In the “old” days, we used to ride the faders during tracking and mixing to control the peaks and dips in the level of certain very dynamic tracks. Nowadays, the tendency is to reach for a compressor or limiter to squash the dynamics out of the track automatically.
Compressors and limiters certainly have their uses – they’re essential to the sound many of us want to create. But for more transparent, sensitive level control look to a feature that can be found in every DAW: level automation. Here’s what to do:
Record your track as normal.
When the track is comped and edited to your liking, switch over to looking at the volume automation data/curve for the track.
Work you way through the track, looking for problems with the dynamics – overly loud peaks, extremely quiet sections, plosives, and other level problems you want to control. These can be as large as an entire phrase of the performance or as small as the attack on a note or a syllable in a word.
When you find a problem you want to work on, simply draw a quick dip (or peak) in the volume automation curve. Shape the automation dip/peak and adjust to smooth out the dynamic anomaly.
Move on to the next spot you want to work on.
This technique can be great for shaping the problem dynamics of the track, and for fixing problems, such as plosives, that many compressors simply won’t handle very well. However, you can drive yourself crazy trying to automate around all the dynamics minutia in the track. A better solution is to use this volume automation trick to work on the problem areas, then, if you need more dynamics control or want a smoother sound, apply a compressor to handle the overall track dynamics shaping. Just be sure to insert the compressor post-fader, so that it sees the automated track rather than the raw track.