What are some of the things that separate a truly skilled musician from a sequenced MIDI pattern? Many listeners would describe a programmed MIDI pattern as cold, sterile, robotic, or lacking emotion when compared to the performance of a human musician. The flourishes, the groove, emotion and feeling a skilled player imparts on their performance can be difficult to recreate on a computer even for skilled producers. A human player does not play perfectly in time or play notes with exactly the same velocity. The human player's performance changes in time as the music progresses and allows the player to impart emotion and movement to the piece. Thankfully, Ableton gives us a few tools that can add some spark and magic to our sequences MIDI patterns.
Automation can be used to breathe life into an otherwise sterile MIDI performance. Ableton allows you to automate almost any knob or fader found in the software. In essence, automation is programming a certain parameter to change in time. Automation is extremely common in electronic music and is often used to add a human element and/or movement to music. A common trick is to open a lowpass filter through the introduction or breakdown of a song. As the filter opens and allows more high frequency content to pass through, the excitement of the song is increased. Another common way to automate tracks in your song is to add pitch bends to your MIDI performance. Adding bends can emulate slides on a guitar or vibrato. This trick works particular well on bass lines.
A live instrumentalist would be hard pressed to play every note with the same weight even if they wanted to. But then again, why would they? Changes in velocity impart a human element to many performances. Small variations in velocity can make a beat feel less robotic. A drummer can add groove to a beat by accentuating certain drum hits. You can do the same thing by altering the velocity of certain MIDI notes in your MIDI roll. Altering velocity can also increase energy or convey emotion to portions of a song.
3. LIFE OFF THE GRID
Just as real musicians don't play every note with the same weight, they don't play every note perfectly in time. Most musicians' performances will have small timing discrepancies from a quantized grid. These small unintentional timing differences add variation to the performance and make it sound human. If a musician intentionally applies a rhythmic timing difference, they can add shuffle or groove to their performance such as in the case of a blues shuffle. Timing differences can also impart a stereo image to a song when a group of instruments plays the same notes slightly out of time with one other. Ie. a chorus of people singing together. To achieve this effect it can be as easy as not quantizing your recorded MIDI performances. Alternatively, you can get a swing or shuffle by sliding select notes off the grid. Another method Ableton users have is the Groove Pool. Groove Pool hosts several presets modelled off of old gear such as the SP-1200 that can apply swing and groove to MIDI performances. Ultimately, the groove pool shifts the timing of notes and alters their velocity.
Modulation is another way to add some life to your MIDI performances. Why not use an envelope to control a synth's filter cutoff, pitch or volume? Or use an LFO to modulate filter cutoff, pitch or volume. Try to be creative, many digital synths allow extremely complex routing capabilities. Synths like Massive or Serum allow you to control just about any parameter with an LFO or envelope. Modulate wavetable position, filter resonance, ring modulation, phase etc.... These modulations can be subtle or extreme and can do a lot to add life and movement to your tunes.
Here's technique using Max for Live that allows you to apply vibrato to any sound:
5. MIDI DEVICES
Ableton has a host of MIDI Effects that are often overlooked but can be used to add a little life and variation your you MIDI performances. Try using the Note Length Effect to alter the length of MIDI notes in time. Use Random MIDI Effect to apply velocity differences to different notes. Try automating the parameters of these MIDI devices to add more variation.
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