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Get the Most from DAW Automation: 3 Creative Approaches

by Daniel Dixon, iZotope Contributor May 16, 2018
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In the early 1970s the recording industry changed drastically with the introduction of mixing consoles that could record and play back fader movement. Leading up to this, mixing multitrack tape recordings was a group effort. For larger sessions of 16 or 24 tracks, up to four people could be needed behind the desk just to manage faders.

Digital audio workstations (DAWs) sophisticated the entire automation process, providing creators and engineers with the ability to control nearly every parameter with precision. In this article, I’ll show you three ways to use automation for more expressive, stand-out music.

Automation basics

There are two ways to add automation to a song. You can record it in real time, manually adjusting hardware knobs or on-screen controls with your mouse. During playback, your DAW parameters will follow the moves you captured.

If things go wrong the first time around, you can still undo, modify and add automation. This leads us to the second method, which is to draw-in all automation from scratch with your mouse.

The second approach has a few key benefits. It is super precise, and you can easily automate single vocal syllables or notes. You get the visual aid of the waveform, making it easier to design automation that relates to it peaks and dips.

Drawn-in automation in Ableton

Live automation tends to clog up your track lane with data points too. That being said, recording automation on the fly does lead to spontaneous studio moments you can’t get any other way.

Color-coded session
Live automation

The techniques I use in this article are best suited to manual, drawn-in automation. I won’t go into detail on how automation is applied in individual DAWs. You can read more on that here: Ableton. Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase, Reason.

1. Tempo automation

I first learned about this technique through a Four Tet tweet. I hadn’t even thought about changing tempo mid-song before. It seemed too showy and bold. But that’s kind of the point.

Aphex Twin regularly incorporates tempo changes into his music. It’s part of his rule breaking philosophy that has made him a cult hero.

Tempo automation can also be useful for DJs. If you produce something at 130 BPM and include a breakdown at 115 BPM, this presents an opportunity for DJs to smoothly mix into a slower selection of songs and change the mood.

Some songs have incremental tempo changes, like Lil Louis’ classic house anthem

French Kiss.” This technique has become common in longform EDM drops and other high octane forms of dance music.

During your next studio session, scroll up and down your DAWs tempo range dial to spark creativity. You may find some opportunities to introduce this cool technique into your songs.

2. Panning automation

Broad, panoramic sounds have been trendy in recent years, leaving pan dials in DAWs frequently overlooked. Panning is a creative process, and you should experiment finding your preferred stereo positions for your sounds. Often the most important elements of a mix—the lead vocal, bassline, kick and snare—are placed in the center. Spread out other song elements to expand your mix width. As you free up space, everything will sound clearer.

Automated panning lets you move sounds around the stereo spectrum in a way you (and not a VST or effect) can control. When you introduce a new song element, chord, or even key, accompany this change with automated panning. It will make the moment more profound.

Listen to the synth to hear the difference between static and panned (headphones recommended).

The panned synths lets the drum elements breathe and there is an arching movement from speaker to speaker that matches the gradual evolving nature of the synth. Pan your drums, synths, and effects until you find something that fits.

3. Sample start automation

Need to spice up your sampling? Grab that sample start dial and start shaking. Ride the wave of emotion contained in a sample or loop by moving the sample start dial forward and backward as a sequences plays. This technique works best with sustained notes—busy recordings, or vocals melodies are prone to clashing with other song elements.

Sample start automation is great for pulling lots of musical expression out a single sound. Repetition in music has a negative connotation, but when used with automation, it can be a powerful device. When a musical sequence of passage is repeated, we process it slightly different each time, leading to a deeper understanding and connection with it.

Without automation, the staticness of repetition is tiring. For example:

Now, with automation.

Sample Start Automation in Ableton Sampler

The sequence ebbs and flows and is much more pleasant to listen to. If your music is loop-based, use this technique to add more variation to your repetitions.

The power of automation

Just about every parameter in your DAW can be automated. It’s up to you to find what works for the type of music you want to make. Automate LFOs to produce slippery effects, gradually ramp up the drive on your favourite distortion, increase tension with a white noise filter. Automation is not a just a mixing tool. Use it for production, sound design, and composition to reveal it’s expressive capabilities.  

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