Vocal Automation Guide – How to Keep Your Vocal Alive

After vocal EQ, dialing in the perfect compressor settings for vocals, and any other vocal processing, the last step is vocal automation. Let’s talk about vocal automation, what it is, why it’s so important, and the two methods of how to do it.

Vocal Automation

vocal automation

What is Automation in Music

Automation in music refers to adjusting the some aspect of a track (such as volume) at certain points during a song. This can be turning it up or down as necessary to achieve a number of effects.

Why use automation?

Producers use automation in mixing quite a bit as it prevents the mix from stagnating and keeps the listener engaged.

We can automate a drum bus to be a bit louder during a particular fill to bring extra energy to it. We can automate the volume of the master bus, meaning the entire mix, up a bit during a chorus to add emphasis to it.

The listener can tell something has changed, and that keeps them locked into and interested in the mix.

With vocal automation, typically the main goal is either to emphasize or regulate the level, OR to catch words or even syllables which drop off, even after compression.

Vocal compression is important in keeping the vocal up front in a mix, but words can still slip through the cracks. This can happen during busier moments in the instrumental.

Sometimes throwing a ton of compression at the vocal can keep every word audible, but it comes at the expense of the dynamics and overall sound of the vocal.

In this case, vocal automation is the answer.

How to Automate Vocals

There are two options when it comes to vocal automation: manual or… well, automatic (with a plugin).

Aside from the fact that it’s free, the manual option is almost always going to be preferable because you get a better result. We’ll cover both to get a better idea of how they each work.

Automating Vocals Manually

The much more time consuming option is doing it manually.

First, I recommend dropping a gain plugin at the END of your vocal chain on the track you want to automate.

manual vocal automation

You can automate vocals using the fader, but in most DAWs including my Ableton Live, it becomes more time consuming changing the overall volume of your fader when automation is tied to it.

With a gain plugin, we can create vocal automation by automating the amount of output gain on that track the same way we’d automate the fader level.

The difference is that the fader for that track is still clean. Therefore if we need to adjust the relative volume of that vocal as a whole, it’s much easier.

You can listen to a section for words that are missing or any sections you feel need more (or less) attention and add the adjustments one at a time.

I prefer to arm automation in Live (your DAW likely has a similar process) and have my mouse on the gain knob of the utility (gain) plugin to adjust the envelope up or down.

Holding the shift key in Live and expanding the section, you can create finer adjustments on envelopes or levels.

I then loop a particular section of the vocal, say a verse, a few times until I get a good feel for areas which need to come up or down.

Once I’m ready, I’ll start recording, then just gently move the mouse up or down as the track dictates. You can use the waveform as a rough guide, coming up on the smaller sections and vice versa.

Because I’m using the shift key, each adjustment is for a fraction of a dB. On the example above, the range between the highest and lowest adjustments is just over 1dB.

The effect is subtle, but it keeps that vocal evolving rather than stuck on one static output level.

The only exception would be when I need to really tame a section of the vocal or bring out a “T” sound at the end of a word (for example) which is falling off or being buried. Those cases there would be a larger adjustment, but just regulating the level for a bit of extra energy is subtle.

The process of doing this on every vocal track in your mix, on EVERY mix, is very time consuming. It’s one of those instances where the more you put into it, the more you get out, so it’s up to you as to how much work you want to put into it.

Of course, to save time you also have the option of going the automatic/plugin route.

Automating Vocals With a Plugin

The other option is using a plugin. Automation plugins like the Waves Vocal Rider work by utilizing a volume target which you set to automatically raise or lower the volume accordingly throughout the mix.

vocal rider

Sometimes I like to use two instances of this plugin in particular in my vocal chain. I’ll put one near the front of my chain before any compression in order to achieve a smoother input for the compressor.

Then I’ll put one at the end just to add a little life to my vocal.

The settings you’ll need to use will be dependent on how dynamic the signal you’re working with is.

For the target, I’ll aim for just above the quieter parts in the vocal, slightly below the average level. I prefer to keep the sensitivity on the minus side and the speed set to “Slow” in order to create a more natural automation. The vocal level will quickly turn jumpy if you set the speed to “Fast” and sensitivity too high, even with a good target.

Again, I wouldn’t necessarily trust this to bring up words or syllables that are being lost.

I prefer to run this plugin with gentler settings to add some life to the vocal.

While Vocal Rider is one of the more affordable plugins from Waves, a good free option is Vola 2.

Vola 2 was created as a tool for broadcast voice dynamics processing, but it works in a similar fashion to Waves’ Vocal Rider. The controls aren’t as straightforward, but you can use this to introduce a little extra life into your vocal, as well.

Vocal Automation Tips

  • Automation in music refers to changing some aspects of a track to make that evolving instrument more interesting.
  • Vocal automation specifically typically refers to raising or lowering the volume. This is done to raise otherwise inaudible words or syllables, or emphasize certain sections.
  • You can automate your vocals in one of two ways, manually or through a plugin. Manually yields better results than a set it and forget it approach.
  • The easiest way to manually automate vocals is to “record” your automation through your DAW in real time, adjusting the level up and down as necessary.
  • You can use the waveform of the vocal as a rough inverted guide for the points you need to bring up or down.
  • Unless you’re bringing up a word or syllable which is being covered by the music, subtle adjustments of no more than a dB or so are enough to bring some added life to the vocal.
  • Plugins like Waves’ Vocal Rider have you set a target volume and speed + sensitivity which the plugin abides by to adjust the level.
  • This plugin is also useful at the front of the vocal chain to feed your compressor a slightly more even level.
  • Vola 2 is a good free option for achieving a similar result.
  • Use vocal automation plugins at the end of your signal chain with conservative settings to bring some added life to your vocal(s).

4 thoughts on “Vocal Automation Guide – How to Keep Your Vocal Alive”

  1. Pingback: 6 Music Mixing Tips - Advice Which Will Never Change - Music Guy Mixing

  2. Pingback: Mixing Automation - How to Use it in Your Mix - Music Guy Mixing

  3. Pingback: What is an Audio Compressor - How Does Audio Compression Work - Music Guy Mixing

  4. Pingback: How to Use a Vocal Rider - Do You Need One? - Music Guy Mixing

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *