Understanding Swing and the Head Nod Effect

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

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.

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.

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. (read more)


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