Practise guide: Getting used to micro-timing

Like anything in music, if you can’t hear or feel the difference between different amounts of swing, you won’t be able to play them reliably. And even when you can hear or feel it it’ll take dedicated practise to be able to know whether you’re sticking to it, or falling into a comfortable pocket somewhere else. It’s very, very easy to think you’re doing something you’re not actually doing!

It can take a while to get really familiar with the subtle changes here, so enjoy the process of taking your time, always focusing on accuracy when you practise, rather than rushing through to get to the next level. It’s a musical skill you’re training up, not a video game to complete or a party trick to perform. If you’re going to do it, do it well!

Level 1

Start with simple 8th notes/quavers and play consistently in time with just one hand (or just one note for non-drummers), paying close attention to whether you’re playing before or after the click. The ideal situation is where you play at the exact time of the clicks to the point they seem to disappear – this is called ‘burying’ the click.

Try moving the offbeat in increments of 10, again really listening carefully to whether you’re playing before or after the click, and also internalising how each one feels.

If it helps, you can think about certain points in the beat being classic subdivisions: the swing amounts are simply percentages of the beat- 8th notes are at 0 & 50%, triplets at 0/33/67, and 16ths at 0/25/50/75.

So for example if you’re playing a swing at 60, you could think about it as a late 8th note (or the 4th of a group of quintuplets). 70 is like a late last triplet. 80 is like a late last 16th note, and so on.

Don’t forget to also practise reverse swing – for example 40 is like an early 8th note, 30 is like an early triplet (or late 16th). As well as being a time feel in itself, the skill will come in handy for later, more complex grooves.

There are a number of even subdivision presets in the app you can use as a starting point for these.

Use the bar sequencer to introduce bars of just downbeats or silence, to check if you can stick with the feel and still be accurate when the subdivisions come back in

Are you doing what you think you’re doing?

Recording yourself is strongly recommended as you’ll hear issues straight away, where you could be practising for months blind to them otherwise. Are you doing what you think you’re doing?

When this starts to become comfortable and reliable, you can try increments of 5, or any number you like.

Drummers can start building on this by trying to follow as accurately as possible with different limbs one at a time. For example, consistently with right hand on its own, then left hand on its own, then right leg, then left.

Next, do the same process with simple repeating rhythms, again just on single limbs until you’re confident with it. Something like Ted Reed’s ‘Syncopation’ or Benny Greb’s ‘Language of Drumming’ is great for this, but any basic rhythms will do.

After that you can move up to simple combinations, e.g. 8th note rhythms on one limb, against 1/4 notes on another limb.

Work up to basic 8th note grooves and fills around the kit, always paying close attention to locking in tightly with the click.

Non-drummers can start building on this by repeating short syncopated rhythms. Once confident with a number of these, start to introduce small groups of notes to those rhythms, then scales, melodies, chord progressions etc.

Use any of your favourite exercises and gauge for yourself whether you can push the speed or complexity. If you can’t hear for sure if you’re early or late, then you’re either going too fast or making it too complex for now. Take your time!

Most importantly, pay attention to whether you can match these in a relaxed and musical way – the goal is not to be robotic, but to unlock different time feels as options for you to play. Once you can recognise them and match them accurately you’ll start to hear them across all styles of music.

Level 2

When you’ve mastered 8th notes around the beat and can reliably play them in a fluid and musical way, you can start experimenting with adding more subdivisions.

Here’s a few ideas to try:

Start off with ‘Regular’ 16th note swing – set up basic 16th notes and push the 25 & 75 (e & a) late. This is simply a faster version of 8th note swing.

Try matching this with more syncopated rhythms, and putting the swung 16ths at different points, just like you did with 8th notes. Start simple and focus on accuracy – pick just one basic rhythm at a time to really lock in on.

Drummers could try 16th-note based grooves, for example hand-to-hand on the hi-hat, or grooves where the snare and/or kick fall in between hi-hats.

Here are some more ideas to try:

Evenly spaced 16th notes with just one either early or late

Triplets with the last one late

Triplets with both subdivisions late

Work through all these in the same careful way as those described in level 1, make your own ideas to practise, and most importantly go and make some great music!