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Guide: Humanizing MIDI Drums in Ableton (3 Essential Factors)

Humanizing MIDI Drums in Ableton

Want to humanize your MIDI drums?

Computers are robotic. That includes DAWs and programming your MIDI drums for your beats.

When drawing out your drum notes into a perfect grid with maximum velocity, it can quickly become too perfect and boring. Why? Because it lacks life and a human’s touch.

Luckily, humanizing MIDI drums in Ableton is easy. And in this article, we will show you exactly how you can humanize your drums in three simple steps.

But first, let’s dive in to understand what humanizing drums mean.

What Does Humanizing Drums Mean?

Humanizing your MIDI drums means taking digitally perfect drums and making them sound like a human plays them.

Let’s touch a bit on MIDI and why people can perceive it as robotic...

When talking MIDI in music production, you probably see a piano roll in front of you. A MIDI signal triggers all the notes and steps in a sequencer. And because it’s all digital and adapted to a grid, the results are bound to be a bit robotic.

When every drum hits perfectly on beat, you can directly hear that a computer created it. For some genres or tracks, this result is desirable and can add to the mechanical feel. But if you want to bring humanization and life into a track, you want to make it more human.

Three important factors make up the humanization of drums. And the first one is swing.

Swing

Let's take a real person playing the drums or percussion, like a bongo or mallet drum.

Unlike a MIDI sequencer or your Ableton piano roll, you don’t have a built-in brain grid to stay perfectly in beat (unless you’re an alien or robot.) Your timing will always be wrong by a few milliseconds or more.

But hey, guess what? That’s fine!

Imperfections when playing a beat is what makes it human. For that reason, imperfect timings and other variations are more relatable and often make us bob our head to the beat.

In music, we call that swing.

Velocity

Can you think of another factor that humanizes drums?

That’s right – velocity.

When we play, we don’t hit each note with the same force as the last one. Unless we’re robots, again, there will always be micro variations in velocity.

So, to humanize your MIDI drums, inject these imperfections into your already perfect beat. That means offset your beats, and automate or randomize your velocity, so each stroke hits different. If you want, you can leave your kick drum alone.

Playability

The last and often forgotten element to humanizing your beats is playability. Is your drumbeat even playable by a human?

With endless possibility in your DAW, take note of your beat’s difficulty and if someone could sit down and perform your beat on real-life drums.

The key things to look for in terms of playability is tempo and beat. You can also keep your panning in mind.

For example, if three drums are hitting simultaneously from the same drum set in three different directions, your drummer either has three arms or outside playing help.

For humanization, think about what's humanly possible and what happens when a human sits down in front of a drum or percussion set.

Can MIDI Drums Sound Good?

Can sampled drums sound real? Oh yes. With enough time, effort, skill, and the right audio effects, you can make a MIDI beat indistinguishable from a real recorded piece of drums.

It’s all about using the right samples or synthesized sounds while applying the drum humanizing techniques you will learn in a second.

Let’s dive into the five steps to humanize your drums in Ableton.

3 Steps To Humanize Your Drums In Ableton

With the previous humanization tips in mind, let’s walk you through the three steps of humanizing your drums in Ableton – starting with the swing.

1. Swing

Swing is a funny thing. It’s both a style of jazz music and a concept of rhythm. This article will refer to swing as offsetting some notes to introduce a more human and imperfect rhythm – making it groovier as a result.

In Ableton, there are two ways to go about achieving swing.

The first one is manually offsetting drum notes in your piano roll. A couple of milliseconds is enough.

Humanizing MIDI Drums Manual Swing Offsetting Notes Ableton Live 11

That way, you make your beat like how a human would play it. Even though you offset the notes a few milliseconds, they still match your beat and tempo. In other words, you don’t mess up your groove. You only introduce humanization into your drumbeat.

The second way is using Ableton’s groove pool to introduce a more pronounced swing. The groove pool works by adding swing to your MIDI or audio drums.

Humanizing MIDI Drums Swing Ableton Live 11

If you want a quick and effective way to add swing to a groove, this is a fast way to achieve it.

Bonus tip: upload your own clips into the groove pool, extract the swing and add it to a new drumbeat.

2. Velocity

Velocity is another critical factor that makes drums more human. As you learned before, drummers never hit their drums with the same force – every hit. Truly groovy sounds from human drum players come from changing the amount of force they apply, mixing softer with harder hits.

In your DAW, the volume or pressure of each drum hit is called velocity. A low-velocity number means a softer hit, while a higher number means a harder hit, 127 being the max in Ableton.

Humanizing MIDI Drums Velocity Hihat Ableton Live 11

Introducing velocity is a great way to humanize and improve your grooves.

Bonus tip: try mapping out velocity in polyrhythms and other grooves for extra spicy beats.

3. Playability

If you truly want to humanize your drumbeats, you must look at playability. If you map out a groove that’s out of this world, it will most likely be unplayable for a human.

And when your listeners hear something inhuman, they immediately resort to hearing it as robotic.

Like in this example:

Humanizing MIDI Drums Playability Dont Do This Ableton Live 11

Robotic doesn’t mean bad. But it can ruin what you’re trying to achieve if you want to humanize your drums.

The best way to consider playability is by picturing what a human is capable of. If you’re a drummer and can visualize a real drum set, that helps.

Here are three things to consider for playability:

  • Timing – does the drummer switch between drums too fast?
  • Capability – is the beat playable with two hands?
  • Speed – how fast can a human play?

Timing, capability, and speed are three great ways of determining if a person can play a beat. If you attack these three areas from a human perspective, your beat will sound more human.

Bonus tip: imagine a real drum set and set up your panning accordingly with a real drum beat or your vision. Mimicking the panning of a real drum set humanizes your grooves.

Summary

Having the ability to humanize your drums and make great beats is vital to being a great producer.

After reading this article, you now understand the three fundamental aspects of what makes a beat human. You also know how you can achieve human drums result in Ableton.

But your journey doesn’t stop there. Making MIDI drums sound realistic is a skill that takes time to master. Making great beats is also a skill that you constantly need to practice.

If you want to master humanized drums, a final tip is to start to play drums or percussion yourself. Buy a real or digital drum set or percussion and learn the basic beats. You can also use a MIDI controller with touch pads. Start jamming to music and see what fits. It's incredible what real-life drum experience can do for your beat making ability.

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Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.

Pelle Sundin
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.

 



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