Build A Better Groove

Rhythm is one of the most primal building blocks of our musical experience; everyone can bash out some sort of rhythm, but what makes a good groove?

Funky Music

Over at Funklet, you can find an interesting browser-based interface that allows you not only to see and hear representations of some classic grooves, but also to modify things like tempo and syncopation.

Groove is something that’s actually quite hard to define, and extremely difficult to program. A human drummer will have a certain ‘feel’ for a beat that can’t be easily captured by electronic composition; however, if you are working on electronic music, there are a few things that can help.

Many DAWs will provide you with some groove libraries (Ableton Live is particularly well endowed in this regard) – these are essentially timing maps that you can apply to your beats to give them more swing, for example. You can also use midi files captured from live drum performances – ezdrummer has a good collection of these to choose from.

Drummer Brains

But what makes a drummer groovy? Brian Eno once posed the question of whether drummers’ brains were actually different to non-drummers’ – prompted by an event where U2’s drummer Larry Mullen Jr felt the computer click track was wrong, and in fact it turned out to be off by 6 milliseconds. So are drummers particularly sensitive to timing? The neuroscientist David Eagleman conducted some research to find out.

You can read a bit more about the experiment here, but essentially he gathered some top drummers together in Eno’s studio and tested their timings. As mentioned above, a top drummer can notice an off-timing of 6 milliseconds, but in general Eagleman found that the drummers could keep a steady beat wavering by less than 10ms, as opposed to 35ms in the control group.

Of course, computers are very good at keeping a steady beat, but where drummers excel is knowing when (and how) to be elastic in the beat – which is the heart of the groove, and something much more difficult to measure…


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