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Freakazoid DAW Signal Processing through Automation

Make your signal processing come alive with automation


by Craig Anderton



What makes an acoustic instrument special? Nuances. The way the strings in a piano interact, the angle at which a pick or bow hits strings, and the distance from the rim a drummer plays a drum all make a difference in the final sound.


Automation allows adding nuanced expressions to synthesized/sampled music. The most basic automation, for mixing and muting, has been with us for decades. Now we have automation for soft synths and signal processors, and using these in strategic places can definitely augment your music’s emotional impact.


We’ll start with a brief overview of automation options, then segue into some typical applications for your own music.




Here are some of the most common ways to automate effects.


Record control motion as you edit on-screen controls. To do this, call up the signal processor plug-in, and manipulate the knob(s) while recording these changes. On playback, the controls will usually reproduce the motions you made (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: The red "W" toward the right indicates that the DAW (Cakewalk SONAR) is recording knob movements from the Tone 2 biFilter2 processor. Previously recorded automation from this knob is in green, above the processor's user interface.


This type of automation accommodates the human touch. You can push changes to the beat and work intuitively – as well as go back and edit your moves if touch-ups are needed. You’re limited to moving one parameter at a time if you’re using a mouse, but there are ways around this (described later).


How this automation is recorded varies from program to program. The data might be in the form of MIDI controllers, Non-Registered Parameter Numbers (NRPNs), System Exclusive data, etc.


Envelope control. Here you draw envelopes (using lines and breakpoint "nodes") to control signal processor parameters (Fig. 2). Note that in most sequencers, moving controls creates envelopes, so these methods are somewhat interchangeable. If I wanted to add a wa-wa effect, I’d go for recording control motion; but the envelope approach works better to add automation changes that need to be synched precisely to the beat (like an effect that decays over 1 measure, then starts over again on the next measure). Rhythmic effects are particularly easy to do if the envelope “nodes” (breakpoints) can snap to a timing grid.


Fig. 2: The Automation Lane allows drawing in automation curves, or editing existing automation curves, by drawing nodes that define the automation.


External control and recording MIDI data. Some processors accept MIDI data sent from an external hardware controller (e.g., assignable knobs from a keyboard, dedicated control surface like the Mackie Control, etc.). This data edits the processor’s parameters, but is also recorded in a track as MIDI controller data (Fig. 3). On playback, any on-screen knobs usually respond to the changes. While this approach is similar to moving knobs on screen (except you’re using real hardware), the big advantage is that you can edit multiple parameters simultaneously.


Fig. 3: The Wah module in Native Instruments' Guitar rig has been set to MIDI learn, which means you can assign it to respond to a particular MIDI continuous controller number, as generated by an external hardware MIDI controller like a footpedal. The controller generated the automation waveform shown on the lower left.


A plug-in might implement one of these methods, all of them, or none. It pays to do a little experimentation to find out how your plug-ins (and DAW software) deals with automation. Note that early VST format plug-ins were limited to 16 automatable parameters, but that is no longer the case...and that was long enough ago those plug-ins have probably been updated.




Okay, now that you can automate, here are some of my favorite plug-in automation tweaks.


Better chorusing, phase shifting, and flanging. I’m not a fan of the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of LFO-driven choruses. Even when tempo-synched, the repetition can get more boring than AM radio.


There are three simple workarounds. One is to vary the LFO rate control so that it’s constantly in motion rather than locked into one tempo. Another is to set the LFO to a very slow rate, or turn off LFO modulation entirely, and automate the Initial Delay or phaser frequency parameter (Fig. 4). Play with the delay so the effect rises and falls in a musically appropriate way; some programs let you draw periodic waveforms. Sometimes it’s worth overdubbing a second control track with automated feedback (regeneration).


Fig. 4: Automation is providing a periodic modulation waveform (the violet automation curve) for the 8-Stage Phaser frequency.


However, the “gotcha” is that some parameters crackle or glitch when automated, and this is particularly true of delay times—so you may need to control the LFO rate regardless.


Crunch time. With distortion plug-ins, usually the input level sets the degree of crunchiness. For those times when you want to kick up the intensity without causing a massive volume increase, turn up the plug-in’s “Drive” control or equivalent to add crunch. As the signal is already clipping, turning it up more will create a more crunched sound but without an excessive level increase.


Crunch time with non-automatable distortion plug-ins. Think nothing can be automated with a plug-in if it lacks automation? Try this trick. Insert a distortion effect into an aux bus rather than as a track insert. It’s highly likely that your DAW program can automate the effects send going to the bus, which allows automating the input level to the distortion plug-in, thereby altering the “crunch factor.” Of course you need to give up an aux bus, but it’s worth it.


Delay parameters. This was the application that sold me on the concept of effects automation, and it remains one of my favorites. I often use synchronized echo effects on solos, and heighten the intensity at the solo’s peaks by increasing the amount of delay feedback. This creates a sort of “sea of echoes” effect. Sometimes, I also bump up the delay mix a bit so there’s more delay and less straight signal.


Predatohm’s feedback control. The Predatohm plug-in (by Ohm Force) has been around for a long time but remains one of my all-time favorite plug-ins. Its combination of multiband compression and hardcore distortion is just the thing to create some really powerful, industrial-type effects. But its controls, particularly the Feedback Amount parameter, can be touchy. Using automation to bring this up and create the feedback effect, then reduce the feedback before it becomes overbearing, works really well. I also like to automate the Feedback Frequency, especially making it rise or fall slowly over the length of a loop. Tasty!


The parametric wa-wa. You know the basic idea—turn up the resonance, and vary the parametric’s center frequency to create a wa-wa effect. But ever notice this doesn’t really sound like a wa-wa? That’s because a parametric has a flat response, with the peak poking out of it. A real wa-wa rejects frequencies around the resonant peak so you don’t hear anything except the peak.


To create a similar effect, use a filter that includes highpass and lowpass filter stages, preferably with a variable Q. Set their frequencies so there’s a midrange boost, adjust the Q to suit, and use automation to vary the frequency of both filters simultaneously. Cool! Instant authentic-sounding wa-wa, and without the crackle from a worn-out pot.


While we’re in vintage-land, you can use the same concept to create great sample-and-hold effects. A sample-and-hold synth module would sample a control voltage from a waveform, apply that to a filter’s center frequency, and hold it for a particular duration (e.g., an eighth note). It would then take another sample, and hold the filter at the new frequency. The effect was a series of stepped filter changes—sort of like a quantized wa-wa pedal.


Note that creating a sample-and-hold “stairstep”-type automation control signal pretty much requires drawing an envelope, as you can’t move a control fast enough to create instant filter frequency changes. However, some programs let you draw random and other periodic waveforms—see this article on how to do tempo sync when you can't do tempo sync.


Envelope-based tremolo. Amplitude changes are fun, but a tremolo is pretty limited. Instead, automate amplitude changes in time with the music (you probably don’t even need a plug-in here, you can just automate the channel fader). For example, with a sustained chord, draw a series of “sawtooth wave” envelopes, each of which lasts one beat. This creates a pulsing, rhythmic effect.


And then there’s… Plug-in parameter automation merits experimentation. Some parameters might glitch in weirdly useful ways, and some parameters that you might not have thought of automating can produce great effects. We’ve been given tools that let us be really creative; let’s take advantage of them.  -HC-





 Craig Anderton is Senior Contributing Editor to Harmony  Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.


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