Ableton Live Tutorial: Understanding Automation and Modulation Envelopes w/ Rory PQ

In this Ableton Live tutorial, Dubspot’s Rory PQ explains the difference between automation and modulation, as well as covers how to use both types of envelopes in your projects. Check out our Music Production course w/ Ableton Live to learn more. Classes start soon, Enroll Now!

Automation and Modulation Envelopes Header

Learning about the tools used in music production and their functions is just as important as learning foundational music production techniques. As we develop our music making skills it is also essential to become more familiar with music terminology so we can communicate clearly amongst other artists. In this tutorial, we will advance our practical knowledge of Ableton Live and become more familiar with the difference between automation and modulation. Frequently, these two terms are used when talking about music production but are often misconstrued. Let’s explore their functionality further.


The term “automation” is used when describing the movement of a control over time across the Arrangement View Timeline or Session View Clip. In other words, a control is being automated when an automation envelope is used to change a control value over time.

Automation is an essential feature used in music production. In Ableton Live, automation envelopes allow us to control movements of nearly every device control or interface parameter available. Automation can be drawn in and edited with your mouse, or recorded in real-time by moving a control during playback in either Arrangement View or Session View.

Recording automation to the Arrangement View is achieved by enabling the Automation Arm and Arrangement Record buttons located on the Control Bar. Once enabled and recording begins, any changes to a control that occur will record as an automation envelope.


Automation recorded to Session View clips is achieved by enabling the Automation Arm, Session Record, and Automation Session Recording buttons while in Session View. The selected clip will then turn red, indicating that any changes of a control will be recorded within that clip.


Once automation has been drawn in or recorded, a red square will appear on the control indicating it has active automation. Controls being modulated will not have a red square. Be aware that adjusting a control’s value while not recording will deactivate the control’s automation. The control will stop tracking its automation and will follow the new value until the Re-Enable Automation button is pressed or launching another Session View clip that contains automation.


Also, note that automation within Session View clips automatically becomes timeline automation when recording to the Arrangement View, and vice versa. Arrangement View clip envelopes will become Session View clip envelopes when dragging them over to Session View.

Track Envelopes vs. Clip Envelopes

Track envelopes, or in other words timeline automation is only available in Arrangement View. In addition, the automation can also exist without Audio or MIDI clips.


Clip envelopes, on the other hand, is automation that only exists within Audio or MIDI clips, and is independent of the Arrangement. They can be used to automate or modulate device controls and mixer parameters for the selected channel. Audio clips also have available envelopes to influence pitch, volume, and more. MIDI clips have similar options, as well as additional envelopes to represent MIDI controller data. Clip envelopes can also be “unlinked” from the clip to give them independent loop settings.


Clip envelopes can be viewed or edited in either Arrangement View or Session View by clicking the button labeled “E” to show the Envelopes Box containing the Device Parameter list.



Modulation is also a movement of a control across the Arrangement View Timeline or Session View Clip, but relative to the defined parameter value. In other words, automation envelopes define the value of a control at any given point in time, whereas modulation envelopes can only influence this defined value.

Modulation envelopes for mixer and device controls are hidden by default in the Clip Envelope Control choosers and must first be activated for a desired device control before it is accessible. Activating clip modulation is achieved by right-clicking on a device control and choosing Show Modulation from the context menu. Once the control has been activated, it will appear in the Device Parameter List.


Show Modulation is accessed in Arrangement View by first selecting a clip and then right-clicking on a device control and choosing Show Modulation from the context menu. In Session View, a clip must first be launched for Show Modulation to appear in the context menu. Note, if the clip is stopped the Show Modulation will appear grayed out. A clip must be launched for Show Modulation option to be available.


How to Access Modulation in Clips

Automation vs. Modulation

Automation and modulation envelopes can control both mixer and device controls. However, modulation envelopes work differently from automation envelopes. Let’s explore this further. As mentioned earlier, automation envelopes define the value of a control at any given point in time while modulation envelopes can only influence this defined value. This difference allows the two types of envelopes to work together as a team when controlling the same parameter.

For example, imagine you are modulating the Track Pan control. When the control is set to the center position, the clip envelope modulation can reach from hard left to hard right. However, turning the Track Pan control towards either the left or right will automatically reduce the modulation amount. Meaning if you turn the Track Pan control all the way to the left, the pan envelope modulation will no longer have an effect.

Lastly, both automation and modulation envelopes are available for clips in Session View while Arrangement View clips only have modulation envelopes available.


As with anything else related to music production, the best approach is to dig in and apply your working knowledge to truly understand the difference between automation and modulation.

Ableton Live Producer Certificate Program

The flagship of our music training, with every Ableton Live course offered at the school. After completing this program, you will leave with a portfolio of original tracks, a remix entered in an active contest, a scored commercial to widen your scope, and the Dubspot Producer’s Certificate in Ableton Live.

What’s Included:

  • Ableton Live Level 1: Beats, Sketches, and Ideas
  • Ableton Live Level 2: Analyze, Deconstruct, Recompose, and Assemble
  • Ableton Live Level 3: Synthesis and Original Sound Creation
  • Ableton Live Level 4: Advanced Sound Creation
  • Ableton Live Level 5: Advanced Effect Processing
  • Ableton Live Level 6: Going Global with your Music

This program is about learning Ableton Live by going through the entire process of being an artist, by developing your own sound through a series of sketches and experimentation. You will also learn the ins and outs of this powerful software through a series of exercises designed to help you master the steps involved in producing your own music. After a level of getting familiar with the tools that Ableton has to offer, you will then develop your sonic ideas into full-length tracks. You will be exposed to a variety of approaches to arrangement and composition, storytelling techniques, ways of creating tension and drama in your music. At the end of the day, it is the sum total of your choices as an artist that define your sound, and levels 2 – 6 will give you the experience of actually completing tracks to add to your portfolio.

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