For context: I make rock music in Ableton, and I use Ableton’s Drum Rack to quickly program drum beats (for reference, think “Heart of Glass” by Blondie or “Little Red Corvette" and "When Doves Cry" by Prince). Until now, my beats have been totally “on the grid.” I’ve left some instruments—guitar (x2), bass, or vocals—un-quantized, so as to protect the songs from feeling too mechanical. Well, it hasn’t worked. While I figured drum machines are meant to sound rigid and, well, like a machine, I believe that my songs have been weakened because they sound too programmed.

So, naturally, this issue has led me to Ableton’s groove features. Using grooves, I can modify the timing and feel of the clips in my set. After using this feature for some time, I’ve come to realize that I’m facing too many choices, and I have no idea how to proceed effectively. Between the infinitely deep groove pool, which offers common grooves for a drum programmer to apply to his own patterns, and the infinite combinations of various groove-related parameters—base, quantize, timing, random, and velocity—I don’t know what I’m doing.

Drum machines/programmed drums are everywhere in modern pop music and rap today. Save Your Tears by The Weeknd or Dirt Off Your Shoulder by Jay-Z are two examples that come to mind, but there are so many.

If my stale, 100% quantized drum beats, which provide no feel and, in some cases, fatigue my ear (the hi-hats can be particularly painful, even in a professional mix) are the reason my songs lack a warm, human feel, then what are some reliable guiding principles I can follow as I work on my songs?

To facilitate your brainstorming, here are some random questions I’ve asked myself:

  • Should all percussive instruments (snare, kick, hi-hats, etc.) follow the same groove pattern? What if I leave some on the grid and others off the grid?
  • For rock music, should I seek-out rock grooves, or should I try a samba or swing groove?
  • If the “straight” sound isn’t working for me, why is techno music—with it’s precise yet predictable kick-snare-kick-snare pattern so conducive to dancing?
  • If I’m just following my ear and waiting to find something—anything—that works (not my preferred method), how can I be sure that tweaking the timing of the drums will finally make my body move to the music and not the other instruments?
  • What if I’ve been misinformed, and the driving electric guitars are most responsible for the groove?
  • Should I play with all of groove’s bells and whistles, or just one or two?
  • I doubt Blondie, Prince, The Cars, Madonna, Michael Jackson, etc. had the same ability to influence their MIDI drum patterns as we do today (MIDI was invented in 1981), so what makes their songs groove?

As I’m sure anyone interested in this topic knows, the concept of groove is quite abstract (The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor Wooten helped me recognize this). Unfortunately, Ableton’s groove device isn’t getting me any closer to making songs that groove. Do you have any advice?

  • 1
    Find free or buy midi performed by actual drummers and use that for your drum loops. There was a Stanton Moore pack floating around out there. Either that or tweak beats until the really groove. Or leave the drums quantized and get someone to play bass with a lot of groove that pushes and pulls on the drums. In some ways, thus is a "what to write" question, and they aren’t usually good fits here. Also, those of us who can speak in this topic do not need a glossary. Sep 8, 2022 at 1:00
  • 2
    I think this question is bloated and should be condensed down to its most fundamental parts.
    – Edward
    Sep 8, 2022 at 1:37
  • 4
    Notes: 1. Blondie, Cars, Jackson all used drummers. [Prince & Madonna used both, live & machine.] 2. 80's drum machines always had the hats mixed quieter, either because of the machine gun effect or fashion; I can never decide which.
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 8, 2022 at 6:05
  • 1
    @Tetsujin is right. Right now one 100% drum machine hit I can think of is “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley. “Heart of Glass”, for example, has real drums played over a drum machine loop that is more of an audible metronome than a real percussion part. Sep 8, 2022 at 13:32
  • 2
    @ToddWilcox - well, there were hundreds in the 80s, just really none of the ones mentioned in the OP ;)) I've been trying to come up with an actual answer to this. I ought to be able to, I've been a drummer since the early 70s & a drum machine programmer right through from the 80's to present day… & though I can make a groove work with either I can't tell you how. Maybe it's the instrumentation around it that makes it work, whether it pushes or pulls against that rigidity. I mean, early 80s we had to play everything except the drums… that worked. EDM everything is quantised… that can work.
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 8, 2022 at 13:42

4 Answers 4


This is going to be mostly opinion based, and I come from a marching percussion and modern (2000-present) rock/metal background, so that certainly influences me.

