How to Use and Edit MIDI Velocity in Your DAW
Velocity is a measure of how soft or hard you hit a note on a MIDI controller. The harder you hit a note, the louder it will be. It’s a simple but often overlooked parameter in music production that you should know how to use and edit. Your music will sound more organic if you do.
Think of a concert performance—even if they try their hardest to be consistent, a pianist or guitarist will play each note in a melody or phrase at a slightly different volume. This variation gives music a natural feel, indicating a human is actually playing it.
If you write in notes with a MIDI pencil, as many of us producers do, each note will be assigned the same velocity by default, which can sound flat and repetitive. In this tutorial, we’ll show you four quick ways to use and edit MIDI so you can create more realistic (or completely unreal) sounding music.
The most common way to edit velocity is by manually adjusting the velocity slider underneath each MIDI note. Subtle volume changes applied to kick drums, snares and hi-hats will give programmed beats a human drummers’ dynamics. Lower the velocity of a note, and the following one will have more impact.
Your goal may not be to mimic a live drummer. A lot of electronic music—like techno, electro and dubstep—is supposed to sound machine made. This doesn't mean you should ignore velocity. If you want people to dance to and DJ your tracks, they need a strong rhythmic core. Work with velocity for a funkier, groovier result.
Listen to this drum loop with default velocity:
And now, with minor changes to velocity. This was done in Ableton, but the same principles apply to all DAWs.
There is more interplay between the individual samples, and the loop does not sound as static. Either select one note at a time, or group a few together, then click and drag the vertical red lines to adjust.
It can take a while to manually adjust MIDI note velocity for an entire track, so check out your DAWs stock velocity patterns for something pre-made. Stick to the built-in settings of a velocity device or explore the parameter limits until you find something you like. With a little finessing, even the simplest 4/4 beats can lead to exciting rhythmic surprises.
As an alternative, you can randomly assign velocities to your MIDI notes and hope that an interesting groove emerges. Take a look at how Dutch producer Legowelt does this in his FACTmag feature.
A hi-hat groove with default velocity:
The same pattern, with a velocity randomizer. A few new patterns emerge:
Velocity Controlled Filters
Velocity can also be used to control filters on a sampler or VST. This works particularly well for short repetitive sounds, or plucked instruments like harp, guitar or bass.
In Ableton’s simper, turn on the filter, then crank up velocity, which will now control the cutoff frequency of the filter. In the MIDI editor, a higher velocity will open the filter up and brighten your sound, while a lower velocity will close it off, resulting in a more muted sound. Turning up resonance will make this effect very clear.
Generally, smaller numbers (velocity %) will have a more subtle and realistic effect, simulating the timbral changes that happen when you play an organic instrument. But it's often a lot more fun to use velocity controlled filters at high numbers, for more extreme and alien sounds. You can also assign velocity to control phasers, flangers and resonators.
A bell-like melody with default velocity:
The same melody, with a low-pass filter controlled by velocity. There is more feeling and movement from note to note.
Nothing beats the real thing right? Most MIDI keyboard and drum pads are velocity sensitive, so record your melodies, basslines and beats in real-time if you want a 'natural' velocity. If you make any mistakes, or your live playing skills aren't up to it just yet, you can always adjust the velocities and notes afterward.
Many producers and DJs often cite 'imperfection' or 'rawness' as an important aesthetic quality in the music they create, perform and listen to. Not all music requires recorded perfection, so give this technique a shot. Seeing as digital music software was only introduced in the 1980s, most recorded music has actually been captured in a live setting, often with limited takes.
There are many more possibilities when it comes to using and editing velocity. Try out the techniques listed in this article and you will surely develop your own along the way.
Have you found a tool or trick for editing velocity that works well? Let us know in the comments.