Evolving Grooves

In the early days of electronica production, grooves often repeated without variation, and listeners loved it. These days, beat lovers demand more from

In the early days of electronica production, grooves often repeated without variation, and listeners loved it. These days, beat lovers demand more from their grooves. Unchanging loops have become passé; instead, electronica fans want to hear grooves that evolve.

This evolution can happen in various ways. A groove might start sparsely, riddled with musically compelling holes, and gradually increase in density until all the holes are filled. Or it might begin with all its notes at midvolume and proceed toward a dramatic alternation of loud, accented notes and soft, understated ones. Or it might move from dry to wet (flanged, filtered, delayed, or otherwise processed) and back to dry. A groove might play with slice reordering, slice panning, slice reversal, and so on.

One effective and fun way to build an evolving groove is to first create several variants of the original groove. Next, overlay the original with the variants, keeping all in sync. Finally, use volume envelopes to mix the original and the variants in a way that yields the desired results.

Groove Variants

You can use whichever techniques you are comfortable with to create groove variants: manual cutting and pasting, running the groove through effects boxes, beat slicing and rearranging, desampling, resampling, or some other process. The important thing is that the variants come together in a compelling evolutionary mix.

Assuming that you want your evolving groove to remain in the same tempo and meter throughout, the original groove and all variants should match in tempo and meter. For example, to create an evolving groove in 4/4 time at 142 bpm, the original and the variants should all be in 4/4 at 142 bpm. Integer multiples will also work: 2/4, 8/8, or 8/4 time at 71 or 284 bpm, for example.

If you're an experimental groovester, you can dare to create variants with noninteger multiples of the tempo and meter. Start with simple relationships. If the original tempo is 120 bpm, try creating variants at 80 bpm or 160 bpm. If the original meter is 4/4, work with 3/4 variants (3/4 syncs up with 4/4 every 12 beats) or 5/4 (5/4 syncs with 4/4 every 20 beats). If you're feeling really adventurous, foil the grid entirely — create 127.9 and 211 bpm variants, 11/8 and 15/16 variants, and so on. If you keep the original groove present throughout, you can bridge the gap between order and chaos.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1. The original groove loop (on top) and 12 loop variants are loaded into Acid 6. Each loop is present for the entire mix, and tempos are matched at 140 bpm

Once you've created all your groove variants, you're ready to overlap them with the original. Fire up your sequencer of choice, such as Acid, Live, Cubase, or Sonar, and load in all the grooves, making sure that they are properly synced in tempo and meter (see Fig. 1). All grooves should be fully present for the entire passage; you'll use volume envelopes to control the degree to which each is present or absent in the mix. Unless you want to change the base tempo, set the sequencer tempo to that of the original groove so that it plays back exactly as you created it.

Envelopes and Evolution

Now comes the exciting part: creating the evolution. Use volume envelopes to fade groove variants in and out of the mix. Your first step is to get a sense of what evolution you want, and then order the groove layers accordingly from top to bottom visually. That makes the compositional logic clearer when you're ready to draw your volume envelopes.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2. In this excerpt from the groove mix, volume envelopes create the effect of the original groove morphing into variant 1, which in turn morphs into variant 2.

Next, insert a volume envelope into each groove layer. Doing this in Acid is a snap; simply select all your tracks (Edit Select All or Ctrl or Command + A) and insert the envelopes (Insert Envelopes Volume or Shift + V). Now that your groove layers are overlapped and synced, your evolution is clearly laid out (from top to bottom), and your volume envelopes are inserted, you're ready to start evolving.

You have three types of volume envelope relationships to draw on. The first is simple crossfading, in which one groove layer (or set of layers) fades out while another fades in (see Fig. 2). The speed and character of the crossfade is determined by the duration and shape of the fade-in and fade-out: linear, slow, fast, or smooth, for example.

Image placeholder title

FIG 3. In this example of splicing, variants 6 and 7 increase in volume and then end abruptly (volume envelopes to –Inf. dB) at the same time that variant 8 begins abruptly.

The second relationship is splicing, in which one groove layer ends abruptly (for instance, with a very fast fade-out), and the next begins abruptly, like a tape splice (see Fig. 3). A variant of this would be to have the two layers playing together, and then end one suddenly.

The third relationship is multilayering, in which one groove layer persists while others fade in and out (see Fig. 4). The persistent layer's volume can remain steady or can change gradually or abruptly. For example, you might want the original groove to start off full bore, and then decrescendo to an audible background presence and remain at that level for the entire passage while other groove layers become more audible, affecting the beat, the meter, accents, and even the tempo.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 4. This is an example of variant multilayering; variants 11 and 12 persist (with a gradual buildup) while 9 and 10 fade in and out over them.


I created an evolving-groove example (see Web Clip 1), which consists of a 4/4 loop at 140 bpm and 12 variants, all in 4/4 and at 140 bpm to ensure that the groove mix remains synced. I used two Ohm Force plug-ins to create the variants: Quad Frohmage Filterbank and Ohmboyz Delay. Some variants played with the rhythm of the original groove, mostly by using delay to double beats (quarter notes to 8th notes, 8th notes to 16th notes, and so on). Additional variants modified the timbre through filtering, flanging, or some other sound-shaping tool.

The groove evolution took the following form: original groove, variations 1 through 12, and original groove. The mix, which is 1 minute and 39 seconds in length, begins with 4 bars of the original groove. Over the next 4 bars, the original crossfades to variant 1. Over the next 12 bars, a similar succession of crossfades occurs. At variant 6, things get a little different: variant 6 (a pivotal comb-filter pitched version of the original) remains at full volume for an extended period and is joined by variant 7. Variants 6 and 7 rise in volume, and then stop abruptly at the exact time that variant 8 starts (at full volume). Variants 8 through 10 crossfade in and out similarly to 1 through 6, while 11 and 12 build slowly (layering over 8 through 10) to full volume and then stop abruptly, giving way to 4 bars of the original.

The technique outlined here for creating evolving grooves is simple, flexible, and powerful. All you need are a loop, a set of variants, and volume envelopes to make anything from smoothly crossfading organic grooves suitable for downbeat electro-ballads to wildly chaotic and complex grooves.

rachMiel is a composer of experimental electronic and acoustic music.