Roger Linn On Drum Machine Groove And J Dilla’s Off-Beat Sound

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Music is fortunate to have inventors like Roger Linn. Linn has designed or co-designed a number of drum machines–such as the LM-1, the LinnDrum, the Akai MPC series of sampling workstations, and Tempest, a recent venture with Dave Smith. Linn is skilled in making instruments that musicians can, and do, use with ease in musical ways. And in every interview I find, Linn always exudes a laid-back curiosity and quiet earnestness that keeps coming back to the intersection of technology, design, and music making. Linn definitely makes my short list of interesting and singular voices.

Linn’s thinking is on display in a recent interview at Attack magazine as well as in a talk he gave with DJ Carl Craig at Dubspot. In the Attack interview, Linn discusses the topic of how his drum machines groove through his “swing factor” quantization. (Quantization, by the way, is another Linn innovation from back in the 1980s and refers to the “rounding off” of beats to their nearest note value.) The Attack magazine interviewer asks Linn about the secret to the MPC’s distinct groove or rhythmic feel. Linn replies that the key was the design of his machines’ “swing” feature. Here, swing entails delaying by various amounts all the even-numbered 16th-note subdivisions within a beat. While this might not be how a drummer conceptualizes musical time, it’s a straightforward explanation of Linn’s machines’ apparent techno-musical magic. Linn:

“Swing – applied to quantized 16th-note beats – is a big part of it. 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.”

In the Dubspot talk, Linn provides an informative overview of the history of drum machines over the past 80 years. Here is the talk:

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Dilla4

Music is also fortunate to have had musicians like producer J Dilla (1974-2006) whose approach to achieving swing was to avoid using quantization altogether. In fact, Dilla was known to finger-drum his beats live and pretty much leave them raw and unquantized. In Dilla’s music, you can hear a good sense of groove, and this groove depends on little timing variations and inconsistencies that are very much audible in the performances. Dilla’s approach has also inspired amateur musicians to think about how certain machine-made grooves move the way they do. For instance, at futureproducers.com in 2008, a musician named samplesbank threw a question out into the ether:

“So I listen to a lot of hip hop and noticed cats like j. dilla, madlib, black milk, flying lotus and a bunch of others….they have this off-beat sound to their tracks like the snare is late or early and the high-hats seem off but on at the same time. I got access to an mpc 3000 [co-developed by Akai and Roger Linn]…and I’ve been trying to get that sound by using no quantize and having the metronome off…but still can’t get that vibe. What’s the secret???”

Listening to various recordings, samplesbank then hypothesizes that perhaps the producers are “shifting all the snares a tiny bit early…”? Another reader named guilty j comes to the rescue and sets the record straight on behalf of Dilla et al:

“[The producer is] not shifting anything he’s just playin live like a real drummer would. Just leave ya quantize off and play in a good rhythm, you’ll get that off-beat sound.”

Here, then, is Dilla’s track “Lazer Gunne.” Listen closely and you can clearly hear the odd drum hit that is “off” –pushing ahead or pulling back–just enough to keep the groove so very on:

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