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Automation For The People

Paul White's Leader By Paul White
Published October 2008

Presets, whether for effects units, plug-ins or synths, come in for a lot of stick, but for musicians who'd rather get on with making music than getting too deep into engineering, they can be very useful.

There are lots of aspects of recording that could be made automatic through presets, and there's a clear parallel with the evolution of digital cameras here: to begin with, we had basic auto-focus and auto-exposure, but now there are cameras with image stabilisers and face recognition to ensure that faces in the frame are given focus priority.

Back in the days when Portastudios were new and cool, I wondered out loud why they didn't come with a 'gain learn' mode, so that you could get them to set up their mic-amp levels for you during a run-through of the song. Surely audio interfaces could be designed to do this — and DAWs could optimise their own mixer and plug-in gain structure while preserving the same mix balance, if the designers decided that this was worthwhile.

While we're at it, how about preset EQs that include more than one setting and have a single control to morph between them and change the depth of the EQ, so you can fine tune them to the particular voice or instrument you're treating? In fact, let's go a stage further and visualise a voice EQ that has a library of 'style' reference frequency spectra recorded into it, so that it can automatically create an EQ curve to more closely match the actual voice to the chosen target style response: a bit like an automatic version of the fingerprint equalisers we already have, but with the normal handful of EQ bands rather than hundreds.

Looking further ahead, there's no reason why a band recording using reasonably conventional instrumentation shouldn't be EQ'd and balanced automatically by advanced DAW software. You'd tell it what's on the various tracks and it would refer to a library of standard balance templates based on musical styles, then make the necessary level adjustments and compress the vocals and specific instruments as required, to achieve a target dynamic range and balance.

No doubt some engineers will see such ideas as dumbing-down a skilled process, but we get a lot of questions from self-recording musicians as to how they can work with DAWs without having to keep switching their brains back and forth from being artistically creative to dealing with the technology. If a degree of 'dumbed-down' automation can make the recording process easier, I'm all for it. After all, you could still switch off the auto-pilot and go back to manual control for mixing, if you wanted to, because by then all the creative stuff should be done and dusted.

Paul White Editor In Chief