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Once recording and editing are finished, audio engineers can take advantage of the training in Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools to punch up the final output. Digidesign Certified Expert Brian Lee White covers all the basic mixing tools that every producer and engineer should know, from using EQ to add clarity and focus to using compression and limiting to maximize track levels within a mix. Brian stresses the importance of setting up a solid mixing plan prior to any work in Pro Tools, and gives advice on the best plug-ins for each stage of the process. Exercise files accompany the course.
Like most mixing topics, every engineer approaches his/her automation a bit differently. Some tracks with static arrangements like hip-hop, for example, will often need little to no automation. While other products may have constant dynamic changes requiring detailed automation through every section. Many times automation is more of a production decision. For example, the decision to add more or less Reverb to a single note or a drum hit. Because of this, it's not uncommon to start the automation process early on, during the producing and arranging stages.
Don't be afraid to start the process at any stage inspiration strikes. Understanding automation cannot only make you a better mixer, but a more effective producer, composer, and arranger all around. So here are some things that I consider when I'm approaching a session with automation. First off, focal point. In any case, from a functional standpoint, a good mix always has a defined focal point. Whether it is the lead vocal, an interesting instrumental part or a catchy rhythm or a lick, it is the mixer's job to help guide the listener through the song, highlighting these focal points retaining the listener's interest all the way through to the end.
Automation can be a lifesaver and it is many times the only way to achieve this goal. I showed you the example before. Specifically, the lead vocal in this song, there is automation happening and not just at the volume level. So if I look at the lead vocal, there is also automation happening on the Delay, increasing it on some words, pointing back and others. This adds almost sort of a subconscious effect to the listener in terms of keeping things interesting and sort of really pushing it to the extremes at the end, sort of growing bigger and bigger and bigger.
So, like I said, there is a million ways to approach automation, but generally when I'm thinking about automating a basic song, aside from the focus point, can I hear every thing else? I'm going to listen through the song and I want to make sure I can hear every part clearly from section to section. Do I feel like at any one time an element is too loud or too soft? I do this generally section by section. I'll work through the different sections of my song which is great to have memory locations, because like I said, you can make selections and then easily use your Trimmer tool to trim that automation up or down within that section.
So after I have done sort of all the section dynamics, I'll go back through the vocal and I'll really listening critically to make sure I can hear every word. So even after my compressor is in, certain words can become lost or obscured, certain words still might pop-out or I want to give extra emphasis to. So I have seen mixes where they literally every word of the vocal is automate and when we are talking about mixes especially where the vocal doesn't have a lot of compression or you are using really light compression, automation is almost necessary on every word of phrase just to get it to sit right at the right spot.
You can actually use automation more and rely on compression less, if you are looking for more of that natural sound. So like I said, it's not uncommon to heavily automate the vocal. Likewise, it's not uncommon to see just big sections of the vocal automated up or down, especially in a scenario where there is lots of compression going on. There is a quite a bit of compression happening in this song, up to 12-15 dBs at some spots. So just the section dynamics of bringing it up, bringing it back down really work out for us here.
Don't be afraid to mute things, to pull things out and then bring them back in. A lot of times I'll get arrangements where the producer has every element just playing through the whole song. And this is great when you are just trying to build up a track, but in an arrangement that's say static, with all the same elements playing throughout the entire mix, it's really going to bore the listener quickly. Especially if the sections that don't have vocal and there is nothing for them to listen to, but the music. So think about slowing building the arrangements, sort of bringing in something new to the mix during each section.
A trick that I often use as a producer is I kind of think about what I can pull in and pull out of every section. So verse 1 might have three elements and verse 2 might have an additional fourth element that brought in. As a mixer, this hasn't already been done at the arrangement stage, I'll work with the producer and kind of think about how can we make this more interesting as the song grows and less static. Like I said, I'm not afraid to mute things. A perfect example in this session would be the distortion bass or the snare sample.
These things will pull out, especially in the first verse kind of making that first verse a bit more intimate than the bigger sections of the song. So once you have the basics covered, definitely get creative. After getting all my section dynamics automated and my vocal sitting nicely through out the track, I think about any creative automation I could use just to bring the track to life. So volume rises into different sections of the song. There are few here in this session. If I take a look at like the Drum Squash track, specifically going into the last chorus, that gets automated up just to give it a little bit extra energy over that section. We can listen.
(Male singing: So take me down, take me down...) So cool little things like that can pull the listener from section to section of the song are really, really useful. We also talked about automating things like EQ. Maybe I want to automate the Kick Drum or the Snare EQ to get a little bit brighter over the Chorus section. Maybe you want to automate the EQ on the vocal to sit a little bit better in the denser sections of the mix. Something that I might do is take in remove more of the low end from the vocal during the Chorus section, especially when more background vocals and doubles pile on, things can tend to get muddy.
Whereas in the verse, if it's just a single vocal track, I want to keep it kind of warm and intimate as the main focus of the mix. Think about adding dimension and depth and really pushing that listener to the next level when you are working on your automation and at the end, less is really more. I find that sometimes being tasteful and discreet is generally the best practice, just because you can automate pan spins around people's head and reverb tails growing and shrinking and filter sweeps on every note, doesn't mean you should.
So you got to keep in mind that the average listener can only simultaneously digest tenth of what you can as the producer and engineer. So keeping it simple is always a safe bet. Again, keep it simple, but be creative at the same time. A well-automated mix generally doesn't sound like it's automated. So think about that. It's not something that the listeners should think about when they are listening to your track, like, oh, wow! That vocal just really came out in the chorus. It's going to be more of subconscious thing that's pulling them through the tune. It's kind of like in movies or television, the best editing of film generally the viewer is not going to notice those edit.
They are just going to kind of transparent. So listen to your favorite songs as a guide, listen critically and see if you can hear any kind of automation changes or what's going on, and a lot of times you will find that it's tough to hear any discreet or specific automation of volume or pan or things like that because it's generally more of that, like I said, a subconscious thing that's pulling you through the song. So again, be creative with your automation and when in doubt, stick to your mix plan, use the reference material as your guide and just overall try to make the song a journey for the listener.
If it sounds the same in major 1 as it does in major 100, what incentive does a listener have to keep listening? So always remember that the mix is an extension of the song and the mix should exist to service a song and not the other way around. So keep your static goals in mind and know that workflows can very radically from genre to genre, song to song. Keep in mind the message of the song and use automation to strengthen that message. If the song is primarily a catalyst for the lyric, you really better make sure that lyric comes through every word.
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