Automation is key to interesting electronic and dance music.
Before the software revolution; mix engineers who wanted something to change at some point in the song had to manually move faders and knobs.
Nowadays we use automation in modern DAWs.
If we want something to change at a given point, or over time, then we can simply draw in a few points and be done with it. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s intuitive.
In this guide I’m going to take you deep into automation. We’ll cover everything from its uses, a few facts and myths, how it can be used in your workflow, and more.
Ready? Let’s dive in 👇
What is Automation?
As artists, we all like to explain concepts differently. I asked a few friends what their definition of automation was and here’s what I got:
“Automation can be used for controlling and plotting parameters throughout a track within your DAW, which is extremely useful for channelling flow and creating energy in a production. Using automation is a useful tool for adding variation and extra detail in a project.” – Joshua Ollerton
“Automation is a way to create organic-sounding evolution and movement in music. It allows the producer to intricately sculpt the track to create impact of tension while opening the doors for many other more creative uses.” – Monoverse
“A process which allows you to program knob-twisting robots to affect any number of parameters while you sit back and sip coffee” – Levi Whalen
Facts and Myths You Should Know About Automation
Where can automation be used? What other benefits does it have?
Here are a few facts about automation, followed by three myths that I’ve heard before.
Fact: It pleases the listener
We all have short attention spans, especially when listening to music. If something doesn’t change or evolve quickly enough we’ll get bored.
Automation makes a track sound more dynamic. It helps guide the listener from one section of a track to another by giving clues as to what’s going to happen next.
Automation is almost always used when one wants to create tension, and as we all know – tension pleases the listener.
Fact: It’s a sound design tool
Most people think of automation as a mixing tool, which is understandable. However, it’s also used across the board. Sound design benefits from automation in many ways.
You might argue that internal modulation inside a synth defeats the purpose of automation, but modulation is often time-consuming and not the best tool for the job.
Automation can be used in the sound design process to morph a sound over time, de-harsh certain portions of the sound, alter the amplitude, and more.
Fact: It’s a compositional tool
There’s quite a crossover between automation in composition and automation in mixing.
For example: is automating a filter cutoff a mixing decision or a compositional one? The answer isn’t clear, and people will give different answers.
But one thing’s for certain; automation can be, and is used in the compositional process.
You could be automating a MIDI effect, the parameters of a transitional effect, or bringing up a low-pass filter on some white noise to create a simple riser.
Fact: It’s a mixing tool
And finally, automation is a mixing tool. Volume automation, dry/wet, decay times, EQs and filters, the list goes on. You could get away with not using automation in the mixing process, but why would you want to?
Myth: It’s hard to use
20 years ago it was difficult. But due to rapid advancement in technology and developer focus on simplicity; automation has never been easier to use.
It may be difficult for the newer producer to know where and how to implement it, but that’s what this guide is for.
Myth: It isn’t necessary
This is half true. Automation isn’t necessary to make music, but it is necessary if you want to make interesting, exciting, and dynamic music.
Myth: You should only use it if you’re experienced
I’ve heard this one thrown around quite a lot, surprisingly, and I have no idea why. Automation is not a difficult concept to grasp.
Certainly not as difficult as compression, phasing, or even EQ. New producers should dive into it straight away and get as familiar with it as possible.
In short, use automation, even if you feel like you’re getting ahead of yourself by doing so. The sooner you get used to it, the better.
A Visual Look at Automation – Common Types
There are four main types of automation: fades & curves, binary, steps, and spikes.
Fades and Curves
Fades & curves are probably the most common types of automation. You probably picture these in your head when thinking about automation:
Fades & curves are often used to automate:
Sometimes, you want something that happens instantly. On and off. This is where binary automation comes into play.
This type of automation is often used to automate:
- On/off on synths and effects
- Mute/unmute on sounds
- Highpass and lowpass
- Synth functions (such as wanting an extra oscillator in a certain section)
- Miscellaneous transitional effects: glitch, bitcrushing, etc.
Binary automation is great, but often you want something more specific than just on or off:
Step automation is one of the less common types of automation. I often use it for changing synth parameters, such as synced LFO rates, or oscillator pitch.
Here are a few other uses:
- Dry/wet on effects
- A/B crossover on synths or effects (some plugins allow for an A and B setting which can be switched between and even crossfaded)
- Synced rhythmic effects (gating effects, LFO, stutters, etc.)
You’ll find that in some genres this type of automation is used more. For example, you’re less likely to use it in smooth, flowing ambient music compared to fast, choppy glitch hop.
Fades are too slow, binary is too limiting, and steps are too abrupt. What’s the solution? Spikes. You can think of spikes as a micro-fade or curve, because that’s technically what they are.
Spike automation is often used for:
- Transitional effects (filters, distortion, reverb)
- Short filter automation (e.g. bringing up a filter cutoff quickly)
The best thing about spike automation is that it creates a very sharp “tension and release” effect. Try it on a filter cutoff, or on a synth release time.
