Time to read: 8 minutes.
av_studiocollection, categorized under Ableton Live, EZ Drummer 3, MuseScore, Pro Tools.
This article introduces musical microtiming for music played by humans with physical instruments as well as digitally-produced music:
- Triplets, shuffles, jazz swing, and samba swing
- MPC-style swing and negative swing in DAWs and synthesizers
These microtimings can be applied to solo instrumentalists and vocalists. However, more complex music can be made when many instruments and voices are used.
You might find that an arrangement works best in front of an audience if microtiming is not applied to all the instruments and voices. For example, just the drums and/or the lead instrument might be flavored with a style of microtiming; while the bass line might be played in straight time.
The contrast of different microtimings applied to lead and background voices can feel dramatic, especially when the microtiming is subtle.
Less is more. The best spice is the spice you hardly notice.
A triplet is just 3 notes played in the time normally allotted for 2 notes.
The blues is full of triplets. They are played in straight time, which means mathematically constant time. The blues musical style was created as the result of racial oppression in the United States. Emotionally, triplets are associated with the blues and the shuffle beat.
The shuffle beat is like playing an eighth note triplet, without playing the middle note of the triplet.
A tighter-sounding shuffle would be to play the first note of the triplet as a dotted eighth note, followed by a sixteenth note.
“La Grange” is a famous Texas shuffle by ZZ Top:
For more about the Texas shuffle, and other shuffle variations, see Shuffle Beats Every Drummer Should Know – Blues and Beyond.
If the timing of the middle beat of a triplet is slightly delayed, we say it is swung. Swing is a variation on triplets, usually played in 6/8 timing. However, it is conventionally written in common time (4/4) for simplicity’s sake, with the swing timing added by musicians.
The following shorthand indicates that the passage or song to which it applies should be played in swing time:
MuseScore is one of the few music programs that implements true jazz swing, instead of MPC swing, described later.
Swing is accomplished by writing ordinary eighth notes and then putting the word "Swing" (from the Text palette) on the score. MuseScore automatically swings eighths in a 60% ratio, more or less as human musicians would.
Triplets are something you write explicitly in the score, using Notes / Tuplets / Triplets or the shortcut Ctrl+3, as described in the Handbook.
If you want swing, write swing. If you want triplets, write triplets. You can force MuseScore to interpret swing as if it were triplets, by right-clicking the Swing text, going to System Text Properties / Swing Settings, and setting the ratio to 66%.
I wrote a MuseScore 4 score that followed Marc Sabatella’s instructions. The score contains two instrument tracks: claves and piano. Both instruments play the same timing. The following video demonstrates straight triplets and swung eighths timings:
Swing music was created in the 1930s as an offshoot of jazz based on lopsided rhythm of swing. Swing music sounds happy.
Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)”, written in 1931, is another classic example of jazz swing.
‘Swing’ eventually came to be used to describe any rhythm with an off-kilter groove that had loose, fluid timing.
Contrasting Triplets, Shuffle, and Jazz Swing
The blues is full of triplets, but it never swings.
Shuffles cannot swing, because they are missing the middle beat of the triplet.
Drummer Jonathan Curtis made this next video, in which he contrasts straight triplets to swing. Because he lives in the UK, Jonathan says ‘crotchet’ when he means a quarter note, and ‘quaver’ when he means an eighth note.
Bateria Monte Reno has an excellent page describing samba swing.
To paraphrase, only the first of the four 16th notes is played on the beat, and the accent (volume) of each note is different.
Fundamental for understanding a groove, is the perception of a particular reference structure, such as pulse, metre, and metrical subdivisions. If one does not perceive the intended metre, the groove can change character or break down completely. A groove is thus more than a rhythm pattern; it is also an experience. The groove experience describes the ‘feel’ of a specific music style and is often associated with the desire of wanting to move and a sense of pleasure. The state of ‘being in the groove’ has been described as a euphoric feeling, often related to a sense of flow and timelessness ...
In groove-based music, studies of the effect of tempo on non-isochronous duration patterns – that is, patterns consisting of units of uneven durations, have largely been conducted in jazz swing. Jazz swing is characterised by a long–short duration pattern on the eighth note level, often referred to as swing ratio ...
