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Q: What is groove in MIDI?

An Audio Masterclass Newsletter reader asks a simple but interesting question. Musicians can groove, but can MIDI groove too?


First, a very quick primer on MIDI...

MIDI isn't quite all the rage that it once was. In fact some people who are otherwise in very good control of their DAW software don't really know what it is.

I could make this a history lesson, but that would be long and tedious, so to explain quickly and simply, when you record a virtual instrument track, it isn't the sound of the instrument that is recorded. Instead, a recording is made of the keys you press on your music keyboard. When the track is played back, the virtual instrument is played from that data, so it sounds just like it did when you played it yourself.

We can call this MIDI data, because it works in the same way as a MIDI track that is connected via the MIDI OUT socket of your interface (assuming it has one) to a physical MIDI sound module.

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So you can choose to record audio, or choose to record MIDI. So why record MIDI? Here are some good reasons...

  • You can change the instrument completely. What you recorded as a virtual saxophone, for example, can easily be changed to a virtual clarinet, without having to re-record.
  • You can change the tempo easily. Granted, this is possible with audio too these days, but it's inherent in MIDI and it always works perfectly.
  • You can edit the notes and the way you played them. Played a wrong note? Then just edit it to the correct one.
  • Quantization! You can easily convert a sloppy performance into a super-tight one. Once again, you can do this in audio these days, but it is second-nature to MIDI and there are never any sonic degradations.

In the groove

Listen to some music played by a learning musician. Apart from the wrong or shaky notes, the performance will be 'wooden'. Now listen to a band of dyed-in-the-wool jazzmen. The swingometer goes straight to the max!

Clearly the experienced musicians have groove and the learner has yet to acquire it.

When music is written out on paper, it is presented in terms of half-notes, quarter-notes, eighth-notes and the occasional triplet. Play it like that and it will sound mechanical. A good player will used the printed rhythms as a guide and let the music flow. Note lengths will be subtly adjusted and the result - even in classical music - will be groove.

Now when you record a MIDI track (or a virtual instrument track), chances are you will listen to your work and hear a certain amount of sloppiness in timing. No problem - select the quantize function and everything will be quickly fixed.

The problem is that straight quantize sets everything to a rigid grid pattern. The sloppiness is gone, replaced by a mechanical accuracy that doesn't sound like a real performance.

One answer to this is to use swing. You will find this in most quantization menus or windows. Here, pairs of eighth-notes are modified so that the first is slightly longer than the second. Instant jazz.

Although swing can often be better than straight quantization, we can do better.

If you look further into the details of the quantize menu or window, you might find a 'groove' function with various options. Grooves are rhythmic patterns that can be imposed on your playing so that the end result mimics a skilled player. Swing is a simple groove, but grooves can be as complex as you want to make them. Often a number of standard grooves are offered, but you may be able to make your own. You could even find a groove on an old jazz record and emulate that.

It has to be said however that to get the most out of groove quantization, as it is often called, you have to be very patient and painstaking in seeking out the exact groove that is right for your purpose.

But then, taking extra trouble is the mark of the successful, or soon-to-be successful, producer.

By David Mellor Friday April 8, 2011