How come my tracks don’t sound like a commercial release?
Part 2 – : Swing!
Swing? Isn’t that a style of music developed in America circa 1930? Well, yes it was. But the swing I’m referring to is the shuffle or groove of your track, that more ‘human’ groove that sounds realistic and ‘more pleasing’ to our ears.
Ever wondered why that rhythm you are trying to write sounds ‘robotic’ and ‘cold’? Its more than likely because every hit in your drum pattern or every note in your sequence has been quantized to a rigid grid. This quantization is unnatural since we are not robots and it is practically impossible to play a drum pattern live in perfect quantized periods.
The fact is, our hearing has evolved to ‘expect’ certain things. Yes thats right, our ear-brain connection has certain elements it looks for inorder to help process the audible information it receives, which means it expects things to be out of time (slightly)!
What swing do you mean:
So what does this all have to do with swing? Well, swing (shuffle, groove, humanization) or whatever name you wish to give it, is essentially a process by which you can ‘push’ a desired range of ‘hits’ out of this perfect, quantized alignment. In part, creating a more ‘human’ feel to the groove you were trying to create. Suddenly, things will sound less ‘sterile’, have more ‘warmth’ and just ‘glue together in the mix’ much more effectively. Don’t take my word for it, read on and give it a try for yourself!
As usual, this article will focus on Kana’s DAW of choice, Ableton Live. At the end of the post you can find links to using swing in other DAW’s like Cubase or Logic etc.
Creating your own swing:
One of the best ways to achieve a more natural sounding, self-programmed, drum loop or musical sequence is to play the part manually (on a midi keyboard or drumpads) with the Global Quantize set to None. This means all the notes will essentially land exactly where/when you hit them.
The big advantage to this being you have essentially applied your own personal level of swing to the notes by playing them yourself – instead of drawing the notes in with the mouse! Getting it right the first time can be quite tough, so its a good idea t oset yourself up for a continuous recording session where you can make multiple takes and choose the best one at the end.
Setting up multiple takes in Live is quite simple, just set your loop region to the size and zone you wish to work in (this is the resizable bar at the top of the arrangement view). Make sure overdub (OVR- at the top near the play button) is turned on – this will allow any patterns to be layed down continuously until you hit stop. Now, just continue to play again and again until you think you nailed the feel you want. This way you can then expand (stretch out) the looped part to reveal all your attempts and choose the best version.
Once you have chosen your favourite groove, simply move the loop range to encompass only that section and play it over and over whilst you listen to each individual sound. The chances are that at least a handful of hits will appear too early or too late, when you hear them zoom right down to the individual notes and adjust them to suit.
To move notes without ‘snapping’ to the grid, click and hold the note, press and hold the ‘Apple’ key, then move the note to the exact place you want it, then drop the note & release the ‘Apple’ key. You will notice the placement is no longer restricted to the quantize grid and you can make really small adjustments to just gently drag the note closer to the timing you really like. Easy as that, Bam!
Adding swing to pre-recorded loops:
All decent DAW‘s will allow you to impart some sort of swing or groove function onto your chosen pre-recorded loops or midi clips. Some programs allow a very complex groove to be copied, including timing and volume of each hit (velocity if dealing with midi notes), and then applied to any source imaginable. This feature was implemented in Live 8 but first we will cover how to get simliar results in Live 7.
Swing in Live 7:
You can use the built in swing/groove setting to add a little more movement to an otherwise set pace.
In Live 7, you are restricted to using the more formulated quantized groove settings. The “0” between the metronome and the 4/4 notation at the top left of the project window is your global swing amount. From 0-99, you can impart more or less swing to all clips that have their Clip Control groove setting to anything other than None – options include 1/8, 1/16 and 1/32. You can get some pretty nice subtle movement with a clip groove setting of 1/16 and a global groove settingof 40-50.
Have a play with it and go Extreme! By pushing things to the limits we learn how to tame the beast and achieve the sound and control we really want!
Almost perfect but not quite:
The only unfortunate oversight here is that a truly magic groove has not only sounds occuring slightly out of time, but also at varying volumes. To do this you will have to put in the hard work by manually adjusting the volume of each sound in the Envelope Volume window. Granted, this is not a precise science since dropping the volume of a hat after a snare will reduce the volume of the snares tail as well, but hopefully you will not be relying on a sampled audio drum loop as the main focus of your track. That way you can get away with little adjustments like this.
Live 8 and beyond:
Live 8 has really stepped up and taken this one major step further by incorporating a full groove library which also allows you to extract the groove from other songs/sample loops and apply it to your own parts. Here is a tutorial video by Jesper at Airbasemusic.com which will run you through the process.
An often overlooked element of developing producers is the significance of real world performing. Digital is great, but it removes some of the human element, and its this human element that we have evolved with, hence what we perceive as pleasing.
Working with the swing of your individual parts will impart a finer glue to all your sounds, it will give room for other sound to be heard in the mix and suddenly get your booty shaking when you couldn’t explain why it wasn’t before.
If you got to the end of this article I truly hope you’ve found some value and managed to improve the sound/feel of your tracks. After all that is what it was written for.
Have anything to add? Your comments are always welcome, just click the article heading if you are on the main page and scroll to the bottom to “Reply” to this post.
Good vibes & happy producing,
Adam & the Kana crew.
One fairly cruical element to swing which I some how forgot to mention is the use of Track Delays. This little bad-boy makes some jobs a dream by just slightly moving a whole tracks’ audio forward or backwards by anything from 1 millisecond upwards.
You can find it on the right hand side of the arrangement screen if you select the small circled D on the far bottom right.