Riding the Fader

Jul 11 2008

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. This process is infinitely faster than trying to program hundreds of automation breakpoints using your mouse. (Ever try riding a mouse? 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, 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.

Vocal Automation

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 are both diminutive control surfaces featuring a single motorized fader, a handful of knobs and buttons, and both work with all the foremost DAW programs available today (from Pro Tools to Sonar, just to name a couple). Best of all, their street price, $149 and $199, respectively. (Check out Sweetwater.com for those prices.)

Fader Units

    Sup Erik!

    Yeah I’m just now getting into real time automation moves and I find it fairly difficult. I mean I’m not sure “how many” dbs up or down is “too” much. I know you go by what sounds right but I find it hard to go over or under 3db. Seems like TOO much of a dynamic range. Of course you can always compress it afterwards but still.

    Cool blog. Still check out a few of my teachers blogs from time to time to learn extra stuff. Goodluck man!


    Hi, Hawk

    I will be using all of this stuff, when I have time this Fall.

    I wanted to Take 101 in the Fall But my time was running out so I am here in the busy part of summer.

    I want to devote all my time to pro tools !


    Hi, Erik–

    I’m always a little uncomfortable when I read a blog entry like this. On one level, of course, you’re absolutely right. Having a fader _is_ better than using the mouse, and the small footprint of these two units makes them very suitable for home studios. But there are two other things to think about.

    First, are you pushing gear to people who don’t really need it to get where they’re going? Probably. Musicians have always been poor, and in today’s economy, I’d suggest, the best advice is probably, “Figure out how little you can spend,” not, “Rush out and buy more gear.” Calling their reluctance “excuses” is just plain insulting.

    Second, will a hardware fader turn a turkey into a swan? No, of course not. Given a reasonable basic mix, the quality of the music is the ONLY important factor in how people will respond to the track. Suggesting to people that their problem is needing better hardware is disingenuous, because it ignores the fact that they need to concentrate on playing, arranging, and composing, not on whether the vocal has a little help from real-time automation.

    Listen to some bad Beatles mixes sometime. The music is what makes it.

    Hope you don’t mind a second opinion from the old curmudgeon himself!

    –Jim Aikin

    So happy to see all these new music blogs! I know I’m going to learn a lot from you all!

    Great to hear from you Jim! A comment from one of our industry’s foremost gearheads reminding us that it’s not the gear that makes great music. Nice :)

    I whole heartedly agree. These are all just tools and it will always be the talent behind the tools that produces the great music. An important point we should never forget. Check out my blog from December 26th, 2007, “It’s Not Just the Gear”, and you’ll know that I preach the same message.

    At the same time, I am thrilled by today’s technology and the power that you can buy for pennies on the dollar of what a comparable device would have cost you back in 1980. It’s really quite amazing! I know first hand, having spent tens of thousands of dollars on my first MIDI studio in 1986, racking up huge credit card bills in my twenties, and I still didn’t have any motorized faders :( The fact that you can purchase and be working with a motorized fader for under $200 is just too cool to ignore. If you don’t have the thousand plus dollars to purchase a full fledged, 8 motorized fader control surface right now, these inexpensive tools are an excellent way to improve you system for less than the price of a couple nights on the town.


    Utilizing Sonar 7 Producer’s ACT technology, one can utilize ANY knob or fader on a keyboard or MIDI module to “act” as a fader within the DAW. It’s really easy to use. There are several videos on YouTube if you want to check it out; here are links to two of them:




    Thank you.

    Dr. Andrew Colyer

    thank u


    Very true. MIDI controllers are a great way to get your hands on some knobs and faders. In fact, every DAW program worth having can map such controls, from Sonar to Pro Tools. But, keep in mind that you’re mapping MIDI Controller numbers, not System Exclusive from a MIDI control surface (such as a Mackie Control Universal).

    With moving faders (motorized faders) and knobs, where the control positions on your control surface need to be constantly updated to reflect the state of your DAW, continuous bidirectional MIDI communication is required (System Exclusive In and Out). This is very different than a straight ahead MIDI controller where only MIDI output is required to control your DAW. This is why a control surface “profile” is necessary in most DAW prgrams to work with control surfaces.


    Hello, Hawk Eye

    This has been a very useful artical on Automation with pro tool’s. If there is something That need’s to be Brought out more in the Mix you can just set the Fader to raise were you want it to or lower it to keep it were you want It ! Also It Is neat Watching all The Fader’s Moving all over the place on Playback.

    Thank’s Hawk Eye, for this Artical ! Panhead Roger on pro tools…

    [...] 上圖出自於一篇介紹文章,指出為何要花這麼多錢去代替一隻 mouse: Riding the Fader [...]

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