As the number of tracks available to recording engineers grew throughout the 1970s, mixers ran into a problem. The final mix down typically consists of slight adjustments to the volume levels of individual tracks throughout the song, and when there were 24 tracks on the songs, engineers just didn’t have enough hands to make all the changes themselves. What happened, then, was that the engineers gathered pretty much anyone that was in the studio around the mixing board, assigned them a couple of tracks to manually adjust during the mix down that made the final mix.
These days, even though there are many more tracks available to engineers, the issue of adjusting levels has been solved by automation. Rather than wait until the final stage of the mix, engineers can automate volume levels, panning and much more while they are mixing. Though we look at how to do this in a different article, we want to take this opportunity to look at why you want to use these automations in the first place.
While it is tempting to get all of your levels set for each individual track, it is rare that all the levels that sound great on one part of a song will continue to sound that great throughout the rest of the song. In these cases, automating certain aspects of the tracks during different parts of the song can be a great way to produce a consistent, great sounding song from start to finish.
One of the most common uses of automation is for vocals. While a compressor is used as something of inherent volume automation, even the best compressor settings may not give the desired level throughout the entire song. For instance, if you use a compressor on a vocal track with a very large dynamic range, the settings that work great for the soft vocals may make the loud, grand portion of the vocals sound lifeless. Using volume automation can allow you to use a great compressor setting while still controlling the level of the vocal.
If you’re lucky enough to have the ability to record drums in your home studio, you know that sometimes songs -- particularly those with a soaring chorus -- lack that particular attack needed to take the song to the next level. Automation is a great way to add this. Though the exact method will depend on the song, if you have a chorus that you need to give just a little more ‘oomph,’ raise the volume level of the kick and cymbals slightly on the first downbeat of the chorus.
While volume levels are the most often used automations, there are numerous aspects of every mix you can automate to get the best mix. Remember that problem with the vocal compression mentioned above? Automate both the volume level and the compressor itself throughout the song to get the best sound. You can also automate EQ, reverb and just about any other effect as needed.
However, remember that with almost all automation you do to improve your mix, you want to be subtle. Sudden, drastic changes in volume (or anything else) can be jarring in a mix. You want to use just enough automation to achieve the desired effect, without a listener being able to tell that anything was changed.