Using a motorized fader to write automation is so much better than using a mouse. Sure, you can get by using a mouse. But, for that really professional touch, when automating the levels in a mix, you need to be able to “ride the fader.” This is the technique of shaping the dynamics of a performance through a series of detailed fader moves. In essence, the mix engineer/producer is hand tailoring the drama of the performance to match the flow of the song. For example, on a vocal track, pushing the level of a sustained note up instead of allowing it to fade out naturally, bringing up the level of a word that was a little too quiet, pushing down a phrase that was too loud, removing a lip smack, fixing sibilance, or creating the perception of a crescendo where previously there was none.
After I’ve written an initial level across an entire vocal track, I then enter the Touch automation mode. This mode will only write the automation for as long as my finger is on the motorized fader. I carefully listen through to my vocal track, and as I hear words and phrases that require level adjustments, I simply touch the fader and write the adjustments. (I’m usually singing/mumbling along with the lyrics to help me anticipate my next move while I mix.) This process is infinitely faster than trying to program hundreds of automation breakpoints using your mouse. (Ever try riding a mouse? Pun intended: I don’t recommend it.) Plus, riding the fader forces you to really use your ears and listen to exactly how the part sits in your mix, versus depending on your eyeballs to make level adjustments that you’re only guessing will be correct. When you ride a fader you’re getting real-time feedback about the part’s volume. Mixing is about what sounds best over your studio speakers, of course, not what looks best on your computer screen.
Here’s a typical example of an automation level on a vocal part, written using a motorized fader. Don’t try programming these sort of detailed automation moves with a mouse.
The two big excuses I hear for not getting a control surface with motorized faders are cost and desktop real-estate. Thanks to a couple of innovative products, neither of these excuses holds any water. The PreSonus FaderPort and Frontier Design Group’s AlphaTrack (which is no longer made but is still available on the used market) are both diminutive control surfaces featuring a single motorized fader, a handful of knobs and buttons, and both work with all the main DAW programs available today (from Pro Tools to Sonar, just to name a couple). Best of all, their street price, $129 (new) and about $60 (used on eBay), respectively. (Also, if you have desk space to spare, it’s worth mentioning that PreSonus has a brand new large format version of FaderPort, called FaderPort 8, for around $500 that looks amazing.)