Live Looping: The History And The Practice by Stephen Garza

Live looping is one of the simplest, yet most complex practices in modern music. It’s simple in theory. A loop is just a single phrase repeated over and over again. Timing and layering make it complex. There are many things to worry about. If you are running more than one looping unit at once, you have to make sure they are perfectly in synch with each other. Otherwise, your loops go out of phase, which could make for a very cool effect, but most of the time it’s something you really are trying to avoid. You have to be very aware of your layers or overdubbed phrases. They have to be in different registers to ensure a full sound. Orchestration is key. You also have to make sure it doesn’t get too repetitive or boring. Most loop music is improvised. You have to produce and entire song. And all of this is done on the fly. Makes for a pretty stressful performance, but a great product in the end.
The history of looping begins with the creation of recorded sound. Without progressing music technology, no one would be looping today. But the development of repetition in music is just as important. From chants to minimalism, repetition plays an important roll in the history of loop music. Most world music uses much repetition throughout most of their musical forms. Indian music uses a drone to drive a tonal center while soloists improvise over it. African percussionists trade rhythms in a ritualistic fashion, constantly repeating phrases and slowly developing, meditative in a way. All of this has heavily influenced loop music. In the 20th century, blues and jazz musicians were taking full advantage of repetition, playing repetitive chord progressions, while improvising on top. This is almost loop music in a way. The repetitions are not exact, and there is no electronic help. The earliest loop music was being created gramophone records. Composers like Milhaud, Hindemith, Varese, and Cage all used gramophones for composing. Scaeffer and Messiaen worked on Musique Concrete after World War II. Tape recorders became more public in the beginning of the 1950’s, and Varese created Deserts, the first tape piece. After the fifties more and more people were using electronics in live performance. Tape loops began to pop up in the avant garde music scene and eventually spread to popular music. Lots of experimentation led to the creation of tape delay, which is said to have been created by an anonymous engineer that worked with Terry Riley. Looping started soon after. In the 1960’s Oliveros and Riley paved the way for the minimalism movement in California. Tape loops were very popular in this field. Terry Riley was a huge name in tape loops. He created the first tape delay/feedback piece in 1963, Music For the Gift. He created a double tape recorder tape delay system he called the “Time Lag Accumulator.” He used it on many compositions and improvisational concerts. Steve Reich did a lot of tape loop music as well, but it was not as improvisation based as Riley’s tape loops and delay effects. It’s Gonna Rain was released in 1965 and Come Out was released in 1967. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp adopted Riley’s “Time Lag Accumulator” using it with guitars. This is the start of the delay pedal boom. In the 1980’s Fripp created the Fripptronics loop system. After this the digital wave hit, and delay and loop effects have grown and grown beyond anything the people of the past were creating. Today, people can use computers for looping, along with many different types of pedals and rack units.
I personally am a very big fan of hardware looping. I use the Digitech Jamman Phrase Sampler within my pedal board. This pedal is pretty revolutionary in the method of storage. The pedal runs off of Compact Flash Cards. This means you can save to a removable source. You can also plug it into your computer through a USB cable to store premade loops. Because of the Compact Flash memory system, you have almost infinite loop and overdub time. The only problem is, it is a single phrase for a lot of money. If I were to add another Jamman pedal, there is a risk of the two pedals playing back out of phase with each other. One possible solution to this problem would be to use a computer for looping.
When using software to loop, you can customize your setup on an extremely personal level. Programs like Ableton Live allow you to synch many different phrases of either prerecorded audio or audio recorded on the fly. They will always be in perfect synch, because they are running off of a global timing system. Using MIDI, you can connect a foot controller and completely customize what each button does. This is amazing, because you don’t have any sort of say in the pedal controls on most loop pedals. It would be ideal to have multiple phrases with overdub functions on each one, with undo/redo, reverse, halftime, and double-time. This basically covers all aspects of conventional looping. Very soon Ableton Live and Max/Msp will be releasing Max for Live. This will give you complete control of any effect in Ableton through Max/Msp. This means the possibilities are endless. If used correctly, you could create loop music beyond anything being created today. Real-time manipulation of looped sounds and looped MIDI instruments through Max/Msp and Ableton is going open a lot of new doors in the world of loop music.
Some Hardware loopers allow the ideal setup I spoke of earlier. One is the Boss RC-50 loop pedal. This pedal has 7 footswitches. This includes 3 phrases synched to an internal MIDI clock, an undo/redo switch, tempo, stop, and record/play/overdub. The pedal also has button for playback speed, along with knobs for easy control of tempo effects. You can also plug this pedal into a computer through a USB cable to preprogram loops into it. The Gibson Echoplex is almost there. It is the most flexible hardware unit in terms of time effects. The only thing it is missing is multiple phrases. You can do a lot of amazing thing to single phrases though. You can overdub up to 9 layers. You can manipulate time with playback speed, or granular control. The Echoplex is a rack unit, but comes with a foot controller. Another very commonly used looper is the Line 6 DL4 pedal. It is actually a delay-modeling pedal, but is often used for looping. It is an affordable looping unit that is semi-customizable, with real-time playback speed effects. You get 4 switches that you preprogram to your liking. Many rock artists use this pedal, including Andrew Bird, who uses multiple DL4’s to loop multiple layers.
One of the most important aspects of loop music is form. It’s easy to create a sound mass or a texture, but the hard part is making it go somewhere. You have to be creative in entering motives and removing them tastefully. Subtlety is key. The goal is to get your motives to flow easily around each other. You also have to worry about the register of each added motive. If everything is in the same register, it gets muddy and gross sounding. Orchestration has to be a constant worry within live looping. As long as you spread registers, you should be in the clear. Also, make sure your motives are not all playing basically the same rhythm. This is just plain boring. You can easily keep interest if you play motives with different rhythmical accents. Your timing has to be absolutely perfect as well. If you time your loop wrong by just a split second it stumbles, almost as if it was a short leg.
Looping has come a long way in a very short time. With technology advancing as fast as it is, who knows what the future will bring. Computers and Pedals will start to meld together into one super interactive looping system. Only good can come in the years ahead. The art of looping is becoming easier and easier everyday. I predict that pedals will be able to connect together in a built in clocking system so that you can just buy another phrase to add to your loop rig. It’ll become more and more affordable and more and more people will discover how amazing it is and create art we can’t even imaging. But until then all we can do is sit back and wait for that day to come. I doubt it’ll be very long. Things are already starting to look that way. Computers are already able to add as many phrases as you can ever need. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

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