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We’re going to look at some techniques you can use to add interest and variety to your track, and tidy up the rough edges. With all of the following techniques, it's impractical to show you precise instructions on how to achieve each technique in your DAW, but all are basic facilities that any modern DAW will have: all you need to do is delve into the manual or, better yet, play with the buttons and find out.
This is the third part of my series covering all you need to know to start recording your first song. Hopefully by now you’ve had an opportunity to work on some of the concepts we’ve looked at in the previous articles in this series and are starting to feel comfortable with the basic techniques we need to construct a track.
Quantizing is the process of aligning the notes in your MIDI “piano roll” to a rhythmic pattern, often used for notes which have been entered “live”, for example with a keyboard. For a part that consists of regular 8th notes, you could quantize to an 8th note grid, making sure that every note is precisely in time.
If you’ve entered the notes for your software instrument parts with a mouse, alignment to the grid probably isn’t an issue, but quantization still has a few things to offer you.
Below is a simple drum beat entered by keyboard and enough out of time that it sounds bad.
And here's the same thing quantized to the grid:
Humanizing Looped MIDI
One of the main problems with a MIDI instrument, especially if you’re using looped parts, is that it can sound lifeless and robotic. Completely in-time notes, all of the same velocity (i.e., played with the same force), all the way through a track, has a way of becoming tiring to listen to. There are occasions when this might be a desirable effect, but more often than not, you’ll want to make things sound a little more organic.
One way of doing this is to quantize your tracks to a template that incorporates some “swing”. Swing is the practice where notes are played slightly out of time, giving a sense of groove and motion, and quantizing tools will hep you create this effect by subtly shifting notes on the grid.
In the clip below, I've used quite an exaggerated swing setting to illustrate the point. Notice how it sounds less "stiff"
Another technique, and one you could use in combination with the swing, is to use a humanization tool to apply some randomness to the timing and velocity of the notes. Again, only a subtle effect is needed to give programmed music a sense of life and realism.
Below, you can see the effect as the different colors indicate varying velocity:
Bear in mind that some software instruments, like EZ Drummer, have an inbuilt capability to humanize the velocity of each drum beat, so you may only need to vary the timing of the beats.
One final technique I like to use is to manually vary parts that are used throughout a track. For example, let’s say you’ve programmed a drum part for each section of your song. You can build the track out quickly by using loops, but having done so, chop up the loops and add slight variations to the programmed notes. Taking drums as an example, you might switch the cymbals, put in varied rolls on toms or add or move beats around, just like a real drummer would.
Smartening Up Audio Timing
While you’re likely to want to add a human touch your electronic tracks, your live tracks might be all too human. No matter how good your performance, you’re bound to record things that you wish were just a little tighter. Luckily, many DAWs now have features which allow you to move notes and chords around in time without altering their pitch or producing unwanted audio artefacts.
Below, you can see how I've been able to align guitar chords with beats to make a tighter sound:
In Apple’s Logic and GarageBand, this feature is called FlexTime. Equivalents in other DAWs include Elastic Audio and Beat Detective (Pro Tools) and Audio Warp (Cubase).
Using these tools to their fullest extent is an article in itself (and lucky for you Joel Falconer wrote just such an article for AudioTuts not too long ago), but the basic principle is this: Flex Time (or its equivalent) will analyse your audio and home in on the transients, i.e., the point when a sound begins. You can then drag the notes around, putting badly timed notes where they should be, or even creatively altering the timing of the performance, for example to change the phrasing of a vocal part.
Unwanted noise is one of the most annoying problems a beginning audio engineer will face, simply because there are so many sources of noise and so many different and sometimes complex ways of dealing with it. But a clean sound is critical to giving your productions a professional touch, so where to begin?
The first rule is an old one: garbage in, garbage out. In other words, anything you can do to stop noise from being recorded in the first place will save you long and persistent headaches later on.
- Use well screened, good quality cables with good connections
- Turn off or move away from any electrical devices that may cause interference (TVs, computer monitors, cordless and mobile phones, certain types of lighting)
- Use electrically screened guitars, ideally with humbuckers
- Use stands, pop screens and acousting shielding (or improvised versions thereof) with microphones
These basic precautions should deal with the worst of the noise; the rest needs some digital trickery. The simplest method is to put a noise gate on the channel strip for the offending track, and use the attack, release and threshold controls to avoid cutting off quieter sounds. Alternatively, if the track allows for it, you could simply slice out the quiet segments (or rather, the bits that should be quiet), remembering to leave a natural decay on the sounds.
Scrubbing noise out of the performance itself is rather more complex (which is why it’s important to minimise it in the first place) and beyond the scope of this article, but do take a look a Joel Falconer’s article on using a parametric EQ, and in particular the last segment on using EQ to remove troublesome noises.
So now you’re acquainted with many of the commonest tricks in the home audio engineer’s toolkit, it’s probably time we actually put all of this stuff into practice. So get working on a little song, because next time, in the final part of this series, we’ll go through organising a bunch of ideas into a song, editing it together, adding some basic finishing touches and exporting it to a file you can share with your friends (or, if you’re feeling brave enough to embrace the darkest of dark arts, you can try your hand at mastering!).