One of many golden rules of audio mixing (not to mention one of my evergreen music mixing tips) is to keep your listener engaged. We can do this by keeping our mix evolving from start to finish, and an effective way to do this is through mixing automation.
This means to change some element of track, bus, or the entire mix while it plays. The listener might not always be aware of what exactly is changing, but it will subconsciously keep them more locked in.
Let’s talk about how to use mixing automation in your mix.
There are many different aspects of our mixes which we can automate.
Volume is the most obvious when it comes to mixing automation. We can drop or raise the volume of a track, bus, or the entire mix for a number of applications.
Vocal automation is primarily used to keep the vocal in front of the rest of the mix and ensure that certain words don’t get swallowed up either due to the rest of the mix or from a more quietly delivery from the vocalist.
Here I’ve dropped a Utility plugin in Ableton Live on my vocal and shown a stretch where I’ve manually “rode” the vocal up and down to keep it in front of the mix:
The specific method for automating will vary from DAW to DAW; in Ableton Live we turn on the automation control, select the track, then select the parameter we want to adjust. From there it’s just a matter of creating points on the timeline of the track and pulling them up or down to adjust that parameter accordingly at each particular point.
The reason I used a Utility/gain plugin rather than automating the fader itself is that this leaves the fader clean so that we can easily pull it up or down to adjust the overall volume of the entire track without having to adjust the entire envelope of the parameter itself.
Just make sure you put the Utility/gain plugin at the end of your signal chain (see my complete vocal chain) so that it effectively acts like a fader and doesn’t influence any of the other plugins in the chain.
You can use a vocal rider plugin to automatically adjust your vocal. Wave’s Vocal Rider has you set a target average volume you want to aim for along with a range and it will automatically pull the vocal up or down to get closer to that target as necessarily as the raw input volume of the track goes down or up:
Sometimes I rely on a vocal rider for the sake of time and ease, but no vocal rider will ever replicate the quality of doing it manually yourself. Like with anything when it comes to mixing, it’s always a matter of what you put in is what you’ll get out. You don’t NEED to add ANY mixing automation in your mixes, but they’ll always benefit from it.
We can also automate the volume of a bus or our entire mix to create more energy at key points in the song.
When the composition of the song is relatively repetitive or doesn’t even have that stand out or catchy of a chorus, we can fake an uptick using automation.
Simply pushing the master fader up by 1-2dB on the chorus can make any chorus hit harder for and better draw in the attention of the listener.
Let me be clear: the volume of the chorus should ALWAYS be slightly higher than the rest of the song. Ideally this can be accomplished through instrumentation, adding extra tracks in etc.
But occasionally when I feel my chorus needs that little extra OOMPH, I reach for the master fader to push it up just by that subtle 1-2dB. It’s more of a feel than something the listener actively comprehends and notices. Specifically I increase the master by that 1-2dB over the chorus of the bar or two leading into the chorus rather than an all at once so that it’s more subtle.
There are countless examples of applications for mixing automation, but I’ll give a couple more practical ones which I regularly use.
The aforementioned Utility plugin in Live also has a stereo dial which can narrow or widen the stereo field accordingly. Additionally it can also be set to mono which can have its own application (see mixing in mono).
Automating the width of the master fader allows us to adjust the width of the entire mix as the song progresses.
Even after you’ve done all of your track panning (see my audio panning guide), narrowing the width on the master fader for the verses and subtlely opening things up to full once that chorus hits once again makes that chorus feel so much bigger and more satisfying to the listener.
It’s another instance of having the sense that something has changed for the listener but not being able to put their finger on exactly what.
With a simple verse chorus verse chorus sequence, you can keep things minimalist and near or even fully mono in the verse before unleashing the full width of the stereo when that chorus hits.
Adding width on your snare using snare reverb is one of my tips on how to mix snare. Just like the width of the entire mix, you can automate more or less reverb on the snare throughout the mix, giving it more size during the choruses.
It’s just to say that there are a lot of clever ways to use automation to make your mix more interesting, the only limit is your imagination.
We can also use an all kinds of modulation via LFOs. This involves using a low frequency oscillator not to produce sound but to change some aspect of an existing sound.
There are a number of different types of audio effects which we can use to create automation for us without having to mess with the timeline or envelopes so much.
Chorus, phasers, tremolo, flangers are all examples of modulated effects which use ultra low frequencies to alter the pitch, volume, width, etc. all in realtime as the track plays.
Automation refers to altering some aspect of a track as it plays, and it’s what gives your mix life.
Volume automation is one of the most common types of automation you can use in your mix.
We can use it for more practical fixes, like ensuring that there’s no lost words in a vocal delivery by turning up the vocal on a word here or there (see my vocal automation tutorial).
We can also use it to create energy, like riding the drum bus louder on an energetic fill, or riding the master fader up during the chorus.
These are subtle things which the listener may not even full realize happened, but they’ll be able to detect some sort of change which helps keep them engaged.
Anytime we can keep our mix evolving through the composition, instrumentation, or mix like the use of automation, it makes for a more interesting mix which demands the listener’s attention (always a good thing).
Try automating things you might not have thought of before, like clamping down then slowly, quickly, or immediately opening up a low pass filter on a track in your mix to bring in that clarity at key moments in a song.
Automating the panning of a vocal or a one off riff is also enough to create a little ear candy here or there.
Automate more or less distortion on a vocal to help it cut through the mix with more top end when that chorus hits. A lot of what makes mixing automation so effective is the contrast between the two parts.
As I said earlier, when it comes to mixing automation, there are limitless ways to use it to create a more interesting and engaging mix for your listener.
Mixing Automation Tips
- Mixing automation refers to changing some aspect of a track, bus, or the entire mix as the song progresses.
- Mixing automation creates livelier mixes and is a huge secret to keeping your listener engaged and locked in as things progress.
- Volume automation is one of the most common and effective applications for mixing automation. Whether it’s on a particular vocal to keep that vocal in front of the mix or being applied to the entire mix bus to add a little extra energy and attention once a chorus hits, this is a great way to keep your mix fresh.
- Automating the width is another effective mix-wide technique you can use to draw more attention to a chorus and create a truly effective contrast between verses and choruses.
- The only limitation to effectively using mixing automation in your mix is your imagination, so consider every and any element in every track, bus, or your entire mix as candidates to automate at different sections to create more interesting and successful mixes.