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Recording Handbook
Chapter 5: Mixer Automation

5. Mixer Automation

Initially available only on profesional consoles, automation systems have evolved over the last 25 years, becoming less expensive and more powerful in the process. Today there are moving fader and VCA based systems available. Many only require insert points on the console and can be up and running fairly quickly. Cheap VCA's and MIDI have brought automation to the masses.


We discussed SMPTE earlier in reference to locking up tape machines. It has also become the industry standard for running automation systems. An obvious advantage is that one track of SMPTE is all you have to give up on your multi-track to give you both synchronization and automation capabilities.

b. VCA vs. Moving Faders

I'm a big moving fader fan, particularly the "Flying Fader" system used on Neve VR consoles. Moving fader systems utilize sophisticated mechanical, motorized faders running under the control of a computer and software that keeps track of the physical position of the faders relative to the SMPTE timecode on the tape. After recording a move, you simply rewind the tape and the faders replay your moves. With this type of automation, the fader is actually in the audio path controlling the output of the signal.

Initially only available in very expensive hi-end consoles, motorized faders are showing up in low priced consoles like the Yamaha 01v(about $1800), the O2R rev2(about $6000) and O3 consoles, Mackie has the d8b (about $9000), the Panasonic DA7(about $5000), the TASCAM TM-d4000(about $4000) and the Roland VM-72 system(about $4000). In 2000, Sony came out with its little "Oxford", the DMX-r100 for about $25,000. None of these machines existed in 1995!

A VCA or "voltage controlled amplifier" is the heart of the SSL automation process. In this type of system the fader controls the output of the VCA which is actually passing the signal. As in moving fader systems, a computer and software keep track of the fader movements relative to SMPTE. Instead of the faders physically replaying your moves, their movement is represented on the computer monitor as a vertical bar moving up and down. Many people don't like VCA's in the audio path, because they can color the sound. This was more of a problem 25 years ago when VCA technology was young. The fact that SSL is such a major player in big budget mixing says a lot about how little a problem that is. You can decide for yourself.

c. MIDI Automation

The wide acceptance of MIDI and low cost, high quality VCA's has fueled the development of inexpensive MIDI based automation systems. The mixing board gets a MIDI plug!

The TASCAM M-3700 is a good example of this approach. It's on-board system has a disc drive and small LCD screen and allows you to automate channel volume, channel mute, monitor mute, EQ on/off and effects send on/off. With additional software and an external computer you can have the moving bars on the screen and some useful utility options.

Add-on outboard systems like the Mackie system utilize, a VCA package that ties in via the insert points on your mixer and a smaller fader pack of 16 faders with mute buttons to record your moves on. This is all translated into MIDI data which can be displayed on a Mac computer. Other systems come with software or are already configured to work with several popular sequencer programs like Vision, Cubase and Logic. These add-on VCA systems are a powerful and relatively inexpensive way to add sophisticated automation capabilities to your mixer.



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