Guitar Tools
The Third Hand
By Joe Gore

Wouldn’t it be great if guitarists had a third hand to tweak effects while we play? Granted, we’d look even dumber, but it might help us scare up a few new sounds.

Thanks to Pro Tools automation, we can do that trick without painful limb-graft surgery. This is great news, especially for players who’ve tripped over their own guitar straps while tweaking a stomp box. (Guilty!) This column will cover the basic moves needed to automate plug-in effects, and offer suggestions for further exploration on your own.

If you have an amp simulator plug-in and a few effects, you can try these techniques yourself using one of these downloadable Pro Tools sessions ( Mac 13.7 MB | Windows 14.6 MB). Or you can just follow along while listening to the accompanying short MP3 mixes as well.

“When you have an automation
performance that you’re pleased
with, change the guitar track’s ‘Auto’
switch to ‘read’ so that you don’t
accidentally overwrite all your work!”
My practice session includes eight bars of drums, bass, and guitar. The latter sounds flat and unengaging, and not just because my part sucks. It’s your typical dry, dead, direct-recorded tone. So let’s liven it up with amp simulation and automated effects, starting with some hyperactive tremolo tricks.

Pop in an amp simulator and dial up a not-too-dirty tone. I opted for Line 6’s Amp Farm, though you can use any amp simulator with tremolo. Max out the tremolo intensity/depth, and set the tremolo speed to approximately quarter-note triplets (that’s three pulsations per beat). On Amp Farm, the “speed” control is at about three-and-a-half. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly in sync. In fact, the freewheeling tremolo controls you find on amp simulators often sound hipper than plug-ins with precise, sync-to-tempo modulation speeds. That touch of looseness adds grease and swamp fumes.

Figure 1. Vibrato depth control automation can be added
to the Track View list.
Now we’ll tell the tremolo to play only on the fourth bar of each phrase, where the guitar sustains a single chord. First, open the amp simulator plug-in screen and click the “Auto” button, revealing the plug-in automation window. Select vibrato (or tremolo) depth (or intensity), and add it to the field on the right. Now it will appear in the guitar track’s Track View Selector, beneath the five default view options: block, waveforms, volume, mute, and pan (see figure 1). Or you can use the shortcut method: Hold down the Control, Alt, and Start keys (Windows) or Command, Option, and Control keys (Mac), and click on the tremolo intensity knob. This opens a pull-down menu where you can add the control to the automation list without opening the automation dialog. Either way, a green ring will encircle the control, indicating that it’s ready for automation. Now set the guitar track’s “Auto” button to “auto touch.” The ring changes from green to red, indicating the control is armed.

First, let’s try this the bonehead way: Click on the tremolo intensity control, play the track, and fling the virtual knob to its maximum setting each time the sustained chord comes around. When you play the track back, you’ll hear the results.

Figure 2. Setting automation for vibrato depth
control on the guitar track.
Select the tremolo depth para-meter in the guitar track’s Track View Selector. You should see something like figure 2. The plateaus in this view indicate where the trem intensity veers from minimum to maximum. You can see that my timing on the first plateau is fairly tight, but I was a little late on the second one. You can fix such flaws here by clicking and dragging on the automation breakpoints.

Note that in Pro Tools 6.9 software you can switch track views by holding down the Control + Start keys (Win) or Command + Control keys (Mac) and pressing the left and right arrow keys. Add the Alt key (Win) or Option key (Mac) to change the view for all tracks simultaneously.

For even greater precision, try another method. First, delete the automation we just created: Double-click the track in the tremolo intensity view to select all the automation data, and press backspace. Now select that single, sustained chord that arrives just before bar four. (You don’t have to switch back to the waveform view — you can work directly on the ghost waveform image here in the trem intensity view.) Enable the Tab to Transients button, place the cursor just before the target chord, and use the Tab key to locate the chord’s initial attack. Then, while holding down the Shift key, click Tab once more to select the exact duration of the chord (see figure 3). Or you could just zoom in and eyeball it.

