Zoë Blade's notebook


If you group sixteenth notes 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. This is the simplest kind of groove.

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, which are 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 barely 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 swung - 16 B
58% Soft swung 7, 5 16 C
62% Soft swung - 16 D
66% Triplet swung 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, as used by both DIN sync and MIDI, 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 incrementing 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 24 PPQN only lets you choose between three amounts of swing, at 8% increments. A finer grid of 48 PPQN lets you implement the five amounts of swing listed above, in 4% increments, while 96 PPQN lets you implement nine amounts, in 2% increments.

This is how I implemented swing on Stepper Acid.

24 PPQN, straight
24 PPQN, straight

24 PPQN, soft swung
24 PPQN, soft swung

24 PPQN, triplet swung
24 PPQN, triplet swung

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 describing it.

Swing on trackers

Scream Tracker and Impulse Tracker default to speed 006. 001 is the fastest possible speed, suggesting that just like DIN sync based digital step sequencers, they're simply counting clock ticks, and incrementing the sequencer's step once a certain number has been reached. Also just like DIN sync, they use 6 pulses per sixteenth note, as in 12 for each pair of sixteenths, or 24 per quarter note.

You can change the speed on any row (16th) with the command Axx. So by alternating the speed between 8 and 4 with alternating A08 and A04 commands, you can introduce triplet swing. Or you can use a more subtle soft swing by alternating between 7 and 5 pulses, with alternating A07 and A05 commands.

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.


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]


  1. "News Of The World" Tim Goodyer, Music Technology, Jul 1992, pp. 52—55

Music theory: Arpeggio | Block chord | Broken chord | Circle of fifths | Interval | Music | Pitched tempos | Polymetre and polyrhythm | Rest | Swing | Velocity