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Is Console Automation Still Relevant In The DAW Age?

Fading Away? By Karen Down
Published July 2022


Do the automation features in DAW software make old‑school console automation redundant? We canvass opinions from big‑name mix engineers.

Recently, in a conversation about mixing I asked a question that resulted in a simple ‘no’. That question was whether console automation was still relevant, still used, in a world where DAW automation is ubiquitous.

Not wanting to believe that console automation is dead, I brought together a group of mix engineers for a fireside chat. Does anyone still mix using traditional console automation? Would not all mixers prefer to mix in the box or use a controller? Is there a trade‑off between one and the other and, if so, what is it? Is it a question of personal preference, or are there aspects of the different approaches that are objectively better or different?

The Old Ways

Mixing used to involve booking studio time, sitting at a large console and using the console’s automation system to ‘write’ the cuts, fader moves and, perhaps, switch changes to a computer. This is still possible in the modern age, with a DAW replacing the tape machine, but depending on how the studio is kitted out, the modern engineer has other options: to mix using a mouse, to use the console hardware to write automation to the DAW, or to use a dedicated controller.

This situation is the result of 30 years of continuous development in recording and mixing technologies. The engineers I spoke to for this article have experienced these changes first‑hand, embracing new technologies as they emerged and exploring their creative potential before settling on a mixing process that works for them. For example, early direct‑to‑disk systems such as Sound Tools were limited to two or four tracks, so they were used mainly to edit complete mixes, avoiding the hassle and risk of taking a razor blade to tape. Even then, though, as Mike Exeter recalls, the edited mix or track would be copied back onto tape because it was felt that “if it was not on tape it was not safe.”

As time went by, reliability increased, converters started to sound good, ProEdit/ProDeck became Pro Tools, track count increased, and recording and editing on the DAW became standard in both professional and home studios. Console‑type automation modes became available within DAWs, providing a degree of familiarity to engineers transitioning from console‑based to DAW‑based automation. Even now, however, “not everything that was good in a console automation system has been copied into a DAW”, says Bob Clearmountain.

Less Mixing, More Fixing

It was striking that all the mix engineers I spoke to lamented the fact that fundamental recording techniques are being lost as recording to a DAW has become the norm. When working with tape, it was vital to record the best sound that could be created through mic positioning and responsible use of EQ and dynamics. The key word here is ‘responsible’ as, once printed, processing could not be removed. As assistant engineers, my interviewees all learnt to get it right on the way in and to never start a session/recording at 00:00:00 (a nod to those who understand the reference).

Today, they say, fewer and fewer recording engineers and artists seem to know when to record processing to tape, how to edit well, how to create good crossfades, or how to execute a successful drop‑in. Instead, there’s a tendency simply to ‘record flat’ — capture the audio in the DAW as it comes — and adopt a ‘fix it in the mix’ mentality. This means today’s mixers have to fix tracks prior to, or during, the mix session. Cleaning up vocal pops, fixing bad edits, tuning and tightening timing can extend the time taken to mix, for some mixers doubling the time it takes to mix a record. Mixers also need to contend with the fact that track counts have increased. Whereas producers and recording engineers working with 24, 48 or even 96 tracks were forced to commit to choices at the recording stage, those decisions can now be put off until afterwards.

Another observation was that ‘mixing on the console’ is a phrase used by some mixers when in truth the console is being used as a controller to write automation to the DAW. And whereas mixing 30 years ago would have involved patching in a lot of outboard gear, the need for instant recall and transport of sessions between studios means that hardware processing is rarely used. Most mixers are now happy to use plug‑ins instead. However, some of the engineers involved in this discussion felt that the DAW screen could be distracting, preferring to place it out of their direct view when mixing.

Still On The SSL

One of the biggest names in mixing for the last 40 years, Bob Clearmountain finds his SSL console automation irreplaceable.One of the biggest names in mixing for the last 40 years, Bob Clearmountain finds his SSL console automation irreplaceable.Bob Clearmountain, one of the world’s most recognised music engineers, mixers and producers, still mixes on his SSL G+ 72‑channel console with its “wonderful automation complete with its floppy disks”. He does not use motorised faders for mixing, laughing when he says that “if a fader is going to move, I am going to move it”. Bob has kept up with the changes in technologies during his mixing career, and has not shied away from looking at new ways of mixing. He has attempted to mix in the box several times, he has tried to use controllers, and has used other console automation systems such as Flying Faders, but remains most comfortable using the G‑series automation ­‑ he even uses it to mix Atmos. For Bob, mixing should be “an enjoyable, relaxed process that allows you to really listen”, and he quips that he doesn’t understand how engineers who mix wholly in the box don’t lose their minds.

