8 Strategies to Humanize Your Music
"I'm a human being. I've got opinions, I'm not always right, I'm not always on time, I don't always say things in the proper way, but my intentions are always extremely pure."
— Kanye West
I’m absolutely fascinated by Etsy. A global community of creators selling their work online — for the first time in history, you have access to an endless range of personalized and handmade products at the click of a button.
How cool is that? As humans, we are drawn to the handmade, the bespoke, the custom fit.
As electronic music producers, we face a massive challenge. By using computers to make our music, we can make perfect sounds.
We can create a perfect saw wave, have a snare drum that hits the same way each time, and quantize a piano performance to be exactly in time.
So how do we use technology to our advantage while keeping the humanity alive in our tracks?
One of the most difficult skills I’ve had to learn is striking the balance between editing for professionalism and polish while keeping a line of sight to the imperfections that actually made my music better.
To create a handmade, personal feel in your tracks, you must be intentional about creating imperfections.
In essence, you are adding human variance back into the electronic realm of music creation. Here are 8 techniques to help you do exactly that.
1. Edit MIDI to Add Imperfection
MIDI editing can make or make your break your track. You’re looking for the sweet spot between precision and natural variance.
Many of us will resort to drawing in MIDI notes at some point during our composition - just keep in mind that clicking notes in with a mouse is inherently unnatural, and your MIDI performance will show that stiffness unless you are deliberate about making the necessary corrections.
It takes active effort to inject the nuances of timing, note length, and velocity that would occur if a human were playing the instrument.
When you create MIDI, start by quantizing to get the performance you want, and then humanize it. Add slight alterations to the timings and velocities of each MIDI note in order to create a more convincing performance. Also, try to avoid copy and pasting loops without changing anything.
Small edits to voicings (try inversions), velocity and timing go a long way to making the track feel like one continuous performance instead of a loop stuck on repeat. It’s really about taking a two-step process to ensure you’re adding life back into the MIDI. Ask yourself 1) “Have I introduced human velocity and timing into this” and 2) “How can this loop different than the others?”
Certain elements require careful humanization - our ears are especially attune to the ebb and flow of acoustic instruments like pianos, strings, and hi-hats.
Since low-end instruments serve as an anchor in most electronic genres, you’ll make life easier for yourself by keeping your kick drum and sub bass at consistent levels and snapped to the grid.
2. Use White Noise
White noise is immediately reminiscent of analog gear and acoustic sounds. Adding in some tasteful white noise can make an enormous difference in taking a sound from digital and brittle to real and full.
Many analog-style plugins like the Soundtoys Radiator and the Waves Abbey Road Vinyl add analog-style white noise to a sound. The AudioThing Vinyl Strip takes it a level further and allows you to get lo-fi with turntable style compression, sample rate reduction, and distortion.
There are two main ways to introduce white noise: by using a noise generator (like Credland Audio’s Pink), or high quality samples. The Hyperbits Sample Pack includes a collection of organic vinyl noise samples that I find myself using in nearly every track.
3. Embrace the Art of Recording
You can make some great sounding music with sample libraries, VSTs, and virtual instruments. But you’ll be missing something, and you won’t know what until you start recording your own audio.
If you have the means to record an instrument that fits your song, do it! It will make you a better recording and mixing engineer. Even if you don’t play one yourself, grab a friend who does and collaborate.
One important consideration when working with recording audio….you’re coming from the opposite end of the humanization spectrum compared to perfectly quantized MIDI.
Your edits are not to add imperfection, but to clean up and polish the track while retaining only the most groovy imperfections.
In other words, you’re going for the same end-result (human performance with swing and feel), but editing the performance to be tighter instead of introducing imperfection.
There will be low-end rumble, so you’ll want to cut the sub frequencies somewhere between 100 - 150 Hz. You almost certainly need a little compression, and chances are your track will benefit from pitch and timing correction. Just don’t overdo it.
One thing I love about recording my own samples is that you instantly feel more connected with the track. Even including an iPhone field recording as a background layer will make you connect with your music in a new way.
4. Field Recordings
Field recordings are one of my favorite ways to make a track unique. There is no better way to create a sonic space that feels like it’s in the real world than by injecting a bit of the real world into your tracks.
Grab a field recorder and take some extended recordings (at least one minute long) of the world around you.
Try to avoid recordings which have anything too tonal — for example, a coffee shop where music is playing — and instead look for interesting, ambient soundscapes.
The sounds of runners on a running trail, the subdued murmur in a museum lobby, the sound of a trickling stream... These types of textures add interesting movement and real-life unpredictability to a song.
Field recordings are best when melted into your existing soundscape and kept low in the mix. You can trim a ton of fat off the lows, and pushing down the presence with a high shelf will help the space feel further away and more natural.
Mix field recordings at a level where if you mute them, you notice the absence, but when they are present, a listener (at first) couldn’t pick out that they are there.
