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Pro Tools: Mixer Snapshots & Automation Data

Practical Tips & Techniques
By Simon Price

Here, a snapshot of various fader levels has been written at the middle section of the song.Here, a snapshot of various fader levels has been written at the middle section of the song.

More automation tips, including how to create and use mixer 'snapshots', a few special editing hints, and an in-depth look at how Pro Tools handles automation data.

Last month we covered the basic ground of how to automate parts of the Pro Tools mixer (such as faders and plug-ins) so that they change during the course of your song. We looked at two methods for achieving this: by directly editing a mixer parameter in the timeline, or by recording the desired result on the fly. There is another method, commonly known as 'snapshot' automation, that can be more appropriate for certain situations, although sadly it's not available in Pro Tools LE. This technique involves you specifying the settings for a particular parameter, set of parameters (like a particular plug-in's controls), or even the whole mixer, then applying these settings across a range of time.

Take the classic pop effect of applying a lo-fi 'radio' effect to the lead vocals for a section of the song. This might be achieved using an EQ plug-in, by dramatically filtering the top and bottom frequencies. Elsewhere in the song you may be using the same EQ more subtly to sweeten your recording of the voice. So, what you need is for several of the EQ's controls to change immediately from one set of positions to another. To record this on the fly would be very difficult, though you might be able to achieve it one knob at a time with several passes. But there's no need to do it this way. Snapshots are created using the Write Automation... command from the Edit Menu. There are two sub-commands here: '...to current parameter', and '...to all enabled parameters'. The second of these is by far the most useful, and will paste the current state of the mixer across any selection in the timeline. Only tracks that are covered by the edit selection will be affected, and any family of mixer parameters can be rendered immune to this command in the Automation Enable window.

Creating Mixer Snapshot Automation

Here's my step-by-step method for making best use of the Write Automation command to create the temporary change in an EQ, as mentioned above:

  • Ensure the plug-in's parameters are already enabled for automation (see last month).
  • Drag out a selection in the timeline across the section that will receive the new settings. The selection should only be in the track with the vocals (in this example).
  • Now open the Automation Enable window from the Windows menu, and disarm recording for all types of parameters except plug-ins (parameters are safe when not highlighted).
  • This next step might not make sense, but I'll come back to why it's necessary a bit later on: before changing anything, go to the Edit menu, and select 'Write Automation... / to all Enabled parameters'.
  • From the Automation Enable Window, select Suspend, make sure you are in Loop Playback mode, and hit Play.
  • Pro Tools will now loop around the selection you made in the timeline, and you can play with your EQ to find that radio effect. Automation playback is suspended, so you won't be fighting with any controls.
  • When you're happy with your new setup for the plug-in, leave playback rolling and again select 'Edit / Write Automation... / to all Enabled parameters'. This will now have written your complete EQ setup to the area under the selection.
  • You can verify that it's worked by rewinding a bit, taking the system out of Automation Suspend (again, from the Automation Enable window), and playing through. You should see the plug-in's controls suddenly jump to their correct places when you cross the boundaries.

Snapshot automation can also be useful in general mixing, especially when there are obvious changes of instrumentation or feel at different points in the song. You can use the above steps for making 'broad brushstroke' mix setups for these sections of the song, creating a basic 'bed' before using dynamic automation recording to fine-tune things like the vocals. You could use the basic outline to work through the song from start to finish, but it's worth being aware of a common trick that saves you recreating a particular mix more than once, for example at every chorus. It's possible to 'pick up' or sample the static mix elements at, say, chorus 1, then paste them to the other choruses. The Pro Tools mixer always updates to wherever the timeline cursor is, even when not in playback, so you can return the mixer to its chorus 1 positions simply by clicking in the timeline at that position. Now, the cunning bit is that after having done so, you can force the mixer to stay put when you move to other times, by clicking the Suspend Automation button. Transferring the mix to chorus 2 is now simply a case of selecting across all the tracks at chorus 2's position, and choosing the Write Automation... command. Remember to switch off the Suspend button when you've finished.

