Better Mixing with Automation Instead of Compression

If you want to take your mixes to the next level and are willing to put in a little time and effort, automation instead of compression is going to give you the edge you’ve been looking for.  
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While using compression to even out track levels has long been the ‘go-to’ method, it has several drawbacks that aren’t easily overcome. It can be difficult to get the perfect settings on a compressor to handle every type of volume issue a track may have. I’m sure you’ve run into a few of these before:

  • Vocals that have a phrase or word here and there whose level is too low—setting the compressor threshold low enough to ‘grab’ them causes unwanted noise or other problems in the rest of the track. 
  • Bass tracks with notes or tones that ‘poke out’ in places. 
  • The compressor itself making things sound flat due to too high a compression ratio, but lowering the ratio causes certain parts to get lost in the mix. 
  • The compressor ‘coloring’ the sound—even if it’s doing the job of evening out the levels properly. 

While compression can be your friend and is certainly something I recommend using, it falls short in many ways. Automation, on the other hand, gives you much more control and can make all the difference in the quality of your mixes. 

Some may say that automating everything is tedious—you can think of it that way, or you can turn it around and say ‘my mixes are worth the extra effort’. 

There are a couple different methods that I use when automating mixes—using automation alone or in conjunction with compression. Using only automation, I find, can give you a much cleaner sounding track, as there’s no compression affecting the audio, however it can be significantly more time consuming depending on how much level work needs to be done. Compression in conjunction with automation can be useful when you have a relatively even sounding track, but have just a few bits here and there that need some attention. 

If you absolutely want the best sound quality, automation only is the way to go. You have complete control over every word, note and nuance of the track. 

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In this screenshot, you can see an example of how I’m using automation to control a vocal track and bring up specific words/phrases. In this case, compression simply wouldn’t do what I needed—the bump from -9.6 to -6 at the end of the first phrase or the -5.9 section in the middle of the second phrase would not be possible. 

Ok, you say, I want to do this but isn’t there an easier way? Up until relatively recently, I would have had to say ‘no’—you just have to put in the time. That has changed in the last few years and there now are plug-ins that can make the task of automating your tracks a lot easier. Vocal Rider from Waves, MAutoVolume from Melda Production and Wave Rider from Quiet Art (Pro Tools only) are a few that I’ve found quite useful. Depending on the type of track you’re working with, you may still have to do some tweaks, but they can reduce the amount of time spent on automating considerably. Where they fall short, I’ve found, is usually with ‘perceptual’ volume differences—bass tracks come to mind, where a particular note pops out, but it’s due to harmonic content in the note, rather than an actual volume difference. 

If you’re not convinced yet, all I can say is ‘try it’—I’m fully confident that there will be a noticeable improvement in the clarity and consistency of your mixes. 

Keith Crusher founded RTFM Records in 1999 and is a 25-year veteran of the music and technology industries with an extensive background in music, video and web design. His many roles have included audio and FOH engineer, producer, photographer, video editor and graphic designer. His technical expertise assists countless companies, prod... Read More

Discussion

Bonzo
I was just reading Steve Albini completely hating on compression and limiting (and most of the rest of the universe) and was wondering whether this might be a more 'dynamically authentic' approach. I remember doing this before i understood the concept of compressors, and it looks like i might be heading back that way.

Do you also apply this technique to bass tracks where that one note pops out so much louder than the rest (or at least perceptually so), or do you find a way to somehow lessen that extra harmonic content to tame it a bit?
Keith Crusher
Bonzo -

The example of the bass track note popping out is *exactly* the kind of situation this works perfectly for! Bass tracks, especially, can be tricky to get compression right, as they have a lot of low frequency energy that will trigger the compressor, but also has higher frequency notes that won't. When using a compressor someone may reach for a multiband and struggle with finding the right frequency range to cover all the perceptually louder notes on the track. Using automation can fix of those individually without causing any detrimental effects to the rest of the track.

Glad to hear you got your buzz problem solved as well!
Peter Schwartz
"Some may say that automating everything is tedious—you can think of it that way, or you can turn it around and say ‘my mixes are worth the extra effort’. "

Yep. Zactly. It's sooooooo worth the effort. For me it's not "extra effort". It's just the right amount of effort required. :)
jpeek345
damn this could be the start of something Good. i'm adding you to roey izhaki and dave pensado for my favorite mixers advice!

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