I think that (time-)quantized percussion can groove and often sounds good. There are more important factors at play here than just time. I'd put more weight on firstly writing a good groove, and secondly on dynamics, and thirdly on avoiding the "machine gun effect".

The machine gun effect is what you get when every drum hit is exactly the same- repeated drum hits sound more like a record player skipping than a drummer hitting a drum. Some instruments are more sensitive to this effect (hi-hat, ride cymbal) and some less so (kick drum). The solution here is to either use synthesized drum sounds with some variation (random phase, randomized parameters/envelopes, generated noise) or to round robin a collection of similar but different drum samples. For example, when I record samples of a real snare drum, I will record 20 hits and use all of them. I inevitably cut a few that sound distinct, and I'm left with 10-15 drum hits that sound the same, but they can be played back to back quickly without sounding too mechanical.

Once you've settled that, Ableton's stock grooves will probably sound fine. There are more ways to go off the grid, it's common to push the snare or kick slightly forward or backward, but modern rock and pop is pretty tolerant of quantized grooves and the above points should be hit first.

I pulled the first verse of that The Weeknd song you linked into my DAW, and upon brief inspection it looks to be totally quantized. To be fair, it also sounds the most mechanical out of the 4 tracks you linked. The machine gun effect is mostly avoided by having the hi-hat fairly quiet, and by having the kick and snare spaced out, so that each note has time to "settle" before being repeated.

  • 1
    I once took a collection of 4 or 5 sampled djembe tones (slap, muted, bass, rim, etc), applied them randomly to a bar of 16th notes, and kept randomizing the order of tones until I got a loop I liked. The timing was still quantized, but the effect was much more pleasing than if they'd all been the same sample. Sep 8, 2022 at 13:06
  • Hi @edward--how were you able to "pull" and inspect The Weeknd track? I don't imagine you were able to find the isolated drum tracks?
    – 286642
    Oct 18, 2022 at 22:26
  • No, I looked at the full song, as it is available for sale or streaming. I just dragged the audio into my DAW, matched project tempo to the song, and looked at it.
    – Edward
    Oct 18, 2022 at 22:42

When you are hearing drum machine parts that really groove, you should question your assumption that they are 100% quantized. Drum machines were made to be used to make music, and their designers were not ignorant of the importance of non-rigid, non-quantized drumming for making beats that sound musical.

Here are two excerpts from a description of the LinnDrum, which was popular in the 80s:

ERROR CORRECT: While recording rhythm patterns, this function automatically corrects timing errors by "moving" your drum entries onto the nearest 1/16 note. When recording rhythms which do not fall on 1/16 notes, the ERROR CORRECT setting may be changed to move your entries onto either the nearest 1/8 note, 1/8 note triplet, 1/16 note triplet, 1/32 note, or 1/32 note triplet. For example, if recording a hi hat rhythm containing 1/32 notes, the ERROR CORRECT setting should first be changed to 1/32 (otherwise, the 1/32 note hi hat entries would be moved to the nearest 1/16 notes). The hi hat rhythm will then play back on perfect 1/32 notes. In addition, ERROR CORRECT may be changed during recording, so that an upcoming "overdub" can take advantage of a different setting without affecting previous entries. If desired, ERROR CORRECT may be defeated by selecting HI (high resolution). In this mode, all drums are played back exactly as recorded.

TIMING: This function is very useful for creating a "human rhythm feel" in your rhythm patterns. At Linn Electronics, research into why drummers sound better than drum machines revealed one important fact: Drummers often play their 1/16 notes somewhere between "perfect" 1/16 notes and "shuffled" or "swing time" 1/16 notes. The same holds true for 1/8 notes. The LinnDrum has 6 subtle variations from straight (A), to shuffle (F).

So one way to create drums that groove is to learn how to play drum parts that groove, whether using finger pads or drum triggers or actual drums.

Another way is to learn to tweak the patterns using a groove tool or manual midi editing to add in the micro timing that is critical to a good drum feel.

A third way is to acquire a real or virtual drum machine that has timing and/or “swing” adjustments to get the same grooves that you’re hearing on famous tracks that use those timing circuits.


Machine gun hi-hats are easy to avoid. Recognize that a drummer plays them with alternating hands, so put some unevenness in the pairs of notes. For instance, the second one slightly softer, and maybe the first one slightly ahead of the beat. Try to imagine where else a drummer would play a little off the beat.

