If you can’t play a musical instrument with authority, but want to emulate an authentic professional performance, then this blog is for you.
Many music producers don’t actually play an instrument. They might know their way around a keyboard and get a feel for what sounds good, but can’t knock out a performance on cue.
Whilst that shouldn't hold you back, it can put you at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to programming an instrument when compared to an expert recording.
You might not know this about me, but I have a first class honours degree in Drum Performance, and I have fronted bands singing and playing guitar. I mention this as it has dramatically impacted how I experience music and how I approach mastering in a musical way.
I want to draw back the curtain on some ideas that I think can give musicians an edge over non-musicians. Hopefully you can use these ideas to make your tracks sound more authentic and musical.
Emulating The Playing Style of a Musician
If you’re programming drums, bass, piano, or any other instrument, listen to great performances and see what tangible ideas and approaches you can extract.
People think that reference tracks are just for mixing and mastering, this is absolutely not the case. Reference tracks can be extremely useful when choosing samples, synth sounds, and also when actually programming the performances. In fact, it makes the mixing and mastering much easier later on.
Try this with your next production, fire up your reference tracks early on in the process. At this stage they don’t have to be a rigid sonic representation of the sound you’re going for. Focus on finding a track that brilliantly mirrors the vibe you’re going for.
At this early stage, your production will just be the bare bones with hardly any processing, whereas any reference track will be a full mix and master. This can make the comparison challenging, as the dynamics and density of the productions will be very different. This makes it all-the-more important to accurately level-match your reference track and your production. Our plugin REFERENCE does this for you automatically and updates in real-time so the comparison is always fair.
If you skip this step, you might succumb to the bias of ‘louder equals better’. Louder audio sounds richer in the low-end and clearer in the high end. If your track is quieter, you might feel like it’s necessary to add a low-end and high-end boost…But, those moves might just ruin your audio. Until you level-match it’s impossible to tell. So, respect your time and level-match early on.
During your analysis, zero in on the nuances of the various musical performances.
Pay attention to the details. Small details like timing, phrasing, and accents can make a big difference in the authenticity of a production, just as they do in a musician's performance.
Understanding the Structure, Volume and Articulation of a Performance:
Understanding how a musician uses structure, volume and articulation can help you create more authentic and expressive productions.
Music takes the listener on a journey, builds suspense and then releases at just the right moment for maximum satisfaction. You don’t want your musical performance to go full virtuoso immediately. A simple example of this is that most chorus’ have vocals at a higher pitch and louder than the verse, as this is more exciting.
Warm up your listener, reel them in, then hit them with the good stuff when the time is right. Use rests (or ‘silence’) to break up your melodies and rhythms… Trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the greatest Jazz musicians of all time, famously said "It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play." This wisdom applies to any instrument in any genre. Keep it in mind, and you’ll find yourself writing more interesting and more credible music.
Compliment The Other Instruments:
All the elements of your song should work together harmoniously.
When programming an instrument, think about the style, vibe, complexity and tone of the other instruments. When the vocalist enters, the other instruments don’t compete, they support. It would be inappropriate for a drum solo to outshine the vocalists' emotional middle-8 for example.
You can use the table below to help you identify what instruments would compliment your arrangement. For example, let’s say you started with a piano with the frequencies focussed in the high mids, a basic rhythm, warm timbre, laid-back energy, mostly centered stereo width and a medium volume (these attributes have been highlighted in blue on the graph below). To compliment your piano you might choose to add an element that doesn't conflict with the majority of these characteristics. You might choose a bass with the frequencies focussed in the low end, a complex rhythm, dark timbre, upbeat energy, mono stereo width and medium volume (these attributes have been highlighted in green on the graph below). If you have multiple elements in your mix that are very similar in all 6 categories your music will sound cluttered.
How To Think Like A BASS Player:
If you’re programming a bass line, listen to a few tracks that have an awesome bass player laying some cool and unique ideas down. Pino Palladino is regarded as one of the best bass players of our time, if you’re wondering about who to study, start with him.
The role of the bass player is to set the foundational tone of the track. Often playing the route note of the chords with occasional embellishments.
