Let’s talk about something we all want to avoid in our music: cheesy sounds. We’ve all been there, right? You’re working on a track, and suddenly, something just doesn’t sit right. It sounds off, amateurish, or, dare I say, cheesy. Let’s dive into what makes a sound cheesy in music production and, more importantly, how to avoid it.

Velocity Variation: The Spice of Life

One of the most common culprits behind cheesy sounds is a lack of velocity variation. When every note in a MIDI sequence hits with the same force, it sounds robotic and lifeless. Real instruments have natural variations in how hard or soft notes are played, even within the same phrase. These subtle changes give music its human touch and dynamic range.

To avoid this, take advantage of velocity settings in your MIDI editor. Add slight variations to the velocity of each note, even if it’s just a few percentage points. This small tweak can make a massive difference in the realism of your sequences.

Groove and Timing: Loosen Up

Patterns locked to a quantized grid can sound stiff and unnatural. While quantization helps keep everything in time, it can also strip away the human feel. Real musicians never play perfectly on the beat every time; there are always slight timing variations that add groove and character to the music.

Try introducing some swing or manually shifting notes slightly off the grid to create a more natural feel. Ableton Live, for instance, has groove templates that you can apply to your MIDI clips to add subtle timing variations. This can help your music feel more alive and less mechanical.

Frequency Balance: Tame the Brightness

Certain brighter frequencies can contribute to that cheesy sound. These frequencies often reside in the upper mids and highs. When these frequencies are too pronounced, they can make a sound harsh and unpleasant. This is especially true for synth sounds and sampled instruments.

A simple but effective solution is to use a low-pass filter. By gently rolling off the higher frequencies, you can tame the brightness and make the sound sit better in the mix. For bass sounds, playing them at a lower octave or applying a low-pass filter can eliminate the cheesy factor entirely. It’s all about finding that sweet spot where the sound is full and rich without being overbearing.

The Space Around the Sound: Use Reverb and Delay

A sound that’s too clean and dry can often come across as fake or cheesy. Real instruments exist in physical spaces, and those spaces have natural reverb and reflections. Without these elements, a sound can feel disconnected and artificial.

Adding reverb or delay can place your sounds in a more realistic context. But be careful not to overdo it. Too much reverb can make a mix muddy. Start with a small amount and adjust to taste. Shorter reverb times can add space without overwhelming the sound. Similarly, a touch of delay can create depth and dimension, making the sound more engaging.

Harmonic Content: The Subtle Details

Harmonics play a crucial role in how we perceive sound. Sometimes, the harmonics of a sound can clash with other elements in the mix or simply be too pronounced, adding to the cheesiness. This is often the case with digital synths that have very clean and pure tones. Sometimes the solution is using EQ to tame the frequencies that are sounding harsh, unpleasant or just a bit too corny.

On the other hand harmonic distortion or saturation can also enhance a boring sound by adding subtle overtones that can make a sound warmer and more complex. Tape emulations or analog-style plugins can also introduce the right amount of harmonic richness and enough variation to be more pleasing to the ear.

If you are having trouble knowing which direction to go in, listen to some songs in your style & listen closely to the sounds that are most pleasing to your ears. Use that as guidance until you build a level of confidence on your own.

Layering Sounds: Depth and Complexity

Another effective technique to avoid cheesiness is layering. By combining multiple sounds, you can create a richer, more complex texture. For example, if you have a synth lead that sounds a bit thin or cheesy, try layering it with another synth or a sampled instrument that has different characteristics. This can mask the cheesiness and add depth to the sound.

Make sure to EQ each layer so they fit together without clashing. Each layer should occupy its own space in the frequency spectrum. This approach not only helps in avoiding cheesy sounds but also enhances the overall fullness of your mix.

Modulation: Keep It Moving

Static sounds can quickly become boring and cheesy. Introducing modulation can add movement and interest to a sound. This can be as simple as using an LFO to modulate the filter cutoff or adding subtle pitch modulation.

Automation is your friend here. Automating parameters over time keeps the sound evolving and prevents it from becoming stagnant. This dynamic approach can make even the simplest sound captivating and far from cheesy.

Play it live

Lastly, one of the best ways to avoid cheesy sounds is to humanize your performance.  If you’ve got a keyboard part, record it live rather than drawing in the notes manually. You can always correct you mistakes if things sound a bit too off, but that slight variation in timing, velocity & note length can make a cheesy part come to life.

Small imperfections add a lot of character to your music. These slight variations can make your music more relatable and enjoyable, even if the listener isn’t consciously aware of why they like what they are hearing.

Cheesy sounds are a common pitfall in music production, but they can be avoided with a few thoughtful techniques. By paying attention to velocity variations, groove, frequency balance, spatial effects, harmonic content, layering, modulation, and humanizing your performance, you can keep your music sounding fresh and professional. Remember, the key is to keep the listener engaged and to maintain the human touch in your music.

Happy music making,

Jason Timothy



If you are benefiting from these posts, you will absolutely love my 2 bestselling books:

The Mental Game of Music Production
The Process for Electronic Music Producers

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Happy music making!
Jason

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