How To Humanize Robotic-Sounding Tracks: 13 Tips From The Professionals

Ever wondered why your tracks sound robotic and stale? This is frustrating when you’ve worked so much to make your tracks sound radio-ready and emotive. 

As musicians and producers, we want our productions to have soul, emotion, and a sense of human touch. Perfect quantization might seem appealing on the surface, but it’s often the imperfections that breathe life into our music.

In this article, we’re diving into how professionals humanize robotic-sounding tracks. 

Let’s get into it.

Use A Real Instrument Or An Analog Synth

As a music producer and home studio owner, I’ve come across my fair share of robotic-sounding tracks. 

These tracks often lack the human touch and can sound mechanical and lifeless. However, there are several techniques you can use to humanize your tracks and bring them to life. 

One effective method is incorporating real instruments or analog synths into your productions.

When I first started producing music, I relied heavily on virtual instruments and software synths. 

While they offer convenience and a wide range of sounds, they often lack the organic and imperfect characteristics of real instruments. 

I noticed that my tracks sounded robotic and lacked the emotional depth I was striving for.

To overcome this, I decided to invest in a few real instruments and analog synths. 

I started incorporating live guitar recordings, piano performances, and analog synth patches into my tracks. 

The difference was astonishing because the tracks started gaining the warmth, character, and human touch that was missing before.

Live performance 1 1

You can also experiment with VST effects and plugins that recreate analog imperfections. 

These introduce changes such as subtle pitch variations, random fluctuations, or modulation effects. You’ll be off to a great start to humanize robotic-sounding tracks. 

Tips and Steps:

  • Invest in a real instrument or an analog synth that complements your genre and style.
  • Record live performances of the instrument or play it in real-time using a MIDI controller.
  • Experiment with different playing techniques and articulations to add realism.
  • Blend the recorded instrument with your virtual instruments to create a hybrid sound.
  • Process the recorded instrument or analog synth with effects to further enhance its uniqueness.

Adding White Noise for Organic Texture

White noise can be an excellent tool for humanizing robotic-sounding tracks. It adds subtle variations and imperfections to the sound, making it feel more organic and natural.

In professional productions, producers often use white noise to add texture and depth to their tracks. 

We’ve discovered that by layering a subtle amount of white noise in the background, the overall mix sounds more lively and vibrant. 

It mimics the natural noise present in real-world environments and prevents the track from sounding sterile.

Tips and Steps:

  • Create a white noise generator using a synthesizer or a dedicated white noise plugin.
  • Adjust the volume and frequency content of the white noise to blend it seamlessly with the track.
  • Apply gentle filtering and modulation to add movement and variation to the noise.
  • Experiment with panning and stereo imaging to create a sense of space and width.

Embracing Dynamic Range for Expressiveness

One of the key aspects of humanizing robotic-sounding tracks is to incorporate dynamics. Dynamics refer to the variation in volume levels throughout a track. 

By introducing subtle changes in volume, you can make the sound more expressive and natural.

When we started focusing on adding dynamics to my tracks, we noticed a significant improvement in the overall feel. 

By automating the volume levels of individual elements, such as drums, synths, and vocals, we were able to create a more dynamic and engaging listening experience. 

Unlike MIDI, human performers have the ability to play dynamically, and replicating this expressiveness is crucial for creating great compositions.

To achieve this, it’s essential to consider the dynamics of each track within your song.

In your quest to humanize robotic-sounding tracks, try and avoid compressing all elements to the same volume level. 

Instead, treat each instrument individually, allowing them to grow and breathe.

The use of reverb can further enhance the perception of dynamics. Consider applying different levels of reverb to various elements, ensuring a sense of space and depth within your mix.

Your tracks will feel less rigid and more human-like.

Tips and Steps:

  • Use automation to control the volume levels of different elements in your track.
  • Emphasize the accents and important sections by increasing their volume.
  • Create gradual fades and swells to add tension and release.
  • Experiment with sidechain compression to create a pumping effect and emphasize the rhythm.

Tweak The Attack And Decay

The attack and decay settings of your sounds are important in shaping the character and realism. Adjusting these parameters can help you humanize robotic-sounding tracks.

The attack setting controls the moment a sound becomes audible and cuts through. On the other hand, the decay setting controls how long the sound lingers before dissipating. 

Attack and delay

By carefully tweaking these settings, you can craft sounds that fit seamlessly into your mix and evoke specific emotions.

Many Producers find that tweaking certain sounds’ attack and decay settings can make a world of difference. 

