When discussing music, people often use the word “live” to describe something that has a raw, fluid, and natural sound to it. This has become a caveat of lo-fi hip-hop, bedroom pop, and other genres which have rejected the mechanisms of quantization, pitch perfection, and other hallmarks of modern production in favor of electrifying blemishes, enhancing intimacy, and leaving pureness intact.
Soulful musical warts and all.
Now, that’s not to say that music has to feel raw to be honest or emotionally valid, but listeners can tell when something feels too robotic; that’s for sure. So, let’s explore some creative choices and techniques that can add a “live” feel to our home recordings.
1. Ditch Quantization
I love computers! I love Logic FlexTime™, Elastic Audio, snap to grid, sample replacement and the rest of it… All of these functions are incredible and important. Does it make our music sound live? Definitely not. The first step to getting a live feel on our home recordings is to let some imperfection just… be.
We can start simply by only lightly quantizing drums and percussion, or by avoiding it all together à la free flowing, hip-hop production icon, J Dilla, who produced drum samples largely in real time. When we use strong quantization, we remove any push/pull from the groove of our track. Things become hypnotic, and repetitive, and stand to lose a lot of “life.”
We can correct this in several ways.
One technique is to use the “randomize” parameter in your DAW’s MIDI controls. Randomize allows us to apply random velocity or timing information to an entire MIDI part within a set range. This varies dynamics and creates more “flow” in our beats. For drums, try setting velocity between 99-119, with 100% randomization. You can apply the same technique to the timing of your notes, so that every note doesn’t hit right on the grid.
In Logic Pro, you can select the strength of quantization next to the piano roll in the MIDI edit window. Try around 20% to keep things “live” and adjust from there. And speaking of “live,” if you’re working in Ableton Live, Soundfly’s brand new Intro to Music Production in Ableton Live course can help you master the tools and techniques of producing music and prepping tracks for live performance in this versatile DAW.
2. Got 99 Problems but Pitch Ain’t One
Melodyne and AutoTune are great tools that give us a mind-boggling amount of control over our recorded vocals, but by default make our music sound “produced.” While some vocal editing may be necessary, going overboard is a surefire way to take all of the life out of our vocals and therefore our tracks.
Try using subtle pitch correction effects, with slow re-tune speed, allowing the natural vibrato to remain, and even bypassing the effect on certain notes or passages to let them be. Ignoring notes that are several cents flat or sharp won’t ruin your song, and in fact, it might make for a more candid, sincere vocal altogether.
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3. Use a Room Reverb
Another great way to make our bedroom recordings sound “live” is to mimic another real-life space (not our bedroom) using a reverb plug-in. Instead of putting different reverbs on individual tracks, create a single aux channel or FX bus, and dial up a room reverb that models the desired feel. This could be a studio, small room, club, or concert hall. Send a bit of each instrument to this reverb using “sends” on each channel strip. This will create a cohesion across your entire mix.
Make sure you use an aux channel, and don’t place the reverb on your master bus or stereo output. This applies the reverb to the entire mix evenly, and doesn’t give us control over how much of each individual track we can send to the reverb, leading to over-saturation and “muddiness.”
4. Use Your Space
Take advantage of the space you do have to capture the subtleties and quirks of your bedroom. I’m talking about everything from placing your microphone in one corner and wailing in the other to creating your own percussion from whatever objects you have lying around; or recording as many actual “live” elements as possible.
You can even try recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time, or doing a one-take solo.
One favorite technique of mine when recording background or gang vocals, is to place my microphone in one spot, then record each take from a different angle/distance. This adds natural depth, variation and stereo image to your recording.
Circling back around to tip #1, don’t obsess over matching the rhythm of your harmonies or background vocals to your lead vocal or each other. Live bands don’t always hit every consonant/vowel sound at the exact same time, and leaving some crossover will make our recording sound “live.”
+ Read more on Flypaper: “5 Ways to Mic an Acoustic Guitar”
5. Less Is More
To really give our recordings a live feel, we need to be mindful of how much fluff we layer on. 128-track sessions in most genres won’t sound live no matter how hard you try. Four-part harmonies, ten guitar tracks and trap beats layered on-top of live drums and percussion will be a dead giveaway of something that is highly-produced.
The same can be said for heavy processing and use of effects like delay on vocals or sample replacement of our drums.
These elements can certainly be combined with other live elements to create varying shades of authenticity, but always bear in mind the limitations of the human instrument when producing with the intention of creating a “live” feel. If you can’t do it on-stage, drop it!
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