One of the most important things in sculpting your songs is the use of automation. While an integral part of the mixing process, automation is also used in changing the timbre of your instruments and the form of your piece. A well mixed piece doesn’t mean that all the parts sit the same way relative to one another the entire time. For example, we may very well want the bass line to gradually get louder when we reach the chorus, and we may want the same for vocals, while simultaneously lowering the volume or panning position of synthesizers. These dynamics can only happen through performance (playing it louder or softer) or through automating within the box and/or with outboard gear.
Automation is the process of changing the effects and dynamics of your composition over the course of time. Music is (generally) dynamic, not static. This means instrument parameters like timbre and volume vary over the course of time. They do not stay the same from when sound is initiated (attack) to when sound is ended (release).
It’s not often in a song that I want all of the parameters for a particular instrument to remain at the same level the entire time. When dealing with a drummer, singer, guitarist, etc, good musicians naturally get louder and softer as their music dictates. During the mixing process you don’t usually want to change any of that, and in fact, this is “natural” automation (done without having to write it in digitally or with outboard gear).
Sometimes though in a live performance there might be instances where a singer or a drummer was a bit too loud or soft in context, and automation can allow us to smooth these transients out relative to the rest of our piece.
All DAWs allow automation (Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Reason, etc). Generally, all parameters of a track can be automated and these are: volume, panning, and any parameters from digital plug-ins. Automation from outboard gear (actual hardware) will have to be automated manually.
To automate a track in a DAW we have to write in the automation data within the track lane in the arrange window of whatever DAW we are using. We can do this as a performance, controlling the various parameters via midi controllers, or through automating with nodes, creating them and manually writing them in the track lanes. There are four different modes of automation that are consistent throughout the main DAWs. They are: Read, Write, Touch, and Latch. Read mode simply reads the data of your previous automation. Write Mode takes your automation data and writes it to the parameter’s automation lane. Touch Mode allows you to adjust automation, and when you let go (of the mouse or whatever you are using as a midi control), it jumps back to previously mapped automation data. Latch Mode – Similar to Touch Mode, Latch allows you to write in new automation data, but unlike touch mode, when you let go of your controller/mouse, it will latch wherever you have moved the particular knob or fader.
With automation we can control any parameter of a track within our mix, allowing our piece to be more dynamic and hopefully more compelling.