Groove Quantization – Understanding Swing and the Head-Nod Effect

What is Swing?

In music terms, the word “swing” refers to a bouncing groove that can be created in the rhythm of music. This can be achieved with any instrument but usually happens 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 house music 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.

YouTube Preview ImageGreenskeepers “Sweet and Low” (2001). Samples Django Reinhardt’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

Swing Quantization with Akai and E-Mu Machines

With the advent of drum machines and samplers (namely 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 was 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 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.
YouTube Preview ImageWu Tang Clan “C.R.E.A.M.” (1993)
YouTube Preview ImageKenlou (Masters at Work) “The Bounce” (1995)

Swing in Modern Day Application

Today you can find a swing parameter on 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 swinging movement in the drums. 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. But 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 platform offers extensive swing settings that can be applied to groups in your project as well as individual sounds.

Use of Swing Quantization (Dubspot Staff Weighs In)

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. For producers that like a more mechanized feel, there are legions in house to groovy minimal techno but also downtempo styes in which the swing feature is an important element in drum programming and we need to be mindful of that too. 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? – Mike Huckaby

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 some where 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 feels and sounds that Maschine now emulates and does pretty well along with stuff that MPC nor SP1200 could never do. But swing is not just for drums or percussive parts, I use it on guitar, bass lines, definitely on samples that I have sliced and chopped. For me using it on individual sounds on the sound level 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 the 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

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 – 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. And finally I use the Master swing to tie all of the eight Groups together. With this approach you can easily have all the sounds have their own unique feel while still creating an overall groove, much like musicians would sound in a well rehearsed live band. - Pat Cupo

Ableton Live offers you the ability to easily quantize your audio clips and apply swing. You can click on the Clip View, Select All by hitting Command+A, then all of the little grey transients along the top will be highlighted. Then you can hit Shift+Command+U and it will open up the Quantization menu. If you want to add swing, you can choose to quantize to 1/8T or 1/16T. You can select the percentage here as well, so if you want to apply it fully you choose 100%, for something more subtle you can choose a lesser amount. Keep in mind your Warp Mode setting for the audio clip since the different modes will lead to different results. You can also choose to alter your audio by selecting a Groove from the Groove Pool. After you have selected all of the transients in the clip, you can click to hot swap from the Groove Pool, choosing one of the many built-in grooves, then 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

Do You NEED to Use Swing?

I use swing only when needed. Swing is not something that you should use just because your 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 im working on the track at hand. – Mike Huckaby

More often than not, I don’t use the Swing parameter 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. Use 16 Level 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” off a kick or hi-hat can dramatically help fit these sounds into your groove better. – Matt Cellitti

Only thing I can say is that swing is NOT an effect because it is humanly possible to do it, however quantization IS an effect. The less we use our ability to swing naturally the less human we become. Just my 4 cents. – Raz Mesinai

Michael Walsh is a producer of audio/visual art and a journalist living in Southern California. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com

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