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Welcome to the support section.

So what makes your music “Swing”?

I’d like to thank my buddy from the Bronx (the ‘Dukester’) for giving me a topic for my blog. Blogging is difficult as I am so technology oriented and get into product issues rather than a subject like this – which I hope will be interesting and enlightening. Not that I have all the answers, because this is a very subjective topic but, at least I can pass on some of what I have learned in my experience as a musician.

The Bronx, for those that don’t know, is one of the five boroughs (counties) that make up New York City. Back when Dukester and I were growing up, it was a hot bed of young musicians. Back then seems like everybody had a band and we had plenty of places to play (funny musicians don’t earn too much more money per gig these days). “Swing” is a word that has morphed over the years and has been applied to several different genres of music. I’m pretty sure it got its start as a “jazz” term back in the 30’s and 40’s and was used to describe a particular type of danceable music – yes, jazz was once considered dance music! Before my time, but my parents danced to jazz! In fact, some time just after World War II there was a split and what was danceable jazz evolved into Rhythm and Blues (R&B), Rock and Roll, and later morphed through other categories as Hop, Discotheque (not Disco, that came later), Bugaloo, and plethora of other titles. But people will always have dance music. And though the name changes… people will always dance. And dance means it has to ‘groove’ – and what the hip groove is changes as time goes on. Every generation thinks they KNOW what is hip!

In recent history it has kind of splintered into many titles but the “groove” or the “swing” of the beat is what it is all about, no matter what the era and no matter what the music genre is called now. The ability of music to make you want to shake and move around, that is arguably what we mean by “swing”. But even though people no longer dance or even associate jazz with dance… jazz still “swings”. Ellington would say it is what makes you want to dip an earlobe in time to the music. Marches do not (necessarily) swing.

Many put the split of jazz from dance down to Basie and Ellington… Basie always wanted to appeal to the dance crowd (popular), while Ellington was much more “heady” stuff – for listening. The unwillingness for bars to pay the Big Bands, also opened the doors for the small combo and ReBop was born (popularly remembered as ‘BeBop’). Now jazz musicians are all about improvisation: Being in the language of the music and becoming the music of the language… so coining terms was/is part of the jazz scene. You cannot always define Swing, something is either swingin’ or it ain’t. But the old jazz term is used (even today) to denote a particular “feel” within the music.

In our current world of computer chips and our need to over-analyze everything – you wind up with “Swing Quantize”. Now I will not get into the politics of should you quantize your music or not… all I’ll say is it is a tool that is provided. In general, swing is a feel. Nothing is stiffer than a straight beat. A “march” is in 2, and is the absolute definition of not swinging. Each beat is equal in length and in accent. Lots of folk music winds up being in 2 – you can’t lose the beat because, wham, here it comes again, immediately. And you have a 50-50 chance of finding the 1! And each beat is sub-divided 50%/50%. When the computer swings – it will offset the timing of the beat so that the off-beats (up beats) are typically delayed (slightly).

Something that “swings” does not have equal stress on each beat… some beats (strikes) have more weight and a little extra something. The ability to hold back certain strikes and yet maintain the overall timing, is at the core of what makes something swing in terms of timing. The Law of Falling back and Catching up…

In the early days of MIDI (circa 1980’s) I had the opportunity to work with virtually every piece of gear available. I was curious enough to investigate the EVENT LIST of sequencers. In the early days it was common to quantize (automatically correct the timing) of a performance. At the time you would have some people say that machines could not swing. The first MIDI sequencers had a timing resolution of only 24 pulses per quarter note. Now the XS has a timing resolution of 480 pulses per quarter note. Is this enough? Wouldn’t it be best to have infinite resolution? Those are question for quantum physicists… My theory is that musicians really do try to play in time, but being human, quite naturally, fail (this is not necessarily bad). You know when it’s swingin’ and even at 24 pulses you could swing.

Remember the original MIDI spec was for 24ppqn… There was a specification ‘war’ to raise the resolution. Soon sequencers went to 96 pulses per quarter note, 192 pulses per quarter note, 384 pulses per quarter note, 480 pulses per quarter note, 1920 pulses per quarter note… And people convinced themselves the higher the resolution the better the feel. Is that true? Or is it just another urban legend? Computer programs now offer stupendous resolutions (because they know people don’t know any better and will naturally assume that more is better)… At some point this specification is just silly because higher resolution means notes can fall in different places – it does not mean you necessarily want your notes in those places.

Certainly the higher the resolution the more like real time it is. Whether or not that will help you “swing” or have better ‘feel’, is very doubtful beyond a certain point. In the early days of MIDI, magazines would absolutely cream a product that had only 24 pulses per quarter note as their timing resolution. Could not a piece of gear swing with that resolution? Of course it could… because there is more to swing than just the placement of the notes.

So what is swing really? Is it all timing? No, it is not just the timing or the Note-On strike, it is as much about the note end point (“gate time” or duration) and it certainly is influenced by volume (controlled by “velocity” in computer chip-based products). Timing, Velocity and Gate (duration) are the keys to what we consider swing and feel. Blake Angelos, Product Specialist and Jedi Black Belt Music Master from the great Pacific Northwest, recently completed a Web Video up at Keyfax going over some of the finer points of the “PLAY FX” in the Motif XS. Definitely, worth a look and listen…

Gate time, the duration of a held note, can be critical. One of the things I learned playing with legendary bassist, (the late great) Bernard Edwards of Chic fame, was just how much a bass line could swing all by itself. Now I’m not necessarily talking jazz swing here, Bernard was very much out of the James Jamerson school of R&B and Funk bass playing. But it applies to jazz swing as well. How you deaden certain notes and how you let others ring can setup its own rhythmic “thing” within the groove. Often on a song that ‘Nard had written or was arranging, he would play just the bass line for you and you could hear where everything was supposed to go – because the spaces were as important as the notes that were played. It was a skill that not many have on this level. But from just the bass line you could hear where the drums would go, where the guitar would fit and where the keyboards would go. The ‘ghost’ notes, the thumps and the knocks were all important. Guitarist Nile Rodgers (also from the Bronx, by the way) and I would be able to voice so-called “jazz chords” over top of the bass line – giving the music a sophisticated feel. This was back in the pre-Chic, “Big Apple Band” days (circa 1974-76) Bernard and Nile would work out very intricate rhythmic interplay that eventually blew up into “the hook” for many a song. Guitar and Bass grooves – spend some time with the various arpeggio patterns in the Motif XS – by offsetting timing, altering gate time, velocity and swing quantize you will be able to come up with an endless resource of material. Gate time does not typically work on the drum Voices – as drum Voice envelopes typically ignore Note-Off data.

In an upcoming Power User we will go over some of the incredible things you can do with the GATE TIME, VELOCITY and SWING QUANTIZE parameters with the more than 1900 Drum grooves, 1300 Bass and more than 1200 Guitar arpeggios in the XS. I like to think of the Gate time as the “attitude adjustment”. Swing Quantize will offset the upbeats by delaying their timing… giving the feel of holding back, then catching up. And Velocity alterations can be important in hiding some events and bringing other to the front. Attitude adjustment – like walking with an attitude versus marching… while marching is some how “stiff” and rigid, when you see (in the language of the old school music) a “cool cat” struttin’ down the avenue, there is a swing to it. Both types of walking are rhythmic and in time but one has a definitively stiffness to it, and the other a very “cool” laid-back attitude to it… like it has more components in motion… Swingin’