5. Use an Analog Synth (or a Real Instrument)
The analog vs digital debate is one we’ve all heard before. Analog and digital synths have their own pros and cons, but one of the major benefits of using an analog synth is the imperfections that come with it.
How long has the synth been turned on? How stable is the power source? How good are your cables, interface, and preamps? All of this will change the sound you get from an analog synth, and the sound itself will have movement and imperfections no matter what.
Analog gear will add the right types of variance and imperfection to your music. You can also develop a philosophy for using digital synths in a similar fashion.
Don't have access to an analog synth? Buy a cheap, old instrument and start messing around. Here are a bunch of my favorite ideas (as well as me playing guitar indoors with a scarf when I lived in Brooklyn, just for good measure):
- Weird Tonal Atmosphere
Record a random lead to your chord progression (don't overthink this), reverse all the notes, chop it up, create a new melody, add a ton of reverb, delay, etc. and you've just written a weird tonal atmosphere which can create a ton of tension, width, and interest in an otherwise mundane production.
- Ring Out Some Chords
More isn't always more. Try playing the chord progression of your track and just ring out the chords on the down beat. Record separately for the left and right side of your speaker for stereo differences. Compress fairly heavily. This can add life and color to a stagnant and digital sounding track. Try reversing the chords for some extra fun.
- Play The Root Note
Just take an instrument and play the root note of your track. You now have a very analogue base for additional tension and space in your track. Add reverb, weird delays, distortions, experiment with FX bundles like Sound Toys, and chop up and loop a pad that no one else in the world now has except for you.
- Slow or Speed Up a Performance
Let's pretend your track is in 120 BPM - what happens if you slow it down to 90 BPM and record some guitar? What happens if you speed it up to 150 BPM? What you might find is that a new tempo inspires all sorts of new melodies and variations - and then the best part - revert the new performance back to the original BPM. Sometimes this can sound really cool. Sometimes it just sucks, but hey, it's all about experimentation.
- Guitar Bends
Nothing is going to sound as organic and real as a natural pitch bend with an instrument - guitar, bass, sax, whatever - record a pitch bend that resolves in the root note of your track, distort it, warp it, add crazy experimental delays - these will act as AMAZING and unique transitionary elements to place at the end of an 8 bar loop or to enter a new section of the song.
6. Design Imperfect Sounds
These are the most effective ways to give your software synth patches the type of analog warmth hardware imparts naturally:
- Use random LFOs. For each sound, take a few LFOs that oscillate at random rates and assign them to parameters you want to move over time. Start with the filter cutoff, oscillator shape, individual oscillator volumes, and any sort of FX (saturation, modulation, etc). Keep it subtle – you want this to be just barely under the threshold of noticeable. Start with each LFO affecting the target parameter by 3-5%, and your synth sound will immediately have analog-style movement.
- Turn on the noise generator. Most synths make it easy to dial in a bit of white noise to emulate the hum of a synth and the noise picked up by real-life cabling. I’ve found that this works best when the noise oscillator shares the same ADSR envelope as the main sound.
- Detune your oscillators slightly. Analog synths have a natural tendency to pitch drift by small amounts (1-3 cents). LFOs also work to introduce a natural-sounding drift to the oscillator fine tuning.
Note: Any of these moves on their own won’t make-or-break your track, but a few on each layer will add up to a final mix with tasteful imperfections.
7. Introduce Movement and Automation
After sound design, employ a few strategies for movement to bring your music to life. This helps minimize the stagnant nature of “perfect” electronic sounds.
- Panning modulations — grab a tremolo (or the Soundtoys Panman) plugin and add some random panning movement to your sounds. Look for 10-20% movement at a rate that isn’t synced with the tempo of the track.
- Volume modulation — similar concept as above, this will introduce slight changes in the volumes of certain sounds. Avoid doing this on major elements in your track (vocals, leads, bass), but definitely make use of this on supporting layers, atmospheres, and FX. Look for ~10% volume change using either a tremolo with the L/R phase set to 0 degrees, or use the Soundtoys Tremolator.
Be careful with this sort of movement, though — movement on every sound will make your mix feel cluttered and unstable.
8. “Live” Automation
The greatest advantage of real instrument and analog synths is being able to play them.
Here are a few ways you can up your interaction with software instruments:
- MIDI map a few important parameters of your soft synth (filter cutoff, resonance, envelope parameters) to knobs or faders on your MIDI controller.
- Set your track to Write automation — when you click play the next time, any movements you make on your MIDI controller will be recorded for your synth automation.
- Click play and jam away. (Careful though, this will overwrite all previous automation on the selected track!)
- When you are done, set your automation back to Read mode, and your automation movements will be saved.
Imperfection is the key to taking your music out of the sterile digital realm. What other strategies do you use to make you music more human? Let us know in the comments below!