How to Automate Plugins in Pro Tools

Effects are an integral part of the mixing process. From spacey reverb to trippy delays adding effects to your sounds is a great way to take them to the next level.

One aspect that is important for sound engineers to grasp when adding effects to sounds that when and how these effects are applied to a sound and by what degree can be controlled and when done right can lead to a very professional sounding end product.

This is where Automation comes in.

What is Automation

Automation is simply the process of determining how a plug-in operates over time. It is achieved by manipulating parameters either within a plug-in that affect its operation or manipulating parameters within Pro Tools that affect the plug-in as a whole (more on this below).

How to Set Up Plug-ins for the Automation Process

In order to automate a plug-in, the following steps need to be taken

  1. Ensure that the plug-in has been added to the appropriate position in the effect chain. That is, whether as an insert or a send. For this example, I will use Pro Tools stock 7 band EQ as an insert on a guitar track.
adding plugin pro tools
  1. Enable Automation by clicking the Plugin Automation Enable button in the Auto section of the plug-in window. This will bring up the Plug-in Automation Dialog.
plugin automation enable pro tools
  1. In this window, a list of all the plug-ins currently applied to inserts on that channel as well as parameters within these plug-ins. To enable automation for a parameter, simply select it from the list and click add. For this example, I used Master Bypass and Output level.
master bypass output level pro tools

Manually Automating Plug ins

Once the desired parameters have been selected and added, navigate to the track in the edit window. Here you can use the Track View Selector. By default, this will be set to waveform. Clicking on the Track View Selector brings up a drop-down menu from which we can select the plug-in and parameters one wants to automate.

track view selector pro tools
track view selector pro tools

This will make an automation graph appear on the waveform. With this done, it is possible to edit automation data or to see the automation data being recorded depending on the selected Automation Mode.

automation graph pro tools

From the above picture,

1 represents the automation graph.

2 represents a breakpoint.

Another way of displaying automation graphs is by clicking the small arrow on the bottom left of the track will display automation lanes. These are special segments that are displayed below the track where users can adjust automation data. By default, this will display an automation lane for Volume. Right-clicking this arrow will bring up a drop-down menu that has alternatives such as pan and volume trim. If a plug-in has been primed for automation, it will also appear on this list.

show automation lanes pro tools
automation lanes pro tools

Automating plug-ins using the different Automation Modes

Pro Tools offers four main automation modes. These offer a variety of ways to edit automation data. Automation modes can be selected from the Automation Mode Selector. While in the Edit Window the automation mode selector can be found on each track on its left. In the mix window, it can be found in the section labelled “Auto” beneath the I/O settings. The main Pro Tools’ automation modes are: Read, Latch, Touch and Write.

automation modes pro tools
auto read pro tools

Read Mode

The default Automation mode in Pro Tools is set to Read Mode

In this mode you can use the pencil tool to create breakpoints on the Automation graph. These breakpoints are used to manipulate automation data using the grabber tool. Alternatively, breakpoints can be added when using the smart tool by using

Ctrl + Click on Windows or

Command + Click on Mac.

Once automation data has been edited, if the track is played while the plug-in window is open, it is possible to see the associated parameters adjusting in real-time based on the automation data. The knobs, graph lines or curves and also faders associated with these parameters will be moving relative to the automation.

It should be noted that some parameters are Binary in nature. This means that they can only be automated to either one of two extremes. That is, they are either On or Off. This is the case for the Master Bypass parameter. In this case, when the automation triggers the bypass, the only visually observable changes are the bypass button on the plug-in window changes color to orange and the insert where the plug-in is placed turns blue. The automation graph for these kinds of parameters will appear as shown below.

read mode pro tools

For easier drawing of automation curves for non-binary parameters, the pencil tool can be used to draw grid-specific shapes on the automation graph. Right clicking the pencil tool icon presents users with a few options.

free hand pro tools

Below is an example of a square automation curve drawn using the Square option.

square option automation curve pro tools

Touch Mode

In Touch Mode, users can record automation data by simply adjusting the desired parameter (usually through use of the mouse) while the track is playing provided that the parameter had been selected for Automation in the Plug-in automation window. Recording of the automation data stops immediately when the user stops adjusting the parameter in question and releases the knob or fader that was in use.

Latch Mode

This automation mode works in a similar way to Touch mode with only one key difference. In Latch Mode, once a parameter is released after having been modified, Pro Tools will continue recording automation data using the last value until playback is stopped.

Write Mode

In this mode, Pro Tools begins recording automation data the moment playback has commenced and only stops once playback is paused or stopped. Note that in this mode, Pro Tools records automation data for all the plug-ins and parameters that are active on the track and it will overwrite any existing automation data. When using write mode, it is best to ensure that any plug-ins or parameters that should not be automated are turned off in the plug-in automation window. It is also advisable to set the automation mode back to read or touch once recording of automation data has been completed to avoid accidentally overwriting the automation.

Conclusion

There are many benefits to automating plug-ins and their various parameters such as adding variation to the sound, creating interesting transitions and enhancing the dynamics of a project. Thanks to the various automation modes and tools that are available in Pro Tools engineers are not limited when it comes to finding a method of automation that suits their particular workflow.