  • Thanks, @Victor. In this case, the closed hi hat was playing on eighth notes. Your point still stands though, as the "and" tends to be less accented than the quarter notes.
    – 286642
    Sep 9, 2022 at 21:49
  • "Recognize that a drummer plays them with alternating hands" - not usually.
    – Edward
    Sep 15, 2022 at 0:06
  • @Edward I thought that the "machine gun" implied 16ths. Then it's a little more likely. Sep 15, 2022 at 12:41

There's a simple test to qualify "groove":

  • can you dance to it?
  • i.e. will it make bodies move automatically, or at least make feet and fingers tap or heads nodding?

If the answer is "yes", your music probably has at least some of these chracteristics:

  • dancers "know/hear", when to move from one foot to the other, i.e. the quarter-notes stand out one way or the other
  • even rhythmical variation doesn't spoil this scheme of predict-ability
  • more subtle, but the dancing audience will even know where the next bar starts, which gives a more global landmark for orientation
  • overall it's like the music is kind of breathing (in-hold-out-wait)
  • and more generic your are exciting mechanical resonances, if you perceive human bodies as pendula with many modes of movement and associated resonance frequencies (tap-tap-tap, left-right-left-right, rotations of any kind, front-back-leftAndRight, etc.)


  • Rock Beats, Standard dances (Jive, Foxtrott, Waltz, Rhumba ...) the all have it
  • even complex rhythms from Latin-America can be danced with these landmarks
  • in contrast think of a piece of music where all notes are played uniformly: no beginning, no end, lost somewhere

How do musicians achieve it on a real instrument? Basically via intonation, emphasis, like (see Riemann's Lexikon)

  • beat 1: loudest
  • beat 2: softer
  • beat 3: in between
  • beat 4: soft
  • will feel like "breathing", you know where you are in this measure

But also multi-measure dynamics is important, like:

  • become louder over 3 measures (crescendo)
  • become more silent over 5 measures (de-crescendo)
  • it doesn't matter if you hear this from a classical orchestra, or from the Funk-Band igniting the audience over a few measures live, or if the organ player varies loudness via pedal

How good plugins or algorithms do replicate these characteristics, I don't know. It may be easier and may give better results to add what I wrote about manually, measure-wise. A simple loudness variation for a measure as described above may be all you need. A few of them, you can copy. And so on. E.g. start making the "1" stand out one way or the other (louder emphasis, exactly 1 cymbal hit from time to time, etc.)

How to impact, as you ask?

  • on an acoustic drumset loudness variation is simple: hit stronger or softer
  • with edrums or drum machines just vary the tracks volume where needed
  • in a band context it's easy: add or remove more instruments over a few beats or measures (or change their volume)
  • reserve certain instruments for certain events (e.g. in a classical piece the loud cymbal will be used exactly one time, in a rock piece crash symbols indicate the end or start of some phrase or change)
  • don't forget the most powerful "tool": silence or pause (beat-wise like on a drumset, measure-wise like Prince and other sometimes did/do etc.)

For the power of silence just compare these drum-patterns:

  • 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
  • 1 2 3 4
  • 1 2 . and 4
  • . and . and . and . and
  • groove-variations by mangament-of-silence/pauses
  • Maybe it's all that music I've listened to on Musescore (both website and program/app), but I personally find that I don't get "lost somewhere" in passages of music with all notes of equal volume, and I've even ended up getting caught in the music and dancing to some of them (...mostly my compositions).
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 8, 2022 at 12:26
  • There can be exceptions, certainly. Some questions: Does it groove? If so: why, what are the elements? How do you sense changes to odd meters when there is no difference? E.g. one song which is built on this, especially in the intro is vid.puffyan.us/watch?v=Ns_TyR3HBTA by RHCP (while later it just switches between 5/4 and 4/4, with dramatic effects).
    – MS-SPO
    Sep 8, 2022 at 12:39
  • I often detect meter changes - or meters to begin with - in Musescore works/passages with all notes of equal volume, even when I am not looking at the sheet music, by finding which beats tend to have note beginnings and whether those rhythmic patterns of note beginnings change. For example, if there are staccato notes every 2 shorter melody notes, and the accompaniment pattern repeats every 3 staccato notes, I'll think the piece is in 3/4 time.
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 8, 2022 at 15:24
  • As another example, if the accompaniment pattern switches from notes in a 2:3 length ratio to notes in a 3:2 length ratio, I'll think the piece is still in quintuple meter but has shifted which beats are accented. As yet another example, if the snare drum pattern changes from a repeated 2-2-2-1 to a repeated 1-2-2-1-2-2, I'll think the piece shifted from 7/8 to 10/8 or 5/4 time.
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 8, 2022 at 15:29

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