Mix Automation Basics: What is Automation and How To Use It
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
One of the biggest differences between amateur and experienced producers is the use of automation. While the concept of mix automation can be confusing, it’s certainly worth taking the time to understand in order to expand your knowledge as a beatmaker or producer.
Below, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about automation in music to start building better beats. We’ll also walk you through automating a section in Ableton Live so that you can put your new skills into practice by the end of this article. Let’s dive into it!
What is Mix Automation?
Mix automation or automation in music is the process of recording adjusted parameters within a song. For the most part, automation is applied to individual effect parameters or to the gain or volume of different sounds or parts of the song.
A clear example of automation can be found in Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s Song “One Kiss”:
Notice the difference between the sound of the song at the start of the track, and the transition that occurs at 0:12. The muffled vocal and piano becomes a lot more forward, which is the result of automation.
This is a more dramatic example of automation, though most studio tracks today have some form of automation in the mix, though oftentimes it’s much more subtle. All genres of music use automation in one way or another for a variety of reasons.
Why Would You Use Mix Automation?
Utilizing mix automation is studio standard for good reason. Here’s why so many producers and engineers incorporate some form of automation into every session:
It can help you make space in the mix. Sometimes, you still need a particular sound's presence in the mix, but you need some extra space to allow one or two key elements to shine. Volume and effect automation makes it so engineers don't have to choose between keeping or trashing a sound in a fuller section-- Instead, they can automate so that the two sounds in question work together without clashing.
It adds interest for the listener. Automation transforms music from a collection of instruments played at the same to a dynamic, unique journey everyone can connect to differently. Using automation makes your music more engaging, even if you're using more or less the same parts throughout your entire song.
It creates a more organic listening experience. In real life, a guitar player isn't playing at the exact same level throughout a performance. Automation can help digital tracks feel more organic and lively to a listener.
It’s industry standard. It's wise to learn mix automation simply because it's industry standard. There are few professional tracks that don't use some form of automation throughout the sound design, so if you want to bring your music to a professional level, it's an essential skill to have.
Automation Examples: What Can I Automate?
There are a few key ways in which producers utilize automation throughout their tracks. Here are some of the main ways you can incorporate automation into your beats:
Fade Ins or Outs
Individual Plugin Parameters
Multiple Parameters at Once
One of the most simple but effective forms of automation is toggling a track, effect, or instrument on or off. You can hear a clear example of this in FKA Twigs' "Home with you". Notice how the vocal effects switch on and off throughout the song. For instance, the gritty distortion on the main vocal featured at 1:08 shuts completely off at 1:16:
2. Fade Ins or Outs
You can fade in or out the strength of an effect, or an entire song using automation. One of the more obvious examples of this technique is the fade in of guitars at the beginning of the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week":
3. Individual Plugin Parameters
In addition to automating full effects or tracks, you can automate parameters within individual plugins or instruments. In this example, spill tab automates the pitch of the main vocal at 0:44:
4. Master Fader
Sometimes, it makes sense to automate the entire song on the master fader. You can hear the gain of the song decrease due to automation at the very end of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World".
5. Utilize Multiple Parameters at Once
With today's sophisticated automation tools, you're able to automate multiple parameters at once to make for a more interesting mix. Controlla is one of the best free tools to help you accomplish this within a matter of seconds:
Automation Basics: How To Create Your First Mix Automations In Ableton Live
Now that you understand what automation is, let's give it a try! Here's a guide to adding automation to one of your songs. Note that this guide is tailored to Ableton Live, but the controls will be more or less the same in any DAW.
Figure out what you want to automate.
Map your controls if necessary.
Record or draw in automation.
Check and adjust as necessary.
1. Figure Out What You Want To Automate
To start, decide what parameters would make sense to automate. For demonstration purposes, today I'll be demoing automating echo (you can compare this to automating individual effect parameters).
If you're not sure what to automate, play around with the controls of your effects or volume knobs. Here's me trying out different balances of Ableton's "Ethereal Echo" stock plugin. While I'm testing it out, I'm taking mental notes of how much of the effect seems appropriate to me on my vocal sample.
2. Map Controls If Necessary
If you want to use a hardware controller to toggle your automation, you'll need to map your desired effect to the control knob on your hardware piece. In Ableton, you can open up the map view by hitting command + M on Mac, or going to options --> edit MIDI map. You can also select the "MIDI" button in the top right corner:
In order to successfully map a parameter, select the effect (for me this would be the dry/wet knob I was toggling in the previous video), move your desired hardware control and you're done! You should be able to view MIDI mappings on the left window and set limits if desired. I'll be drawing in my automation for this example, but mapping automation can make for more organic and interesting automation lines.
3. Record or Draw In Your Automation.
If you want to record in your automation, you'll want to enable both of Ableton's automation views before pressing record and automating as desired:
This blue button will allow you to see the automation lines:
This yellow button will make it possible for you to record automation in real time:
Once they're enabled, simply hit record and automate. Note that once your recording is finished, your automation is still baked into the session during playback:
You can also simply draw in your automation utilizing draw mode, or quick key "B":
4. Check and Adjust As Necessary.
Finally, you'll want to check your automation and adjust if needed. Luckily, Ableton makes it easy to adjust points in your automation line, duplicate it, or quickly delete it within the timeline:
And there you have it! Once you start making a habit of using automation in your tracks, it will truly become second nature. Have fun experimenting with different types of automation in your music.