The next generation: 1994's Linn/Akai MPC3000

The next generation: 1994’s Linn/Akai MPC3000

 

We now have more affordable sequencing options than ever before. This is a deliberately vague question, but what in your opinion is the best sequencing method available to us today, and how do you define ‘best’?

It seems to me that the technical issues are largely solved, so if the music product or software and controller you’re using is sufficiently well-designed, you should be able to focus on the music and not the technology. And if the product is really well-designed, you should be able to not only play it well in live performance, but also develop finely nuanced personal musical gestures on it, as would a guitarist, violinist or other skilled virtuoso with their instrument. And if enough people agree with this idea, then maybe music-making will continue to evolve from the boring process of sitting alone in a dark room typing on a computer, into the more fun process of getting together with other musicians to spontaneously create beautiful music together in real time.

I’m sure you’re aware of the MPC3000 groove templates which have been doing the rounds over the last couple of years. What are your thoughts on those? From what you’ve said so far, it seems like there isn’t a reason why they’d offer any advantage over a similar swing setting in a DAW. Some of the claims which are made for them are rather far-fetched. “Make your beats swing like J Dilla’s with these MPC groove templates…”

I’m not sure what elements are included in each product’s groove template, so I can’t comment specifically other than to say that some that I’ve tried didn’t seem to provide the results I was looking for. It seemed to me that they are a sort of a ‘swing for dummies’ that didn’t work so well because certain swing settings work at some tempos but not at others, and it won’t add the note articulations (per-note dynamics, etc.) of a well-played beat. I’ve tried to make products that assume you already have talent but merely enhance that talent without spoon-feeding you. For example, the ultimate groove template is to simply select from a variety of preset drumbeats, but it doesn’t take any talent to do that.

It seemed to me that groove templates are a sort of a ‘swing for dummies’.

So there’s no reason why a groove template created from a recording of 16th-note hi-hats from an MPC, with no dynamic variation, should be any different to the timing you get from implementing the same swing setting (i.e. an identical swing percentage) in the DAW itself?

Again, I haven’t tried the groove template feature on every product, but of the ones I’ve tried, the main thing they do is shift the timing of notes onto specific swing locations, especially if an ‘MPC’ template is used. They might also move your notes to somewhat random locations, but I have mentioned that I don’t think this does much good. So if the main thing it’s doing is moving notes to different swing locations, I think it’s a whole lot easier to simply change the amount of swing. This begs the question: if you can turn a swing knob until it feels right, why do you need a groove template? In some cases, it may be because the musician can’t hear when the swing amount is right, in which case some might suggest he focus instead on listening to lots of great recordings as a learning process.

The other thing that some groove templates do is to change the velocities of your notes. But as I stated before, if it’s changing both your swing timing and the velocities of notes you recorded, how much of the beat did you actually create? This seems to be moving closer to simply selecting a preset, which may sound good but isn’t all that creative.

To me, this is part of a bigger topic. I notice many musicians spending countless hours learning how to microscopically edit their music in order to get it to sound right. I can’t help but imagine a skilled drummer quietly chuckling inside when they see someone going to so much trouble in order to avoid learning to play the instrument skillfully. At a certain point, it might just be easier to focus on developing the skill to play it in realtime. If so, an added bonus is that you’d be able to play live with other musicians, which is quite a lot of fun and the resulting serendipity can be wonderful.

If a groove template is changing both your swing timing and the velocities of notes you recorded, how much of the beat did you actually create?

Back when I first spoke to you by email about the Tempest I asked for your thoughts on unquantised beat programming. You wrote: “The interesting thing I’ve found in the past about real-time drum machine sequencing without quantize is that many say they want it but few ultimately use it, finding better results by switching between quantize settings, which also permits use of swing degrees.”

There are plenty of people who argue that drum machines and quantisation don’t have the same human feel as a rhythm played manually. When they’re done well, unquantised beats can be incredibly effective. Would you mind quickly recapping your thoughts on that issue? Do you think it takes a different kind of skill to play or program good unquantised beats?

If you’re comparing quantized beats to unquantized beats, then I think that most drum machine players can think of great beats but would have more trouble playing them in real time without quantization, or with the exact swing amount they seek. So quantization provides a great deal of help here, not unlike how guitar frets remove the need to place your finger at the exact spot on the neck as you must with a violin. I think even the best drum machine players might have trouble playing a 58% or 62% swing beat in real time without quantization.

If you’re comparing a drum machine to a master drummer I would be one of those who argue that drum machines and quantization don’t have the same feel as a real drummer. But I don’t think most people use drum machines to replace history’s great drummers. They use drum machines to create a particular looped groove that works well in a particular musical context, with full knowledge that the drum machine won’t respond in dynamics or tempo to the other musicians, won’t spontaneously think of creative and complimentary drum parts drawn from a lifetime knowledge of thousands of recordings, and won’t produce subtly-nuanced percussive timbres by tapping, rubbing and bending a drum in hundreds of possible ways.

Author Greg Scarth & Roger Linn
2nd July, 2013

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