Performed music has, for the most part, been a discipline free from the rigour of metronomes and tempos. Musicians are encouraged to keep time, of course. But a wealth of expression, feeling, and dynamism can be found in the flitting around of a quantized drum groove. Intentionally making timing mistakes — or adding swing to a beat — can be a great way to give a rhythm more character. That’s just one thing I’ve consciously been adding to my workflow — and my music has breathed better for it.
In a broader sense of making and performing music, people often think too much about the intricacies of composing, writing, and singing a little too much. People joke a lot about contrasting writing music on a guitar versus writing music on a laptop, but ironically, the former requires a lower amount of effort. That’s what I’m trying to put back into composing electronic music — the ease of which ideas flow. The very nature of producing modern electronic music — whereby one has to pick a tempo, and key, before even writing a single note — can often put limits on the possibilities of where a track ends up.
‘Organic’ sounding electronic music, to me, has three fronts on which it is organic: 1. timing, 2. accents, and 3. imperfections. I’ve tried to consciously make sure most of these three elements are there when I write, and a listen of 'Wandering' should give you a good idea of what those mean.
To start, what about timing? Time where? I don’t mean making the tempo of a song vary as the track wears on, but rather that percussive elements of a song aren’t hard locked to a beat grid. There are many ways to do this: recording the percussive parts live, or via a midi controller; intentionally delaying key drums like the snare or clap by several milliseconds; or by dragging in samples that have a bit of swing to them.
Secondly, accents matter a lot in electronic music — because they’re usually missing from it. A guitarist, as they play their piece, would have a lot of slides and finger-taps that make it sound well, like an actual guitar; no plugin or VST can emulate that. Similarly, recording an improvising pianist adds a number of trills, chord shifts, and ghost notes that differ on each attempt. To add those peculiarities back into my producing, a way I get to that is that I try playing out every melodic segment, rather than writing it into MIDI. Even for simple pads or chords — I make sure to play and record every note on a velocity-sensitive keyboard. That alone gives it a touch of character, which you can further personify by automating various elements in the plugin / sampler. Instead of clicking through slopes and knobs to automate, try binding it to an actual knob on your midi keyboard and then recording its output! It feels more involved and can make for some interesting movement.
Lastly, electronic music is the antithesis to traditional ‘performed’ music - every element is quantized, pre-planned, and played at very large volumes. Imperfections in the form of mistakes, dynamics, and missing beats can go a long way in adding character. A simple trick I like to do is to play with resonance filters on pads. As they ascend through the upper harmonics of the filter — from thirds, to fifths, to ninths, to elevenths — the overtones of the filter drift more out of whack with the underlying pad’s tonal centre, making for really interesting soundscapes that can’t be traditionally mimicked by MIDI or effects. And it doesn’t have to be a hardware synth as well! Digital synths have their own intricacies, and getting good at producing is always about knowing 3-5 synthesisers inside out, rather than knowing a hundred different synthesisers.
Hopefully someone out there finds this useful! Remember, the only ‘perfect’ piece of music is the one that you’re happy with.