When live musicians play instruments, there are subtle, constant variations in the tuning and length of notes that help to create the sense that the music is “alive.” How can you recreate this effect in electronic music?
On most traditional instruments, all or most of the stages of the amplitude envelope are entirely under the control of the performer. And on some instruments (such as woodwinds, brass instruments, and stringed instruments without frets), the player also controls the tuning of each note. But most electronic instruments use an envelope generator to determine the amplitude characteristics of the sound, and use conventional equal-tempered tuning to determine pitch. This makes these instruments predictable and easy to play, but at the expense of some of the subtlety and expression that gives non- electronic music its human character. Here are some ideas about how to use your DAW’s automation envelopes to provide some humanization to any electronic instrument.
Most of the time, synthesizer programming involves setting the parameter values that define the sound and then mostly leaving them alone. Many producers will employ some automation to give the sound a sense of motion, but this is often applied to just a few controls—filter cutoff and maybe resonance. But by applying even subtle automation to a few more parameters, you can create much richer and more organic sounds.
Rather than treating amplitude envelope parameters as static values, try employing automation to change these values over the course of a phrase or even over your whole arrangement. In particular, by varying the attack and decay times, you can create subtle changes in the perceived duration of notes. In most cases, the actual parameter values used won’t really matter much. This means you might also be able to achieve a similar effect by using parameter randomization tools (if your DAW provides them) rather than needing to create long automation envelopes. But even if you do choose to use automation, you’ll likely find that this is substantially less work than editing the durations of individual MIDI notes.
Additionally, try using automation to create small variations in the overall tuning of the synth. It’s critical that these changes be extremely small. The goal is to simulate the kinds of human intonation “errors” that give live instruments character, but tuning shifts of more than a few cents in either direction are likely to simply sound out of tune. And as with amplitude envelopes, the actual tuning values probably won’t really matter, which means that you might be able to get the same effect via randomization.
By applying subtle automation or randomization to envelope and pitch parameters, you can emulate a lot of the subtle characteristics that make live instruments sound so organic. But there’s no reason to stop with only these parameters. Modern synthesizers, samplers, and effects often have a huge number of adjustable parameters, many of which are either ignored outright or are set once per sound and then forgotten. Try experimenting with subtle automation changes to any of these parameters as well. You may find that the results sound artificial and strange, but it’s possible that this is exactly the character your music needs.