Swing in Seven

Swing can make or break a track. Have a listen to this clip of a drum beat without any swing:

Sounds kinda lame, right? Let's ignore the sounds for a second and concentrate on the actual rhythm. It's what musicians call "straight-ahead", generally as a bit of an insult: it's boring, on-beat, and would sound incredibly repetitive if it went on for more than a couple of bars.

The solution? Swing. From Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman to Duke Ellington, musicians as early as the 1930s realised that if you moved the second and fourth beats back a bit, you got a much cooler, laid-back sound.

The easiest way to do this is to imagine that instead of playing the first, second, third and fourth beats of the bar, you're playing the first and third beat of two sets of triplets. So this:

becomes this:

Here's how it might look and sound with our drum beat from before. Note how I've used Ableton Live's "triplet grid" to subdivide measures into three even chunks: for example, the first kick has 2/3 of the time between 1 and 1.2, and the hat has the remaining 1/3.

You can hear how the second and fourth beats are "pushed" forwards to the third triplet. But still... this doesn't sound cool. It sounds galloping, and trite, and a bit old-fashioned. It's trying just a bit too hard.

So is there a happy middle ground? Well, artists like J Dilla, Exmag, The Roots, Sungazer and plenty more think so. Instead of using triplets, they've used septuplets to get somewhere in between the lousy "straight-ahead" rhythm and the "trying-too-hard" triplets.

How does that work? Instead of beats one and two being the first and third notes in a triplet, they're now the first and fourth notes in a septuplet. Instead of the second note being 2/3 through the time given, it's now only 4/7 of the way through: in theory, somewhere in between straight-ahead and triplets.

Unfortunately, Ableton doesn't have a "septuplet grid", so we'll have to do things a bit more manually, using Ableton's "groove pool": a simple tool for matching notes to their nearest counterpart in any given rhythm.

First of all, we'll create a new MIDI track. It doesn't matter where this goes, but I'll use the drum channel we already have. I'll draw in 8 evenly spaced notes -- that's seven, plus one more which will come in handy for dragging stuff around.

Now, I'll select them all. Notice the little handle, lined up with the eighth note of the sequence.

Dragging this handle stretches or compresses the MIDI notes as a bunch. I'll drag it to the right, lining it up with the start of the next bar.

We've now got a measure of seven evenly-spaced notes (plus the first note of the next bar). Let's get rid of all the notes except the ones we need, i.e. the first and fourth:

Now that we've got the first and fourth notes, we can select them, right-click and hit "extract groove":

We should see a new item in our Groove Pool. I'll rename it to "Sept Swing":

Now we can go ahead and apply it to our drum pattern!

It's a great middle ground, sounding much more laid-back than either of the other two. If you can't hear it, don't worry, it's quite subtle! Try listening back to the first two beats, counting each beat out loud.

If you'd like to hear some examples of septuplet-swing being used in a full song, check out Sungazer's Dream of Mahjong or Exmag's Persian Temptress.