy.

Any time this happens, it’s time to get to automating. In the song “Te Quiero” by Akon and Pitbull, toward the end of Pitbull’s verse I felt that the music needed a kick. So when he began repeating the phrase “la verdad”, which means “the truth”, I snipped Maffio’s tumba fill and layered the heaviest part underneath Pitbull’s phrase.

Break up those moments with an effect, drop, dub in a sound like a hit or an impact. Find something to turn moments into momentum!

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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