Six instruments that put groove at the forefront of music production

Swing, shuffle and groove – it’s all about making you move. We explore how these terms have become staples in your music-making gear.

Linn LM-1

Image: Sample From Mars

You’ve likely heard of ‘groove’ – but what is it? The vague term has been conflated for decades, confusing music students and spiritualists alike. But one thing is certain: groove makes you want to move.

Some try to decipher groove through superfluous definitions like, ‘groove is like water flowing down a river. It’s the way it hits the rocks and returns to stream,’ (yeah, thanks). Meanwhile, others manifest groove from a technological standpoint, bridging the gap between groove’s human grounding and the creation of electronic beats.
So how has groove shuffled from being a cryptic musical concept to a commonplace parameter in DAWs, and what electronic instruments do we have to thank for it?

Roland CR-78

Roland CR-78

Released in 1978, Roland’s CR-78 was one of the first mainstream rhythm machines created. Underpinning behemoth beats. Including Phil Collins’ iconic 1981 track In The Air Tonight, the Roland CR-78 has a range of presets, fill options, some pretty dexterous balancing features, and a nice metallic timbre function for tonal blending.

The impressionable invention allowed musicians to store drum patterns for the first time, opening up a whole new world of creative memory and permitting spontaneous rhythmic moments to be captured. But despite its triumphs in paving the way for electronic grooves, the CR-78 ultimately missed the beat – users can’t play their own rhythms. The power of groove in technology was only just starting its journey.

Apart from its presets and loose fills, the CR-78’s drum patterns are fully quantised – completely in time. For most producers, this is an issue. And for those seeking groove, this is detrimental.

What’s crucial about the CR-78, besides the irresistibly cool ‘Rock 2’ preset, is that the inclusion of the drum loops ‘Shuffle’ and ‘Swing’ showed promise; an intention to create a looser style of beat. The term ‘shuffle’ would stick, mostly thanks to one of the most important instrument creators to exist – Roger Linn.

Linn LM-1 – Time to groove

Linn LM-1
Image: Sample From Mars

The Linn LM-1 – which you can hear at Samples From Mars – was one of the first drum machines to truly change a musician’s approach to beatmaking. Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder are among the giants who adopted the machine into their music-making workflows. It was the first drum machine to feature acoustic drum samples, the first to introduce timing correct, and most importantly (for us) the first to incorporate swing.

Linn coined swing as Shuffle on the LM-1, which let beatmakers create free-moving drum sequences that were slightly off-the-grid, unrestricted by the preset beats that plagued its predecessors.

“A lot of people use ‘swing’, ‘groove’ and ‘timing’ interchangeably despite the fact they have quite distinct meanings.” Linn said in a 2013 interview with Attack. “Swing is the most important.”

If swing is the harbinger of groove, 100 per cent note quantisation is its devolution. But that’s not to say quantising isn’t useful. Linn’s discovery of the quintessential DAW feature is another part of what makes the LM-1 the original groove machine.

“I discovered both swing and note quantising by accident. RAM was expensive so in my first pre-release prototypes, I tried compressing the drumbeats by only permitting 16th notes, using one byte per 16th note. When I ran my real-time recording code and played the drum buttons in time to the metronome, I noticed that what I had recorded played back on perfect 16th notes, effectively correcting my timing errors, so I decided to call this bug a feature, which I called ‘timing correct’”

Happy accidents are rife in music production. Groove, however, is far from an accident; thinking outside the box to help implement groove was necessary intent. And that thinking soon extended beyond time and into dynamics.

Linn 9000 – The ups and downs of creating groove

Linn 9000

“To a far greater degree than has existed before, [The Linn 9000] allows the non-technical artist to quickly and accurately realise the music which exists in his mind,” reads a quote from Roger Linn on the Linn 9000 brochure from 1984.

While improved timing features maintained the ability to create groovy rhythms, it was the dynamic features that got the machine moving. Firstly, the inception of pressure-sensitive drum pads allowed for recorded velocity variation – you want a soft hi-hat on the first offbeat and a hard on the second? You could now record this in yourself.

