Today, we’ll be learning how to use a guitar and a DAW to humanize the timing of a virtual MIDI bass instrument! No, I’m not talking about pitch shifting your guitar or anything like that. I’m talking about something new. I’m going to teach you a secret technique I’ve discovered that will have your programmed MIDI bass sounding more realistic, while also taking you less time to program.

Want to see this in action? Watch the video here:

One of the biggest problems with trying to make MIDI bass sound realistic isn’t with the tone; its with the timing and velocity. Most people writing their MIDI bass with the pencil tool on the piano roll will notice that their rhythms sound pretty robotic unless they do a ton of work to humanize it. But even after hours of humanization, it can still sound pretty stupid. (I know, I’ve been there).

The solution to this problem is actually pretty simple. If you want your virtual bass to sound humanized, then you need to have a human play it. I know you can’t technically reach into your computer screen and play a Kontakt instrument, but I’m going to show you how to use a real guitar to get around that.

There are a few things you’ll need before we begin, but they should all be super common for the majority of home studios.

Okay, let’s get started!

What you’ll need:

  • A guitar
  • Basic guitar playing skills
  • An audio interface
  • A DAW
  • A virtual bass VST
  • Funktastic rhythm (optional)

Step 1 (Setup):

Open up the DAW session of the song you want to work on (I’ll be using Cubase as my DAW). Create an audio track, and set it up to record a DI of your real guitar through your audio interface. Then create a virtual instrument track, and load up your favorite Bass VST. (I’ll be using Zombass 3. I can recommend trying Zombass 4, because it’s free right now! Get it right here.)

Step 2 (Tracking):

Now you’ll want to jam along to your song and start working out a bass part on your guitar. Once you have something groovy written, you can record it just as you would any other DI. I recommend sticking to single notes and not using chords. Keep it relatively simple. We’re just using this for the rhythm.

Step 3 (Creating MIDI):

Now we’re going to create hit-points for the transients of the guitar DI and convert that into MIDI. This may differ between DAW’s, so I’m going to tell you how to do it in Cubase. The terms should be mostly universal, so you can google how if you’re in a different DAW. It should be fairly easy in any of them.

In Cubase, double click on your recorded guitar DI clip. This should open up the sample editor.

Now you’ll see all these little lines which mark the transients of the notes you played. You can adjust the threshold slider on the upper part of the left side bar menu until it seems to be marking the majority of your transients correctly. (I kept mine all the way down to the most sensitive value for this clip). Once you have that set, you can click on the “Create MIDI Notes” button on the bottom of that same side bar menu.

In most cases, you’ll want your settings configured like I show above. This will create some overlap on the midi notes, but we can get rid of that with one simple command. Double click on your new MIDI that was created. Then go to your top toolbar in Cubase and click the following: MIDI → Functions → Delete Overlaps (mono). This should get rid of the lengthy notes, except for the last note, which you’ll just adjust the length of by hand.

Now you’ll have something that looks sort of like this. You can scale your MIDI down a little and raise the overall velocities to the point that works best with your virtual bass software. (If you’re also using Zombass, make sure you have the “Velocities” version of the instrument loaded so we can take full advantage of the dynamic range).

Step 4 (Note selection):

Now you basically just move the notes to where they should be! If you kept the bass line simple, this should only take a minute to figure out. I recommend highlighting the notes and then using your up/down arrow keys to move them. This way you wont accidentally change the timing.

Step 5 (Finalization):

Once you’ve gotten your MIDI to this point, you can make any final adjustments to anything that sounds weird. You might realize you need to raise/lower the overall velocities again or maybe just on a few notes that are noticeably off. Here’s also your opportunity to fix any timing issues you had in your playing. (Keep that part to a minimum though! We didn’t come this far to quantize it all back to machine land!)

You also might find that the MIDI creation process missed a couple of notes or maybe added an extra one. You can choose to either fix that or leave it in. I found sometimes that it accidentally made my groove more interesting actually.

In the end, I had something that looked like this:


So there you have it! Programmed bass with a much more realistic feel. The real guitar gives the MIDI programming a pretty human sounding performance, especially with the rhythm and velocity. Hopefully the process doesn’t seem too long or intimidating, because its really not. After recording the riff, this should all really take just a couple of minutes. Hopefully this will be of help to some of you as you’re writing demos or working on a solo project. I look forward to hearing what you come up with!

Nicholas Colvin
I’ve had over a decade of experience with writing/recording music and several years of experience with graphic design. I’m the vocalist for Undisclosed Dimensions and the lead guitarist for Arthedain. I’ve recently left my profession in Aerospace Maintenance to pursue an education in Communication and Mass Media. I have a passion for helpful music discussion, and Band Sculptor is my way of giving back.