Understanding Swing and Groove Quantization

Dubspot’s Michael Walsh joins industry veterans to give us a lesson on swing and groove quantization.

Swing Dancers

What is Swing?

In music terms, the word “swing” refers to a bouncing groove that can be created in the rhythm of music. Swing can be achieved with any instrument but is most often used in the bass and drum parts of a music arrangement. A primary example of this sound would be the swing style of jazz music that was popular in the 1930s. This style of rhythm has maintained popularity throughout the decades, from swing dancing to big beat bands and more recently making a resurgence in house music around the early 2000′s. In fact, much of house music’s style derives its groove from this sort of rhythm which was popularized by the swing functions of early samplers and drum machines. In the following example, Chicago house music producer James Curd samples a 1930′s guitar groove from Django Reinhardt and applies modern day swing quantization to his drums to create a swinging house groove inspired by Woody Allen’s 1999 film, Sweet and Lowdown.

Swing Quantization with Akai and E-Mu Machines

With the advent of drum machines and samplers from classics like the E-Mu SP1200 and Akai MPC 60, the function of “swing” was introduced into music production workflow and began to have a massive impact on hip hop and electronic music in the early 1980′s. While the swing function on drum machines and samplers were initially designed to emulate a human feel when using quantized beats, pioneering musicians found that these swing settings could create a groove that perfectly suited the street-wise attitude of early hip hop and dance music.

The quintessential head-nod that spread throughout the evolution of electronic music came from E-Mu’s SP1200 and more prominently from Roger Linn’s involvement with the Akai MPC series. While some producers such as J Dilla are known for creating free-form, un-quantized beats, most early hip hop tracks used the new swing quantization functions of these machines to create the sound we’ve come to know as American hip hop and house music.

Modern Day Swing

Today we can find a swing parameter in almost every DAW and on most drum-related electronic instruments. Swing is a function that applies most easily to a quantized beat. The percentage of swing that you apply moves certain hits of your rhythm “off the grid” just enough to create a groove that sounds realistic and more pleasing to our ears than a rigid groove. Most devices offer very subtle to very extreme settings. It’s worth noting that swing functions apply differently on different instruments and programs. For MPC-style swing, Akai’s hardware is hard to beat. However, Propellerhead’s Reason does come loaded with groove templates that emulate the Akai MPC 60 as well as numerous other machines. Ableton Live also offers groove quantization that can read imported audio, MIDI, and groove template files. Native Instruments’ Maschine groove production studio comes loaded with extensive swing settings as well that can be applied to groups in your project and individual sounds.

Swing Quantization Tips From Industry Veterans

One of the great improvements in drum machine history (after the addition of velocity) was the addition of swing. Before people had to use triplets to achieve something similar. I remember that new jack swing beats sounded a bit too jumpy at the time. The arrival of a swing feature was of great importance for many musical styles, mainly 90′s house as well. It’s pretty much unthinkable without it. Fortunately, it’s no rocket science to understand what swing is doing and there is still plenty of room for nudging and real-time programming after that. Music without swing has a more mechanized feel and sounds unnatural. Swing gives many musical styles such as bouncy house music, groovy minimal techno, and downtempo their signature groove and is an important element in drum programming. As far as the MPC discussion, the old SP12 and MPC60 are supposed to be the real deal. I worked with both of these machines, and I think it’s a good idea to start separating the myth from the reality. – Heinrich Zwahlen

The addition of a swing function in Maschine was a godsend. More importantly, it has been improved since its introduction as a feature within Maschine. You can now incorporate the swing effect on individual sounds, whereas it was only available on the entire group in previous versions. If that’s not enough, Maschine users now have the ability to choose from a variety of different swing settings, which can be automated randomly in real-time. What can you say if it ain’t got that swing? I use swing only when needed. Swing is not something that you should use just because you’re not using it. I use it wherever it’s needed, and I can only determine if it should be applied to a group or to an individual sound when I’m working on the track at hand. - Mike Huckaby

Groove Quantization

Here are my thoughts and my uses of swing on Maschine, MPC, or DAW. I come from live drumming and the hip hop world. Swing is such an important element to music let alone dance, R&B, and Hip Hop genres. I use it sometimes on the whole track and sometimes on individual parts. My drums always have some sort of swing in them, even so-called straight playing there will be a swing somewhere in the composition. That is just my style. For me, there’s not much of a major difference in the swing between MPC and Maschine. The MPC though has a more organic feel to me than Maschine on the start but I can get Maschine to do whatever I need it to, and I love it. I mean MPC and SP1200 were the first, but the feel and sound that Maschine now emulates does pretty well along with stuff that MPC nor SP1200 could never do. Swing is not just for drums or percussive parts; I use it on guitar, bass lines, and definitely on samples that I have sliced and chopped. For me, using it on individual sounds in Maschine works best, because it allows for me the most flexibility when creating my tracks. Swing can be your best friend or an arch enemy if you don’t have a feel for it. It is something that is felt more than just note values, numbers, and code. I have played with numerous musicians, and when it comes to drummers, you can have technique, but that feel and rhythm is what always rocks. I mean for music as a whole, what and how it feels is what sticks with the listener. Wu Tangs classic “Enter The 36 Chambers” was not sonically or even technically on par with what the industry pros would consider pro. But the way it felt, energy, and how it made you feel we’re priceless! Til this day that album is crazy! - Shareef Islam

Ableton Live offers you the ability to quantize your audio clips and apply swing easily. To apply Quantization in Live, simply open the Clip View, select all notes by hitting Command+A, and then hit Shift+Command+U to open up the Quantization menu to select a desired quantize value that the notes will snap too. If you want to add some swing, you can choose to quantize to 1/8T or 1/16T. You can set the percentage of quantization here as well, choose 100% for something more rigid and a lesser amount for a more subtle shift. Keep in mind your Warp Mode setting for the audio samples will lead to different results. You can also choose to alter your audio by selecting a Groove from Live’s Groove Pool. After you have selected all of the transients in an audio clip, you can click the hot swap from the Groove Pool and choose one of the many built-in grooves. You can also hit the Commit button to see how it impacts the audio. While a Groove is actively selected, you will hear it, but once you hit Commit, you will see the audio transformed as well. Command+Z will undo the action, and you can compare the before and after sound of the clip. - Professor Steve Nalepa

Ableton Live

More often than not, I don’t use the Swing parameter on Maschine to create a groove. The way I prefer to achieve some natural swing and groove in my tracks is by paying close attention to velocity. A healthy combination of varying velocities and intelligent sample selection can go a long way towards achieving the natural feel that some producers rely on swing to provide. I often use the “16 Level” mode or vary the amount of pressure on the pad while using note repeat, especially while recording hi-hats. One extra trick is to utilize the sample type of the drum sample in Maschine. By default, most drum sounds come in as “one-shots” and the sample is simply replayed upon hitting the pad. Changing this to AHD or ADSR mode will give you added flexibility over shaping the sound. Just moving the attack to shave off the initial “strike” of a kick or hi-hat can dramatically help fit these sounds into your groove better.Matt Cellitti

My approach to utilizing the different layers of swing in Maschine is analogous to how I route audio in a DAW for mixing purposes. I like to apply my desired amount and type of swing to each individual sound such as drums, bass, etc. After that, I use the Group swing to tie all of those individually swung sounds together in the same way you would use a compressor to glue a group of sounds together on a buss track. Finally, I use the Master swing to tie all of the eight Groups together. With this approach, you can easily give all the sounds their own unique feel while still creating an overall groove, much like musicians would sound in a well rehearsed live band. – Pat Cupo


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