Clip Gain & Automation: 3 Differences You Need to Know

Hey friend, welcome back to another Sage Audio video. In this video we’ll begin discussing clip gain and automation, and the 3 main differences between the two.  Often times, these two processes are seen as one in the same and are used interchangeably, but due to some crucial details, they serve entirely different purposes when it comes to editing and mixing. After watching this video, you’re going to know when to use clip gain, when to use automation, and how you can use them creatively to become a better, more well-rounded engineer, capable of creating professional mixes not just for yourself but for your clients as well.  

But before we get into that, if you find this video helpful, check out some of our other videos and subscribe to the channel. Just as importantly if you’re an engineer or an artist, and I’m assuming you are since you’re watching this video, send us one of your mixes at SageAudio.com, and we’ll send you a free mastered sample of that mix.

So, difference number one. The first and primary difference between clip gain and automation are their respective places in the signal path.  Let’s take a look at the signal flow just to get a quick idea. First we have the actual WAV file here – this is the first element, the first step, in our signal path.  As we move downward, this file is being processed by various plugins. Each plugin is a subsequent step in the signal chain, as we go from the top to the bottom in our inserts list here.  At the end of this list we have the channel fader, which as we know controls the volume of the track.

The thing is, this channel fader only controls the volume after all of this processing has taken place.  It is, as I said, at the end of the signal path, and therefore controls the volume after all of these effects.  Volume automation controls this fader, which means that the automation is occurring after all of this processing.

Clip gain however, is the exact opposite.  It is a change to the actual file, the WAV file, and therefore occurs before all processing.  So that is the first main difference between the two. Clip gain occurs in the beginning of the signal path, whereas volume automation occurs at the end.  

This brings us to our second main difference.  Clip gain is mainly for editing, automation is for mixing.  Because clip gain occurs at the beginning of the signal path, it offers a great opportunity to even out the dynamics in a vocal, guitar, or any type of instrumental you want to be consistent, before it hits your first plugin.  

For example, if you have a vocal track that gets particularly loud in one section, now would be a great time to use clip gain to turn it down, before it hits your compressor, and causes a noticeable and audible compression.  So, this is great, because instead of trying to find a sweet spot on a compressor, or use multiple compressors to keep this from happening, you can create a dynamically balanced performance, before even beginning to process the audio.  

Now since volume automation occurs post processing, you can use it when you want an instrument to stick out in one section, or maybe when you want to bring the vocal down during a soft bridge, or a down chorus.  Whatever the case may be, the time to make these decisions is after the signal has been run through your plugins, and volume automation is the tool you use to make these decisions.

Lastly, Difference number 3.  There is a world of difference between what you can accomplish with clip gain, and what you can accomplish with automation.  With clip gain you have the ability to control just one thing, and that is well – the gain of the clip. You can either increase the gain, or you can decrease it, and that’s really it.  But with automation, you aren’t limited to volume. In fact you can automate literally hundreds of aspects of your processing and plugins, from compression thresholds, to reverb times, plugin bypasses, or the Q of frequency notches in your equalizers.  If it’s an aspect in a plugin you’re using, it can be automated. Now this is where a lot the creative parts of mixing happen, because when you’re automating these aspects, you’re changing your signal at various points in your signal path. You’re not just automating the volume anymore, you’re not just at the end of your signal path, you’re automating within your chain of plugins, and you constantly need to be aware, how one aspect your changing leads to the next.

It takes some work to understand your signal path when it gets this complex, but when you do, you can use automation to open the door up to new creative mixing techniques that would otherwise be impossible.

So those are the 3 main differences between clip gain and automation – I hope this has been helpful for you.  If it has subscribe to the channel and click the link for notifications to stay updated on our latest videos. And as always, if your an artist or an engineer, and you’d like to hear your mix professionally mastered, send it to us today at SageAudio.com, and we’ll send you a free mastered sample of that mix.