My route into the land of looping is a familiar story. I was playing a lot of solo gigs, accompanied with just my guitar or keyboard, and I wanted a more upbeat sound to make my shows more engaging. This led to my purchase of a loop pedal, which would enable me to create a live piano loop over which I could sing and play guitar. This set-up soon expanded with the addition of a small mixing desk before the loop pedal, allowing me to record the piano, guitar and vocal parts to create a much larger loop.
This is what I would class as "true looping" - you have to set the start and finish points of the loop manually. This can be a difficult skill to master as you're relying solely on your own sense of time, which can at first lead to your loops not being particularly tight - something which you and your audience will then have to put up with for the duration of the song.
BOSS RC-3 Loop Station
The RC-3 is a very simple pedal to use: to push once is to start recording or play a previously saved loop, and to push again is to finish the loop. You can undo the last loop you recorded, if you made a mistake or are done with it, by pressing and holding down the pedal. If you want to stop the loop playing, you need to double-tap the pedal.
This function has its own shortcomings: it's all too easy to hit the pedal twice instead of quickly double-tapping. Your first hit would cause the pedal to record a split-second loop that would be completed by your next hit, and the loop would then continue playing. A solution to this problem is to connect a separate pedal to operate as a stop button - a cheap way of achieving this that I discovered was using an old sustain pedal. Having a separate stop pedal granted me a great deal more creative control when it came to ending a song, making my live performance much tidier.
The Art of True Looping
Looping as a discipline asks a lot of your audience - waiting for you to build up your songs requires a lot of patience. If you have a lot of "dead loops" in which nothing new is recorded, the process takes even longer and it can be harder to hold people's attention. Even worse are the times when you have to "undo" tracks, which can be the result of many unforeseen circumstances.
I would strongly recommend a careful soundcheck and warm-up before any performance; if, like me, you're playing several instruments through a mixer, it's vital to check the individual volumes are balanced before you start looping, otherwise an instrument or patch could come in much too loud, or be lost altogether. And, of course, you need to know exactly what you're playing before you repeat it several times - you don't want to be stuck with a mistake being played over and over again, and you don't want to find yourself standing there still trying to figure out what to do next in front of a room of onlookers.
The RC-3 Loop Station was for me a great introduction to looping, and was in itself a steep learning curve, but I soon outgrew its limitations. Using only one sequence of chords throughout a song wasn't enough for me, so decided to move things along and look elsewhere for ideas.
Once I had mastered this idea of "true looping," the next logical step for me was to incorporate beats into my performances. I was inspired by watching a very talented Norwegian looper, by the name of Jarle Bernhoft, who used the back of an old Eko acoustic guitar to create a beat, garnished with a little beatboxing. I fell in love with his style and was amazed by the depth he managed to create with his loops, singing beautifully over the contrast of a huge bass drum sound with a soaring hi-hat rhythm.
Here's a video demonstrating his talent:
My initial take on this natural sounding percussion was to add a cajon to my set-up, although this later proved unsuccessful. Cajons in my experience don't make for easy to use samples. While a talented percussionist can produce a fantastic back beat to a small acoustic band from a cajon when playing live, recording single hits with which to loop quickly became frustrating. The cajon's distinctive bass and snare sounds seemed like an ideal compliment to my natural, but, try as I might, I couldn't get the right sound to come out of my PA.
I experimented with various positioning of microphones - in front, behind, inside the cajon's sound hole - and tried using two mics with switched polarities, but no arrangement of condensers or dynamics could capture the cajon sound I'd hoped for. To make matters worse, the extra mics generated unwanted background noise that interfered with my loops.
I had some horrendous experiences with bass-heavy PAs, where horrible resonant sounds would inevitably creep in every four bars - a looper's worst nightmare! For a while I persevered, searching each room I played in for bass traps and reflective surfaces. I found this set-up could be successful, but only in silent or very quiet rooms, which I decided must be how Bernhoft managed to make such a killer artificial drum sample with the back of his guitar.
Digitizing the Drums
A drummer friend of mine came along to a gig when I was using my cajon. He loved the songs, but made a strong argument for switching to a drum machine (which I initially rejected). He said that if there was a pulse playing throughout the song, the audience would stay "with you" throughout. He used the example of beach front festivals, where no-one would care about the loop building up, if there was a beat to dance to. This suggestion presented me with a dilemma: I saw my USP as being a performer who recorded and played everything live, a true looper. If I added a synthetic backbeat, it would be like I was cheating. I also initially had no idea how to add "good" sounding drums to my set-up.
I had already upgraded my loop pedal to a BOSS RC-505 by this point, which has 5 loopers and is hand controlled. This unit had beats built in (as did the RC-3) but unfortunately these beats were still really not to my taste, and not editable. I therefore began downloading drum samples from iTunes and manually uploading them into the looper, effectively using it like an external hard drive (you can view the folders which represent the songs when you connect the pedal to a computer via USB).
