Beats that you program with a step sequencer or that you play manually but over-quantize can have a rigid, mechanical feel because they are snapped too firmly to a beat grid. It’s a brave person who doesn’t apply any quantization at all to programmed beats, but when quantizing, avoid using settings that are too strict. The best way to do this while also correcting timing is to use a triplet or “T” value from your quantize menu. 1/16 will be pretty mechanical for instance, but 1/16 T will maintain a little swing or syncopation and keep things sounding more natural.
As an addition to the previous tip, consider not quantizing all your drum elements in the same way. When selecting a MIDI drum loop for example and applying a 1/32T quantize to the whole thing, you’re going to catch every drum. It may well be that the kick and snare are adversely affected by this when in fact they need to remain pretty tightly snapped. Selecting just the hi hats for this Q value and using a non-triplet setting on the kick and snare will mean you maintain some swing in the hats but the core of your beat stays tight.
Many DAWs have audio analysis tools that let you virtually split an audio loop or sample into its constituent slices and then edit them. But another option they usually offer is to extract the groove from that loop. Say you have a bass riff or a beat that you like the feel of, but want to have it played by a different instrument. By extracting the groove - usually to a quantize preset or possibly a MIDI file - you can then apply this to a different MIDI clip or to another audio loop and hey presto.
When working with MIDI recording, set up a loop on your instrument’s track and activate your DAW’s overdub recording mode (rather than replace or add modes). Record over the loop, building your beat or sequence as you go - this could be drums or a synth line. This removes the pressure to get the whole thing right in a single take and means you can try new things, throwing in some pitch bend here, a couple of electronic toms there. And you can usually delete anything that doesn’t work without having to stop playback.
Percussion is sometimes overlooked when making grooves and people can instead focus on kicks, snares and cymbals. But a carefully placed tambourine, shaker or bongo part can really liven up the rhythm, adding urgency, syncopation and life without ever really interfering with the other elements of the track. Used correctly, percussion can add a dynamic new layer to any track and it’s much easier to achieve than you might think.