This is a bit of a controversial topic, but I’ll give you my 2 cents then let you decide.
First off, I use Ableton Live, which doesn’t have any easy “humanize” functions like some of the other software does. As such, when I first started out, I would lock everything to the grid. Like, everything. At the time, I kind of realized it didn’t groove or sound quite right, but I had bigger problems I was trying to figure out, so I didn’t really pay tons of attention to it until the last couple years.
I read this article about this artist that went to Berklee or something and ended up as a synth designer for one of the big synth companies (Moog or something like that). A section of the article was her talking about her time producing and how that influenced her (or something like that), and happened to say something about “getting off the grid”. I think what she actually said was something like, “the more you edit [your sound/MIDI after the performance], the more feeling you lose.”.
It really vibed with me, so I started making a conscious effort to get as many virtual instruments off the grid as I could. Yes, that includes all the drums. Lo and behold, it became pretty apparent what she was talking about. The whole track would groove harder and get people’s heads bobbing more quickly.
I’ll admit, I have extensive instrumental training, so this isn’t that much more time-intensive of a workflow for me. If you can’t play piano, I suggest you learn, but there are other ways to get around it.
Now I don’t 100% agree with her statement in the article. I think editing is perfectly acceptable, but you have to walk a very fine line. Pay attention to the groove.
Typically, I try not to touch the dynamics of a sound. You have to option to manipulate a note’ velocity, but I think the majority of the groove/feeling comes from these dynamic nuances. If the dynamics are too aggressive, compress them later, just like you would any other live instrument. I’ve always gotten more realistic and harder grooving results from compression rather than trying to fix an instrument’s dynamics with velocity. And unless that virtual instrument was designed with “round robin” sampling, it’ll sound more believable, too.
But I think timing adjustments are free game. In fact, I do it all the time. The trick is to still stay off the grid, but less than you’d think. And to be clear, I only adjust the timing of notes that clearly aren’t inside the groove. I have a tendency to rush, so there are usually a few notes that will need their timing pulled back a bit. I never lock them to the grid.
Usually, the best thing I’ve found, is to keep an eye on where the groove is currently. If all the other notes in clip are slightly behind the beat, then try to keep your adjusted note behind the beat. If you’re trying to swing, that idea might not apply, but most performances will either lean slightly ahead of the beat or slightly behind. Try and adjust the groove to fit in this pattern.
And always always always always always always always always always remember to check in context.
You might be editing something and it sounds good with the previous bar and the following bar. Should be good to go, right? Nope. Too many times have I got things working inside a 4 bar loop or something, just to find out that when I play it with the previous section the groove no longer matches. As humans, everything we hear is relative. Every section is compared to the next section subconsciously. It’s vitally important (if applicable) that you match the groove and keep it consistent throughout the song. In this case, context is everything.
So on your next project, give it a shot! How did it go. How did the track feel? Any differences? It’s made a big difference in my workflow, so I hope it does for you, too.
Good luck, have fun!