This was mildly successful, but I still found the beats to sound too obviously "sampled," and this didn't sit with the acoustic instruments I was playing, so I soon scrapped this idea. I then learned that the drums could be MIDI-synced from the internal MIDI clock in the RC-505. I purchased a Korg Volca Beats Analog Rhythm Machine for around £100 and started using this for gigs, with really positive results. It had quite a low-fi sound, which seemed to be a good path to go down, and it didn't overpower the overall sound.
Here's a video of me using that set-up:
I had a few variations in my approach to the beats at this point. Initially, I had the Volca Beats connected through MIDI, and would then record the beat into the looper at the same time as recording the first instrument. The problem with this technique was that you would need to press stop on the Volca unit, otherwise the RC-505 would record the beat again on the second pass of the loop. This meant the drums would get louder and louder until they would eventually come through the mic and often cause feedback or resonance, a problem I'd previously experienced. Even if you did manage to press stop on the drum machine in time, you risking getting a "clipping" sound where the start and the end of the beat overlapped.
The MIDI clock from the RC-505 would be telling the drum machine to start playing every time you press record on one of the 5 loopers, so I decided to change my mixer for one with mute switches, thinking this would eradicate the issue. Unfortunately, this was totally unnecessary, as I realized I'd been going about this all wrong: the drum machine didn't need to be recorded at all, the MIDI clock would keep it in time. This meant I could send an output from the drum machine, and a separate output from the looper, giving sound engineers more control. I was essentially triggering the drum machine, but it stopped being part of the loop I was recording.
Mixing It Up
I started to experiment with how I used my mixer in line with the looper. You'll find most mixers have an Aux channel with a send and return. If you put the looper in this "loop," then you can control how much of each instrument is going to the RC-505 with the aux knob on each instrument's channel strip.
Unless you want a horrible chorus effect, you keep the overall channel volume on 0 for these channels, or they would be coming out of the PA twice. This means that you can put a microphone into your mixer and choose whether you want your vocal to be recorded. If the aux knob is turned up, you are recording; if the aux volume is at 0 and your fader is up, you are not recording. This is useful if you want to start singing the song whilst you are still recording the instruments underneath (a tricky skill). Using the looper and mixer in this fashion means you have an overall volume of the loop, and separate faders for everything else. If you come straight from the mixer's output to your looper, you have a few different volumes, which starts to get complicated if something is too loud or quiet mid-song.
As I got more and more comfortable with electronic beats, I upgraded to a Roland TR-8 drum machine. The samples were much higher quality and there were far more variations that you could make to your patterns. Also, each beat has an A and B section, so you could switch between them for different parts of your song. I used this beat machine as a separate unit to the looper, so the sound engineer had a different feed (as previously mentioned with the Volca Beats).
Here is a video with this set-up:
After a period of using drum machines in this way, I came full circle and started to record the drums onto the looper before gigs. I did this by separating the beat into its component parts (bass drum, hi hats etc) and recording these onto separate tracks on the looper. In a live context, this means that the drum beat comes into the song in parts, and can therefore be stripped back down during the song, depending on which tracks are playing.
This is not, however, without its hazards: when one of the loop channels on the RC-505 has a sample on it already and you hit it, thinking it will record what you're playing at that moment, it will play the previously recorded loop. This means I'm back to double tapping! Despite this, using pre-recorded drum loops has made my live performances much slicker, since I no longer need to worry about choosing a drum patch, switching it on and switching it off again throughout the performance. It also means I don't need to physically take the drum machine to gigs, as the beats are already recorded into the looper - a distinct advantage when you see how much equipment I now use!
Here's a TV appearance I did with this set-up:
In summary, I find looping as a discipline extremely challenging. The technology and live recording aspects are simple enough in principle to get the hang of, but developing these skills into a show that actually engages audience members is another matter entirely.
The most important thing to bear in mind is to be confident with what you're doing and to be happy with the sounds you can create. I feel I have now embraced the electronic side of percussion whole-heartedly - there are an infinite amount of sonic possibilities, and the quality of the sounds can be astonishing - though I do still have the utmost respect for "true looping" purely acoustic instruments. I've certainly come a long way since creating my first loop, and have made a lot of surprising discoveries en route.
The next stage in my looping life will be getting used to singing much earlier in the process, as this would make for a more interesting performance and would open new windows of opportunity; it will also lead me to revisit my approaches to my existing songs, as well as inspiring new ones. My final word on the subject would be to always keep your mind open to new sounds and approaches to looping, but bare in mind that 99% of your audience will be more interested in the performance and the song itself, rather than the technology that made it possible - be aware that the real spectacle is still you!