By lengthening the attack, they give the sound a more natural and gradual onset, similar to how a real instrument would behave. 

On top of that, adjusting the decay helps the sound fade away more naturally, avoiding abrupt cutoffs.

Tips and Steps:

  • Experiment with the attack and decay settings of your synthesizers and samplers.
  • Increase the attack to create a more gradual onset of the sound.
  • Adjust the decay to control how long the sound lingers after it’s triggered.
  • Use envelope-shaping tools to fine-tune the attack and decay characteristics.

Make Use Of Groove Pools

Groove pools are a powerful feature found in many modern music production software. 

They allow you to apply groove templates to your MIDI sequences, adding human-like timing variations to the robotic-sounding tracks.

It’s amazing how much difference a subtle groove can make in a track. They play a vital role in making electronic music sound less robotic.

By applying groove templates from my DAW’s groove pool, I can inject the right amount of swing and shuffle into my MIDI sequences. 

A great technique I use is also extracting a groove from my favorite and relevant tracks. I can then mimic the same groove used from the original tracks into mine.

This technique brings a natural feel to the otherwise rigid and quantized notes. Rigidly quantized notes are a nightmare if you want to humanize robotic-sounding tracks. 

Tips and Steps:

  • Explore the groove pool feature in your music production software.
  • Select the appropriate groove template that matches the desired feel of your track.
  • Apply the groove template to your MIDI sequences, adjusting the amount to taste.
  • Fine-tune individual MIDI notes to retain the desired groove while preserving the musicality.

Choose Random Samples

Using the same sample repeatedly can contribute to the robotic feel of a track. By introducing random samples, you can add variation and unpredictability, making the track sound more human.

In our production process, we’ve got a vast library of samples at our disposal. Whenever I feel that a particular element in our track lacks a human touch, I explore different sample options.

To achieve authentic and organic sounds, try to include field recordings and acoustic instrument studio recordings in your productions. 

While synthesizers can emulate various instruments, certain elements like cymbals, hi-hats, snares, and kick drums are best captured from real-life sources. 

By choosing random samples for percussion, effects, and other elements, you introduce subtle variations that break the monotony and bring the track to life.

Tips and Steps:

  • Expand your sample library with diverse and high-quality samples.
  • Experiment with different samples for each occurrence of a particular element.
  • Pay attention to the nuances and characteristics of each sample to ensure they fit the track.
  • Combine random samples with the original ones to strike a balance between consistency and variation.

Humanizing Chord Progressions

Creating chord progressions that sound natural and expressive is really important for humanizing tracks. 

By incorporating certain techniques, you can achieve this and add emotional depth to your music.

Many professional music producers often spend a significant amount of time crafting chord progressions that resonate with the listener. 

The use of inversions, voicings, and subtle variations in the chord structure can make a tremendous difference. 

This technique is used by many producers to humanize robotic-sounding tracks and chord progressions.

By experimenting with different voicings and inversions, you create progressions that sound more organic and human.

Tips and Steps:

  • Explore different chord voicings and inversions to find unique and interesting variations.
  • Experiment with tension notes and passing chords to add complexity and emotion.
  • Use sustained notes or pedal tones to create a sense of continuity and connection between chords.
  • Pay attention to the voice leading and smooth transitions between chords.

Use Analog Processing

Analog processing is an effective technique to add warmth, character, and subtle imperfections to robotic-sounding tracks. 

Analog synth

By running your tracks through analog hardware or emulations, you can introduce organic qualities and make them sound more human.

I’ve got a few analog processors in my home studio setup. I frequently use these to add a touch of analog magic to my tracks and make them sound less robotic. 

Whether it’s running drum loops through a hardware compressor or adding saturation to synths with analog emulations, the results are always pleasing. 

The tracks gain a certain richness and depth that is hard to achieve with purely digital processing.

Tips and Steps:

  • Incorporate analog hardware processors or software emulations in your signal chain.
  • Experiment with analog compressors, EQs, tape emulations, and saturation plugins.
  • Use subtle settings to add warmth, color, and character without overwhelming the mix.
  • Pay attention to the level of processing applied to maintain transparency and balance.

Add Midi Randomization

MIDI randomization is a technique that introduces controlled randomness to your MIDI sequences. 

Applying slight variations to note velocities, timings, and other parameters gives your midi a more human and natural performance.

When working with MIDI sequences, you’ll often find that even the most meticulously programmed parts can sound robotic and lifeless. 

By applying MIDI randomization techniques, you add subtle variations to the timing, velocity, and other attributes of the notes. 

