Automation is a tool that is vital to most mixes, but are you using the technique to its full potential? Below we discuss four ways of using automation that you may not have thought of. You won't find a place for all of these in every mix, but some of these tricks can really take a track up a level if used correctly.
Try keeping verse one of your track relatively dry, before bringing up the reverb and/or delay levels at the first chorus. The track will suddenly feel as though it has 'opened up', and moved into a bigger space. You can do the same sort of trick by bringing up the levels of room mics and overheads at chorus one too. At the start of verse two, fade the levels back down before the lead vocal begins. You will probably want to keep the levels slightly higher than they were in verse one however, as you have now introduced the sound of reverb to the song.
A similar kind of idea to tip 1, above. Try keeping your musical elements panned fairly centrally in the verses, so that when you hit that chorus, you can suddenly introduce wide stereo elements that will immediately make your track sound 'bigger'. This technique is often used in pop tracks (see below), but it translates very well across many genres. Take a listen to Katy Perry's 'Hot N Cold'; notice how central everything is up until the chorus - when the wide guitars suddenly come in, and everything opens up:
You don't need to stick to the same EQ all the way through your mix. Imagine that your track is stripped back to piano in the verses, but has a much busier and fuller arrangement in the choruses. You want the piano to sound deep and rich when it's the only instrument playing, but if you leave those low frequencies in the mix when the drums and bass kick in, your low end is going to get very cluttered. Try automating a low shelf that frees up room at the bottom of your mix for those other instruments.
It is possible to use volume automation instead of compression on a lead vocal – and this technique can produce excellent results. You (hopefully) have a more developed musical sensibility than your compressor, so the end result can end up being more musically satisfying. The downside of this approach is that it is incredibly time consuming. A sensible option, then, is to use a combination of the two techniques. Compress first, and then automate the volume where necessary to create a nice, smooth and musical vocal sound. You may also want to consider automating the volume level of the breaths – if your vocal is compressed, these can become unpleasantly loud. Finally, it's worth considering using the same technique to get rid of stubborn sibilance. A de-esser should remove most of it, but if there are any remaining 's' or 'f' sounds that still poke their heads out of the mix, try bringing their volume level down using automation.
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