Automatic Improvements

In the days before digital audio, you could create auto mated mixes, as long as you had an expensive analog mixing console. As you moved the console's
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In the days before digital audio, you could create auto mated mixes, as long as you had an expensive analog mixing console. As you moved the console's faders and knobs they generated primitive computer data, and you recorded that data to a giant floppy disk. The data could be re loaded into the console to re-create the mix. Of course, if you didn't have access to that kind of gear, you used a complex and sometimes unpredictable automation system known as “three or four guys,” who would perform all of the fader moves for a mix again and again until it was right.

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FIG. 1: Major DAW applications such as Cubase SX3 offer extensive automation tools, which can be used for more tasks than simply managing level changes within audio and MIDI tracks.

It's no wonder that automation was one of the more welcome capabilities provided by low-cost digital audio workstations. Today, computers and software have automation toolkits far more complex than those of comparable hardware devices. Cubase SX3 (see Fig. 1), like other advanced audio applications, has a wealth of automation power that can be used in some unexpected and creative ways.

Pencil Power

Using the pencil tool in a DAW's toolkit is probably the easiest way to write automation. For example, in Cubase SX3 you view automation tracks by clicking on a small plus sign in the lower left-hand corner of an audio, MIDI, or group track. That will expand the track and make automation visible for one parameter, usually volume. Once expanded, selecting the pencil tool from the SX3 tool bar allows you to click and draw lines that represent new automation data. For the automation to affect the track, however, you must turn on Read automation by clicking on the button labeled “R” in the track list (see Fig. 2).

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FIG. 2: Here, an audio-track control -section with automation settings is -displayed. -Volume is selected for -automation, and both Read and Write buttons are engaged.

The basic pencil tool is valuable when working with dynamic sources such as vocals. Although engineers often process lead vocals with one or more compressors to even out volume levels, using volume automation to control loud or soft sections can do wonders to prep a track for the compressor. That method allows the compressor to deal with smoother, more consistent dynamics. As a result, the track will stand out in the mix and sound more natural than it might with compression alone.

Automation is a wonderful tool for controlling the level of audio routed to a send. For example, one of the hardest tricks to duplicate using a digital audio application is the “dub hit,” pioneered by reggae mix masters such as King Tubby and Scientist and adopted by many hip-hop and electronica mixers. You create the effect by feeding a single word or phrase into a delay so that it echoes and trails off into the distance as the rest of the vocal moves along.

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FIG. 3: You can create effects with volume automation by using the pencil tool, which in this case has created an upward sloping curve to send more sound to a delay effect.

In Cubase SX3, it's easy to automate that effect with a pencil tool. Select the parameter to edit on the vocal's automation track, in this case a send level that is routed to a delay. View the automation track in Cubase SX3's project window. After you find the desired vocal passage, use the pencil tool to draw a curve that will send specific words or notes to the delay. You might need to tweak the drawn automation curve until it sends the exact amount of audio to the delay for the desired effect (see Fig. 3).

Getting Modal

Using the pencil tool is one way to write automation; Cubase SX3 also has a multimode line tool that draws automation data in various shapes. Anyone who has used a synthesizer LFO or a fairly complex effects unit will recognize these shapes (see Fig. 4). The line tool draws a straight line from point A to point B. The parabola tool draws an increasingly sloped curve up or down. The sine, triangle, and square tools draw shapes that are rounded, notched, and squared, respectively, on both sides of a center line. If you are familiar with LFOs, you know those last three shapes as pulse, sawtooth, and square waves.

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FIG. 4: With Cubase SX3''s line tool you can apply wave-shaped automation curves, such as the sine-wave pattern shown here, to give targeted audio unique effects based on level changes.

An example of using the line tool for automation can be seen when creating a tremolo effect, which is simply modulating the volume. First, set the automation track to read the automation data for the volume of an audio, group, or MIDI track. Next, select the sine tool and click-and-drag along the track, which creates a sine wave — shaped curve on the track and corresponding data to modify the track's volume. The Snap value that you set in Cubase SX3 will control how quickly the sine wave pulses. The value can be set to something unusual like a 16th-note triplet or to a familiar pulse of once or twice per quarter note. You can also get interesting results with the less traditional saw and square waveshapes when creating a tremolo effect.

Using the line tool and its various shapes is also helpful when working with the wide range of parameters available in virtual instruments and effects. With a properly written VST effect or VST instrument, every knob, button, slider, and other interface element is available for control with Cubase SX3 automation. Even if the effects and instruments have their own LFOs and other modulation tools, controlling the effect with automation data in Cubase SX3 may be easier than working with the effect itself.

For example, a software synth might have an LFO that can be mapped to filter resonance, but it may be more efficient to use Cubase SX3 automation rather than the LFO. For example, the parabola tool can be used to draw a curve that repeatedly ramps up slowly in one measure, and then more quickly in the following measure. Such a curve can be easily created using automation in Cubase SX3; creating the same curve with a traditional LFO or even two LFOs, however, would be a much more demanding task.

Further Exploration

Almost anything, from audio and group tracks to MIDI tracks and virtual instruments, can be automated in Cubase SX. MIDI tracks are particularly fun to play with, because Cubase has a mixerlike interface for changing parameters on external MIDI devices. You may find there is no need to paw though synth documentation to match synth parameters with MIDI controllers, because SX3 has a fair number of the common parameters already built in.

If you want to access more obscure functions, Cubase SX3 allows deeper editing of assignable controllers for external devices. An outboard MIDI-controllable digital multi-effects box might sound great, but it might be difficult to sync the sweep of its phase shifter to the tempo of a song. Using one of Cubase SX3's line tools assigned to the rate of the phase shifter, though, accomplishes that same task quickly and easily.

Almost every top-quality computer audio program has uncommon editing tools and capabilities that few people take the time to learn in depth. Mix automation might seem like a fairly routine part of what Cubase SX3 or other DAWs can do, and the kind of thing that only a certain kind of producer might use. But because automation can control most parameters of most tools within Cubase, the technique can be used to create anything from the forensic to the truly freaky. Learning how all of the tools for creating, modifying, and editing automation data work will greatly expand what you can do to make a mix sound as good as it can.

Thad Brown is a musician, writer, and consultant. His Web site is located