How to Add a Human Touch to Your Electronic Tracks With These Simple Recording Tips

By Rich Tozzoli

In today’s productions, many of the elements within a song may come from electronic sources—software instruments, digital keyboards, or other non-human sound generators. In other words, it’s not uncommon to hear a song in which the only “real” instrument is the human voice. With instrumental tracks—especially on soundtrack work—samples and electronic instruments often account for the whole thing.

While this technique certainly can be effective musically—and is definitely economical—it can also have what a friend once called the “margarine effect”: It may spread a lot like butter; it may look a lot like butter; it may even taste a lot like butter. But everyone can tell that it ain’t butter.

The same is often true with samples. They sound great, and we may not think about whether something is sampled or acoustic when we’re passively listening to, say, a TV score. But sometimes, it can seem like there’s something missing. The melody, arrangement and sound are there, but not the heart. You can groove quantize and click the “humanize” button all you want; you still won’t get butter.

But for most working composers, sampled tracks aren’t a convenience—they’re a necessity. Few of us have the time or resources to record everything live—especially if we’re writing music for a big ensemble like an orchestra. Even something relatively accessible, like a drum kit, can be hard to record if you’re in a home studio. Sequencing with samples also makes it possible to change and rearrange tracks quickly, which can be the difference between keeping or losing work in this deadline-driven business.

Fortunately, there is a way to humanize your digital tracks— and it’s easier than you might think. The addition of even just a few small “live” elements can lift the music dramatically, even when the majority of the tracks are electronic. Below are a few techniques I’ve used with my own projects and while producing others.

PERCUSSIVE ELEMENTS

While I do sometimes add real instruments to “acoustic” samples, the technique can also be effective with electronica. With loop-based music, I’ll often add some live percussion as a layer and mix it in with the loop.

I keep several baskets full of percussion instruments in my studio, ranging from wood blocks and small drums to shakers of every kind. The good thing about layering in percussion is that you don’t have to be fussy about recording it. The mic you use does not have to be fancy; it can be anything decent that lets you capture the instrument. I’ve used everything from the good old Shure SM57 to new USB mics that plug right into your computer. Because you’re layering it with a sampled instrument, the sound is less important than getting a human performance.

Speaking of which: Try not to make the percussion track so perfect that you can’t tell it’s a live performance! Many of today’s DAWs have the ability to analyze audio tracks and correct pitch and timing. So you could record a sloppy performance and quantize the audio so that all the percussive transients landed right on the grid. Sometimes, that can work, but it’s usually best to avoid that option. Let the track be free and open. If your timing is too loose, practice until you get a good feel. If you simply record a pass and then quantize the audio, you’re missing the point of the exercise.

SHAKERS

As listeners, we pick up on little things without really thinking about them. We might not notice the natural ebb and flow of dynamics, but they do resonate in our ears. Dynamics can be especially effective with percussion layers because loops tend to be very compressed.

One easy way to add both feel and dynamics to a programmed percussion part is to layer in some live shakers. I usually try to be conscious of the song’s high and low points—for example, hitting the attacks of the shakers harder in choruses than in verses.

Sometimes I’ll record a second shaker—one that’s totally different in character than the ­ first—and bring it in on choruses or anywhere else where a lift is needed. This helps differentiate the tonality of the percussion.

In the mix, I often use an EQ to roll out the top of live shakers, so they don’t stick out too much. By gently cutting frequencies from say 8kHz and above, you can soften the shaker’s overall sound—which lets you tuck it into your mix at a slightly higher volume without drawing too much attention to it.

I keep several baskets full of percussion instruments in my studio, ranging from wood blocks and small drums to shakers of every kind.

CYMBALS

I’m not a drummer, but I do own a bag of cymbals (and a single cymbal stand). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into my closet, pulled out that bag, and recorded a real cymbal to go along with sampled or electronic drums. Like the shaker, it can add the human element of imperfection to a sterile electronic track.

To take full advantage of the cymbal’s tonal colors, I make sure to hit it in different spots; I think this adds that additional layer of reality to the performance. Obviously, the bell will sound different than the edge or the body. But also, different places on each of those parts of the cymbal can resonate differently. Again, dynamics are important. You’d be surprised how many colors you can get by varying your touch on a cymbal.

For even more variety, I’ve also collected a number of different strikers. Brushes sound different than wooden dowels, which sound different than mallets or traditional drumsticks. Each has its own character, and you can change sounds substantially simply by hitting the cymbal with something else.

HAND DRUMS

I also have a varied collection of small hand drums. A small drum can put out a big sound if you capture it right. I usually mic them very close (being careful not to clip or overload the signal) and play them with either my hands or mallets. Once the drum is captured, I can enhance it by using an EQ to add low end; I might also boost top end to help it cut through a mix.

Also, you can get creative with reverb and put the drums into any variety of spaces, depending on the needs of your production. Small drums in a large cavernous space can sound huge. A nice trick is to EQ the reverb, adding low end to the sound of the space, but not directly to the drum itself. Sometimes, I’ll use a space with a very short reverb—like a room—and pan it to the opposite side of the dry drum. This creates a bigger sense of dimension.

Another composer I know, who also is not a drummer, keeps a drum kit on hand and, when necessary, plays individual drums one at a time to add life to his tracks.

Once you’ve set up your mics, recording live percussion lets you be spontaneous. I’ve recorded many low, mid, and high toms with towels on them for a cool muted pulse. I’ve also ­flipped kick drums on their side and recorded those with a mallet or a stick.

STRINGS

Percussion isn’t the only way to add the human element to your tracks. You can add a lot of life to a sampled string section, for example, by recording and mixing in just one live player.

Many times, I have a violinist, violist, or cellist come in and play over the MIDI track. It takes the stiffness out of track and adds the human feel. there’s something about the movement of one live bow that makes the whole sampled orchestra come to life. The ebb and ­flow of dynamics and volume, as well as the non-perfect time of even a single overdub can lift a sterile string track to a whole new level. If there’s time, I may go further and ask them to record multiple passes, which can create a little “live” string section. The same ideas can work with winds and brass.

Unlike the percussion, strings and winds need to be recorded carefully—even when you’re layering them with samples. Use the best microphone you can get your hands on, even if you have to beg, borrow, or rent. Stringed instruments have a wide frequency range, and winds have a lot of textures. The ­flatter and more natural the microphone you use, the better your recording will sound. You can of course try to use EQ to boost or cut certain frequencies, but it’s better to get them captured correctly from the beginning.

Of course, strings and percussion are just two examples. Pretty much any sampled instrument can be enhanced by a live performance. So pull out the old horn you played in marching band, grab some mallets, rosin your bow, and get tracking.