Zoë Blade's notebook

Swing

If you group sixteenth notes (notes a sixteenth of a bar long each) into pairs, and you change the proportion of how long the first and second notes of each pair last, you're using swing, also known as shuffle.

First, let's picture how a digital step sequencer might envision music: by splitting every bar up into 16 equally long divisions, making a rough grid. A note can only start or stop on a point in that grid. This is a very simplistic way of looking at music, but is enough for making house, techno, or hip-hop music, which are some excellent genres.

Now picture every two lines on that grid being paired up. By default, you probably want them to be equally far apart, so every first and second division that can contain a note lasts the same length as each other. So the first division of each pair lasts 50% of the whole pair's total length. That's no swing, or straight.

At the other extreme, the first of every two divisions can last twice as long as the other one, 66% of the pair's total time. That's the most swing that sounds good to my ears, at least. That's triplet swing.

Everything in between is varying amounts of soft swing.

I've experimented with different swing amounts, and to my ears, I can't spot any increment in swing less than 4%. That gives us five useful amounts of swing: 50%, 54%, 58%, 62%, and 66%.

Swing % Terminology Clock pulses @ 24 PPQN Creator groove
50% Straight 6, 6 16 A
54% Soft swing - 16 B
58% Soft swing 7, 5 16 C
62% Soft swing - 16 D
66% Triplet swing 8, 4 16 E

From a technical point of view, for anyone looking to make a digital step sequencer, it essentially has a fine grid of pulses (usually 24 per quarter note, so 6 per 16th note, and 96 per bar) and overlays onto that a coarser grid of pulses (4 per quarter note, 1 per 16th, 16 per bar). Instead of incrementinging its read head along the coarse grid every time it gets 6 pulses, it can wait until it gets 8, then until it gets 4, alternating. It still adds up to 12 pulses for the pair, but now every odd division lasts twice as long as every even division. Now it's swinging at 66%. You may have worked out at this point that you need a fine grid of 48 PPQN to implement all five perceptible (to me, at least) amounts of swing. 24 PPQN only lets you choose between three amounts.

That's how I implemented swing on Stepper Acid, anyway.

From a musical point of view, you could say that 66% swing is the same thing as using triplets, only missing the middle note. And you could say that's the same thing as the music being in 6/8 instead of 4/4, and again missing every middle note. These are different ways of describing the same thing. Which means you can exploit this for a fun trick: you could, if you wanted, have a verse that's not swinging, then in the prechorus slowly ramp it up to fully swinging, then in the chorus add in those middle notes to reveal that the song's subtly changed to 6/8.

This is the kind of thing you can do when you focus on what music is, rather than a single arbitrary way of expressing it.

Swing on trackers

Impulse Tracker defaults to speed 006 (001 is the fastest possible speed). You can change the speed on any row (16th) with the command Axx. Just like with DIN sync, that's 6 pulses per sixteenth note, or 12 for each pair of sixteenths. So by alternating the speed between 8 and 4, you can introduce swing, by alternating between A08 and A04 commands. Or you can use a more subtle half-swing by alternating between 7 and 5 pulses. This is the exact same way you can swing with DIN sync, only the musician has a raw, low-level access to how it works, useful for programming intricate changes in swing amount throughout the track.

Quotes

Because the timing of computers is so precise, a whole generation of musicians is growing up, whose timing expectations are quite different from the days before these advanced sequencers were around. Modern "high-tech" musicians have come to regard quantized timing as the norm, and human timing as somehow below standard, such that even technically-proficient musicians have felt that they needed to quantize their playing via a computer in order to be able to compete. The downside of this searching for perfection is the loss of much of the human feel that went into the original recording of the notes.

C-LAB Notator/Creator SL 3.1 owner's manual

The MC-8 used 48 ticks for a quarter beat, so a triplet is 16 and 8 ticks. But sometimes I divided an eighth note into 13 and 11 ticks so that it would give a timing swing.

— Ryuichi Sakamoto, 1992[1]

References

  1. "News Of The World" Tim Goodyer, Music Technology, Jul 1992

Music theory: Circle of fifths | Music | Swing | Velocity