Thanks to the world of DAWs, loops and samples, many producers, engineers, musicians and bands don’t know what the “groove” and the “pocket” of a song is. Because most every recording is placed exactly on the grid, it’s easy to come up with a beat or song that’s perfectly in time, but lacks a groove and doesn’t even sniff a true pocket that live players and listeners have been enjoying for decades. Here’s an excerpt from the 2nd edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook that describes the groove and pocket and what you might be missing.
All good music—regardless of whether it’s rock, jazz, classical, rap, or some new space music that we haven’t heard yet—has a strong groove. You always hear about “the groove,” but what is it?
The “groove” is the pulse of the song
how the instruments dynamically breathe with it.
To your audience, the groove is an enjoyable rhythm that makes even the people that can’t dance want to get up and shake their booty. And while the concept of “the groove” is very subjective, the idea is well understood by experienced musicians at a practical, intuitive level.
Musicians who play funk and Latin tunes refer to the groove as the sense of being “in the pocket,” while jazz players refer to the groove as the sense that a song is really “cooking” or “swinging.”
A common misconception about groove is that it must have perfect time, but a groove is created by tension against even time. That means that it doesn’t have to be perfect, just even, and all performances don’t have to have the same amount of evenness. In fact, it makes the groove feel stiff if the performances are too perfect.
This is why having perfect quantization of parts and lining up every hit in a workstation when you’re recording frequently takes the life out of a song. It’s time becomes too perfect because there’s no tension. The song has lost its groove.
Just about every hit song has a great groove, and that’s why it’s a hit. If you want to study what a groove really is, go to the masters: James Brown, Sly Stone, Michael Jackson, George Clinton, and Prince. Every song is the essence of what a groove feels like.
Groove is often thought of as coming from the rhythm section, especially the drums, but that’s not necessarily always the case. In The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” for instance, the rhythm guitar establishes the groove. In most songs by the Supremes, Temptations, and Four Tops, from Motown’s golden age, the groove was established by James Jamerson’s bass.
How to Find the Pocket
The phrase “in the pocket” is used to describe something or someone playing in such a way that the groove is very solid and has a great feel. When a drummer keeps good time, makes the groove feel really good, and maintains it for an extended period of time while never wavering, it is often referred to as a “deep pocket.” It should be noted that it’s impossible to have a pocket without also having a groove.
Historically speaking, the term pocket originated in the middle of the previous century, when a strong backbeat (the snare drum striking on beats 2 and 4) became predominant in popular music. When the backbeat is slightly delayed creating a laid–back, or relaxed, feel, the drummer is playing in the pocket.
Today, the term in the pocket has broadened a bit. If, for example, two musicians (usually the bass player and the drummer) are feeling the downbeats together and hitting beat 1 (the downbeat) at the exact same time, they are said to be in the pocket.
Whether you’re playing ahead (in front) of the beat, behind (on the back of) the beat, or on top (in the middle) of the beat, as long as two musicians (for instance, the bassist and the drummer) feel the downbeat at the same time, they’ll be playing in the pocket.
The 3 Places A Beat Can Land
In terms of bass and drums locking to create a cohesive part, there are three main areas of focus. You have to know where your drummer is most comfortable in terms of the beat.
Does your drummer play “straight,” playing meaning that he or she plays right on top of the beat (which can sound like disco music or a quantized drum machine)?
Is he or she laid back, sitting in that area way on the back of the beat (the way Phil Rudd does on AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” like John Bonham on anything by Led Zeppelin, or like Clyde Stubblefield on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” or “Funky Drummer”)?
Or does your drummer’s playing have the urgency of a musician who plays on top of the beat (like Stewart Copeland of The Police)?
This is crucial to know, because the bass and drums have to function as a unit. They don’t have to play everything precisely the same way, but they have to know and understand the way the other thinks and feels.
Getting the rhythm section to groove with the rest of the band is much more difficult than you might think, since guitarists don’t always listen to the drummer, a keyboardist may have metronomic time yet have a difficult time coordinating his or her left hand with the bass player, and vocalists often forget that there’s a band playing behind them. The key is for everyone in the band to listen to one another!
Many people feel that the question is not so much what the pocket is as much as how you know when you’re in it; I guarantee that you’ll know it when you feel it, because the music feels as though it’s playing itself. It feels as though everything has merged together, with all the rhythmic parts being played by one instrument. Whichever definition you choose to go with or use, having a pocket is always good thing!
You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com. Also, learn what you need to know to create an excellent microphone locker.