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Swing in DAWs

Although most drum machines, sequencers and DAWs handle swing in essentially the same way – by delaying alternate notes very slightly – there are a number of slightly different ways of describing the same process.

The most common approach (and the system we use in our Beat Dissected features) is the one implemented by Linn back in 1979, where straight timing is referred to as 50%, meaning that the first beat of every pair of 16th notes takes up 50% of the time of those two notes (i.e. the full 8th note). At a 60% swing setting, the first beat would take 60% of that 8th note. You’ll still find that approach in hardware such as Akai MPCs, Korg Electribes, the DSI Tempest and DAWs including Logic and Reason.

The main swing option in Logic dispenses with percentages altogether, offering a choice of six settings instead. In the case of 16th-note swing, these are called 16A through to 16F. The manual defines those settings by swing percentage, using the same convention (50% = straight timing) as Linn:

16A: 50%
16B: 54%
16C: 58%
16D: 62%
16E: 66%
16F: 71%

Here’s the effect those swing settings have on the timing of 16th notes, with 16A at the top and 16F at the bottom. The higher the level of swing, the more the evenly numbered 16th notes (highlighted in red) are delayed.

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 09.16.29

And here’s how the same swing settings sound when applied to a 16th-note hi-hat pattern:

Here’s how those swing settings sound when applied to a 16th-note hi-hat pattern:

Note that these six swing settings are almost exactly the same as the settings offered on the LM-1 and other vintage drum machines including the E-mu Drumulator, SP-12 and SP-1200, and the Oberheim DMX. It’s very difficult to hear a difference in timing from small changes in the swing setting, so 4% increments work quite effectively; you can hear the difference from one setting to the next, but it’s not such a dramatic change that you’re constantly wishing for an option in between two settings.

It’s worth bearing in mind at this point that a lot of DAWs now allow you to achieve swing in a few different ways. Logic, for example, also offers Q-Swing and Advanced Quantization settings for each region. Built-in sequencers in plugins like Ultrabeat often also include a dedicated swing knob (in this case it allows you to dial in anything from 50-85% swing):

ultrabeat swing

Likewise, the step sequencer in FL Studio offers a different approach to the groove template options in the piano roll.

Both FL Studio and Cubase use a subtly different numerical convention to achieve exactly the same result as the likes of the LM-1, MPC, Logic and Reason. The manual for Cubase 7 is the best part of 1,000 pages long, but this is just about all it has to say on swing: “This parameter lets you offset every second position in the grid, creating a swing or shuffle feel.” No wonder so many people struggle to understand how swing works! The simple explanation of the difference in this case is that Cubase uses 0% to represent perfectly straight timing, while 100% equates to triplets:

cubase swing

Recent versions of Ableton have integrated swing with the DAW’s groove features and, specifically, the Groove Pool. In the Groove Pool you’ll find groove templates which recreate the sound of various other sequencers and drum machines. This means you’ll need to understand both systems. In the MPC folder, for example, you’ll find 8th-note and 16th-note swing options which copy the timing of the MPC, using the convention where 50% swing equals straight timing. But in the Swing folder you’ll find 8th-, 16th- and 32nd-note options which use the convention where 0% swing is straight timing, as in Cubase and FL Studio. Again, it’s little surprise that so many people find this whole issue so confusing.

Author Greg Scarth & Oliver Curry
1st July, 2013

Passing Notes is sponsored by

Spitfire Audio

Spitfire Audio is a British company founded by two film composers looking to revolutionise sampling.

They set about recording the world’s finest players in the best locations in order to capture samples of unrivalled quality. Used across the music, gaming and film industry, Spitfire has become the go-to for producers and composers looking to add truly authentic sounds to their works.

With offices in Central London and a growing workforce of experienced music, film and recording professionals, their revolution continues.

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