Figure 3. Selecting an area to be automated — in this
case, a single guitar chord.
Select the Trimmer tool, click inside the highlighted area, and drag upward. Now you’ve set the tremolo effect for the exact duration of the chord. Make the same move on the chord that hits just before bar eight, and listen to the results. If the plug-in window is open, you’ll see the tremolo intensity control spin in real time.

Okay, that’s a lot of work to recreate something you could do with an amp footswitch. But if we add a bit more automation, it becomes a true three-handed effect. We’re going to twiddle with the tremolo speed to create a striking quasi-Leslie effect.

Enable the tremolo speed automation as we did the trem intensity. Now try gradually slowing the tremolo speed across the duration of the sustained chord. (On Amp Farm, I lowered the trem speed knob from about 5 to 1.) Hear the results.

It’s possible to make these moves via mouse, but it’s usually easier using a control surface or an assignable continuous controller. In any case, Pro Tools helps you out by returning the control to its initial setting the instant you release the mouse or controller. In the previous move, for example, you don’t need to return the trem speed control to its starting point of 5 after you’ve lowered it to 1 — just let go and it resets itself.

Now let’s be super-precise. Clear the tremolo speed automation, and then, like before, highlight the exact chord using Tab to Transients. Next, select the Trimmer tool and raise the trem speed to maximum for the duration of the chord. Now click/hold on the Pencil tool icon, choose the Line tool, and drag the cursor from the opening breakpoint to the closing one, specifying a precise linear deceleration.

Figure 4. Using the Random tool with a sixteenth-note
grid creates some interesting automation results.
Now try experimenting with the other pencil tools. Make a swooping pattern with the Freehand tool — a smiley curve works well. Then try some more metronomic things with the Square and Triangle waveform tools, both of which snap to the grid value. Same with the Random tool. I like the contrast between chaotic values and precise time — plus the graphics are pretty rad (see figure 4). Check out the results.

One last tip: When you have an automation performance that you’re pleased with, change the guitar track’s “Auto” switch to “read” so that you don’t accidentally overwrite all your work!

Those are the basic automation moves. Try them out on other plug-in parameters — you’re bound to come up with some fun effects. In the meantime, here are some ideas for more guitar automation coolness:

  • Delay delirium: Try automating the amount of delay effect so that it increases during pauses but ducks down behind the busy bits. Or create a falling-downstairs effect by decreasing the delay time over a sustained note or chord. Then try falling upstairs.

  • Wah/Not Wah: Choreograph your wah-pedal moves. Enable filter-cutoff frequency automation and write fast, rhythmically precise sweeps using the waveform pencil tools and a grid value of eighth notes or sixteenth notes. Or set it to a resonant notch-filter effect and toggle it on only for selected notes.

  • “It’s possible to make [automation]
    moves via mouse, but it’s
    usually easier using a control
    surface or an assignable
    continuous controller.”
    Psycho EQ: Create seizure-grade flickering by automating the cutoff frequency of a high-pass filter, preferably with a high resonance/Q setting. Try, for example, rolling off everything below 1 kHz on every other note, or creating chaotic percolation with the Random tool.

  • Turn up the trash: Max out your distortion only on selected notes by automating the drive/overdrive parameter. Or try distorting only selected notes. The latter can be particularly effective with non-overdrive distortion types, such as bit-rate and sample-rate reduction. Try it with Digidesign’s Lo-Fi, iZotope’s Trash, or Audio Damage’s Master Destructo.

But don’t stop there — you can try similar moves with all sorts of modulation and spatialization effects. I promise you’ll discover at least a few inspiring new tones once you start getting used to the idea that you can have a fretting hand, a picking hand, and a tweaking hand. All you need now is a fourth hand to hold your beer.

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Joe Gore has worked with Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman, Courtney Love, the Eels, and many others. He writes extensively about music and audio and has interviewed hundreds of the world’s leading players, composers, producers, and technicians. Joe’s latest collaboration is Clubbo (, a sprawling “music fiction” project.