- Do it naturally
Try playing your parts – including drums – manually. If you’ve programmed them already, go back and try to play them in real time. You’ll naturally add your own swing, which you can subsequently tidy up, and ultimately, your grooves and tracks will sound better for it.
If your quantise engine enables you to add an element of randomness, give it a try, as it can often make things sound much more natural. Be aware that you might need to adjust some of the critical notes, or exclude them from the quantisation, though.
- Get out of the groove
Don’t just use the same groove map over and over. It can be easy to fall into this trap, but nothing generates creative stagnation faster than using the same trick in the same way time and time again. Always try out new maps every few projects – if they sound rubbish, you don’t have to use them!
- Make your own maps
Build your own library of groove maps, taken from your favourite tracks, both new and old. And then try using them on some unexpected types of music.
- Manual override
Don’t just rely on rigid groove quantisation maps or grooves that you’ve extracted. Try shifting notes manually occasionally, especially once you’ve spent a bit of time getting to know what such changes do to the sound. You can then make a whole new map out of your edited groove and save it into your library.
- Delay to push
It’s often said that pre-delay adds a sense of urgency while delay makes things a bit lazier, and taken in isolation, this is normally true. But it’s worth noting that sometimes delaying one element might make another sound like it’s pushed forward – increasing the perceived pace – so always try both directions.
- Size matters
The length and strength of notes is almost as important to a groove as their actual placement. This is as true of drums as anything else, so with electronic music, use sharp note length changes. And with real drums, try tightening decay times or muting or damping them with pillows and other softening pads.
- Make sound choices
This sounds like the most obvious point ever, but be honest: how often do you return to the same familiar sample sets simply because you’ve gotten good results using them in the past? This is fine every once in a while, but if this is true for half of the music you make, things are quickly going to turn quite stale. Instead, use your imagination and look for unusual sounds to stand out from the crowd.
- Filters rules
The key to getting elements of your grooves bubbling away, rising and falling within the mix, is filtering. Filters controlled by LFOs can produce contrasting bright and dull moments, which keep the ear engaged. Similarly, entire loops can be filtered so that they’re ready for the club.
- Use layers
Prevent your grooves from losing their mojo by making sure there’s enough going on at every level. Try to make sure most of the groove is ‘immediate’ and catchy, while ensuring there are other bits that won’t be heard until the tenth play through. Carefully layered parts with detail across the frequency spectrum are the key to this.
- Automate effects parameters
Don’t keep effects treatments static. It’s so easy to automate auxiliary send levels that there’s no excuse for not doing so! Feed ever-changing amounts of your dry signal into your effects so that you can highlight certain parts whilst keeping others dry.
- Use stereo
For some reason, the pan dial seems to get little or no love from some producers. Imagine the stereo spectrum as a wide-screen cinema rather than an old TV set. Push sounds to the edges by using stereo spread plug-ins and get some ‘ultra-width’ into your mixes.
- Use delay
Use delay to get movement into your grooves too, though be careful that the settings you choose don’t become predictable, otherwise your listeners will lose interest. The best way to keep delays moving is to put another ‘modulating’ effect after them, such as a phaser, flanger or filter. Put these on an auxiliary bus and you’ve got the best of both worlds – a dry signal and a warped echo.
- Velocity is crucial
There are some amazing drum packages out there and, in a bid to be competitive, manufacturers pack them to the rafters with features. This doesn’t just mean lots of kits but plenty of multisamples too. With this in mind, be sure to experiment with velocity, as it won’t just add dynamics to your programming but, often, completely unexpected sounds as well.
EQ is the tool to use when you’re looking to keep instruments separated. If you’ve got a lot of individual parts playing at once, you might need to pinch a few frequencies here and there. Filters will do this, but so will good old EQ plug-ins – use them to lift and enhance but also to limit and diminish.
- Read up
Read the section of your DAW manual that relates to quantise and groove exhaustively, as each one has its own features, which can be useful, fun or just plain confusing. But everything will be specific to that sequencer, so it can be easily overlooked.
- Don’t swing everything
With all our talk of groove quantise, it’s important to remember that swing is only swing when measured against strict quantisation – so sometimes it’s worth having an element in your track without swing. In particular, electronic music often benefits from having at least one fast, straight element – say a closed hi-hat on 16th-notes.
- Listen and learn
When emulating music that’s been played live using programmed electronic techniques, it’s important to mimic the playing style of real instrumentalists. So listen closely to your chosen style and analyse it meticulously. Does the bass player play ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’ the drummer, for example? These are the touches that will add authenticity to your music.