However, whilst the majority of the work is still done using the console’s automation, he does automate plug‑ins, including the Clearmountain‑branded ones released by Apogee, some of which replicate favourite hardware setups of his. He may also make small adjustments to the mix in the DAW; and, having tuned vocals outside of the box, he admits this is much easier within it.

Tom Lord‑Alge still mixes on his SSL console, but most of his automation is done in Pro Tools.Tom Lord‑Alge still mixes on his SSL console, but most of his automation is done in Pro Tools.Next, I spoke to Grammy Award‑winning record producer and mixer Tom Lord‑Alge — who, like Clearmountain, owns a 72‑input SSL Ultimation 4K with a G‑series computer. Having first worked on an SSL console at Unique Recording, something he felt the studio needed to have to allow their engineers to compete as mixers, Tom quickly fell in love with the console sonically and for its automation. Nowadays, Tom gets the mix as close to finished as possible on the console, with static levels, getting everything in the sweet spot. He then does 80 percent of his mixing in Pro Tools, automating small fader moves, effects sends and plug‑ins. The transportability of the mix is a consideration for him.

Tom does not believe the creative side of him suffers when switching between console and DAW — he has been using both for many years — but says that using a mouse is quicker for him than using a controller. He says that he is still having fun when mixing, especially when he can be experimenting with plug‑ins, but is sometimes frustrated by the amount of time spent fixing things like bad edits in DAW sessions. Ultimately, he contends, there is no right or wrong way to mix: the main consideration for an engineer is to be comfortable using the tools they’ve chosen.

Chris Lord‑Alge, like Bob Clearmountain, automates his SSL console rather than the DAW.Chris Lord‑Alge, like Bob Clearmountain, automates his SSL console rather than the DAW.Tom’s older brother Chris Lord‑Alge is also a Grammy Award‑winning mix engineer, and he too works with a 72‑channel SSL console, in his case an E‑series desk with a G‑series computer. Like many mixers, his original introduction to console automation came from the MCI console, before he switched to the SSL. For Chris the SSL still has the easiest automation system to use. Other systems can be challenging to learn and over‑complex: if using the automation doesn’t become second nature very quickly, he asks, why would he make the switch?

Unlike Tom, Chris uses Pro Tools just as a tape machine, with his SSL computer fitted with a ZX card to allow for timecode transport control. Mix automation is still handled on the console, though he uses it sparingly. He gets the song sounding the best it can before turning on the automation and is then able to complete the mix in one or two passes. He does not work with moving faders and any mutes done are only on delays and reverbs. Chris works in his own studio, so transportability of his mixes is not a concern, and recalls are complete within 15 minutes. His mix times have decreased over the years as he has honed his mixing process. Mixing using a familiar surface that he knows his way around intuitively allows him to get creative and connect with the mix. He still uses outboard gear, but is also happy to use plug‑ins, including emulations of his hardware outboard.

The Hybrid Approach

Wez Clarke takes a truly hybrid approach, courtesy of the SSL Duality which is both mixer and DAW controller.Wez Clarke takes a truly hybrid approach, courtesy of the SSL Duality which is both mixer and DAW controller.Wez Clarke, another a Grammy‑winning mix engineer initially known for his dance mixes, has gone from mixing solely in the box to being a “massive” advocate for large‑format consoles, and would now always choose to mix on one. In his case, however, he works with an SSL Duality console and uses the Delta plug‑in to automate fader moves in Pro Tools from the console’s faders. Working mainly with electronic music, Wez prefers to be sent stereo stems, and gets the mix sounding good on the console so that it is ready for any automation to be written to Pro Tools. He rarely uses plug‑ins, and if he does, as with his outboard gear, prefers to set and forget.

Wez admits that he is an intuitive rather than a “technical” mixer. He mixes with feeling, his enjoyment of the process feeding into the track through the console surface, which allows him to respond quickly to changes. For Wez, mixing in the DAW does not provide as much control, and he also says that working in the box gives the music no room to breathe sonically.

Under Control

Mike Exeter finds that a modern control surface such as the Avid S1 fully replaces console automation, and brings additional benefits such as support for huge track counts.Mike Exeter finds that a modern control surface such as the Avid S1 fully replaces console automation, and brings additional benefits such as support for huge track counts.A third approach is exemplified by Mike Exeter, a sound engineer and record producer who has worked with legendary British rock bands and more. Mike says that DAW automation gives him the functionality he needs, solving the same problems as console automation but offering other advantages. He now mixes in the box but uses a dedicated controller, in his case an Avid S1 with Dock, configured in a way that allows him to reach out to adjust, for example, an EQ without thinking how to access it. This, again, allows him to mix intuitively.

For Mike, one of the benefits of using a controller is instant recall: he needs to load the session and have it ready to work on straight away. He also needs to be able to work with very large track counts; this is not an issue with a controller like the S1, which can page up and down through the session, but even quite a large console might not have enough faders to support some of Mike’s mixes. For similar reasons, he does not use outboard gear, as this would mean his mixes would not be transportable or recallable.

