The following is an excerpt from my column “The Pro Tools Corner” at audioMIDI.com. It was written for Pro Tools 7 but basic automation workflows havn’t change.

Pro Tools Automation 101

One of the most useful feature sets found in nearly all of today’s DAWs is automation. Traditionally reserved for only the most expensive large format consoles, automation allows you to record parameter changes in the session’s mixer and is a must know technique for any serious Pro Tools user. This week at the Pro Tools Corner, I will walk you through some of Pro Tools’ basic automation features and show you how to record and edit automation in your session.

Why we automate:

While there are many reasons to use automation in Pro Tools, both creative and otherwise, on a basic level automation lets us take once static parameters in the mixer and allows them to change dynamically over the course of a session’s timeline. For example, one may find that while a specific volume level on a lead vocal works well during the verse the same level doesn’t work as well during the chorus. Without splitting the vocal out onto separate tracks, automation provides an easy solution to the level changes needed over the course of the song. Ask around, most of the world’s top mixers would certainly agree that effective use of automation is a huge component in achieving a great sounding, dynamic mix. Pro Tools takes basic level automation a bit further by allowing the user to automate volume, pan, mutes, send levels/pans/mutes and plug-in parameters. Users can record fader moves and parameter changes during playback in real time or edit automation graphically offline.

Recording automation in Pro Tools

Just a like a fancy SSL or Neve console with flying faders, Pro Tools supports the recording and playback of real time fader moves and parameter changes in the mixer. To record changes in the mixer’s state over time, one can simply select a real time automation mode from the track’s automation mode selector and playback the session. Pro Tools will then record any changes made in the mixer during playback and depending on the automation mode selected, will update or ignore existing automation data.

To record real time level/pan/mute/send automation on a track:

Ensure that automation is not suspended and that the parameters you wish automate are write enabled (highlighted in red) in your session’s automation window (Windows > Automation). Any parameter that is not “write enabled” will be ignored when recording real time automation.

Click the track’s automation mode selector (this can be found in both the edit and mix window) and switch it from “read” to “write” in the drop down list. If you want to automate more than one track at a time, simply set those tracks automation to “write” also.

Now playback the session and move the faders, pan, etc as desired. You do not need to record, just playback the session. Automation has its own “record enable” as outlined in step 2 and recording automation has nothing to do with a track’s record enable or the transport master record status.

After an initial automation pass, the track’s automation status will change from write to touch or latch (this is actually a preference found in the mixing tab of Windows>Preferences). This will prevent you from accidentally recording over any previous automation when playing back your track.

Now playback the session and watch those faders fly!When you are finished automating a particular track, set its automation mode back to “read.”

Note: While it is nice to perform in automation with a control surface, you can also use your mouse to record automation in real time.

A quick note on plug-ins:

While plug-in parameters can be automated almost as easily as volume/pans/mutes, it does involve an extra step, which will be coved in part 2 of this article.

Pro Tools automation modes:

All Pro Tools systems feature the following track automation modes:

Off: Automation is suspended for that specific track, mixer parameters revert back to manual control. To suspend all automation in a session, use the master suspend found in the automation window (Windows>Automation)

Read: Previously recorded Automation is played back (if it exists).

Touch: Pro Tools only records automation when a parameter is modified or “touched” but acts like read mode otherwise. This is commonly reffered to as an “update” mode, allowing you to update a previous write pass, appending new automation data only where desired.

Latch: Similar to touch, latch acts like read mode until a parameter is modified or “touched.” After being modified the parameter does not return to its previous state and remains “latched” into its current position.

Write: A destructive mode, write will record any incoming automation disregarding previous automation in the track. Write will destructively “burn over” any and all automation on a track, meaning even if you don’t touch a parameter its current state is being recorded during the entire pass.

Pro Tools HD systems also feature Touch/Latch and Trim automation modes, which we’ll save for another article.

Viewing your automation:

One of the greatest things about working in the computer is the ability to actually see the automation we have recorded, represented visually as a set of breakpoints. By selecting the specific automation graph from a track’s view selector we can not only view the existing breakpoints, but also manipulate them graphically using our edit tools.

To view a tracks volume automation graph:

Switch the track’s view selector from “Waveform” to “Volume.”

Automation graphs are a series of breakpoints connected by a solid black line, sort of like a game of connect the dots. The mixer reads these break points like vector data to change parameters smoothly over the timeline from one breakpoint to the next.

You can select other automation graphs from the tracks view selector, including volume, pan, mute, and send level/mute views.

Note: Automation graphs for sends show up as sends are assigned in the mixer, i.e. if a track doesn’t have any sends, you wont see any automation views for them in the track view selector.

Remember, automation in Pro Tools lives on the track and each track has only one set of automate-able parameters (ie: switching playlists does not switch a tracks automation graph). Once a track contains even one automation breakpoint, it will no longer respond to manual control (unless the track’s automation mode is switched to off, or automation is suspended). To get around this, simply insert the “Trim” plug-in on your track and use that for track wide, or “delta” changes in volume level.

Coming up in part 2:

Stay tuned, in the next installment I will walk you through graphic manipulation of automation breakpoints and show you how to automate plug-in parameters.