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Music 265c Lesson 3: Panning and Automation

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Every sound we hear comes from a specific location relative to where we are: somewhere to the left or right of our ears, near or far away. When mixing for film, we mix from the camera’s perspective. Imagine two characters facing each other in a room with an open window on one wall, and an open door on the other. If the camera switches from one actor’s perspective to the other, then each person is in the center of the camera’s perspective (the center of the screen), but the sound coming through the door and the window will switch sides whenever the camera jumps.

If the window starts on the camera’s left side, we might have several sound effects coming from that location: traffic on the street, children playing on the front yard, birds chirping, and so on. We would start by panning all of these sounds to the left, and raising or lowering the volume depending on how far away we imagine these sounds are. If the open door is on the right side of the screen, we might have the sound of a TV in the background, coming from another room, panned to the right and lowered in the mix. When the camera switches from one actor’s perspective to the other, the sound effects’ volume would stay the same, but all of our panning would have to flip accordingly. To make things even more complicated, if the camera followed the actors as they walked into the other room, the window would shift behind us while the sound outside gets quieter, and the door would shift in front of us while the sound from the TV would get louder. To demonstrate this, we need to use automation.


If this scene was shot entirely from one camera position, we could set our levels and never need to adjust them again. Since these sound sources will travel across the screen from left to right wile they move further away from the camera, we need to change our settings accordingly. Automation lets us program these adjustments into the track, allowing Pro Tools to move the faders and knobs for us every time.


Figure 1: Volume automation. The track starts at 0db, gradually gets quieter, then gets louder as the camera moves. The steep drop at the end represents a change in the camera’s perspective: a scene change or a sudden cut to a different angle.

In the Edit Window click on the Track View Selector dropdown menu (below the record, solo and mute buttons – it may be set to “Waveform” by default) on any given track and select either Volume or Pan. There will be a line drawn across the track, showing the fader/knob’s current position. Use the Hand Tool to click on the line and create a dot – a change in the automation. Create another dot and drag it around. From now on, the track will perform this change. Adjusting the Pan and Volume automation lanes follow the same steps. For volume, up is louder, down is quieter. For Panning, the middle is centered, up is left, and down is right.

If you created the right memory location from the previous lessons, you should already know exactly where and when to change your automation.

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