MIDI Drum Tracks, Part II: More Human than Human

Last updated on 3/31/2016

By Jesse Recinos, Cakewalk

Now that you've laid down some basic drum tracks using the last month's Tech Tip, it's time to take them to the next level. Maybe you've painstakingly rerecorded the MIDI Track a dozen times, nipped and tucked all the notes into place, and run Edit | Quantize to make sure that all the notes are perfect.

We are the Robots

Almost as a matter of habit, many users will immediately select Edit | Quantize as soon as we lay down a MIDI track and hit OK with little more than a cursory glance at the resolution settings.  Sounds a little mechanical doesn’t it? Go back and choose Edit | Undo Quantize. 

The truth is, the only thing that plays a rhythm perfectly is a machine.  Even the best drummers, perhaps I should say especially the best drummers, never play everything exactly on the beat.  By hitting a drum slightly early or late, drummers impart a groove on a song and give it that human feel that many musicians strive to attain in their MIDI tracks. 

Here are some tips on preserving and reintroducing that human touch to your drums.  You’ll find that by exploring the Quantize function a bit deeper, you can make your tracks both musical and tight, without sacrificing those qualities which make real instrumentation alluring.  With a bit of tweaking, you’ll find your songs coming to life again, giving you fresh inspiration to write new bits and keep laying down tracks.

Now let’s take a look at some of the options in the Quantize dialog box and learn why they are so important. 

NOTE: If you only need to correct one type of hit, for example the crash or hi-hats, there’s no reason to quantize the whole track.  This is a good use for the selection features of the Piano Roll view.  Simply click on the name of the drum sound on the left side of the pane and all of those hits will become selected.  To add other drum sounds, hold down the CTRL key and click on additional names.  Now when you choose Edit | Quantize you’ll only effect your selected sounds.

Bring back that loving feeling

Open up the Edit | Quantize dialog. On the right side you’ll see the Strength setting.  This determines how close to the beat your drum hits will get moved.  For example, the default setting of 100% will move everything exactly to a grid line which typically results in a somewhat stiff feel.  Being human, when you lay down a MIDI track in realtime you’re probably already imparting a bit of feel to your track.  If your timing is even remotely close, it’s a shame to over-quantize everything and lose the feeling, when the track only needs a bit of tightening up.   Try adjusting the Strength settings (30% is a good place to start) to subtly shift the notes closer to the beat without making the timing too rigid.

If it ain’t got that swing…

If you’ve already quantized all your tracks to the nth degree or if you feel that the timing in your track needs to be cleaned up with heavy quantizing (for example, some notes coming in late, some coming in early, you’ll be looking for ways to reintroduce that ‘human’ touch to your drums.

The Swing setting in Edit | Quantize does just what it says.  The default value of 50% means that all of the hits will fall exactly on the beat, using the resolution you’ve specified.  By changing this value, you cause the off-beats to either fall late or early, depending on whether you’ve raised or lowered the percentage, respectively.  Another way to think about it is to picture the space between the vertical grid lines that the notes align to either stretching or shrinking as you change the ‘Swing’ setting.  By raising the swing setting you can achieve more of a ‘laid back’ feel, while lowering it will create more of a ‘pushing’ feel.  For example, if you have a snare on the 2 and 4 of a measure and you want to push them back a bit for a slow blues piece, set your Resolution to Quarter Notes and then raise the Swing setting by a few percent.  Of course there are no hard and fast rules so feel free to experiment with different settings, both above and below 50%, regardless of the type of song.  Soon you’ll find some favorite settings for the material you work with.

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