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Arrangement Tips and Tricks Part 2: Automation


If any of you follow my tutorials then you'll know I have started a few different series dealing with key subjects. In this series I'm taking a look at various aspects or arrangement using modern DAWs. You can see the first part of the series (looking at fills and transitions) here.

Although the previous tutorial did touch on using automation, we'll take a closer look at editing, moving and creating automation and some situations it can be useful in. I'll be using Logic Pro 9 here but the theory is pretty much the same in any DAW, so it should translate to your environment without issue.

Step 1: Reading and Writing

I'm sure the vast majority of you will have the basics of recording automation down, but for those of you who are less experienced lets take a very brief look at the concept of recording automation data.

Simply put automation is simply data that resides on its own dedicated 'tracks' and runs in the background of your mix. This data is capable of controlling just about any parameter in your DAW, be it simple tweaks to your mixer or more in depth edits involving multiple parameters within software instruments.

Automation data can be recorded in real time, drawn in using dedicated tools or placed point by point using 'handles' to create curves and fades. This data can then be moved with parts, copied, muted and deleted at will. If you haven't spent much time working with automation then you should certainly start to familiarise yourself with it as it is an extremely important part of the modern production process.

When recording your own automation data it's important to familiarise yourself with your DAWs read and write modes. Many DAWs feature a number of modes, usual suspects include 'read', 'write', 'touch' and 'latch'. Think of write mode as a simple record button where any movement made will be recorded, the only downside here is that using this mode will also record over any previous movements made.

Logic's automation write modes.

Touch and latch modes are often a much less destructive method of recording your movements. Latch will only record when it senses incoming data and will leave any previously recorded data untouched. Touch modes are often similar to latch in that they only record when a touch sensitive controller is used. This can be great for owners of these controllers as it allows very intuitive input of data.

As I said previously different DAWs feature different modes so it's well worth checking your manuals for exactly how these different modes operate. Although they maybe named the same they may work in slightly different ways.

In the following steps I'll show some basic ways of recording and manipulating automation data and demonstrate these techniques in a real world setting. This should help you when constructing your arrangements and give you ability to make your tracks that little bit more interesting.

Step 2: Basic Fades and Curves

The most basic form of automation editing is the creation of a simple fade. This can be achieved by adding two 'handles' and lowering or raising one of them. Of course the effect created will be very linear and perhaps a little inhuman for some uses but for a quick fade out in volume or frequency this can often be perfectly useable.

Try these simple fades on key instruments when moving between sections of your track or use them to raise or lower energy. If used over longer sections, fades like this can be great for subtly introducing an element over time and let's face it they are quick to create. Of course you may want to make your fades sound a little more natural and this often requires a little extra leg work.

A couple of simple volume fades in Logic Pro.

A drum loop and bass patch being faded out over time.

Step 3: Convex or Concave?

There are a few ways to make your automation curves sound a little more human and natural. One route is to edit your simple linear curves and create concave or convex curves. Some DAWs will require the entry of extra automation handles and the result may not be totally smooth. Other applications such as Logic Pro however features specialised automation tools to create these custom curves.

Logic's automation curve tool.

Any curve with a non linear signature will give you a very different sound to a more uniform one. Convex curves come in very quickly but then ease off and become more gradual and obviously concave shapes produce the opposite with a slow attack and then speeding up towards it's apex.

Strings faded in using a linear curve.

The linear curve in action.

Strings faded in using a concave curve.

The concave curve in action.

Strings faded in using a convex curve.

The convex curve in action.

If your DAW doesn't feature automation curve tools you can try recording or drawing these shapes in live and perfecting them once completed. Although these DIY curves can often look rough and ready they can sound more natural and once your automation lanes are closed it can be very hard to tell the difference. Using your ears as opposed to your eyes here can be a good idea.

Step 4: Cross Fading

Although a lot of DAWs feature cross fade tools for blending audio files I often find that using automation for this task gives you more control. Crossfade tools often give you set curves to work with and although these can work very well, using automation can allow you to much more accurate.

By simply placing your two overlapping files in separate tracks simple volume fades can be placed at the start and end of the files, these fades can then be continuously tweaked to get the perfect blend. Another plus point here is that you can also automate other processors such as effects and eq to make the join even smoother.

An automation based crossfade.

Step 5: Automating Multiple Parameters

When using automation during the arrangement process one of the best tricks is to automate a number of parameters at once. This is the perfect technique for creating tension, building massive intensity and building impressive effects based fills. It can also be used for attention grabbing spot effects, which are especially effective when used on a top line or vocal.

There are pretty much endless possibilities here and it's really a case of letting your imagination run free. The main thing is not to limit yourself to any one parameter, keep tweaking and recording your movements and don't worry about moving between devices. Any new information will be recorded on a new track and can be tweaked or deleted at a later stage.

This technique of automation 'performance' works very well with soft synths and other virtual instruments and can make an ordinary baseline or synth sequence come to life. These movements will generally make your tracks more dynamic and keep the listener interested.

Multiple effects and instrument parameters automated to create a simple fill.

The automated fill.

Step 6: Copying and Moving Automation Data

When you have got to grips with the way your chosen DAW handles the recording and editing of automation data it's pretty likely that you'll end up with a lot of recordings across your tracks. On occasion you'll find that some of this works and some doesn't.

The handy thing about automation data is that it can be selected, deleted and moved in blocks just like audio or midi regions. Most DAWs make this process very easy and supply tools for selecting large portions of data. With your chosen data selected you should now be able to move, copy, paste and duplicate it. This is really handy for replacing duff data or simply repeating a really successful section.

Selecting and copying automation data.

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