Does your music sound stale, boring, or even robotic? For electronic music producers, it’s easy to get stuck in the box. We have a tendency to just square everything up. To make sure it’s perfect, correct, aligned to the grid. To many of us, the slightest imperfection is undesirable.
these imperfections are natural.
But these imperfections are natural. A drummer in a band never hits the snare in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time. A vocalist never hits the same note the same way. Listeners like these imperfections, if you can even call them that.
So, how can you “humanize” your productions? How can you breathe new life into an otherwise stale and “digital” sounding song?
In this article, I’m going to show you 6 ways (there are actually 12, 6 detailed tips and 6 quick tips) to add a human, organic, imperfect character to your music.
#1 – Sample Offset in Sampler
Let’s say you’re a drummer. You strike the snare drum strongly, then again softly.
The difference between the two hits is not limited to just volume; there’s also a difference in the timbre of the sound. The harder strike will have a more pronounced attack, and my ring out louder. The softer strike will have less of a transient and a shorter decay.
With Live’s Sampler device, we can emulate this effect using “Sample Offset.”
Here, we have a snare sample added to Ableton’s Sampler.
We’ll click on the MIDI tab, and then under Destination A for Velocity, we’ll choose “Sample Offset” from the dropdown menu.
Next, we’ll adjust the Amount A to a small negative value. In this case, I’ve chosen -2.00.
With these settings in place, when we trigger the sample at full velocity, it will play from the original start position. As the velocity decreases—we trigger the sample at a lower velocity—the playback will start later in the sample, resulting in less of the transient coming through.
Here’s an example MIDI clip with varying degrees of velocity.
And here’s the resulting output. Notice how the volume, transient, and sample length are all affected by the velocity.
This technique works well on static drums, percussion sounds, and one-shot synth/bass/vocal samples. Experiment!
#2 – Humanizing Chord Progressions
So… you watched Whiplash and you don’t want to be a drummer anymore. You decide to take up piano instead.
When playing a chord progression. You try as hard as you can to play all the notes at the same time, but you can’t. Of course you can’t. Naturally, you’ll strike the keys at different times, even if it’s only by a few milliseconds.
In Live, there are a two main ways we can emulate this:
Arpeggiator + Note Length
Here’s a 4-bar chord progression (played with a piano) that we’ll use as an example.
The simple (yet time-consuming) way to do this is to manually adjust the start time of each note. While this manual approach does give you more control over the result, it’s best suited for someone who enjoys the mundane (so, less than 1% of the population).
We can achieve a similar effect using two of Live’s MIDI devices: Arpeggiator and Note Length.
To begin, we’ll add these both to our MIDI track that’s playing the chord progression.
On the arpeggiator, we’ll adjust three settings:
- Change Repeats to 1. This will play each chord in the progression once.
- Change the Rate from Sync to Free. This changes Rate to measure in milliseconds.
- Adjust the Rate to taste. This will determine how far apart the notes are played. The smaller the amount, the less obvious the effect will be.
These settings are telling Live, “Every time a chord is played, play each note in that chord, travelling up the keyboard, once, separating each note by 49.9ms.”
But there’s an issue. The Arpeggiator as it’s set up above plays each note for the length of the Rate, which for our sustained chord progression introduces an issue. The output of the notes is too short.
To solve this, we’ll need to adjust the Length setting on the Note Length device. If we set it to 2.00s, that means each note coming out of the Arpeggiator will sustain for 2 seconds.
With these settings and the MIDI chord progression from above, here is the outputted MIDI.
Through a few simple adjustments, we are able to achieve this “delayed start” effect with Live’s MIDI devices. If you want to take this a step further, automate the Rate, making the distance between notes in a chord change over time.
The second way we can “humanize” chord progressions is using Live’s Groove Pool.
Using the same progression as before, we’ll bring up the Groove Pool. To do this, simply click the “hot-swap” button to the right of Groove in the Clip View. Next, apply any groove to the clip (it doesn’t matter which one).
Once a groove is applied, it’s time to adjust the parameters of the groove. Open up the Groove Pool (click the two wavy lines below the Browser), adjust the Base to ¼, and set all other settings to zero.
Next, start to adjust the Random parameter, which, according to Live’s manual, “Adjusts how much random timing fluctuation will be applied to clips using this groove”. It’s meant to “humanize” the start time of notes, which is perfect for our purpose.
A large Random value will introduce more random fluctuation, and a small value will introduce a subtle amount of random fluctuation.
Applying the groove above to our initial static chord progression, below is our resulting output.
One of the best parts of this technique is it automatically changes over time, meaning if this chord progression plays four times, each progression will be slightly different. The same would be true for a live piano player, adding to the “humanizing” value of this technique. Further, it also pushes notes “earlier”, versus the arpeggiator which only pushes notes later.
While I used a piano in this example, this technique can be applied to nearly any chordal instrument, whether it be a guitar, pad, or pluck.
3. Subtle Modulation
Let’s move away from acoustic instruments and look at a way to breath life into synths.
A common issue producers struggle with is synth loops that sound dull and static. Beyond natural variations, a professional musician will usually change how they play the instrument over the course of the song. They might slowly increase the volume of their playing, or introduce more attack or sustain towards the end of a section.
You can apply this same idea to MIDI synth loops. The trick is to add subtle amounts of automation to parameters over the course of a section (or song).
This trick requires you to get creative, and to react to context. Here’s how:
For creativity: you’ll have to think outside the box with automation. Forget automating the filter cutoff, and try automating things such as reverb amount, ADSR parameters, volume, OTT amount, panning, chorusing, pitch, and so on.
For reacting to context: the amount and intensity of your modulation should reflect that instrument’s role in the song. If the instrument is the main focus, 20 db of volume automation isn’t a great idea. Further, if you’ve got a bass line that’s keeping the rhythm and isn’t the main focus, you’ll want to be subtle with your processing, making sure you don’t detract from the main sound.
4. Random Sample Selection
Another element that can make songs “too digital” is a repetitive sample. A great way to add life into your songs is to trigger multiple different samples over the course of a loop, emulating the variation that would happen in a live recording. The most common way to do this is with snares and claps, triggering different samples each time to add human variation.
Here’s how to set this up in Live.
First, add four different clap sounds to a drum rack. Then, add an Arpeggiator before the drum rack. We’ll set the style to “Random”, and the rate to ¼ (this will vary based on the song’s tempo and desired pattern).
Next, we’ll create a MIDI clip with sustained notes playing all four samples.
With these settings and MIDI clip in place, on every ¼ note, the Arpeggiator will randomly select one of the 4 clap samples to play. Here’s an example output of this chain:
You could set something up like this manually, there are benefits to using this technique. For one, if we had a 32 bar loop playing the pattern above, manually adjusting each clap would be time-consuming. Instead, let the devices do the work for you.
A common use of this technique is to randomly generate percussion loops and drum fills. You can use the exact same same setup, but with the samples are changed to drum fill hits (toms, etc.). This technique can be used to generate dozens of different fills at the click of a button. Try this for yourself, and experiment with automating the “rate” of the Arpeggiator to introduce more variation.
Another benefit of this technique is to let Live “audition” different drum arrangements for you. You may not be sure in which order to put your drums in a fill, so you can Live generate a dozen random arrangements, allowing you to select the best one.
In trying to emulate the imperfections of live recordings, there’s still one other critical aspect: Velocity.
In tip #2 (Humanizing Chord Progressions) we only dealt with the timing of the notes, ignoring their velocity. For all the same reasons as timing, live recordings will have natural variation in the velocity of the notes. A real piano player would never strike each note at the same velocity, nor would the velocity stay consistent over time.
Here’s a few examples of how to use this, using the chord progression below.
We could manually adjust the velocity of each note, replicating the variation of a live recording:
But you can also use Live’s “Velocity” MIDI device to achieve a similar effect. There are multiple ways to set this up – here’s my preferred method.
First, add Velocity to our MIDI channel and turn the “Random” knob to 20. The Random knob, as you would expect, will add/subtract a random velocity value to or from the velocity of each MIDI note. Next, we can select a range for the MIDI output. Below, I’ve set both “Out Low” and “Out Hi” to 60.
With these parameters in place, any incoming MIDI note will be randomly given a velocity between 40 and 80 (60 +/- 20).
With these settings and the chord progression at the start of this section, here is an example output:
Similar to the Arpeggio technique we used to adjust the start times, every time this chord progression plays through, the velocity of each note will be slightly different. Thus, this technique is an effective way to maintain variation for looped progressions.
Again, this technique stretches far beyond just acoustic instruments. Most synths allow you to map velocity to different parameters. This is a great way to get more expression and life out of synth patches.
6. Seven Quick Fixes
To finish, let’s quickly go over seven more techniques you can use to achieve more natural, human-sounding productions.
A. Random Panning
Under the “Controls” tab in Live’s Simpler, we can add Random Panning to a sample. I often use this with shakers and hi-hats.
B. Turning Off The Grid
Turning off the grid in Live’s Arrangement View (CTRL/CMD+4) is a great way to add natural swing to your productions. Simply disable the grid and manually place percussion sounds. This forces you to use your ears to find a rhythm and swing that fits.
C. Track Delay
Continuing with the technique above, we can use Track Delay to slightly offset the timing of a track. To adjust, open the track delay by clicking the “D” button on the right hand side of Live. Next, you can push the track earlier (negative values) or later (positive values). Use your arrow keys to adjust these, forcing yourself to listen, not look, for the right timing.
D. Groove Pools
If you’ve researched the topic of this article before, you’ve most certainly come across Ableton Live’s Groove Pools. Although they’re a bit tricky at the start, plenty of producers swear by them to add groove and swing to their tracks.
Let this tip be a reminder that they exist, and that they are extremely powerful on drums, percussion, chord progressions, and nearly any looped element.
One of my favorite ways to use them is to extract the groove of songs I like using Live’s Extract Groove function. I’ll bring in a song whose groove I want to “borrow”, extract the groove from a section of the song, and apply it to my own instruments.
E. Partial Quantization
Adding onto the previous tip, while recording MIDI it can be difficult to stay on time. If this has been you in the past, you’ve likely used Quantization to lock your MIDI to the grid.
If you’re quantizing recorded MIDI, I urge you to carefully select your quantization settings. To maintain the character of the live recording while keeping the MIDI on beat, use partial quantization to slightly adjust the timing of each note.
F. Unsynced Delays
By default, most Delay plugins are set to sync to the projects BPM. An unique way to “get off the grid” is to use unsynced delays. In a real world context, sounds will decay and reverberate according to the space they’re in. Emulate this technique by using time synced delays in your tracks. Experiment with different samples, trying out different delay times and types.
G. Do It Live
As obvious as it may be, if you want to add a genuine, live feel to your tracks, the best way to do so is to play the MIDI in. The bulk of this article was dedicated to emulating the inconsistencies of live playing, but if you want to go that extra step, recording in your MIDI parts is a must. Drums, percussion, chords, and leads all lend itself to live recording.
About The Author: Guest contributor Connor O’Brien works for online produciton resource EDMProd.
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