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Man Machine Music

Despite its digital nature, MIDI (which stands for musical instrument digital interface) isn’t just for “electronic” music anymore. In fact, songwriters and producers of virtually every style of music out there today use MIDI both as an added embellishment to the instruments in their music and as its primary tonal source. With the ever-heightening quality of sample packs and digital string libraries, you could feasibly record an entire digital orchestra without ever leaving your bedroom!

But along with the massive benefits this technology affords our music-making abilities come some major challenges for producers to overcome; chief among them is the issue of MIDI samples sounding cold, stale, and inhuman. Here are some tips on how to inject a hefty dose of humanness, and with that, unpredictability and intrigue, into your MIDI samples.

1. Ease up on the quantization, pal.

What makes music sound human? Unlike robots and drum machines, human musicians don’t act according to a grid — we make mistakes and respond dynamically during complex situations. In light of this, why is it so tempting to quantize electronic drum beats so that they’re always sitting perfectly in the grid?

The process of aligning our notes to play in time on the beat is called quantizing, and this can be done in most DAWs either manually by dragging samples and clicking them into place, or automatically with the tap of a button. This will instantly create perfectly aligned sound sequences.

Between editing and quantization though, MIDI performances often sound musically correct, but creepily lifeless and stale. To avoid this, resist the urge to quantize each and every one of your MIDI parts — quantize the percussion and record the synth line live, warts and all. Or, in some editing software, you can adjust the quantization settings so that it won’t align your track perfectly into the grid, which should help retain some of the subtleties of your original performance.

2. Make it random.

MIDI doesn’t have the ability to create unpredictable music by itself. That’s something you need to bring to your sounds during the creative process. To mirror music that sounds and feels more human, consider embracing randomness when recording and during mixing production phases. Obscure rhythms, sharp peaks and valleys in the contours of melodic lines, ideas that fearlessly jump from one unrelated key to another — anything fresh and jarring will add humanity and drama to the sound of your MIDI samples.

3. Pay close attention to the velocity settings.

This is something we cover pretty extensively in our free course, Making Realistic MIDI Strings, but it doesn’t stop at digital strings. It’s been said amongst folks in the musician-survivalist community that one surefire way to determine whether or not the keyboardist in your band is a cyborg is by paying close attention to how they consistently strike the keys. Human musicians are inconsistent when it comes to performing the same basic task over and over again (e.g., hitting a note with your finger), while robots are coldly unwavering.

This is a parameter called velocity, and most DAWs will have settings to adjust it so that not every note sounds exactly the same. Adding subtle imperfections into the mix at random is certainly an option; an even better one is to adapt the “performance” settings throughout the music to better match the unique feel of the music as it changes.

4. Tweak the attack and decay.

Making adjustments to the attack and decay settings in your MIDI samples can help add a whole new life to your track. This is less about trying to mirror an exact instrumental performance and more about sculpting sounds that are complex and engaging in their own right. Attack and decay are incredible tools in mixing, since you’re essentially altering the exact moment a sound becomes audible and cuts through, and when it disappears back into your mix. Like anything, these settings can either be used pragmatically or creatively — up to you.
5. Dynamics are your friend.

One of the absolute best things you can do in a production is to put some thought into the dynamics of every track in your song. Humans have the ability to play and sing dynamically; MIDI doesn’t — unless we tell it to. A song in which every single note is played at the same volume, with the same fades, is a boring song. Rather than slapping a sound-squashing compressor on everything and levelling it all to the same dB limit, consider letting the music grow and breathe, and treating each of the instrumental tracks differently.

The same goes for reverb. Dynamics can also be spatial, so play with the unique spatial qualities of each track individually in order to create a more engaging sonic experience.

Sincerely, real human #02938284745960833:
Patrick McGuire, Flypaper author

Since we're talking about giving your electronic music production more personality, here's a bunch of articles that focus on different aspects of "humanity" in music, courtesy of Flypaper

Why Keeping Mistakes on Your Album Can Work in Your Favor
Musicians fear the mistake. Whether it's on stage or in studio, we're afraid of being defined by them, but they can also turn a good song into a great one!

On this day...

Remember Rickrolling? That delightful cultural prank phenomenon whereby behind any internet link there could be lurking a dancing Rick Astley from his 1987 music video for "Never Gonna Give You Up."

Well, on November 6, 2008, the ultimate Rickroll was pulled on the unsuspecting world, when due to his loyal global internet fanbase pulling in over 100 million votes, Rick Astley won the title of "Best Act Ever" on MTV's Europe Music Awards.

What a world we live in. 
Your challenge this week:
Write a four-bar melody in 5/4

A 5/4 time signature (also known as quintuple meter) is characterized by having five beats in a measure where the quarter note holds the beat.

If you're new to writing in irregular time signatures, this is a great, easy exercise to help you get started! Read more about 5/4 here, and learn some tips for writing in irregular times here. Submit your 4-bar melody to us whenever you have the time, but make sure you're not just using five quarter notes and calling it a day. Try to create some interesting beat patterns and subdivisions! (We'll look out for them :)

As always, feel free to send us what you come up with for a discount on your next Soundfly mentorship session, or simply to share your track with the whole community. Good luck! 
As some of you may already know, we're blessed with some incredible talent in our Soundfly Mentor community. One such talent, Martin Fowler, has written music for national award-winning podcasts, commercials, and films, and his music for the hit podcast Limetown can now be heard in the newly launched season 2! Click here to check out the new season of Limetown.

Wanna work with Martin on your next project? Let us know what you're working on here!

Take me to a random article in the archives, please. Okay!

Anything you'd like to learn in an upcoming Soundfly Weekly issue? Send us an email and let us know!

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