How to Humanize MIDI Drums in Backing Tracks

Learn how to humanize your MIDI drums by keeping three core principles in mind: dynamics, placement, and variation. Instantly add energy and emotion to your backing tracks by following this guide!

If you don’t humanize your MIDI drums, your guitar backing tracks may end up sounding like 80s pop music. Mind you, if that’s the sound you’re going for, then that’s great! Carry on. 🙂 But if you want your MIDI drums to sound like they were performed by real drummers on acoustic drum kits, then this guide is for you.

💡 Important: Please ensure you have read my tutorials on adding MIDI drums to backing tracks and creating tempo maps before proceeding.

Before We Start…

A brief word on formatting. I have loosely classified this guide as a “supplementary tutorial,” but it does not proceed in linear, step-by-step fashion, unlike my other tutorials. You can think of it more as a set of core principles to keep in mind while you’re building up your drum patterns in your backing tracks.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s get into it.

Why Humanize Your MIDI Drums?

Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash

You might be saying to yourself, “why should I bother humanizing my MIDI drums?” Your main instrument is the guitar or bass, after all, and it’s what other people will presumably focus on if you use your backing tracks in your cover videos. So why go through the hassle ?

Two main reasons:

1. Human-Sounding Drums Add Energy and Emotion to Your Playing

I like to think of drummers as the emotional core of any band. A drummer using a light touch will inspire you to take a softer approach to your playing. When they kick things up a notch, you’ll respond in kind.

Careful with That Axe, Eugene – Pink Floyd – Live at Pompeii

The above performance is a great example. After Roger Waters plays a few notes of the main bass riff, Nick Mason brings the rest of the band in with a light, slow, sparse pattern on his ride cymbal. David Gilmour and Rick Wright play off that soft beat with quiet, atmospheric sounds. The song builds up to a crescendo at the 3:30 mark, when Mason suddenly plays a loud fill. The rest of the band explodes in response.

If you were performing along with a backing track based on that song, do you think you’d play it with the same gusto if the tempo remained the same throughout? If the drums didn’t sound as though they were being hit quite as forcefully? I think not.

2. Human-Sounding Drums Just Sound Better

If people listening to your covers anticipate the sound of an acoustic drum kit, they won’t find your cover nearly as appealing if your drums sound stiff and robotic. Listen to this Guitar Pro backing track for “Roxanne” by The Police, as an example. The MIDI drums, while transcribed accurately, sound pretty uninspiring. Now listen to the backing track made by yours truly for the same song. I don’t mean to toot my own horn here or anything, but I know which backing track I’d rather listen to, both as a creator and as someone who enjoys music.

Humanizing MIDI Drums: Three Core Principles

You know now why it’s important to humanize your MIDI drums. So how do you do it? By keeping the core principles of humanization in mind: dynamics, placement, and variation.

Adjusting Note Velocity to Humanize Dynamics

Velocity is a MIDI-specific term that refers to the force with which a MIDI note is played. The lower the velocity, the softer the note, and vice versa. No drummer, I repeat, no drummer hits the same part of the drum kit with the same intensity every time.

There’s no better way to get your MIDI drums sounding like a robotic drum machine than to set every note at the same velocity. Humanizing velocity requires a mix of manual adjustment and automation. I’ll demonstrate how to do both here with my preferred DAW for creating backing tracks, Cubase.

Manually Adjusting Velocity

To manually adjust velocity in Cubase:

  1. Double click the MIDI pattern you want to adjust.
  2. Select the MIDI notes you want to change in the Editor window.
    • Workflow Tip: click your left mouse button and drag to select multiple notes, or hold CTRL while clicking to select multiple specific notes.
  3. While the MIDI notes are selected, hover your cursor over the velocity bars at the bottom of the Editor interface.
  4. When your cursor turns into two arrows (one facing up, one facing down), you can click to drag the velocities of all selected notes up or down.

Manual adjustments of velocity are especially crucial for hi-hats and cymbals, as it’s common for drummers to alternate dramatically between accented hits and unaccented hits on those parts of the drum kit.

For example, here’s the hi-hat pattern used in “Roxanne” by The Police:

Eighth note hi-hat pattern in Cubase Pro 12.

The note on each beat is accented, while the off-beat is unaccented (except for the final off-beat, when the hi-hat is fully open). I tend to set unaccented notes to half the intensity of accented notes. See my brief video below for an example:

Drum Humanization Tutorial – Manually Adjusting Velocity

You’ll need to listen very closely to your source material when manually adjusting velocity. Drum cover videos and live footage may also help you out.

💡 Important: A common mistake people make when they’re setting drum velocity is to set all of their “loud” notes to the max value of 127. This leaves no dynamic headroom. Depending on the sample, a MIDI drum note will still sound “loud” when set to a value between 100-120. I tend to reserve the max value for big crashes and isolated snare hits that need to be really loud.

Automatically Adjusting Velocity

Even after manually adjusting velocity to account for major changes in dynamics, your drums will likely still sound a little robotic and clockwork-like. You can resolve this issue with subtle changes in velocity on each note. It would be too time consuming to do this by hand. Luckily, you can automate the process in Cubase with the help of MIDI modifiers.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Ensure that the MIDI track Inspector is selected on the left hand side of your screen.
  2. Click on the tab called “MIDI Modifiers.”
  3. Under “Random 1” select “Velocity” as your “Random Target.”
  4. Enter subtle Min and Max values, like -5 and +5, or -10 and +10.
    • This will randomly increase or decrease the velocity on each note on the MIDI track by up to five or ten points.

