In this tutorial we take a look at vocal mixing with automation in Pro Tools. We will discuss tools, techniques, and signal flow this is used by mix engineers to work with lead vocals.
Regardless of musical genre, mixing is not only a necessary step, but a very creative one. With the multitude of tools available to us today, there are some fundamental steps and procedures that mix engineers follow in order to give the artist the best possible "mix" of their song.
I have been fortunate enough in my life to experience the production process from both sides of the studio, as a signed artist (Dub Pistols), also as a producer / engineer. The purpose of a song is to tell a story, therefore the story telling part must be clear to the audience. In the following series of tutorials, I will share some of the tips I've learned in my career that I employ in the majority of my mixes. I've found these techniques to work the majority of the time regardless of genre. You'll notice I'm a big fan of Waves Plug-Ins, but I will also look at other alternatives.
Pump Up The Volume
Unless you are extremely fortunate, your lead vocal will usually not sit at a usable volume above the other musical elements when you start your mix. This is to be expected, the main purpose of recording is to get "good, clean, usable" tracks recorded. Once the recording and arrangement is done, it's time to work with these tracks to make them blend together well. Back in the day, we were known as "Balance Engineers". As different instruments enter and leave the mix, the amount of space they occupy increases and decreases. For this reason, automation of vocals is the key component to achieving a consistent level so each word, or phrase, can be heard clearly.
Vocal amplitude variations prior to automation
Once I've achieve a workable balance of the various musical elements in the song, I start to focus on the lead vocal. I am definitely a fan of the "less-is-more" approach to mixing, especially when it comes to lead vocals and processing. I prefer to fix problems at the source instead of relying on compressors to tame the fluctuations. Remember that a compressor only works on signal the passes the set "Threshold", thus compressing loud signal and not compressing softer signals. This can really wreak havoc on your tone as it changes from over-compressed to not compressed at all. It makes sense to take a "transparent" approach to dealing with the fluctuation in vocal signal. By making the vocal changes before the audio signal reaches the compressor, there is not as much of a difference between "soft & loud", therefore the compressor is not over-processing the signal.
The automation functions of Pro Tools are an invaluable tool when it comes to mixing, as well as being one of the most simple concepts to grasp. Almost any parameter can be automated within Pro Tools, for this example I'll be focusing on Volume automation.
To display the volume automation display in Pro Tools, click on the 'track view selector' on the track and select 'volume'. The default view on an Audio Track is 'waveform'.
Once selected, you will see a 'black line' on top of the audio waveforms, this is the volume graph. Any changes you see here are actual changes in the track volume fader level. Since we have no automation just yet, notice the line is straight, or flat. We can now use the Grabber, Selector, and Trim tools in the software to add and refine automation.
The Grabber Tool
Using the Grabber tool, you can click with your mouse to add automation 'break-points'. As you click to add more break-points, you can drag these up or down to create a ramp between them. If you need to remove a break-point simply 'Option' + Click with the Grabber. You can also select a range of break-points with the Selector tool and 'Delete'. Since you're only viewing 'volume' on the track, it won't delete anything else, such as the audio or other automation.
Automation created using the Grabber Tool
In the example above, I've created a quick ramp up over the last part of the word, with a gradual slope at the end, mimicking the decay of the word. Simply by doing this I've achieved a more balanced audio signal without the need for any processing. There is a balance in level of the vocal signal, allowing it to 'sit' better in the mix. You can add as many break-points as you need to fine-tune the automation, all the way down to the sample-level. There is almost no limitation.
Often times, to maximize my workflow, I will use the 'Smart Tool', a combination of the Trim, Selector, and Grabber Tools meshed together. This allows me to have the best of all the tools so I can manipulate automation quickly and with precision.
Selection and Trim using the 'Trim' tool
Another way to quickly manipulate automation levels is by using the Trim tool. In the example above, I have a selection over the area that needs to be raised. By using the Trim tool, it preserves the selection length and alloys you to raise, or lower, just that area. My typical workflow involves going through the vocal track at first to make larger, overall changes with the Trim tool, then spending time fine tuning each of the lines with the Grabber tool.
Vocal line after fine tuning the automation with Trim and Grabber tools
The result of this is a more balanced audio signal without the need for any artificial processing. All we have done is raise or lower the volume to achieve a more 'balanced' output. Most of the issues with inconsistency have been resolved without the need to artificially 'enhance' the level. From a creative standpoint, this allows me to use the compressors for 'flavor' and tone more than for maintaining a balance of the signal. I'll discuss more about how to achieve this in the next tutorial.
Another way to achieve a usable 'overall' automation for the vocal track is a particular plug-in by Waves called Vocal Rider.
This plug-in allows you to set a 'Range' you want to keep the vocal in, and it write the automation for you as it senses soft & loud signals. Simply put, it 'Rides' the vocal volume fader for you. While it is useful to a degree, it by no means is the only solution, especially when it comes to precision.
Check out the video below for a demo of Vocal Rider