One of the most important elements in any piece of music is the drum groove, which is why I wanted to do a part 2 of this concept. Before, I emphasized manipulating the individual drum samples themselves. You can read How to Add Groove to Your Drum Patterns, where I go over using your channel Envelope settings to shape your drums.
In this blog, I want to go over the overall swing and quantization, which gives rhythm and life to the music and makes the listener want to physically move with the song. I’ll also re-emphasize some of the ideas from the first blog.
With the introduction of DAWs, it has become common to find beginners making drum patterns that are seemingly lifeless or emotionless because of the static nature of tools like step sequencers and piano rolls. This is why humanization has become such a big topic in the music production community. Humanization can bring back the movements that traditionally were made with our bare hands and insert them back into the music we digitally create in our DAWs. The most common feature people use to achieve this in FL Studio is the Swing Knob, which is located on the top right of the channel rack.
When hardware step sequencers were introduced, one man stood out above the rest for his invention of swing and quantization on drum samplers like the Akai MPC. The MPC is famous for its signature swing and has been copied over the years to be used in many DAWs, software and hardware. In a nutshell, it delays the even numbered 16th notes within each group of 8th notes. A setting of 50% would make each note equal, while a setting at 66% produced perfect triplets.
What was more interesting, were the in-between settings that allowed for a more imperfect groove, which gave a more human element to the groove. However, while the traditional MPC settings are famous for their sound, the swing settings have changed overtime depending on the DAW, software and hardware device. In FL Studio, you can actually import MIDI information as a groove setting by sending your MIDI into the piano roll and pressing ALT+Q.
This brings up the quantizer. If you click the preset folder or the drop-down menu, you can even access a template called “16_MPC1” and “16_MPC2,” which are both based on the original MPC swing settings. You can adjust the start time, duration and sensitivity of the quantization to further humanize these settings. Definitely try out some of the other presets. You’ll notice that some of them will apply velocity changes, which is also a huge factor in groove and the human feel of the drum pattern. Don’t forget that you can resave this MIDI as your own groove template and reuse this in later project through the quantizer.
By increasing the swing knob on the channel rack, you will exaggerate the note spacing of these settings. One tip that I like to do is to go into the drop-down menu of the channel rack and select “Set Swing Mix For Selected.” This allows you to change how much swing is applied to the channels you’ve selected. I personally will leave the kick and main snare on the grid and highlight the rest of the percussion, and set these to 50%.
I find this formula allows me to subtly introduce movement in the groove, while still keeping the overall drum sequence pretty tight to the grid, which can help in some genres where rapping is involved. This will change the “pocket” that a rapper or singer will write their lyrics to and will give some flexibility in the number of syllables they use within each bar of the drum pattern. At 50%, you can still hear a difference with even 1% of change with the swing knob. Sometimes, I go as high as 30% or more. Use your ears and let the feeling of the swing move you until you find the groove you’re looking for. If you want to change any of the individual swing percentages of a channel, select the wrench tool in the channel settings.
There you will see the section labeled “Time.” All three of these knobs will affect the groove of the sound. The gate will cutoff the sound depending on the volume threshold you set. The more you move the knob to the left, the more volume gets cutoff from the lower levels of sound in the sample. This works great with percussion with long tail fades. When you cut out those fades, it can produce a snappier, punchier sound and will change the spacing between notes. The Shift knob delays when the sound plays. It’s effectively the same as moving a note further to the right on the piano roll.
Some producers won’t even use swing at all and find that simply shifting the notes in time is enough to add the groove they are looking for. That alone really highlights the idea of how much the length of a sound plays into a groove and why the Gate knob is so effective. The Swing knob is what we were effecting earlier from the channel rack drop down menu. If you set it to 50%, this knob will be at 50% just like in the picture above. This will allow you individually set the swing amount for each channel. Remember, this is based on the overall swing setting you set on the channel rack itself on the top right in the first picture of the blog.
I’ve already hinted at how important the length of a sound can play into the groove. Well, on the main page of the channel settings, you’ll see the option to manipulate exactly that.
You’ll see the length knob is at 100%. If you decrease this, you’ll change the end point of the sample, causing it to end earlier. Another way to manipulate this would be with the out knob. This will fadeout the end of the sound, which can be useful in combination with the length knob to create a more natural sounding end to your sound.
Another trick I use, especially on percussion, is the SMP Start knob, which changes where the sample actually starts playing. By increasing this knob, you’ll create a new beginning to the sound and simultaneously make the sound shorter in length.
Overall, the swing, quantization, velocities, shift/delay and note lengths all play a role in the overall groove. Create your own templates and settings for later use when you find a groove you really like and apply those to future projects. Those settings will help you humanize your drums and keep your beats from sound lifeless on the grid.