Watch the brief video below for an example:

Drum Humanization Tutorial – Automatically Adjusting Velocity

To demonstrate to you that the MIDI modifiers do actually change the sound (because you may find it difficult to hear), I also entered some more dramatic values towards the end of the video. Play around with them until the amount of random velocity variation sounds right to you.

Separating MIDI Drum Tracks for Tailored Velocity Adjustments

You might not want the velocity on your snare notes to deviate as much as the velocity on, say, your hi-hat notes. Or, you may want to simply subtract velocity from your snare notes, while also adding and subtracting velocity to and from your hi-hat notes.

There is unfortunately no way to assign specific MIDI modifiers to specific notes in Cubase. The easiest way to get around this limitation is to create separate MIDI tracks for different parts of the drum kit, and then route those tracks to your drum VST. This process is explained in Step 4 of my main MIDI drums tutorial. When you separate the drum parts out into dedicated tracks, you can then tailor your MIDI modifiers to each track.

A Quick Note on Velocity and Drum VST Samples

It should be noted that many drum VSTs, such as Superior Drummer 3, associate particular drum samples with particular velocity ranges. Ride cymbals are a classic case in point. Gentle tapping ride cymbal sounds are associated with lower velocities, while large, shimmery, washy ride cymbal sounds are associated with higher velocities. To trigger the “right” sample in your drum VST, you will likely have to play around with your velocity settings for certain parts of your virtual drum kit.

Workflow Tip: When to Make Your Manual Velocity Adjustments

You should ideally make your manual velocity adjustments before you copy and paste any commonly repeating patterns (see Step 9 of my first MIDI drum tutorial). Your automatic adjustments can be made at any time, and can be enabled or disabled in Cubase without permanently altering the velocity of any notes.

Shifting MIDI Notes off the Grid to Humanize Placement

No drummer plays perfectly on the beat — not even human metronome, Larry Mullen Jr. You’ll therefore want to shift your MIDI notes off the grid slightly to account for the slight dragging and rushing that all drummers are prone to.

I don’t recommend making manual adjustments to MIDI note placement unless you absolutely have to. Making automated adjustments is easy in Cubase. Follow the instructions given above for automatically adjusting velocity, but select “Position” instead of “Velocity” as the “Random Target.” As with the velocity modifiers, you’ll want to enter in subtle Min/Max values. Changes in MIDI note position should be barely perceptible — randomly displaced just enough to trick your brain into thinking a real drummer is playing.

Setting MIDI modifiers for note position in Cubase Pro 12.

💡 Important: If you’re using a tempo map based on a live performance or studio recording, shifting notes off the grid will not be necessary. Only modify note placement if your backing track is set to a fixed tempo.

Humanizing Patterns with Note Variation

When you listen closely to a human drum performance, you’ll notice that there is usually some degree of pattern variation throughout the song. Some drummers practically drench songs in little fills, rolls, and ruffs, while others garnish lightly with ghost notes.

As easy and tempting as it would be to just copy and paste the same pattern for each verse and each chorus, I encourage you to listen very closely to what the drummer is doing in the original recording. Add in any of the small variations you hear to humanize your backing track.

I won’t go into all of the different techniques drummers use to introduce variation into their playing, but I’ll explain how to recreate two of the most common ones: ghost notes and rolls.

Ghost Notes

Ghost notes are quiet notes that follow louder accented notes to add rhythmic complexity to a pattern. They are easy to reproduce with MIDI, and are typically used on snares. Simply add in a note where the ghost note occurs in the recording, and manually pull the velocity down a bit. That’s it! Click here to hear some snare ghost notes (and a small roll) in my backing track for U2’s “Until the End of the World.”

Roll

In the context of drumming, a “roll” is a series of evenly spaced notes, usually played in rapid succession. Drum rolls vary in length and intensity. You often hear them used on snares, toms, and even hi-hats. To create a roll in Cubase, ensure your grid is set to display 1/16 or 1/32 note divisions. Then add in a series of 16th or 32nd notes where the roll occurs in the song.

Brief 32nd note hi-hat roll in Cubase Pro 12.

How you adjust the velocity of the roll will depend on how the roll was originally played. You’ll need to listen to your reference tracks carefully, as drummers will sometimes build volume during a roll, and then reduce volume (all while still continuing the roll). The long tom roll section in U2’s “Rejoice” is a good example of this.

No matter how you adjust the velocity, keep in mind that the drummer’s dominant hand tends to hit the drum head a little harder than their non-dominant hand during a roll. You may want to simulate that in your velocity settings for each alternate note.

Workflow Tip: How to Gradually Increase Velocity

To steadily “ramp” up velocity during a roll, click and drag your mouse to select the MIDI notes you wish to adjust. Then, hover your mouse over the left hand side of the velocity bars beneath the MIDI notes. Your cursor will change appearance, and a “Tilt Left” info box will appear. Click and drag your cursor down; the velocity bars to the right side of the selection will be relatively unchanged compared to the left, giving you a quick and easy crescendo.

Conclusion

It can be a bit time consuming to humanize MIDI drums, but it’s well worth the effort. I hope this guide will help you create MIDI drum patterns of your own that sound a lot more human, and a lot less robotic. Feel free to reach out for assistance, if needed.


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

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