This past May I spent a week in the south of France soaking up the mix genius of talented producer and mix engineer Jacquire King (Kings Of Leon, Norah Jones).
During my Mix With The Masters experience I learned a ton from Jacquire, but one thing that struck me the most was his dedication to one simple and underused part of the mixing process.
It since has become a huge ingredient in my mixes and it’s somewhat silly to think I had missed it before!
Remember, Mixing Is All About Balance
The first thing to remember here is the simple truth that mixing can be summed up in one word: balance.
We balance volume faders of tracks against each other. We balance frequencies of tracks against each other. We balance dynamics of tracks across time with compressors.
In the end, our goal is to balance all the parts together so the whole is a well defined, and clear song. Nothing is buried and nothing is taking over.
Jacquire is very good at this and approached mixing the way most of the greats I’ve had the pleasure of learning from do – a static volume and pan mix followed by some strategic EQ and compression.
He then spent time dressing up the mix with some tasteful delays and other effects.
But where things really got interesting was when he got the automation.
Where You Actually Get To Play The Song
As he fired up the board to do a pass of automation (and in reality the Neve console’s automation wasn’t working so he used a free iPad app over Wifi to control Pro Tools!) Jacquire said something that hit a nerve:
Automation is my favorite part of mixing because it’s my chance to actually get to play the song. – Jacquire King (Kings Of Leon, Norah Jones)
Of course. It made perfect sense!
Up until this point we’d been doing static moves (setting volume and pan, picking EQ and compression settings, working the mix buss, playing with effects). We’d sculpted a pretty good mix.
But a song isn’t a static thing. It’s living and breathing. It has movement.
And Jacquire was so pumped to finally put his hands on the mix (literally) and play it like as if he were in the band himself.
The Man Was Sweating, And It Was Awesome
Now – full disclosure – I do automation to some degree in every mix.
Rarely is there a song where I can set the faders at the beginning and leave them there the whole time.
But what I began to witness at the gorgeous Studio La Fabrique that day was something entirely different.
Jacquire went systematically through just about every track in the mix and “played” the fader while laying down pass after pass of automation.
And it was intense! The man was literally sweating.
He was in a zone – working the mix, moving with the beat, darting in and out with each moment as if he were playing along with the band on stage.
It was awesome to watch. And it changed the way I think about automation forever.
What This Has Done For My Mixes
Since returning home from that intense week long experience, there has been a tactical change in my mixing process.
What I call the sweetening stage (which includes more than just automation) has extended to allow an additional hour or more of pure automation.
First of all – I immediately bit the bullet and purchased a control surface (the Avid Artist Mix to be exact).
I’ve been mixing at home for 15 years on just a mouse, but that day came to an end as I knew I wanted my hands “on the mix” moving forward.
What this does for me now is gives me the chance to make sure that at every moment of every track the volume is balanced exactly where it needs to be.
Sometimes it’s simply a word or two that is getting buried on the lead vocal. Other times it’s the swell of a beautiful delayed lead guitar track that needs to come up for a chorus and down for part of a verse.
Still other times it’s riding the snare drum or overheads so fills pop out nicely and catch the listener’s ear.
I’ll even automate the bass guitar on single notes that drop in volume.
Whatever is necessary to turn a well balanced song at most points in the mix into a well balanced song at every point in the mix.
That’s what automation can do for you. That and bring some human element to the tracks.
Control Surface Alternatives
Now believe me, I know that nice touch sensitive control surfaces with motorized faders can get expensive. So here are some other options.
The PreSonus Fader Port is a single fader control surface that arguably is the best solution for the modern home studio. Typically we are automating one fader at a time anyway – plus you can control groups or aux tracks with it as well.
Another solution is to use one of the many iPad or Android apps that use wifi to talk to your DAW.
Like I mentioned above, the super expensive Neve console wasn’t working correctly so Jacquire did all his automation that week on an iPad laying on the Neve. Ironic.
You can even use the mouse. There is no pre-requisite for using some touch control device to do automation.
You can use a mouse in real time or simply draw in the perfect automation lines manually. I personally use a combination of control surface and mouse drawing for mine.
Bring Your Mix To Life With Automation
To many of us, automation is nothing new.
But for me it wasn’t until I watched the way Jacquire interacted with the mix that I realized just how much more life you could bring to your tracks if you spent the time to dig in deep with automation and discover things that were slipping beneath the surface.
So there it is. Automation was the missing mix ingredient for me. What about you?
How do YOU approach automation in your mixes? What have you found that works and what doesn’t work? Do you use a control surface or a mouse? What does your process look like?