Using Automation In FL Studio
Now that we know what automation is and the different types of automation, let’s put it into practice.
Creating Automation Clips in FL Studio
As you’ve probably understood, you can automate pretty much anything in a DAW.
This means there isn’t one single method to create automation clips. But here are some of the most common ones.
In FL Studio, the most common way is to right-click on a parameter, and select “Create automation clip”:
This works within FL Studio’s sampler, on the mixer, and within pretty much any Fruity stock plugin:
Once you create an automation clip, it will appear on your playlist. You can then adjust the parameter to your linking (more on that in the next section 👀):
The trick here is to use the “Multilink to controllers” option.
The process is simple:
- Tweak the knob you want to automate
- Right-click “Multilink to controllers” and select “Create automation clip”
These two methods should cover 99% of cases where you want to automate a parameter in FL Studio.
FL Studio Automation Tips and Tricks
While learning to use automation is straight-forward, mastering every possibility is a lifelong task. I’m still learning new FL Studio automation tricks everyday.
Here are some of the most useful tricks I use.
Setting your automation points
To create a new automation point, right click anywhere on the automation. By default, the automation point will snap to the grid. To adjust a point, left-click on it and drag it.
To change the shape of an automation, right-click on a point, and select a mode:
If you want to move an automation off-grid, hold ALT and drag the automation point.
Copy-pasting automation values
Sometimes, you might want to set the same automation value at different points.
To do this, right-click an automation point, and select “Copy value”.
You can then select any other automation point, right-click and select “Paste value”. Your 2 automation points will now have the same value.
Create an automation for a specific section
By default, an automation is create for the entirety of your track.
But what if you want to create an automation just for the intro?
Simple! Select that section of the track by holding CTRL and dragging across:
Now, any automation you create will automatically fit to that section of the track.
Create live automation with your MIDI keyboard
Automation clips can sometimes feel very robotic. That’s why it’s often better (and more fun!) to create them on-the-fly with your MIDI keyboard!
To link a parameter to your MIDI keyboard:
- Clik on “Multilink to controllers” or press CTRL + J
- Tweak the parameter you want to link
- Move the knob you want it linked to
Now that knob should control the parameter! All you have to do is record an automation. Right-click on the recording button, and select “Automation”:
Don’t worry, you can always adjust your automation after the fact if the performance wasn’t perfect 😉
Using Automation in Ableton Live
In Ableton Live, the workflow is slightly different. Here, automation are “hidden” behind your audio and MIDI tracks.
Creating Automation Clips in Ableton Live
To view your automation, click the ” Automation mode”. This will show up all active automation:
To create an automation, right-click any parameter in Ableton Live, and select “Show automation”. If a red dot appears next to a parameter, that means an automation has been created for it.
If multiple automation are created for a device, they will appear as a drop-down menu. This helps keep things organized. The downside however is that you cannot see all your automation at once.
To create an automation for a 3rd-party plugin, simply load it in your Audio effects chain. It will then appear in the Automation drop-down menu. From there, you can choose which parameter you want to automate:
Ableton Live Automation Tips and Tricks
Automation clips in Ableton Live are an extremely powerful tool. And covering every single possibility would simply not be possible here. So let’s cover the most useful ones. If you want to explore further, check out Ableton Live’s official guide here.
Changing automation shape
To change the shape of an automation, right-click on it and select one of the shapes:
Note that the selected shape will be inserted over the grid length that is selected just above.
You can also enable “Draw” mode by selecting it or pressing “B”. Just like in FL Studio, automation points will snap to the grid. To move them off grid, hold ALT while you drag them. Holding ALT also allows you to change the slop of a given curve.
Lock automation clip to the arrangement
By default, automation clips move with the MIDI or audio clip they are associated with.
However, in some cases, you might want to lock an automation clip to a certain section of your song.
If you don’t want an automation to move when moving a clip, enable “Lock Envelopes”:
Simplify automation clips after recording
After recording an automation live, you will often see hundreds of different points
To simply your automation, make a time selection where you want to adjust the automation. Then, right-click on it and select “Simplify Envelope”:
This makes it much easier to adjust an automation after the fact.
The #1 Rule of Automation
When adding automation, you need to have a reason for it. Here are a few examples:
- I’m going to add a highpass fade during this build-up because it helps add tension and gives the drop more impact.
- I need to add some dry/wet binary automation on this reverb at the end of this 16-bar phrase to signal to the listener that a new idea is being introduced.
- I’m going to add a few filter cutoff spikes to this saw pad, as it’s sounding too static
Having this internal narrative allows you to work fast, and be critical. You won’t over-do it, and you won’t feel out of your depth.
Thinking Outside the Box
You know the basics of automation, you know where and when it can be implement, and you’ve got a few ideas to go away with.
Now it’s time to expand on that. Start thinking outside the box – what if I used automation on this? What if I automated a fade over the whole track?
These kind of questions lead to creativity and originality, as well as enjoyment.