Yesterday I posted a video review of EZDrummer.

Mark, one of my readers (and a member of MixWithUs.com) asked in the comments section if EZDrummer has a “humanize” function. It does. I forgot to mention this, but it’s the little button on the bottom left side.

The bigger question, though, is what does “humanize” mean and why should you care about it?

Cold, Lifeless Drummer

In a perfect world, we would all have a huge drum room in our home studios. We’d have a closet FULL of great mics, great preamps, plenty of inputs, and a top-notch drummer and drum kit.

In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in a perfect world. Down here in reality it costs thousands of dollars to build out a drum room and buy all the necessary equipment to track drums. And it still costs several hundred dollars to hire out a studio and record the drums there.

First off, let me just say that if you CAN record live drums, do it. If that’s not possible, you’ll need to turn to virtual drum software, such as EZDrummer, BFD, DrumCore, Steven Slate Drums, etc.

As cool as these programs are, and as awesome as the included grooves are, it’s still fairly easy to tell when a drum part was played by a human vs. a piece of software. A human never plays perfectly in time. A computer can. Hence the problem. The computer is too perfect.

To fix this, you’ll want to humanize the drums.

How do you do this? Well, a lot of the popular drum programs have a humanize function, which introduces imperfections into the performance. This can be effective, but you may want to do your own humanizing. That’s what I do.

2 Steps to Humanizing Drum Parts

1. Mess up the timing.

The less perfect the drum part is, the better. So if you can take the perfect timing of a plug-in and mess it up, then you’re on to something.

You can manually humanize the timing by going in and actually moving individual MIDI notes around. This can be tedious, but the results can be good.

Another option is to use quantization. Normally you quantize MIDI to correct timing issues. However, in this instance, you’ll want to use the “randomize” feature to actual introduce a certain amount of randomness back into the perfectly timed drum part. (See How to Quantize MIDI for more.) Instead of snapping all the notes to the grid/tempo of your song, the randomize feature will move them farther away from perfection.

2. Mess up the velocities.

One of the easiest ways to pick out a non-human drum part is to listen to the velocity of the drum hits. If the snare is hit at exactly the same volume every time, it becomes obvious that it’s not a real drummer. By randomizing the velocity of each piece of the kit, you can introduce a healthy dose of “human.”

You do this essentially the same way you would with messing up the timing. Either go in there and manually adjust the velocities, or select one note (i.e. drum) at a time, and randomize its velocities. This will cause your drum software to trigger slightly different samples for each hit, which will sound MUCH more realistic.

Thoughts? Leave a comment!

[Photo by wrestlingentropy]

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  • Isaac

    I recently programmed drums for a country artist using Steven Slate drums. (Normally SSD is used in metal and hardcore, but they have some really great vintage kits too!!) I was very happy with the drum sounds one I randomized velocity, but the cymbals were pretty difficult. I borrowed some nice cymbals from a friend, threw my two condensers over em, and recorded an overhead track to be used with the midi drums. My drums sound infinitely better now. I’ve found that recording real cymbals is an extremely useful way to humanize midi drums.

    • Great suggestion. Yeah, real cymbals can really make a MIDI track sound perfect.

  • Manticore

    I’ve just about finished a piece of software that should solve the dreaded Robot Master Drummer syndrome.
    It’s a live CD and you actually *play* the kit using two mice (three if you want to cut one up to wire into footpedals.
    So far, you can play solo or play along with a recording and record the results – you can even play back a previous recording and do simple multitracking. If you are interested we could discuss ways of getting a sample copy to you (Not entirely an easy matter from the depths of Tanzania!)
    There *is* a version up on SUSE Studio but it’s pretty obsolete.

  • Cush

    ^^^
    That’s actually what I do with my edirol PCR 800. It has velocity sensitive pads that you can play the drum part on. Works pretty great when I’m trying to arrange a song, but I always try and either find a place to record drums myself, or pony up the cash to have a friend play the song in a studio. Good article tho.

  • Great points, everyone. A MIDI controller plus virtual drums would be an awesome solution, particularly a drum controller, like the ones from Yamaha or Roland. Hmmm…perhaps another blog post is in order, eh? 😉

    • Ronnie Mac

      …..and use live instruments where ever possible. Amazing how tracking the Hi-Hat part with the rest of the Virtual kit will livin’ up the performance. Tambourines, cowbells and shakers are also good options. Velocity editing is key, espeially if it is a repetitive groove.

  • Great points Joe, as normal. I’ve just recently started recording using my Yamaha DTXpress IV Special into Addictive Drums. I originally started out buying midi grooves from http://www.groovemonkee.com. I still will use these grooves durning preproduction when arranging the songs.

  • Great article, and good points Joe! I must say, however, that there’s even better options out there nowadays to ‘humanize’ drums – hire a real drummer! Online collaboration makes it a lot easier. It sure beats spending time programming and attempting to ‘humanize’ things. I also recommend the use of the ‘zendrum’ MIDI Drum Controller and Pearls new “E-ProLive”. Just my two cents! Thanks for the post!

  • Another option for humanizing is to use groove templates. Many DAWs have the option to extract grooves from audio, and then apply them to MIDI (and sometimes other audio). If you wanted John Bonham on your track, you could extract his groove from an old Zep track. Wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be much nicer than perfect quantization.

  • CJT

    I actually just sent an email to Joe asking if he uses or would recommend any midi pad triggers (such as the Akai MPD26). I’ve got a midi keyboard, but i’m not a huge fan of aiming for the “white keys” (or “black keys”) during live recording, and am thinking about investing in a pad controller. Would any of you fellas (or anyone else reading this) recommend that technique, and if so, are there any midi pad products out there you’d recommend (again, like the Akai MPD26, which appears to be among the most popular).

    Thanks,
    Chris

  • David S.

    yep. i agree w/ dand and robert. I actually have an electronic kit that i use to play my midi notes into Pro Tools. each imperfect hit is sent to my midi track, so i don’t need to quantize or humanize the performance. the exact opposite is the case! lol i need to make it more in time.
    the great thing about edrums is they are compact, silent and even the moderately priced ones now react real well to live playing.
    the drawback of course would be if a person didn’t know how to play drums. in which case, they would be absolutely useless.

  • Ironically, we compress a live drummer to “even out his performance.” So, we obviously don’t want to do too far with our randomization. I’m with dand, though. Nothing beats the feel of playing in MIDI drums live. It takes me at least two passes, though. First for kick and snare, and then the rest for toms, cymbals, etc.

  • dand

    One way to do the “randomize velocities” thing is to simply play the drum track in manually using a velocity-sensitive MIDI controller and not looping it. You can still go back and quantize the rhythm and fix the bad notes, but this will make the track reflect your natural playing dynamics.