Virgin Territory Vs Automation Graphs

So what about that step I added to the snapshot procedure, where I suggested you choose the Write Automation command before making any changes to the mixer or plug-ins? The reason for this can be tricky to get your head around, but concerns the way in which Pro Tools handles automation data for each parameter. Some mixing systems, both hardware and software, store automation data only for the areas at which you've recorded or written it. Other points in between are said to be 'virgin territory' and the faders (for example) can be moved freely at these points, but will pick up and follow automation at the points where it exists. Pro Tools, on the other hand, uses continuous graphs across each track for each possible parameter. Even at points where you haven't specifically written automation, the faders and knobs will track the graph (which will be a straight line, but at a definite fixed setting). This is not immediately apparent, because before you've recorded any automation for a particular parameter, Pro Tools assumes you don't want that parameter tied down to a graph, even when the channel is in Auto Play mode. You can see how this works if you switch an un-automated channel to view the Volume graph, and move the fader. The flat-line graph for volume will move up and down for the whole track, indicating the fader position. In other words, an automation graph exists for the un-automated fader, but has no baseline position: it's said to be free-floating. However, from the moment you record any automation on that fader (even adding a single breakpoint to the graph), the graph is active for the entirety of the song. The fader is now constantly tied to the graph unless the channel is switched to Auto Off mode, and any further automation recording will effectively be 'punching in' on this existing graph. The start of the first automation recording on the track in effect defines a 'baseline' setting for the whole track.

This does not present any problems in most circumstances. For example, you'll often set a basic level for a track (without automation) while initially tinkering with the mix, then record some automated adjustments in real time at certain places: lift the vocals a bit here, ease off the guitars there, and so on. However, when using snapshot automation to do something like the 'radio EQ' trick, you run into a problem if your EQ snapshot happens to involve the first pieces of automation to exist for those parameters: your radio effect will end up becoming the plug-in's base setting for the whole song. You might now see why I added the initial Write Automation command to the steps. This first write is 'anchoring' (in Pro Tools-speak) your initial EQ settings across the track, before you alter them just within the bounds of the selection. Some experienced Pro Tools mixers go so far as to record a short section of automation (or use the Write Automation command) across all faders and plug-ins at the start of the song before embarking on an automated mix session. This anchors absolutely everything from the outset, removing any further need to worry.

Extra Editing Options

Last month we looked at all the basic edit moves possible for adding or tweaking automation graphs in Pro Tools. Here's a couple of more advanced options:

Cut/Copy and Paste all automation graphs

When viewing an automation graph, the normal Cut, Copy and Paste edit commands are available as an option for moving sections around, but they operate only on the single currently displayed parameter. It is possible, however, to cut, copy, and paste all layers of automation within the selection at once. To do this, add Ctrl (Mac) or Start (PC) in addition to the usual keyboard shortcuts for Cut (Command-X/Ctrl-X), Copy (Command-C/Ctrl-C), or Paste (Command-V/ Ctrl-V). Using a Ctrl/Start-Cut provides a way of removing all automation from a Session. To do this, double-click in the time ruler (the quickest way to highlight everything in the timeline), and use Special Cut (Ctrl-Backspace on both Mac and PC).

Special Paste

When you copy a section of a particular automation graph, normally when you paste it, either at another point in the same track or on a different track, the data will automatically be placed on the graph for the same automation type (such as Volume). However, should you find it necessary to copy the data to the graph of a different type of parameter, you can force it by holding Ctrl (Mac) or Start (PC) when you paste.

'Delete in Place'

When deleting a section from a graph, there are two options for how the surrounding automation is affected. If you hit Delete, any breakpoints within the highlighted area are deleted, and the graph will join up with the nearest breakpoints in each direction. If you use the Cut command instead, in addition to removing the automation, Pro Tools will add breakpoints at each end of selection, leaving everything outside the selection unaffected.

Quick Tips

  • Pro Tools 6 TDM users can make sneaky use of the new Import Session Data command to delete a number of automation parameters quickly, for example just the plug-in data (otherwise, you have to do it one parameter at a time). Save the Session, then choose the current Session to import from. You can then select the track you need to remove a batch of automation from, and choose to import as a new track, but don't include the types of automation data you don't want. You'll now have a duplicate of the original track, minus the offending automation. Lastly, delete the original track.
  • Automation recording is an 'undoable' operation. After you've hit Stop, Undo will discard any automation you wrote during the pass.
  • If you are using pre-roll, be aware that automation is not recorded during the pre-roll stage. Also, in my experience, when using machine control you need to wait for the machine to pre-roll and lock up before grabbing any faders or controls, because Touch and Latch modes will not be triggered and the whole pass won't get recorded.
Published June 2003