5 Essential Live Looping Tips

The use of repeating sections of audio, or loops, has been a fundamental aspect of music production for decades, especially in sample-based music such as rap, hip-hop and electronica. Live looping, however, is a real-time performance technique.

Originally an analog tape-based process dating from the mid 20th century — Terry Riley, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp are three of its best-known proponents — these days live looping is done almost exclusively with digital devices, and there has never been a greater variety to choose from.

Loopers range in size and complexity from tiny pedals with a single knob and footswitch to what amount to pedalboard workstations that function as automated multi-track recorders capable of rendering complex musical arrangements via sophisticated programming capabilities and numerous footswitches and pedals.

Some of these loopers are intended as practice/compositional aids and feature onboard drum machines and canned accompaniments in various styles. Others are aimed at performers who want to present multi-part song arrangements live, either as backing tracks prerecorded into the looper’s memory slots or by building them up them track by track before an audience. Still others have feature sets designed to be of particular use to artists for whom live looping itself is the art form, and the looper a primary instrument.

As someone who has been involved with live looping since the early ’80s, beginning with a pair of Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders and a few years later a Lexicon PCM 42 Digital Delay, here are a few tips and suggestions for getting the most out of whichever looper you happen to be using, especially if you are in that latter “artsy” group.

Barry Cleveland: "Third Stone From the Sun" Live-Looping Demo

1. Timing Is Everything

Although some of the following advice may appear obvious, recording clean and rhythmically consistent loops is the most frequently mentioned challenge faced by novice loopists (for clarity, we’ll refer to looping devices as “loopers” and persons doing the looping as “loopists”).

When recording a loop that you want to play along with, and especially if you want others to be able to play along, your timing has to be spot on. You need to nail the beginning and ending points of the loop, but you also need to play the part accurately and evenly. Both of these things are more easily accomplished if you are relaxed; and taking a few deep breaths to help calm your mind before starting can work wonders.

Until you are entirely comfortable creating loops, the easiest way to ensure that you have clean loop points is to count along as you play, so that you know precisely where the downbeat or “1” of each measure is. Then, press the record footswitch exactly on the 1 of the first measure you want to loop, and press the footswitch used to close the loop on the 1 of what would be the following measure were it to be included.

Of course, clean loop points are pointless unless you are playing in time. Take care not to rush or get ahead of the beat, which at best results in a poor rhythmic feel. This tendency is most often due to nervousness, but may also indicate a need to improve your ability to play in time overall. In that case, the looper itself can be an invaluable aid, sort of like a musical metronome. Once you’ve succeeded in recording one rhythmically accurate loop with a good feel, playing along and locking into the groove can greatly improve your timing. Your improved timing will also be invaluable when overdubbing onto the original loop or recording additional loops on loopers with two or more tracks.

Should you continue to experience difficulty executing clean loops even after woodshedding your timing, the problem may be that you and your looper are simply not a good match. The “feel” of loopers can vary due to things like differing types of footswitches and DSP functionality. Auditioning a few other models for comparison can’t hurt.

2. Know Thy Looper

TC Electronic Ditto Looper

Even the simplest loopers usually enable you to do more than just record a loop and play it back. For example, the truly tiny TC Electronic Ditto provides an undo function in addition to overdubbing capabilities, allowing you to erase your last overdub.

Other functions commonly found on loopers are reverse, which plays the loop backward, and half speed, which lowers the pitch an octave and doubles the playback time. Fancier devices may offer features such as track bouncing, track replacement, insert editing, sample re-triggering, and various automation functions. Some even sport built-in expression pedals assignable to one or more parameters, programmable footswitches, MIDI control, jacks for optional footswitches and expression pedals, and even onboard multi-effects processors.

The more thoroughly you understand what your looper can do and the more time you spend exploring those capabilities, the more creative possibilities you’ll have on tap. Once you’ve tried everything covered in the user manual, attempt to discover things not mentioned, combine functions to see what happens, and if the manual specifically warns you not to do something, definitely give it a try!

3. Think Like a Mixing Engineer

Whether layering sounds on a single loop, or using a looper with multiple tracks, conceptualize what you are doing sonically as well as musically. In the same way that a mixing engineer selects and sculpts a variety of sounds so they blend harmoniously, craft your loops bearing the end result in mind.

For example, if you’ve laid down a fat bass line, it will probably be wise not to add another part that occupies the same frequency range, so as to avoid clashes and muddiness. Similarly, if you’ve played some rhythm chords with a bright sound, adding a melody line using a similar sound that occupies that same frequency range will almost certainly conflict with the chords, whereas using a darker or otherwise different sound will make the melody more distinct. Think holistically.

Equally important is when you play something. If you had left some silences between the notes in your fat bass line, you might well be able to successfully add another low-frequency part by playing between the notes of the original, especially if the timbres of the two parts are different.

Effects also may help sounds fit together better in the blend. Reverb can make one part sound farther away than another, and modulation often can help differentiate a sound from others.

Also, just as some effects are “printed” during recording, whereas others are added while mixing, experiment with connecting effects after the looper in your signal chain. Running your entire loop through delay, reverb, pitch, modulation or distortion effects, can yield very dramatic and musical results.

All of these considerations apply to both mono and stereo, but obviously, if you have a stereo looper the 180-degree stereo field increases the possibilities.

4. Have an Escape Plan

No matter how adept you become at the art of live looping, it is only a matter of time before things go horribly awry — and how you deal with those situations can make or break a performance. Sometimes you can back out of a mistake using undo, but other times you need to stop and begin again and occasionally things go into meltdown. You need to be able to deal with this gracefully, whether by having a volume pedal after your looper, a readily accessible master volume knob on your amp or mixer, or even a dedicated kill switch for just such emergencies. Be prepared!

5. Don’t Forsake The Muse

Let’s face it, loops can get boring quickly, and one of the most obvious things you can do with a looper is to record a chord progression or other musical material and then noodle (I mean “solo”) over it. While this can be musically satisfying for a short while, unless you are Jeff Beck or John Coltrane, it will likely be a very short while. Sadly, a surprising number of loopists opt for this approach.

At the other end of the functionality scale, loopists sometimes get so carried away with clever tricks and techniques that the sounds they make become more about dazzling their peers (or even themselves) than connecting with an audience on an emotional level.

These sorts of things annoy The Muse.

The single most important tip anyone can offer aspiring loopists is to sincerely strive to make the most genuine and compelling music possible.

Above all else: never leave music out of the loop!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Barry Cleveland

Barry Cleveland is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist, author, guitarist and composer. He was an editor at Guitar Player magazine for 12 years and at Mix and Electronic Musician magazines. His book, “Joe Meek's Bold Techniques” is a cult classic, and he also contributed to “Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time.” He has released five albums and composes music for film and television.

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