This is the story of how a volume automation bug bear became an obsession. I must admit, I’m a little OCD...probably on the spectrum somewhere. Whenever I see other producers/engineers/artists reveal the automation in their projects and I spot that they’ve written in volume automation changes, it freaks me out. I have a problem with automating volume faders - there, it’s out there. No one seems to talk about this, and a number of my production friends have benefitted from this topic, so I thought it was about time that I discussed this issue in public.
My volume automation woes
I admit it, when I first started out using DAWs I automated volume faders. But not long afterwards, once I was writing and mixing daily, I realised that it was incredibly inefficient to draw in volume data. Every time I got to the mix stage of a project, levels needed to be changed and those faders would pop straight back up. Infuriating, at least for me.
Note: This might not bother you, it might not even be an issue for you and you may have never even consciously thought about it. If not, this post probably isn’t for you, but the techniques I used to overcome my problem may spark ideas for you in your own productions, including the tools you use and the way you use them.
Stating the obvious
I came up with a myriad of different approaches to solve this volume automation annoyance. I can hear people shouting, “Just stick any old plugin on the channels that you want to change and bring down the output.” Sounds so simple, and yet it’s nowhere near the level of elegance I required. Sure, I pretty much always have an EQ on every channel, so I could just bring down the gain where needed. But when you have tens, possibly hundreds of instances of EQ on each track throughout a project, how on earth can it be deemed effective enough to hop from plug to plug altering the output? Sorry, not good enough. Not for me anyway.
“But what about automating the EQ gain itself?” you ask. Unfortunately I have issues with this too which I’ll go on to explain shortly...
Thinking outside of the box
One day while working in the studio on a mix project, I was researching techniques and came across an ‘in the studio’ feature with D Ramirez - you can still view it here:
During one stage of the arrangement (I've used some nifty code to speed things along for you but it's at around 0:30 in, just in case it doesn't work!) he selects the Gain plugin from Logic’s Utility category and proceeds to draw in a gain curve to automate a white noise rise. Nothing crazy here right? Well although Ramirez doesn’t acknowledge it directly, I was intrigued by this simple concept. If you automate gain with a separate plugin, the volume fader is free to roam.
This reversed the whole process, and I now saw what was stupidly obvious. All along I could have simply automated the output of any plugin on a track where I required volume automation, for example a fade in/out or a noise rise, and then simply controlled the overall level with the volume fader.
I found this to be key during the mix phase, where often I’d be pushing tracks and just wanted to quickly reduce the overall output by selecting all tracks in the mixer and bringing them all down relatively, rather than opening every separate instance of the plugins used to achieve this.
Close, but no cigar
One of the most common solutions to this issue is slamming a Gain plugin on the master output (or any other plugin for that matter, as long as it doesn’t alter the sonic quality of the mix), and reduce the level of the whole mix. But this never feels right to me - I’m always paranoid that something is taken away from the overall sound, and I want to eliminate the number of potential variables in a mix i.e. all outputs at 0dB, and adjust track volumes accordingly. This is especially true when using any plugins on the mix output, where any changes in gain will affect how these plugins behave. I’m a stickler for consistency, so this wasn’t a preferable solution for me either.
Automating level with Logic’s Gain plugin was a lot closer to my goal and ticked a lot of boxes, but I still had a couple of issues with it. Firstly, the scale range is huge and any adjustments are extremely fine which, over time, can be very frustrating and time consuming, dragging nodes up and down with way too much resistance. Secondly (and this goes back to my paranoia), it just sounds too ‘digital’ to me. Maybe it’s psychoacoustics at work and I’m just being crazy, but occasionally it sounds a little cold. So, yet still, I was on the lookout for something better.
The ‘eureka’ moment
Then I came across a simple, humble tool called FreeG by Sonalksis. It’s essentially a fader - yep - a simple volume fader just like any other. But a simple fader in plugin form was exactly what I was looking for. As the name suggests, it’s free, which is always a welcome price, and it’s available for most DAWs. With nothing to lose, I downloaded it and proceeded to put it through its paces. First of all, it sounds great, and by ‘great’ I mean, it doesn’t affect the sound at all. There are no artefacts or anomalies and no saturation or distortion.
Secondly, it’s got a great adjustment range. When drawing volume automation, the movement is just right - it’s not too sensitive/fine (like Logic’s stock Gain plugin) and it’s not too resistant/coarse, which makes it really easy to work with and very musical. It responds to curves nicely and it moves smooth as a goose. Thirdly, it has some simple, but handy, extra features, such as phase flip and a fine adjustment lock should you need it - perfect if you do want to go into the micro detail. Above all, it’s very flexible and fits perfectly within my workflow, and I’ve been using it ever since on every single production I’ve created since that day.
Is it just me or…?
I still cannot believe that people do this. You’ll see many a professional engineer with volume automation ticking away in the background. It just seems so impractical to me. Maybe, as I said, it’s just never been an issue for you and you’re happy to automate the volume of every track in your arrangement bit by bit, and then automate the mix itself. Or maybe you’re happy to just raise the gain of a plugin on your mix bus. Either way, it’s your choice. But for me, FreeG has been a go-to solution for a long time, and I hope they don’t discontinue it. Thank you Sonalksis, thank you. If you’ve had the same problem, why not give this technique a try?
For a full overview of FreeG and its features, check out this great explainer video by Groove3:
To download FreeG, visit https://www.sonalksis.com/freeg.htm.
Full disclosure: I am not affiliated with Sonalksis in any way, I just really love FreeG. As mentioned, it’s totally free to download, and hopefully it helps you the same way it helps me.
What about you?
Finally, what do you think? Has volume automation ever been an issue for you? Or am I totally mad and alone in my previous frustrations?! Let me know in the comments below!
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