This process brings a human-like quality to the performances and helps avoid the mechanical feel. It gets you great compositions and makes electronic music sound less robotic.

Alternatively, you can use VSTs and plugins that automatically randomize the velocity and timing of MIDI notes based on predefined criteria.

MIDI randomization introduces subtle but purposeful inconsistencies. These inconsistencies mimic the imperfections of live performances.

This will result in more organic and human-like music production and elevate your tracks.

Tips and Steps:

  • Utilize MIDI randomization features within your music production software.
  • Adjust the randomization parameters to achieve the desired level of variation.
  • Focus on attributes such as note velocity, timing, pitch modulation, and articulation.
  • Fine-tune the randomization settings to maintain musicality and avoid excessive chaos.

Perform Your Parts Live

Performing your parts live instead of relying solely on programmed sequences can inject a tremendous amount of human feel into your tracks. 

How To Humanize Robotic-Sounding Tracks

Instead of only drawing in MIDI notes, consider performing your musical parts live using a velocity-sensitive MIDI controller, such as a piano or drum pad.

Real-time performances capture the subtle nuances and imperfections that make music sound organic.

Performing live is a cherished practice among music producers. Whenever possible, try to record parts in real-time using MIDI controllers or real instruments. 

Whether it’s playing a synth solo or recording drum patterns on a MIDI pad controller, the resulting performances have an energy and natural flow about them.

 This is often difficult to replicate with programming alone using a mouse and typing keyboard.

Tips and Steps:

  • Set up your MIDI controllers or real instruments for recording live performances.
  • Practice the parts you want to record to ensure a confident and expressive performance.
  • Embrace imperfections and let the human touch shine through in your recordings.
  • Combine live performances with programmed elements to strike a balance between precision and an organic feel.

Add Some Swing

Swing is a rhythmic technique that involves delaying or shifting certain notes in a sequence. It introduces a sense of groove and humanizes the timing of the track.

Swing to your tracks

People are always drawn to music with a distinct swing and groove. Adding swing to your tracks must become second nature because it brings them to life.

In Ableton Live, you can easily incorporate swing into your compositions using Grooves. 

Grooves offer pre-defined timing patterns that can be applied to your MIDI clips, instantly infusing them with a sense of groove and swing.

Experimenting with different swing settings tailors the timing of your MIDI notes to match various musical styles. 

By adjusting the timing of specific notes, you can create syncopation and a more natural rhythmic flow. 

The resulting swing injects a feeling of movement and makes the track groove effortlessly.

Tips and Steps:

  • Explore the swing or shuffle feature in your music production software or sequencer.
  • Adjust the swing amount to find the desired level of groove and human feel.
  • Apply swing selectively to specific elements or sections to maintain control and clarity.
  • Experiment with different swing patterns and timings to create unique rhythmic feels.

Manipulate The Velocity

Velocity refers to the intensity or strength with which a note is played. Experimenting with the velocity of individual notes can add dynamics and realism to your tracks.

One common mistake made by producers is neglecting the use of velocity when drawing in MIDI notes. 

It’s important to know that musicians rarely play with perfect accuracy, and there will always be some degree of velocity variation. 

Rather than manually editing each note’s velocity, which can be time-consuming, there are more efficient methods to automate this process.

When I started paying closer attention to note velocities in my MIDI sequences, I noticed a significant improvement in the expressiveness of my tracks. 

By varying the velocity of individual notes, I could replicate the natural nuances and accents that occur when playing an instrument live. 

The result of this technique was an added layer of realism and emotion to the music. This is a great technique to humanize robotic-sounding tracks.

Tips and Steps:

  • Review and adjust the velocities of individual notes in your MIDI sequences.
  • Focus on emphasizing accents, softer passages, and natural variations in intensity.
  • Avoid overly uniform velocity patterns by introducing subtle variations.
  • Use MIDI editing tools or velocity modulation plugins for more precise control.

To Wrap It Up – Humanize Robotic-Sounding Tracks

These techniques and approaches can humanize robotic-sounding tracks and infuse them with the emotion, imperfections, and organic qualities that make the music feel alive.

But remember…

The most important aspect is to enjoy the production process and listen to your tracks. Avoid being analytic and sticking to the “rules” – rather focus on how the track makes you and your listeners feel. 

Take note of elements that add imperfections to your music. These are key to taking your music out of the digital world and onto a professional composition.

Sources:

Ableton Live: Grooves Explained

How to humanize your drums: 3 ways to breathe life into your MIDI