If the melody lines of other instruments are relatively complex, your bass line might be more simple in comparison. Sparser melody lines, or just a chord progression might lend itself better to a busier bass line.
How To Think Like A DRUMMER:
Laying down a groove is one of the most rewarding parts of creating a song. You start to get the energy and drive of your song, helping it shape how the production will evolve into the finished masterpiece.
The drummer has a plethora of choices to make to accompany the other musical elements. Should the playing style be aggressive or soft? What is an appropriate and tasty ‘drum fill’ to introduce the chorus? What note division (quarter/eighths/sixteenths notes) will work best and will syncopation (when you accent or emphasize the offbeats) work well or be distracting? The list of possibilities is a long one, and in most cases you can go with your gut and what you’ve heard in the past for a good starting point.
With modern DAWs, loops and sample packs, you can lay down a beat very quickly. But a loop playing all the way through the track will sound unnatural and monotonous. Rather than relying heavily on loops, think about progressing the cymbals used, from hi-hats in the verse, to open hi-hats in the pre-chorus, and crashes or a ride for the chorus.
Similarly, evolving the snare sound through the track gives the track a more exciting dynamic range. A damper, less aggressive backbeat or even a cross stick sound might work well for the verse with the snare ramping up into a full rim-shot for the chorus. The snare sets the vibe for the song, so it’s important to get this right!
To level up your drum programming, steal a few cool ideas from great drummers (or well-programmed drums). Steve Gadd is regarded as one of the best drummers of all time. Check out a few youtube videos of him playing and see if there’s anything you can work into one of your songs.
How To Think Like A PIANIST:
The piano is a complex instrument, so I'll focus on the one technique that will elevate your piano programming: inversions.
Sometimes it can feel like your chords make too much of a leap from one chord to the next. It can make your progression feel jumpy and give your track an awkward and unmusical vibe. Using ‘Inversions’ is where you change the octave of some of the notes within a chord to make the note jumps as close as possible. If there are ‘common notes’ between two chords, try to match them up on the same octave. Don’t forget to check the relationship of the first and last chord in the progression.
Here is an example of how you can improve the flow of a i / III / IV / VII chord progression in the Dorian Mode using inversions.
Dorian D progression built from chord degrees. Feels jumpy and lacks flow.
Same Dorian D progression with the notes transposed to flow better.
The quantise function is a great time saver when it comes to making music, but too much quantisation will suck the emotion out of your music.
Humans don’t play instruments or sing perfectly in time, so they find it more difficult to connect with music that has these robotic characteristics. Once you have a midi part programmed into your DAW, you can manipulate it to achieve a well-timed and organic performance.
In most DAWs you can set the percentage of quantisation, so rather making everything land perfectly on the beat, you can quantise to around 70-80% to keep things a little loose. Listen to how this sounds in the context of your entire mix and you can quantise any individual notes that are too loose to 90-100%.
The velocity of the midi notes is also very important. When a pianist plays the piano, their fingers don’t press each key with equal pressure. The fingers don't land and lift from the keys at the same time either.
Add some velocity and note length variation between the notes of your chord progressions to emulate the performance of a pianist. It can make all the difference.
The statement that a musical performance has a greater emotional effect than a static performance has been scientifically proven and published in a paper titled, ‘Dynamic Emotional and Neural Responses to Music Depend on Performance Expression and Listener Experience’. 29 people were analyzed using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology and written examinations as they listened to two different versions of Frédéric Chopin's Etude in E major, Op.10, No. 3. One version was played expressively by a talented pianist, the other had the note length set and quantised to exactly match the original musical notation. The velocity was also set to constant throughout the performance. Below is a quote from the finding of this study.
“These results provide evidence that temporal dynamics of expressive rhythmic performance increase emotion-related neural activations, and that musically experienced listeners are more sensitive in this regard.”
Source: Chapin H, Jantzen K, Scott Kelso JA, Steinberg F, Large E (2010) Dynamic Emotional and Neural Responses to Music Depend on Performance Expression and Listener Experience. PLoS ONE 5(12): e13812. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013812
It’s unlikely that you’ll be an expert on every instrument, and that’s ok! Using the approaches set out in this blog post should help you create better performances that will help your music sound more authentic. Keep referencing, and keep learning from great performances.