Free Production Guide: Human Music


Human Music


One of the best and worst things about computers and drum machines is that they are more or less perfect. They don’t get tired (unless they run out of battery) and will rarely miss a beat. And although being able to play tightly to a click track or metronome is something musicians are lauded for, it turns out that being one with the click track isn’t ideal either. While it is important for listeners to be given a strong sense of tempo and time, it is not necessary that every note is struck perfectly in time.

In fact, it is much preferred by almost all listeners for music to contain inherent timing variations these imperfections make the music feel “human”. Without taking this into consideration, it is likely our music is destined to sound like “laptop music” and will have a hard time making people move. Below, you’ll find some tips and tricks to help the music made on your laptop feel a little more human.

Topics Covered

  • ○  Recording MIDI

  • ○  Quantize

  • ○  Swing

  • ○  Groove Pool

  • ○  Fills & Variations

Make it Human

What’s the best way to inject some human imperfection into a track? Easy! Just play your parts in. You would be surprised how accustomed we’ve become to using our mouse to sequence or pencil in all the parts of a song. This ends here. We will be learning to utilize the computer as the tool it is to capture and express our ideas, not vice versa. Let’s start with recording some MIDI.

Recording MIDI

  • Turn on the metronome

  • Arm the MIDI track you’d like to record (you should now be able to play either Push or your keyboard and hear the instrument play)

  • Click one of the now circular record prompts within the track

  •  Hit stop or spacebar to stop recording

  •  To overdub MIDI into an existing clip (either blank or containing notes), turn on Session Record

  • On Push, hit Session and long press the rectangle under the name of a track to arm it

  • Hit one of the now red pads within the vertical column of that track to begin recording

  • You can also simply hit the circular record button above the play button to begin recording (when you’re in Drum Rack, for example)


After playing in your part, you might wish it were “more perfect” or “more on the grid” or “less like a terrible train-wreck”. By using quantize, we can dial in how aligned with Ableton’s grid our recorded MIDI notes are. To bring up the quantize menu, use the key command SHIFT + CMD + U (you can also right-click in the MIDI editor window and find Quantize Settings. From here, we can choose what grid we’d like to use as our guide and how closely we want our notes to sync up to that grid. On Push, you can hold down the quantize settings and adjust from there. Once your desired amount is selected, simply tap the button. Pro tip, to quantize only one pad of a drum rack, hold quantize and tap the pad.


Velocity is the term we use in MIDI to denote how hard a note is being struck. Most of the time, this translates to volume but it can also be used to make instruments more expressive and change their sound. To adjust the velocity of a MIDI note inside Ableton’s MIDI Editor, look for the narrow flags at the bottom of the window. You’ll see that each note as a corresponding flag (velocity marker). You can adjust them by moving them up (higher velocity) and down (lower velocity). By choosing to accent certain notes, we can impart a lot of interest into our sequence as well as stress certain parts of the beat we’d like people to respond to. 

Swing & Nudge

While playing our ideas in is probably the best choice to add a human feel to our MIDI clips, there is also the option to use Swing. Swing is a machine’s attempt at sounding more human. The way this is done is varied across different samplers, drum machines, and DAWs but it essentially boils down to adding in timing and velocity variations into a sequence. Often, certain notes are pushed back in time (late) to give an otherwise rigid sequence a relatable feel. MIDI notes can also be nudged off the grid by clicking and holding CMD to temporarily turn off the grid. On Push, simply hold a MIDI note down while in clip view and a nudge encoder will come up.

Groove Pool

(Click here for a complete guide to Groove Pool)

The Groove Pool is Ableton’s storage center for special types of files (.agr) that affect any audio or MIDI clip. Think of this as a swing or shuffle feature on an old drum machine or sampler. To open the groove pool, click the small waves icon. Right-click inside the “pool” and hit browse groove library. From there, you can preview different grooves. Numbers like 8, 16, and 32 refer to the notes that will be primarily affected and numbers like 50, 55, 65, etc. refer to how strong the swing/groove will be.

To add grooves to clips, we can drag them onto the MIDI editor window, drag them onto clips, or select them from clip view. The quantize slider affects the amount of quantization applied before the swing, the timing affects how much of the swing is applied to the clip, velocity controls how much of the velocity information contained within the clip is applied, and random introduces random variations to the clip.

Fills & Variations

One thing humans will inevitably do that computers do not is that they will play the same part slightly differently every time. Additionally, certain instruments lend themselves to adding or subtracting notes at the end of a phrase to build tension or excitement. Try adding in subtle variations (adding or removing notes) as identical sections repeat to keep things fresh. Additionally, take a look at the end of phrases (especially between sections of the song) and see if there’s anything you can do to create a unique moment. This could be a snare roll or drum fill, a change in the bassline, or a subtraction of pervious elements. Give it a shot!

Cooked Beats

Think of your penciled in drum beats as raw beets. Nobody likes raw beets. In order to get some enjoyment out of them, whether it be in the form of your grandmother’s borscht or a $17 plate of arugula and goat cheese, we’re going to need to cook ‘em. By playing parts in, using grooves, applying velocities, and nudging notes, we not only cook those beats but add the necessary sauce to make them delicious. You wouldn’t eat raw beets, so don’t try and feed ‘em to your listeners!

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IO Music Academy is a boutique, LA-based music production academy that provides affordable, engaging music education for artists at every level. Our mission is to empower students to take the ideas in their head and bring them to life.

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