midi is an amazing tool at the heart of many forms of modern music production. however, in exchange for convenience it brings a dry consistency to the instruments it controls, correctable only at the cost of tedium. fortunately, ableton gives producers many options for bringing life to this cold digital world & today we will have a look at a few of them.
manually adjust individual notes
when just a few notes need a little love, holding down cmd (ctrl on windows) & dragging up or down on a note provides a fast, surgical method for adding variation to your midi's velocity. changing velocity this way will likely fit tidily into your existing workflow inside the piano roll so it's definitely the quickest method for velocity adjustments while composing midi clips.
keep in mind this affects every selected note so you can adjust more than one at a time. just hold shift and click on any additional notes to add to your selection. when you hold cmd and drag on any of them, all of their velocities will be adjusted by the same amount.
if you need your notes' velocities to change in a creative & linear way, there's no better tool than line draw. just hold down cmd (ctrl) & drag out the line you want the velocities to follow. with this technique you can quickly create fills that build energy
note that this will affect every velocity you draw across unless you select those you want to change so be sure to isolate those first with a simple box selection. if the notes aren't adjacent to one another, just use shift to make multiple selections before you draw the line.
draw mode takes the principle of line draw further. similarly, you're going to want to start by selecting only the notes you want to affect (lest you change all the midi you draw across). then enter draw mode by simply pressing b on your keyboard & wiggle that pencil all over your velocities!
a different approach to creating variation (if you have access to a midi controller) is to just record in a bunch of notes in one quick take. don't worry too much about getting the pattern or timing correct as this is easy to adjust after the fact. the important thing is that you have a natural variety of note velocities to work with in your midi clip.
afterwards, you can quantize the notes if they're close to what you're going for or manually move the notes around to their correct positions. in this way, the human dynamics of the velocities you recorded persist in the perfect timing of midi.
of course, live's velocity device provides a nice way to add quick variation all by itself. place it before your instrument & the random knob will add or subtract velocity within the range you set.
if you don't want to risk velocities getting too low, just increase the "out low" amount to set a minimum. the idea is to get natural fluctuations within a controlled & somewhat conservative range.
sometimes the archetypal drum machine sameness is desirable & variation can just be distracting. you might be tempted to reach for a compressor but this will change the dynamics & timbre of your sounds depending on where the velocity was set. if you want true consistency with midi, best to just adjust the velocity.
my favorite method for doing this is to select the notes you want to smooth out & pull the velocities up until the tops start to shave off, then pull them all back down to the level you want. this works at the extreme (making all velocities the same) or more subtly by not pulling all the nodes to the top (to preserve some variation).
the velocity device works here as well -> just set the out hi & out low to your target velocity, increasing the range if you want to add back in some subtle variation.
& that's it! do you have a favorite method for imbuing midi velocity with some human feel? let me know on twitter!