Quantizing notes can lead to a mechanical sound, but randomizing is rarely the solution
I don’t know why DAWs equate humanizing with randomness. Sure, humans don’t have the same metronomic precision as quantized MIDI data, but avoiding that metronomic precision is only a small part of what makes playing “humanized.” Really good musicians have great control over timing, and use that talent to move timing around the beat, either consciously or subconsciously, which indeed adds a more human quality. (On the other hand, if the goal is to emulate musicians who’ve had too much to drink, then randomization does a superb job!)
You can alter note timings manually (e.g., draw a marquee around the notes you want to move, then move them) or use a “slide” editing function; note that snap needs to be turned off, and these changes should be subtle. For example:
LEADING OR LAGGING THE BEAT
- Jazz drummers often hit a ride cymbal’s bell ahead of the beat (earlier) to “push” a song. You can do the same thing with a hi-hat for EDM. The image at the top shows Cubase, with a selection of MIDI notes (outlined in white) nudged slightly ahead of the beat.
- Rock drummers frequently hit the snare behind the beat (later) for a “big” sound. John Bonham was a master of this. Our ears associate delay with distance, and thus a bigger space
- For dance music, move double-time percussion parts (shaker, tambourine, etc.) slightly ahead of the beat for a “faster” feel.
- With tom fills, delay each subsequent note of the fill a tiny bit more. This can make a tom fill sound gigantic.
- If two percussion sounds or staccato harmony lines hit often on the same beat, try sliding one part ahead of or behind the beat (or one very slightly ahead and on very slightly behind) to keep the parts from interfering with each other.
- Move a crash cymbal ahead of the beat to highlight it, or behind the beat to have it mesh more with the track.
- If a bass note and kick hit on the same beat, delay the bass slightly to emphasize the drum (hence the rhythm), or advance the bass to emphasize melody. Our ears are most interested in the first few milliseconds of a sound, and this trick takes advantage of that.
- Don’t always believe the grid. Some of the most celebrated guitar solos of all time move all around the beat.