The upshot, though, is that Mike automates more now than he did when not using DAW automation. He also says that his mixing time did not increase when he moved from console to DAW automation: he still averages two days on a mix.

Andy Bradfield is another mix engineer who values tactile control but is happy to obtain that from a fader surface rather than an actual console.Andy Bradfield is another mix engineer who values tactile control but is happy to obtain that from a fader surface rather than an actual console.Andy Bradfield, who was profiled in SOS April 2022, is one of the UK’s leading Atmos mixers, and for him, the DAW has largely taken over the roles of consoles, automation and tape machines. This modern way of working brings him speed and flexibility. Load the session and it’s there, the mixer is not limited regarding the number of busses or channels, and he has the ability to edit and tune vocals within the same environment.

Andy does not think that his creativity is stifled when using a DAW, but agrees with Mike that the DAW is better used with a controller, in his case a Digidesign Icon. He’s not averse to using a mouse, but finds that the tactile connection with faders and knobs allows changes to be made almost subconsciously as he reacts to the music. When mixing solely using the mouse, by contrast, he often finds it a struggle to balance the fader levels accurately. He also highlights an issue that can arise when clients understand you are working with a computer: because they’re aware that the mix can be turned around very quickly, they may expect this to happen. The human element of the mix process is sometimes forgotten.

Yet another perspective is provided by Will Shapland, a location recording engineer for music events and TV. Finding that Pro Tools did not suit his approach, he initially used SADiE as his DAW, before switching to Merging’s Pyramix. In both cases, the DAW was used as a tape machine, and mixing was done on an ‘in‑line’ digital console. Automation of EQ, dynamics, fader moves and so on was written on the console’s hard drive, and there was rarely any need to mix inside the box. Eventually, however, Will replaced this console with one that did not have its own automation system. At that point, he switched to automating within the DAW, and is currently using Reaper.

Will is comfortable mixing in the box with a mouse, as this allows him to work away from the studio, be it at his hotel room or at home. If available he prefers to use a small controller for mixes where he needs more control over fader rides. He uses no outboard gear and usually mixes an entire show in a day.

The Write Touch

Returning to the question that was posed at the start of this article, we find that ‘no’ is by no means a universal answer. Some of the world’s biggest mix engineers still rely heavily on console automation, either because of personal preference or because it does things they still can’t easily do in a DAW. Many others still see the value of a tactile, hands‑on interface, but find that a controller or modern hybrid console fits better into modern working environments. To summarise:

  • Bob Clearmountain uses a combination of in‑the‑box and console automation, with the majority of the automation done using the console’s own software.
  • The majority of Tom Lord‑Alge’s automation is written in the DAW, whereas Chris Lord‑Alge uses only G‑series console automation.
  • Wez Clarke uses a hybrid way of working, writing automation into Pro Tools from the console surface.
  • Mike Exeter and Andy Bradfield use dedicated hardware controllers to write automation into the DAW.
  • Will Shapland mixes mostly in the box.

Names like Flying Faders, SuperTrue, GML and SSL automation are familiar to mixers who have created classic albums on consoles. And although the tools have changed over the years, what came through from all of my interviewees is their enthusiasm for the job and the tools they use. No matter how long they’ve been doing this, they are still passionate about it, and despite the additional work they’re having to do to fix tracks, they still enjoy their work. In a world where technology is constantly changing, these mixers adapt their skills to the tools they have available to get the best‑sounding mix they can, and enjoy the challenge of doing so.

Although there are many different preferences and working methods in evidence, everyone agrees on one thing. No matter what mixing tool you use, what is important is that it feels like an extension of yourself. The most important thing is to not have to think about the process, and for many people, consoles and controllers are the key factors that enable instinctive mixing.  

New Life For Old Consoles?

THD Labs’s Tangerine Automation Interface replaces the ageing computers in large‑format consoles and allows systems such as Flying Faders to be integrated into a modern DAW environment.THD Labs’s Tangerine Automation Interface replaces the ageing computers in large‑format consoles and allows systems such as Flying Faders to be integrated into a modern DAW environment.One concern for anyone wanting to use automation on a classic large‑format console is maintenance. Many of the computers running these automation systems are now 30 or 40 years old, and it can be hard to find spare parts and competent service technicians to work on them. And, of course, they were designed to interact with analogue tape machines rather than computers running DAW software.

To help ameliorate this situation, Daniel Benoit from THD‑Labs has developed the Tangerine Automation Interface (TAI). This interface replaces the proprietary computers used with older Neve, GML and SSL consoles and allows fader moves, cuts and so on to be directly recorded into the DAW.