Tips and Tricks: Automation Part 5

This is week five of our series on automation. In the last few weeks we have covered the pros and cons of automating and last week I walked you through my process of automating. This week, I just want to give you all some pointers to get you started. These are things that I either was told by someone who learned the hard way or learned the hard way myself or just little tips I picked up along the way. I won’t go into too much detail to keep things moving along and squeeze as many ideas in here as possible. I hope these next 6 ideas will help you get started and maybe start a conversation about what we have all been learning as we begin to push our mixes to the next level.

For me, It all starts for me with remember to take your time. So many times in my career I have been up against the clock and I rush into the solution and end up making a mistake or I let myself get all worked up to get things done that I fail to think through the situation. That rushing to the solution usually meant that I would miss something that would cost me twice as much time as if I’d taken a second to think and do what really needs to be done. If there was one thing I could tell a younger version of myself to do it’s to take a moment, breathe, and then dig in full force. Remember the phrase, “measure twice, cut once?” Well it applies to just about every problem solving situation in the tech world and especially to programming scenes into a sound console. 

Next is to check your work. I know, I know, we are rushed sometimes and you just don’t have the time. Well, make the time. Especially when it comes to those big wiring setups, doing a line check before sound check will save so much running and wasted time, under the gun no less, trying to figure out why the cymbals are showing up in the keyboard channels. This also applies to studio work. I’ve found that the higher the variety of speakers you listen to your mix in, the better you can get it sounding. In regards to automation that means taking the time to step through all of your scenes before the show and make sure what you programmed has been saved correctly. The times when I don’t do this I either make a mistake or find myself needing to do so much more just to transition between scenes that automation probably wasn’t worth it. 

The next thing to remember is to save your work often. Whether you are doing a wiring diagram on a computer, working on a sound console getting a complex show setup, or working in your DAW, save your work. Save incrementally. Save often. Much like the voting ideals here in Illinois, you should save early and often. For big shows or recordings, I’ll create multiple chains of saves so that if I need to step back in time, it’s easy to do so. Additionally, saving your work can really save your butt if you try to propagate some changes in your scenes that goes awry. There are even a few consoles out there that automatically save your showfile behind the scenes. If your console doesn’t do that, set a timer on your phone, and just do it on your own. I’d recommend for any bigger show that you automate that you create new showfiles after every rehearsal. You probably won’t need them but there will be a time when something will have happened and you’ll need those showfiles. Trust me. 

Despite all the automation, it is still important to mix. You can make as many scenes as you would find helpful but I try to just stick with one scene per item or song. This encourages me to still mix throughout the song and be alert as to what is going on around me. Remember, automation and scenes are a tool not an auto-mixer. A surefire way to know if you are automating to many things is to notice when you are hitting “go” for instrumental solos instead of just pushing the fader or if you realize your head is stuck looking at your console screen instead of looking up and mixing what you see and hear. Computers don’t know how to read rooms or respond to that solo like we do as mixers. Let the computers do what they are good at, saving a starting point for songs, and keep you doing you, mixing the song with the band. 

One thing I took awhile to learn is getting fade times right between scenes. Too long of a fade time will make your scene changes be very audibly noticeable. Too short and you may as well not even fade the source in/out at all. The best guideline I can give you is experiment with different times during rehearsal or playback and then pick the time that feels the closest to if you were actually going to manually fade inputs in and out. Each console will be a little different based on how the software actually fades but I am usually around 1.2 seconds for fading into a song and 1.8 seconds coming out a song into speech.

The last tip I wanted to give was to make sure you get comfortable with automating before you go big. I wouldn’t recommend your first show with automation be a Christmas program or a big concert. Find smaller, simpler events to experiment with and learn more about how your console works. Beyond that, once you are comfortable, really dig in and be thinking about what would be helpful. A great milestone is to get to a point where don’t need to use mutes very often. This allows for smooth faded transitions through the show which adds a nice layer of invisibility to your work. I always think that if people don’t see or hear any issues, the techs are invisible. This should be the goal. Your mixing should feel natural and transparent. Also consider using that automation to help you do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. Before I automated I found myself always making a mute group to kill the FX returns when needed to clean up speech but now, I can just use the scene to lower the return a bit. Having just a touch of reverb helps to keep a sense of consistency to those few seconds of speech between songs. Not talking about lots here but just enough that you can just barely hear it. I discovered that once I started doing that (only with the verbs, delays are always killed) made those transitions sound audibly put together and less jarring.  Automating can also improve your FX game as well. Adjusting verbs can really bring some life to each song you may not have been able to hear up to this point. Give it a try, I promise you’ll love it. Not only will your mixes be active and responding to the band but your FX will as well and you will start to hear a difference in your mixes. 

Well, those are my six tips for mixing while automating. I recognize how basic they are and how they probably can be applied universally to mixing but I feel as though automation doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be really simple. This week I’d love to know from you what you’ve learned. What are the things you have had to learn the hard way or the things that you have found to be essential to your mixing technique in regards to automation or just mixing in general? Just write in the comments below. If you have any questions for me, drop me an email at daniel@studiostagelive.com or drop a comment below. If you’d like to know when new posts are up on the site, go to this link, and subscribe to the blog and you will get an email shortly after any new post goes live. See you next week!

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