Exploring the sound design possibilities of automation


Illustration: Michael Haddad

In music production, automation tends to be most heavily associated with volume.

This is likely largely due to the fact that most DAWs first display automation lanes in relation to volume by default, unless you configure them in some other way (and in the early days of your music production journey, you probably don’t even know that this is possible). However, the reality is that automation can be used for volume and so much more—and once you discover that it can be applied to add movement to literally any parameter, your sound design possibilities expand exponentially. In this article, we explore just a few of the infinite ways you can utilize automation to achieve unique sounds.

1. EQ

Right alongside volume faders, EQ is one of the most fundamental tools that many of us find ourselves constantly adjusting across the tracks in our projects. It also happens to be something that can be a great entry point for creative automation.

Two particularly versatile tricks that you may want to try starting out with are automating the cutoff frequency of low-cut and high-cut filters over any number of beats or bars.

Automating the former sounds like weight is gradually being added or removed to a sound:

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On the other hand, automating the high-cut filter’s cutoff frequency creates the feeling of the sound being submerged or removed from under water:

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Automating different aspects of EQ can be great for both designing these sorts of pronounced effects as well as making more subtle moment-to-moment mix adjustments that create space for the different sounds in your arrangement.

2. Panning

Another common target for automation is panning. By moving the stereo position of a sound over time, you can create an exciting effect where the sound source travels from one headphone or speaker to the other.

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You can also experiment with this sort of effect via stereo tremolo plugins. These will often let you also sync the movement with the BPM of your DAW for a more rhythmic character, without you having to painstakingly align your automation curves to the grid by hand.

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3. Reverb

In the real world, reverb is often an unchanging effect, determined by fixed properties like the size, shape, and reflectivity of the space we’re in. But what if we had the superpower to move and warp our walls dynamically?

Automation allows us to simulate this and more. Changing the size or decay time can make the virtual room feel like it’s expanding or shrinking, while adjusting the wet / dry balance can wash out a sound (as heard below) or bring it into focus.

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4. Pitch

Have you ever wanted to achieve a tape stop or whammy effect? It turns out you don’t need specialized third-party plugins to do these—all you need to do is automate the pitch of your sounds.

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What’s key for achieving these effects is to make sure you’re automating the fine pitch (which is displayed in cents), rather than the transposition (which is displayed in semitones)—this will ensure that your glides are smooth and continuous, rather than occurring in staggered half-step increments. Combining it with panning and delay edits can also further help the effect come to life.

5. Synthesis parameters

Last but not least, things also get really interesting when you start automating different aspects of synthesis within your software instruments and effects. What if a synth pluck’s sustain evolved over the course of a melody? What if you sped up or slowed down an LFO rate over time, or shifted the balance between two parameters on an XY pad? The sky is truly the limit here.

Below, we’ve automated the Nasal, Formant, Humanize, and Output Level parameters of modules across iZotope’s VocalSynth 2 to achieve an evolving, otherworldly effect with our vocals.

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If you look closely, you can see all of the other automation lanes underneath the one that’s currently being displayed

How will you experiment with automation?

As you can see, the intersection of automation and sound design is incredibly vast—and we’ve truly only scratched the surface here. Did any of these examples spark any new ideas for you? What parameters do you enjoy automating in your music that we didn’t cover above? Let us know in the comments below.

December 28, 2021

Harrison Shimazu Harrison Shimazu is a music composer, content strategist, and writer who's passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog.