Even music that is purely composed of electronic, synthetic sounds can benefit from a little human touch.
By ‘human touch’ we essentially mean small variations, inconsistencies and unpredictable tweaks which make a track feel like it had some elements of it played live, or at least make it feel a little less rigid than a ‘perfectly’ composed track where parameters are very consistent throughout.
There are lots of different techniques you can use to give your electronic productions a bit more of an organic, natural feel. Even subtle, barely perceptible tweaks can really add something that will give your track a bit more life, energy and vigour.
You may be going for a very synthetic, rigid feel in your tracks, however — in which case this article probably isn’t for you!
Making Groove Templates
This is a great little trick that can be done in Logic or Ableton. It allows you to analyse the groove of any MIDI or Audio region and create a template of it that you can apply to other MIDI regions. So, for example, say you have a percussion loop that you like the shuffle or swing of. You can create a groove template from it and then apply that shuffle/swing to another part like a synth part.
This process works best with clearly defined loops that have a little space between the hits. Poor quality audio or clips from full tracks are less likely to yield good results. But then again, they could give you a weird template that will take you in an entirely new direction.
Automating by Hand
Once you have the structure of your track in place, automating parameters by hand can be a nice way to start adding some more colour and personality to it. You’ll need a MIDI interface or controller of some sort to do this well — trying to do it with a mouse is not a lot of fun and won’t give you a very good expressive range. If you have a MIDI keyboard, you can use the knobs and sliders on there to do this.
To automate a part, you’ll first need to teach your DAW which parameter you want your chosen knob or slider to control. This is known as creating a MIDI assignment or ‘mapping’. You can either manually assign these commands using dropdown menus or by initiating a ‘learning’ mode’, clicking on a parameter and then turning or pushing the knob or slider you want to assign to it. Don’t forget to switch off the ‘learning’ mode once you have assigned your parameter, or else the next time you touch another knob or slider it will overwrite the assignment and attach it to this control. It’s also worth noting that some third-party plugins also require you to select an option in their menu along the lines of ‘Enable Host MIDI Automation’ in order to get this to work.
Once you’ve got your assignments, you can let the fun begin. You can create multiple assignments to allow you to control multiple parameters in real time, which will give you some of the feels of playing with hardware. Use automation to open, close and tweak filters, to vary resonance, to change the release of synth sounds and drum parts, to increase and decrease FX sends or anything else that you want to add some movement and life to.
Pushing Notes off the Grid by Hand
Swing is the thing that gives the music its groove. It refers to how far off the downbeat (e.g. each of the four beats in 4/4 four-to-the-floor beat) the other elements are pushed. The further they are pushed, the more the beats ‘swing’.
Modern DAWs give you lots of options for quantizing your MIDI elements, like pre-made groove templates and shuffles. But you can also go J Dilla style and create your own shuffles and swings.
Try turning off the beatgrid on your DAW and placing MIDI notes or audio hits by hand to create your own drum grooves. Any tiny differences that aren’t on the beat will create a swing of sorts, and you can make something truly unique this way. Some producers are known to only create beats in this way.
Kaytranada is a good modern example of someone with a very identifiable swing in many of his productions. He pushes beats so far off the downbeat that they appear drunken, stumbling over each other and creating an almost disorientating — but very funky — feel.
Logic’s Transposer MIDI plugin can help you play some musical solos and patterns even if you don’t have any musical training or knowledge.
Switch it on, choose your desired scale and it will only record notes from your MIDI keyboard or input that fit the scale. Of course, the timing and other parameters of how you play still need to be considered if you want to create a natural sounding melody, but this can be a great ‘cheat’ starting point for those who don’t have oodles of music theory at their fingertips.
Making Drum Kits from Live Drum Sounds
Using electronic processing with live drum sounds can give you the best of both worlds. Use real-life drum samples in your drum machine plugin to add some organic texture to your track and vary their velocity and release time to further imitate the inconsistency and groove of a human player. Humanizer / Randomizer processing functions can further spice up your programmed drum sounds. Layering unquantised live drum loops over quantised electronic beats can also give you a nice blend of a rigid backbone with loose flavour over the top.
Logic’s Drummer plugin is a great plug-and-play solution to programming live drum sounds. It allows you to choose different ‘players’ with different styles, different kits and hits, different degrees of complexity and different grooves and swings which can really help you get that live feel going.
It’s worth noting for any rock/indie producers reading this that many modern producers choose to take the best (often meaning the loudest) drum hits from a recording, chop them up and sequence them using electronic means to create more consistent, punchier drum tracks. This is a good example of making a human recording feel less human!
These are linked groups of drum hits that imitate the way a human drummer would play. Say you have a closed hi-hat playing on the offbeat and you programme an occasional open hi-hat into the pattern — a typical use of a choke group would be to force the closed hi-hat not to play when the open hi-hat triggers. A human couldn’t play both at the same time unless they had two hi-hats, so it gives your drums a more natural feel.
Each DAW has a different process to set up a choke group, so get Googling if you want to find out how to set one up.
These plugins or processors give you a quick way of creating some unpredictable variations in your MIDI data in most parameters you could need, like velocity (the loudness of a note), swing and pitch. Logic’s Humanizer function allows you to do this and to choose how mild or wild you want the effect to be, and Ableton’s Random MIDI effect and its Groove Pool’s Random setting enables similar options. These are great for when you have a rigid piece of MIDI you have programmed that you want to add a bit of vibrancy to.
Synthesisers generate unnatural tones which can be very pleasing but are also somewhat unrealistic to the human ear. You can add some depth and real-world feel to very clean signals using harmonics.
Harmonics are frequencies that are proportional to a root note as a perfect fraction. For example, harmonics of the note 210hz include 420hz, 2010hz and 105hz — any or fraction of the root note is a harmonic. These ‘overtones’ and ‘partials’ add a subtle richness to a musical note, defining its timbre.
While most synth presets will have some harmonics present, you can add to them by making small, focused EQ boosts at these multiple and fractional frequencies to enhance the flavour of a note in your lead melody or bassline, or you can use a harmonics plugin like Logic’s Exciter to do this in a quicker and easier manner. In doing so, you add a little of the feel of an acoustic instrument where these frequencies combine with the root frequency to create a well-rounded note.
If you want your music to have a natural feel, you need to go that extra mile in making those subtle differences in your programming but it’s worth the effort!