You may hear that velocity and dynamics adding to the “humanness” of a track. Linn made it easy to humanise beats by including a feature called Pressure-sensitive Note Repeat. It allowed for the repeating velocity of a single drum sound to be altered through the single push of a button.

Linn’s expertise in groove led to a collaboration with Akai on the MPC 60 sampler, which would form a distinct attribute of the entire MPC range, from the MPC 2000XL all the way to the more recent MPC Key 61. Thanks to Linn, electronic groove evolved once more.

Roland MC-303 – Groove by numbers

Roland MC-303 Groovebox Top down

Roland’s MC-303 was the inception of the multi-faceted portable groovebox. Released in 1996, it features 28 voices, 448 tones, a 12 button keyboard and a step sequencer. And with over 120 presets and 50 user patterns, what could go wrong?

This machine has an extensive arsenal of music-making resources, but it’s the step sequencer that’s important here. While you can record your own drum beats, use shuffle templates and quantise loops, if you want to manipulate velocity in real time then you’re left dissapointed – clearly, user-created groove was moving further into the space of postscript sound.

According to the dense MC-303 user manual, the likely-confused operator can do the following:

“Press and hold [QUANTIZE] while the GRID indicator is lit, the current resolution of the Grid Quantize will appear in the display. At this time, you can rotate the VALUE dial to modify the Grid Quantize resolution.”

Scan your eyes further into the fray and you’ll read the “Adding swing to the rhythm (Shuffle Quantize)” section.

“When Shuffle Quantize is applied, the backbeat timing of the pattern will be shifted, creating a “bouncing” feel of shuffle or swing.”

All of this post-input groove is a far cry from flowing down a river. The result? The MC-303’s design encourages a point-and-click way of making music. And with Linn’s laser focus on natural swing and groove, it’s hard to feel the humanness and ease of groove weaving here.

How could Roland’s misstep with the MC-303 or Roger Linn’s various drum machines feed into creating groove in our DAWs? Have DAWs simplified the process of incorporating groove and swing into music, or is Roger Linn wincing at the thought of such out-of-the-moment swing-making?

Digital Audio Workstations – groove at work

Ableton Live 11
Ableton Live 11. Image: Ableton

Most drum machines, grooveboxes, drum pads and keyboards can be used to record sounds straight into your DAW. But how can you impart groove entirely in the box?

Across the board, with DAWS such as Logic Pro and Cubase, you’ll find groove templates, swing options and the ability to extract grooves from audio. But, in a DAW, it feels like we’re copying groove rather than creating it.

Ableton landed on the Groove Pool for its DAW, Live. From an incredible number of native and downloadable groove files, you can drag and drop your desired timing and velocity changes into the Groove Pool or directly into a MIDI clip. The file will then move the clip’s note positions accordingly, and you can adjust the swing and quantise percentages from the Groove Pool. Simple.

But besides going off-grid and manually adjusting note placements groove systems in electronic music seem to be largely a preset affair. Looking back, the evolution of groove in electronic toolkits certainly feels far-removed from the in-the-moment groove creation that formed much of our musical history.

Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operators – bitesized groove

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator PO-32

Groove may feel less in-the-moment in a DAW. But its evolution through other tech has flourished.

There’s an entire market of grooveboxes, drum machines and plug-ins that offer the gift of groove, transforming a potentially rigid number into a fluid sequence. But one above all appears to capture the modernity of groove in music production like no other: Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator.

At first glance we see a calculator. At second glance we see a magnificently dexterous tool, championing simplicity and guiding us to speedy musical output. For swing, there’s a single knob that allows for the control of injected silence before any sample playback. We can programme our samples in just like most step sequencers. It still has that modern ease of use, but we don’t need a clunky drum machine, laptop or a one-man band – the power of groove now fits into our pockets.

Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator solves the issue of in the moment creation vs access to musical tools. If we want to make something that grooves in a moment’s notice, we simply reach into our bag and take out the only tool we need.

Groove may feel a little less in the moment for some, perhaps a little too easy for others, but with swing, dynamics, and sample choice at our fingertips, that feeling of groove, no matter how deep, natural or meaningful, can be right there in front of us wherever we go.

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