If you’re a groovebox and sampler junkie like me, Grand Daddy Frost of Elevation Productionz, or other producers, you’ve no doubt heard of the legendary swing of the Akai MPC 3000 and 60.  Did you know that you can easily load these swing profiles into Ableton Live, apply them retroactively to previous MIDI clips, and record input from the Push 2 locked in quantize?

A Youtube comment on one of Frost’s recent videos got me thinking I’d share how I use MPC swing profiles today, without even using an MPC half the time.  I first used a similar technique with Logic Pro back in the day, and it continues to be supported there, in Avid Pro Tools, and Studio One.  With Ableton Live, it’s baked right into the DAW via the Groove Pool feature.

What is a groove profile / swing template?

Essentially, a groove profile, swing template, or whatever your DAW refers to them as is simply an atonal click track telling the DAW the specific timing of a gridded MIDI event list over a period of bars and its subdivisions.  It’s used by a DAW to align subdivsions of MIDI events within a bar to mimic precisely what those MIDI events would sound like when triggered by whatever device it’s emulating, at various degrees of swing.

Another aspect of groove profiles that aren’t well known are their seemingly random (but very much predictable and formulaic) approach to adjusting velocity of MIDI events.   Together with swung patterns and varying velocities, the goal of Roger Linn and those who implemented these types of features, sought to emulate a real drummer who wouldn’t always be on a MIDI grid and wouldn’t strike their instruments with the same velocity each time.  However, much like Roland’s TB-303 which sought to replace a bass player easily for a band failed at achieving its primary goal, grooveboxes and samplers ended up adding a whole new sound available to producers that were patient enough to find all the pleasant quirks of their gear.

I like electronic music, always have, and the kind of stuff I cut my teeth on and grew up listening to was 90s electronic music.  Back then, while artists and groups might have used different synthesizers, mixers, and outboard gear, they pretty much all universally used an Akai MPC 3000 or 2000XL to sample and sequence their beats.  Weighing on a single tool, it helped shape a small but in my opinion cornerstone to the sound of early Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Future Sound of London, and more.  Suddenly in the 2000s, most artists moved to using their DAW to usurp beat duties and while easier for them it unfortunately resulted in an entire era of music with stale and uninspired unswung beats in the realm of EDM and electronic music.

The great thing about Ableton Live’s implementation is that you don’t have to commit a groove profile and can cycle through the available ones easily to find the one you’re looking for.  In other DAWs that tried to implement this feature, you had to quantize using the template to a clip and destructively edit it.  It also meant that if you wanted to edit a few notes or drum hits, you had to reapply the groove quantization to make sure your adjusted MIDI events are swung as well.  Big ole fucking pain in the ass.  And switching or audibly browser swing templates were equally a pain in the ass.   If you’ve added these Grooves into your Ableton template, then they’re even easier to access and deploy for your track and I’ll show you how you can apply them to clips and still have full ease of use with your MIDI editor.

Ableton Live Groove Pool

It’s usually a blank and unassuming section of the Ableton Live interface and something some might be inclined to flatten and hide to give more viewable screen real estate to the Browser view.  But it’s an incredibly important and powerful tool that you shouldn’t ignore.

 

 

Adding Grooves to a project

Aside from regular MIDI Tracks, I tend to use Ableton’s Simpler (for chopping and slicing up samples) and Drum Rack (for triggering one off drum samples) the most.  If you’ve used these tools before, you know that they are handled the same way as any other MIDI Clip within Ableton.  So the instructions below that I’ll be sharing apply to any and all devices in Ableton that use MIDI information for controlling them, which is pretty much all of them as far as I know.

So what does one do with this tool?  First, right click part of the blank area inside the tool around the center text “Drop Clips or Grooves Here”.  Ableton supports ripping groove profiles from clips of audio, but I won’t be covering that in this post.  Here we’ll be adding in some of Ableton’s already wonderfully made grooves built directly from the devices they emulate.

So let’s take a look at that Groove Pool area below the Browser area on the left.  If you don’t see it then either go to View -> Groove Pool from the menu bar or press Ctrl + Alt + G. When you right click you’ll see a single option “Browse Groove Library”, click that.

 

After that, your focus will be in the Browser view and Ableton will have sent you directly to its folder under Packs containing those grooves we’re searching for.  I want to draw attention to the two folders of absolute gold that Ableton has provided us here:  the MPC and SP1200 folders.

If you enter into these folders you’ll notice that the file format Ableton uses for its groove templates ends in *.agr.  Any *.agr file listed here in the browser view that Ableton sent us to can be dragged down into the Groove Pool view directly below it to populate available grooves to your project easily.

A neat thing about Ableton is that you can click and drag one of its *.agr files directly onto a clip either in the Arrangement of Session views of Live.  When doing so they automatically get added to the globally accessible Groove Pool view so they can be applied to other clips and also directly to the clip you’re working with.

Alternatively, you can verify a MIDI clip is using a Groove profile by double clicking on a clip. So let me drag a few Grooves / swing profiles into the Groove Pool.  If you’ve used the hardware you know with MPCs you’re working with groove available from 50% to 75%.  I love a slight groove so I tend to use 16th note 53-60% variations.

Bam!  You’re now using swing templates on clips in Ableton that are taken directly from the devices you want them to sound like they’re triggered from.

Awesome, so what about the Push 2?

Oh man, if you haven’t bought an Ableton Push 2, you’re really using Ableton Live with one hand tied behind your back.  With the concept of groove templates, you can functionally duplicate the timings of a swing profile live.  First let’s touch on a few basic features of the Push 2 we’ll need to use.

First, let’s remember to make sure Accent is off.  You can tell it’s off if it’s not blinking.  Accent turned on would cause the input from the Push 2 to have a consistent 100% velocity to MIDI events, similar to MPC’s FULL-LEVEL and HALF-LEVEL features.  I prefer not to use them, but you can ignore this if that’s usually how you use an MPC or want your drums to sound this way.

Second, let’s press and hold the Quantize button on the Push 2 and 1) set “Quantize To” to 1/16 or 1/8 (depending on the swing profile we are using) and 2) adjust “Rec. Quantize” to ON.  This quantizing input live pushing slightly wayward MIDI events you tapped too late or early back to the bar or to the next bar depending on which is closer.

 

Third, you want to first initialize a region for a MIDI clip (CTRL + Shift + M) and adjust a looping region suitable for you.

 

Fourth, set the Groove you want to tap to for that clip in the Clip view like I showed you before.  The Push will be quantizing input to 1/16 or 1/8 which will be applied live to the Groove template.  Even better, you can adjust hits inside the clip if you messed up directly to grid and they’ll still be swung.

Fifth, if you’re like me and spend 100% of your time in Arrangement view in Ableton Live, you’ll want to make sure MIDI Arrangement Overdub is turned on.  It’s the + symbol near Play/Stop/Record in the top bar.  Also make sure the looping function is turned on to mimic MPCs and SP1200s.

 

One more thing… audio files can be quantized too

Oh heck yes!  As long as audio files brought into Ableton Live are warped to grid, you can apply groove templates to them as well the same way you apply them to MIDI events.

In Closing

I hope this helps.  Ableton Live is a rich and rewarding DAW and using it with the Push opens up a whole new world of opportunities to you.  These are just a few tricks I’ve picked up.  There might even be easier ways to achieve what I’m doing here, so be sure to experiment and find your own groove.  OMG, that was a corny ass pun.