Samba is normally notated as 2/4 – that is, there are two beats in a measure. Each beat has four subdivisions, or what is known as sixteenth notes. Recent studies have revealed that systematic microtiming at the level of sixteenth notes seems to be a prominent feature of samba groove...
the third and the fourth sixteenth note in a beat in samba are played slightly ahead of their corresponding quantised position ...
the first and third sixteenth notes in a beat are insignificantly different from the ‘ideal’ of 100, whereas the second sixteenth note is shorter and the fourth longer than 100 in all three instruments, resulting in a medium (M)–short (S)–medium (M)–long (L) duration pattern on sixteenth note level ...
not only is the fourth sixteenth note in a beat in samba extended (in duration), it is also accentuated
Triplets and MPC Swing in DAWs and Synthesizers
EZ Drummer 3, Ableton Live and Pro Tools can work with MIDI data containing triplets, and introduce positive and negative swing, which is cool. However, the “MPC swing” commonly provided by DAWs and sythesizers is in general a different rhythm than the jazz swing style described above.
If you want create a composition containing true jazz swing using DAW software that only supports MPC swing, your choices are:
- Record a good musician performing the piece without quantization.
- Handcraft the start times and durations of the MIDI notes.
- Generate a MIDI file via software that knows jazz swing, like MuseScore, then import the MIDI notes.
Roger Linn designed the Linn sample-based drum machines, invented DAW quantization and MPC-style swing, the Akai MPC and the DSI Tempest. He describes MPC-style swing this way:
My implementation of swing has always been very simple: I merely delay the second 16th note within each 8th note.
In other words, I delay all the even-numbered 16th notes within the beat (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) In my products I describe the swing amount in terms of the ratio of time duration between the first and second 16th notes within each 8th note.
For example, 50% is no swing, meaning that both 16th notes within each 8th note are given equal timing. And 66% means perfect triplet swing, meaning that the first 16th note of each pair gets 2/3 of the time, and the second 16th note gets 1/3, so the second 16th note falls on a perfect 8th note triplet. The fun comes in the in-between settings.
For example, a 90 BPM swing groove will feel looser at 62% than at a perfect swing setting of 66%.
And for straight 16th-note beats (no swing), a swing setting of 54% will loosen up the feel without it sounding like swing.
Between 50% and around 70% are lots of wonderful little settings that, for a particular beat and tempo, can change a rigid beat into something that makes people move.
This is a good video that shows MPC-style swing as implemented in Pro Tools:
The strength of the MPC-style swing effect used in DAWs and synthesizers is controlled by swing percentage.
This video shows what swing percentages looks like mathematically:
Christopher Smith describes swing percentages this way:
A 50% swing means exactly even 8th notes; each one takes up 50% of the beat.
An exact triplet would be 66.6% (usually rounded to 67%) which means the first 8th note takes up 2/3 of the beat and the last 8th note is 1/3.
One of the first things that sequencer users figured out was that a perfect triplet swing feel was actually rather stilted, especially at faster tempos. Swing bands like the Count Basie Band or Benny Goodman played running 8th note lines more evenly than 67%, for sure, except at the very slowest swing tempos, though final offbeat 8ths tended to be more laid back, closer to the supposed ideal of 67%. A very fast swing, like a bebop tune, was actually pretty much even 8ths (50% swing), and even a medium swing was probably somewhere between 50 and 67%, depending on the player and the instrument.
Negative swing means that the sound is played ahead of the beat.
There is an interesting TikTok video that demonstrates positive and negative swing. This video shows many variations, rather quickly, using technical jargon, so it can be difficult to understand. This video is worth playing several times to fully appreciate the content.
All DAWs can quantize MIDI data. DAWs can also introduce a degree of randomness (which is usually termed humanization), which I dislike unless used appropriately. While I believe that ‘humanizing’ a drum track played in straight time might make the piece sound better, ‘humanizing’ a rhythm containing microtiming destroys the subtle effect that microtime can provide.
Just as applying quantization can destroy microtime, adding random variations (‘humanizing’ a track) can significantly diminish the subtle effect the composer intended.
Researchers Say: Easy Does It
I have found that audiences react very positively to minute swing percentages. Most of the time they do not know why they suddenly feel like dancing, they just smile and dance. Some become quite vocal and exuberant.
Roger Linn agrees.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and the University of Göttingen recently came to a different conclusion based on their empirical study. They suggest that jazz musicians feel the swing slightly more when the swing ratio fluctuates as little as possible during a performance.
Microtiming Deviations and Swing Feel in Jazz, published by the US National Library of Medicine in 2019 has an in-depth discussion of original research on this topic.