Swing functions were first introduced to drum machines 34 years ago, but the concept still causes confusion. In this extended instalment of Passing Notes we explain what the swing setting does and how you can use it to add groove to your drums and more.
From changing the feel of a sequenced drum pattern to creating a completely new groove for an entire track, the swing setting found in most sequencers and drum machines can be an extremely powerful tool, but many producers find it difficult to understand exactly what it does and how it works. In this Passing Notes, we’re going to examine what swing is, take a look at how it works in different DAWs, and provide some examples of how it sounds in action.
Update: once you’ve read this article be sure to check out our interview with Roger Linn, the inventor of swing.
What is swing?
The word ‘swing’ is one of those confusing terms that often has different meanings to different people. To a jazz drummer, swing probably means something quite different to its usage in an electronic music context. Although the terms are related, they’re not quite the same. However, understanding the origins of the term in jazz and with live musicians is a useful starting point in order to understand how the swing function works in software and electronic music hardware.
In jazz, ‘swing timing’ often refers to a specific rhythm and notation convention, whereby the first beat is twice as long as the second, then the third beat is the same length as the first, and so on. It’s effectively a variation on triplets or 6/8 timing, often written in common time (4/4) for simplicity’s sake, with the swing timing added by the musicians. The timing itself gave its name to swing music, the 1930s offshoot of jazz based on those same lopsided rhythms.
(If you want to know more about this jazz-centric convention of swing timing – which is by no means essential to understanding the swing setting in your DAW or drum machine – How Music Works has a good basic primer.)
In a broader sense, swinging eventually came to be used to describe any rhythm with an off-kilter groove. Drummers ‘swing’ the beat to add a groove, introducing a slightly irregular feel to the timing of the rhythm. It’s important not to confuse swing with sloppy, imprecise timing – we’re not talking about inaccuracy here. Instead, it’s about the deliberate, subtle timing variations which musicians introduce to the way they play notes.
The term is mainly used in reference to drumming simply because drummers set the groove of any group and generally play repetitive rhythmic patterns, but swing could also be applied to the timing of any other instrument.
Swing in electronic music
So how do we apply this idea of loose, fluid timing to electronic music? The earliest sequencers and drum machines played using completely rigid timing, with evenly spaced gaps in between each division of the bar. Programming was typically achieved via a step sequencer or real-time recording quantised to the nearest 16th note. On the Roland TR-808, for instance, each of the 16 steps in a programmed beat is played with perfectly straight timing.
The ‘swing’ function as we now know it – originally known as ‘shuffle’, a term still used by some hardware manufacturers and software developers – was first introduced in Roger Linn‘s 1979 LM-1 Drum Computer. Linn realised that he could approximate the effect of a human drummer playing in swing timing by quantising each drum beat to the nearest step and then delaying the playback of every other step in the sequencer (to see how Linn introduced his ‘auto-correct’ and ‘shuffle’ features, take a look at the LM-1 manual). But this effect was useful for more than just jazz-style triplet-derived swing timing; different delay times could replicate a variety of lazy, swinging grooves. The longer the delay, the more obvious the effect.
Linn’s system used percentages to express the amount of swing applied to every second step. (At this point let’s assume we’re talking about the most commonly used form of swing in dance music: 16th-note swing.) Those percentages pertain to the degree that every second 16th note is positioned in relation to the beats either side of it. So 50% swing refers to straight timing, where every second step is played exactly half way between the two beats either side of it.
By the mid 80s, this implementation of swing had been adopted by most other manufacturers. Adding swing to a drum beat or to melodic elements can introduce a more human feel to a pattern, but just as importantly, even the smallest amount of swing can enhance a groove in a uniquely and inexplicably appealing way.
Even though MIDI sequencing is now accurate enough to record and replay the nuances of a live MIDI drum performance very precisely, few of us have the accuracy with drum pads to achieve the same effect as quantised beats with swing applied. We could debate the relative merits of ‘real’ human timing versus computer timing for days on end, but it’s missing the point; human timing works well in some cases, but quantised beats and swing are equally valid and at least as effective for most dance music.