Over-quantizing can suck the life out of songs, but there are solutions
One of the complaints about “MIDI music” is that quantizing everything to the beat sucks the life out of a song by eliminating the kind of timing variations humans make. But that’s not the fault of MIDI— the problem is the person doing the quantization. So, here are three ways to make quantization more human-sounding.
QUANTIZATION STRENGTH: MOVING NOTES CLOSER TO THE BEAT
Instead of quantizing to the beat, quantize with 50% strength. This moves the note closer to the beat. If the timing still isn’t tight enough, quantize again by 50%. You’ll find that often, notes that are ahead of or behind the beat are intended to contribute feel, but the player isn’t precise enough with the timing—so the timing variations are too “loose.” Tightening up the timing can preserve the intent, but sound less sloppy.
For example, the image above shows Cubase’s Iterative Quantize option, as found on the program’s quantize panel. It’s set here for 50%, and outlined in red. A little bit of swing has been added as well (see below), but randomization is set to 0. Also, note that Studio One has a dedicated 50% quantize command.
QUANTIZE TO HUMAN TIMING WITH GROOVE QUANTIZING
This feature allows for quantizing to a humanized groove. For example, someone might have converted the audio from a percussion part played by a human into MIDI data, and you can use that as a template to quantize a percussion part instead of quantizing to the grid.
HOW SWING GIVES A MORE FLOWING FEEL
The Swing parameter still quantizes to a grid that lengthens the first note of a pair of equal-value notes, and shortens the second note of the pair so that both notes still have the same combined time. Swing is common with hip-hop productions; adding just a little bit of swing (even a couple percent, like 52% or 2%, depending on how the program chooses to calibrate swing), can add a less rigid, more flowing feel to a piece of music. You may also find that one instrument using swing doesn’t mean everything has to use swing. For example, a drum pattern could have just a hint of swing even if some other instruments use strict quantization. Most of the time, the two won’t clash.