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Automation Action

Reaper Tips & Techniques
Published January 2015
By Barry Watson

Get to grips with Reaper’s range of automation facilities.

Track automation is an increasingly crucial tool in the mix engineer’s arsenal, and Reaper offers more control over it than most DAWs. There are alternative ways to display automation envelopes, for instance, and there’s a MIDI Learn function for tweaking plug-in parameters using hardware knobs and faders, to give just a couple of examples. This tutorial provides a walkthrough guide to the fundamental features and techniques.

Get To The Point

To get started with automation, you first need to enable it on each track you wish to automate: just click on the envelope button on the bottom left of the track display to reveal the automation configuration. This window displays the list of track parameters that may be automated, including parameters for each plug-in inserted into the effects chain.

On the automation window, tick ‘Visible’ and ‘Arm’ for each parameter you want to control. This allows the parameter to be automated using an envelope that appears in a lane below the track on the arrange area.

To show or hide automation lanes displayed under the main track, right-click over the automation envelope and tick ‘Hide envelope’. You can show the envelope again later by right-clicking on the track’s envelope button and selecting ‘Show all active track envelopes’.

Volume and pan are armed for automation, but parameters for all plug -ins on the track are displayed.Volume and pan are armed for automation, but parameters for all plug -ins on the track are displayed.The automation mode for the track will default to ‘Read/Trim’, meaning that any changes made to the parameters will be read and played back. Usefully, Reaper’s Trim mode is independent of the main volume fader on the track display and mixer, meaning that the fader can still be used as a global volume control after the automation has been drawn in. For automating parameters in real time, Touch is the least destructive of the various modes, since it writes and remembers changes made to parameters, but ceases writing as soon as you stop making changes. If you’re really keen, the various automation modes are explained more fully in the Reaper documentation, at http://wiki.cockos.com/wiki/index.php/Automation.

Back on the main screen, we’re ready to input and edit points on the automation envelope. To draw new points, shift-click on the envelope line. Shift and drag to move points whilst ignoring the snap resolution — this is ideal for accurate changes that need to occur fractionally before each beat division, for example.

Automation envelopes can be shown on top of the waveform. Right-click over the track display for an envelope lane to move it to this ‘Media Lane’. Automation envelopes can be shown on top of the waveform. Right-click over the track display for an envelope lane to move it to this ‘Media Lane’. To move a point simply click and drag, while if you click and drag between envelope points you can make ‘block changes’ to the envelope. This might be used for tweaking volume as you move between a quieter verse and a louder chorus, for example. To delete points on the envelope, use Alt/Option-click. Using the same modifier key and clicking on the envelope line between points allows you to modify the shape of the curve.

The ‘Acc R’ track has some EQ controls shown in the track display, achieved by selecting ‘UI’ next to each relevant parameter in the automation window. MIDI Learn is set up by clicking the Learn button.The ‘Acc R’ track has some EQ controls shown in the track display, achieved by selecting ‘UI’ next to each relevant parameter in the automation window. MIDI Learn is set up by clicking the Learn button.A Control/Command-click on the envelope allows you to draw a freehand shape, something that allows for very quick and simple automation editing but does tend to generate a large number of points.

The Reduce Points tool can be invaluable!The Reduce Points tool can be invaluable!You can make further changes to the shape of curves on the automation lane. Select multiple points using the shift key and then right-click over the selection. From the menu, navigate to ‘Set shape for selected points’ and choose one of the available options (for example, the ‘Slow start/end’ option gives an S-curve). Additionally, you can use this menu to define the default curve shape so that all subsequent curves drawn follow the chosen shape.

As soon as multiple parameters are being automated per track, screen real estate starts to suffer due to the number of envelope lanes. Thankfully, Reaper allows you to change display options to show multiple automation envelopes on top of the waveform: right-click on the track’s envelope button and select ‘Show all visible track envelopes in media lane’. Once this display option is selected, letters V and P on the keyboard can be used to show and hide the envelopes for volume and pan over the waveform.

Stay In Control

Once the parameters to be automated have been selected, you might like to explore ways of manipulating them more efficiently, since it might not be practical to display every automation envelope on screen permanently. Another neat Reaper feature is the ability to show plug-in parameters on the track display itself, offering an overview of settings and the chance to make additional changes if needed. I use this feature regularly to refer to EQ settings for each track without having to open the mixer and relevant plug-in, thereby improving my workflow. You don’t even need to enable automation to do this:

  • Click the envelope button on the chosen track to open the automation configuration window.
  • Select the user interface ‘UI’ option for each parameter you wish to view within the track display.
  • Experiment with resizing the track display with vertical zoom and dragging the dividing line. This way you can display more of the track controls simultaneously — show all EQ controls in a single column on the track display, for example.

Taking this efficiency of control a step further, the MIDI Learn facility can be used to control plug-in parameters in a more intuitive way. To achieve this, you’ll need a MIDI keyboard or control surface that has at least one slider or knob — or you can use a modulation wheel:

  • Once you’ve connected your MIDI controller, go to Preferences/MIDI devices. Ensure that the MIDI input is enabled and set to receive controller commands by ticking the appropriate box.
  • Open the automation configuration window for the relevant track using the envelope button.
  • Select ‘MIDI Learn’ for the parameter you want to tweak using the MIDI controller and move the slider or knob on the controller itself. The hardware control will be mapped to that plug-in parameter.

Through Thick & Thin

There are times you’ll need to repeat an automation pattern — for example, for repeated filter sweeps or volume changes on specific sections of a song — and this involves copying and pasting automation points. The simplest way to prepare a number of points to be copied is to first set the left and right locators to define a time selection.

After making a time selection, right-click on the envelope and pick ‘Select all points in time selection’ from the menu. Following this, right-click once more and choose ‘Copy points’. Set the song position pointer to where you want the end of the copied point selection to be located and then ensure that the envelope is selected by clicking on it. Then use Control/Command-V to paste the points to the new location. You can place the pasted automation points more accurately by dragging them while they’re still selected. Alternatively, use the same menu to delete or disable an automation envelope.

In other situations, you may end up with too many points in an automation envelope. This can happen when using the freehand draw function or any real-time manipulation with snap turned off (especially when overwriting existing envelopes with new values). Parameter values may change erratically as a result, possibly causing jerky changes to the sound. A tool for thinning out data is the answer here, and is also available by right-clicking on an envelope:

  • Use the left and right locators to specify a time selection on the automation envelope (skip this step to reduce points for the entire track).
  • Right-click on the envelope and select ‘Reduce number of points’. Use the slider to reduce the points on the envelope to the required number — but be careful not to remove the automation curves completely!

I’ve covered only a few of the endless useful facilities here due to the limited space available to me, but delving into contextual and preferences menus will uncover further options. Try out some of the techniques above to take automation action — you may be surprised at how positive an effect this can have on your workflow!

Published January 2015