HOW TO: Plug-In Automation Tricks

Get past the presets to harness your software's true potential
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Get past the presets to harness your software's true potential
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It wasn’t that long ago that the prices of professional-quality effects and other signal-processing plug-ins put them beyond the reach of those recordists with modest budgets—and some, such as those made by Eventide, were only available for pricey Pro Tools TDM systems.

Nowadays, however, every major DAW comes with a variety of often-excellent plug-ins, and an astonishing number of choices are available from dozens of third-party manufacturers. These range from basic equalizers and dynamics processors to emulations of classic outboard gear to wondrously creative products with no precedents in either the analog or digital worlds. And more than a few of them are ridiculously inexpensive or even free.

Perhaps because of the nearly overwhelming number of choices and the fact that most plug-ins include lots of superb presets, many users don’t take the time to become familiar enough with their plug-ins to harness their full potential—and even fewer take advantage of the creative possibilities offered by plug-in automation.


Fig. 1. The Avid Mod Delay III plug-in’s Automation window, with the Master Bypass, Delay Left, Feedback Left, Delay Right, and Feedback Right parameters selected to be automation enabled. The specifics for engaging plug-in automation vary from one DAW to the next, but typically you’ll need to enable it both globally and for the individual plug-in you want to automate.

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For example, in Pro Tools you choose Automation from the Window menu and enable global plug-in automation by clicking the Plug-in button in the Automation dialog box. To automate an individual plug-in, click its Auto button to launch the Plug-In Automation window (see Figure 1) and select the parameters you want to automate. Then, activate automation on the audio or aux track into which the plug-in is inserted.


One exceedingly obvious candidate for plug-in automation is the Bypass button. Besides performing relatively straightforward tasks like adding a delay to a keyboard track during a solo, you might want to add a really dramatic effect into the mix selectively, say, on every other beat or even particular notes of a phrase. For example, you might apply some over-the-top phase shifting to the drum fill before the final chorus, or drench the last note of a vocal in thick reverb, or drop in a highpass filter to make an entire mix sound like it is being heard through a telephone speaker.

Dramatic touches such as these can go a long way toward livening up an otherwise predictable mix.


The vast majority of plug-ins are essentially static, and even modulation effects such as flangers, choruses, and auto-panners generally operate at a fixed rate.

Plug-in automation empowers you to continually vary modulation rates, delay times, and feedback; EQ curves; filter cutoffs; and other parameters in whatever ways you like, transforming those heretofore set-and-forget plugins into super-dynamic sound shapers and bringing entirely new forms of expressiveness to your mixes.


Up until the late 1970s, “delay” effects were produced exclusively using mechanical devices that employed analog tape, and by far the most popular unit in the U.S. was the Echoplex. (Numerous other echo machines were commonly used in Europe and the U.K., including the Binson Echorec, which used a rotating metal drum rather than tape.)

Fig. 2. The Universal Audio EP-34 Tape Echo plug-in with the Repeats control set high enough to produce self-oscillation and a delay time of 628 ms. Eventually people discovered that if you got an Echoplex to self-oscillate by cranking up the Echo Repeats control, and then moved the delay time slider back and forth, it would produce psychedelic “spaceship” sounds. No one used this effect in cooler ways than the members of Miles Davis’ “electric period” bands, who all seemed to have Echoplexes of their own.

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Well, you too can get in on the action if you have an Echoplex plug-in such as the Universal Audio EP-34 (See Figure 2). Just automate the Repeats control, turning it up and down to get the desired amount of feedback, and then do the same with the virtual delay time slider. And although it may not be quite as groovy, you can also do this with other tape-echo simulators that don’t have sliders, simply by manipulating the delay time using a virtual knob or whatever controls that function. For example, I’ve gotten fantastic results with the Waves H-Delay plugin.


Another thing I like to do with plug-in automation is to change the intervals being generated by pitchshifters in real time. For instance, instead of just adding an interval such as an octave or a fifth to a part, try changing the interval every so often in ways that make sense rhythmically—or don’t make sense, if that’s the sound you are after. I frequently do this with a Lexicon PCM Native Pitch Shift plug-in, but it may be done with any pitch shifter that doesn’t glitch when you adjust intervals in real time.

Of course, this concept can be taken considerably further. With a multi-voice pitch shifter, for example, you could have two or more intervals changing at once, effectively “orchestrating” new harmonic structures. I recently did this with a single-note drone as the dry track, creating three ever-changing harmonized lines that rose and fell as the piece progressed.

I hope these few examples will have inspired you to explore automating your own effects plug-ins. The possibilities are governed only by the scope of your imagination.

Barry Cleveland is a San Francisco-based journalist, guitarist, composer, recording artist, and audio engineer; visit