Before we jump into specifics of organic beats, let’s do some theory… Why do we perceive some things as natural & organic, while others seem artificial? For something to be perceived as organic, it would need to be unique and will show a few imperfections. It’s the opposite of perfect! Say you need a new studio desk. If you’re looking at plastic desk, you will get exactly the same desk you ordered. Now if you picked out a cool looking wooden desk, you should be prepared that the texture is never the exact same you saw on the website or store. Each piece of wood is unique, even if they are manufactured to the highest standards.
The exact same holds true for music. Organic beats show imperfections in timing, velocity, sound and more throughout the track. They keep evolving and don’t get boring. Often it’s subtle changes that you barely notice but in sum they make all the difference! So let’s look at ways to make your beats more organic.
01. Add Swing.
The easiest and quickest way to make your beats more organic is by adding swing. Swing shifts your notes slightly off the grid, meaning a drum beat for example would not perfectly in sync with the metronome anymore, but ever so slightly off.
Depending on what sort of swing you are setting it can feel very much like a human played it live. A lot of swing setting are from vintage drum machines and samplers, most notably the MPC swing and SP1200 swing. Aside from the original machine and percentage of swing, you often you get the choice between 16th note swing and 8th note swing. While 16th swing is often simply a good bit more groovy, adding 8th swing often lets your drum track stumble all over itself. Experimenting with these can be fun and lead to super creative results.
TIP: Usually medium (50-65%) 16th swing will get that organic beats feel!
02. Play It Live!
Obvious, yeah? Well why are not more people doing it then? Instead of fiddling in your software with swing settings, why don’t you get a midi controller and record the parts of your beat yourself. What you get is not only instant organic results and imperfections, they will be all uniquely you! To be clear: You need to turn off quantize while you record. Only then you are recording the way you actually play things.
If you don’t feel confident enough to bang out beats yourself, you can either correct the timing later in the software or dig in and learn how to fingerdrum and play the keys with the awesome software from Melodics!
03. Drag It Off Grid.
Confused by the previous two tips? Then let’s give you the easiest, but also the most time consuming method. You can always go through your beat note by note and moving each drum hit slightly off the grid. It takes a lot of time, but the results are often super unique.
Drag the notes to the right and you get a lazy feel for the track – often perfect for hip hop and lo-fi. If you drag the notes to the left, then the beat feel more driving, something which is cool in more uptempo tracks and a lot of funk music.
Don’t go overboard tho, leave at the very least the first kick drum in a 4 bar loop on grid. The listener’s brain needs a frame of reference and if you start shifting everything around, then there’s nothing it can hold on to and looses interest real quick.
Cool? Then you can do the same for the velocity your drums throughout the track. Leave the first kick as is, but vary your other hits slightly, because a real drummer wouldn’t hit the hi-hat consistently with the same velocity either…
04. Add Ghost Notes.
Ah, one of my favourite topics is ghost notes. If you listen to real drummers, you hear a lot of in between notes, the so-called ghost notes. These are extra hits (played a bit softer) that make your beat more interesting, give it texture and grit. If you want to learn more about this, check out our tutorial on Ghost Kicks & Ghost Snares.
05. Automate a Filter.
We already talked about the fact that if you play a real drum kit, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you never hit the drum in exactly the same way. Each time you would have tiny, tiny difference. The speed the drumstick hits the drum would be the velocity in your software. A slightly different angle or point of contact when hitting the drum, would give you something else – slight tonal changes. You can emulate tonal changes quite easily by automating your equalizer. All you want is that for every hit the frequency, the gain and the Q-factor move just a tiny bit up or down. These are subtle differences you are going for, so don’t go crazy on this one, ok?
06. Steal The Groove.
We all have our own favourite organic beats we would love to emulate. A lot of DAWs actually let you extract the groove from a song. This is a bit like the swing feature mentioned above, but based on the track you fed into it. So if you want your drums to swing like Flying Lotus, a good bet would be to find a song or two of him and run them through the Extract Groove feature (this is in Ableton Live for example).
This groove template you can now apply to your own beat and your static, perfectly gridded drum track will all of a sudden groove like FlyLo’s. Well you will probably need to do more to the beat than just grab apply a cool groove template, but it’s a big step in the right direction!
Make Organic Beats!
With the above techniques (swing, playing, dragging, ghost notes and groove templates) you should be able to easily make beats with an organic feel to them. So have fun playing and experimenting with these techniques.