These days, with reduced budgets and busy schedules changing the live musician landscape, it’s more common than ever to see fewer musicians onstage, with support being provided by the use of audio loopers (pedals that capture audio and play it back endlessly if needed). Many guitarists have a genuine fear of looping live onstage, and for a good reason – while a looper is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled user, it can be the ultimate MakeMeWinceMachine™ if something goes wrong. If you’ve got to use one, it makes sense to learn how to use it properly, and the first task is choosing the right looping product.
This subject has been on my mind lately, as I’ve recently been backing up a female vocalist live, doing all of the musical accompaniment myself with the help of a huge pedalboard and a two-track looper. It’s a challenge to get as many parts of the recording to come out live using just your fingers and your feet, and there is a lot to remember and pay attention to, so having your looping thing down to as close a science as possible is important. For this gig I need to not only create traditional freeform loops of chord progressions, but I also need to be able to create faux drum parts that are short, and then lay down a longer chord progression to solo over later. That’s part of the trick of a gig like this: in every tune, I’m capturing a chord progression while she’s singing that I might have to use to solo over later, so I’m constantly grabbing verse and chorus sections and trying to stop them perfectly, so that they loop properly later when I need them. It’s a real challenge, but it’s fun!
There are a ton of things to consider when choosing a looping device itself: how many simultaneous loop tracks do you need? Do you need a click and MIDI clock quantization of the loop points (meaning that the looper punches in and out for you based upon the MIDI click)? Separate audio outputs for each loop? Multiple footswitches and an Undo function? Reverse function? The ability to stop or mute some of the tracks while others still play? Confidence monitoring for other players onstage? It’s a lot to think about.
At Strymon, we make a number of different pedals with loopers in them, so pedals like Timeline and Volante do a great job of sounding killer and punching in and out quickly. If you don’t have a looper yet but have either of those pedals, they are both great platforms to get used to the process and are often perfect for musicians looking to loop audio live. If you need more than a simple one-track looper though, there are other options to look at. I own a number of dedicated looping devices, and the best one for you might be completely different from the ones I use – you really need to know what you need.
So here’s a list of some of the more prominent looping products available at the moment. I’ll add some commentary about each one to start you on your way, but it’s a good idea to click on all the links below to learn about the merits of each unit:
Electro Harmonix makes no less than NINE different looping products, so they’re always a good place to start. The simpler units have a single footswitch to handle all the control tasks and one or two simple loops, and the largest units can do four or six separate tracks, all with their own level faders. I have an old 2880, and the 4500 and 9500 are updated versions of that looper. The most expensive units create their own click track which is routable just to the headphones if you want, and can punch in and out for you on the downbeat of the next bar. All of the tracks play simultaneously, so it’s built for the kind of musician who wants to create full tunes and build up the parts as you go, using the faders to change the mix or mute tracks as the tune morphs and changes.
TC Electronic makes a number of loopers in their Ditto series, which handle up to two loops and add some effects to the options for the largest units. These simpler loopers work great for ambient stuff, where you’re adding color and movement to the musical background. In the heat of battle live onstage I want more tactile control over what’s going on, so I personally gravitate towards units with a more robust feature set and more dedicated footswitches.
Pigtronix makes a unit called the Infinity 3 (I currently use the original Infinity V1 unit onstage) that works very well for both the ambient and song-based looping musician. It can run both loops in parallel or series, and the second loop can be a multiple of the first length-wise. I use that feature when I need to make a two bar faux drum loop in Loop One first, before laying down a longer eight bar chord progression on Loop Two. It has loop aging, reverse ability and can run the loop audio out two separate audio outputs in addition to the main output, so you can send the loop to your drummer and bassist to keep everyone together. I used that capability in a live jazz trio for a while, and it can be a lifesaver.
Much like EHX, Boss has a line of seven different looping devices, and they are very popular units in the world of looping. One of the reasons for this is that a number of their looping products have the ability to move the loop points that you’ve actually performed with your foot to a place that is closer to where you may have meant them to be, by analyzing the audio. It works great for some folks, but it was a little odd to me when I tried one, which was admittedly MANY years ago. Your experience may differ, so don’t be afraid to try one out. They have big ones and small ones, with the largest units offering five or six separate loop tracks.
The Boomerang was one of the first dedicated units to come out in the late nineties, and it still has a large fan base to this day. It can do up to four loops that can be used in series or in parallel and has their distinctive rubberized footswitches, and has some interesting features like one-shot and stutter, so it could be just the thing.
I should also mention a younger company that seems to be tearing it up in the world of looping at the moment, which is Singular Sound and their Aeros looper. This is one that I personally want to check out, because the feature set seems almost custom-made for the kind of gig I’m currently doing. It can do up to six parts with six tracks per part (so six separate tracks for the chorus, the verse, the bridge, the outro, etc.), shows you waveforms like a DAW, allows you to mute any part while everything else continues to play, can do multiple loop lengths without having to predetermine them, generates its own click and can punch on the downbeats. A touch screen and large foot switches round it out. Pretty neat – they also make a virtual drummer pedal called BeatBuddy that integrates with the looper as well, so it could be ideal system for a certain type of performing musician.
Another option for the more technologically-inclined loopist would be to use an app on a computing platform, be that a laptop or an iPad. Ableton is used in this way by a number of top looping folks, because it’s immensely powerful…it can stretch audio, and was designed around processing audio bits in chunks in the first place, so it makes sense. I’ve personally tried a number of different apps on an iPad and iPhone like Loopy HD (now Loopy Pro) and Quantiloop, and while they can be super powerful and have really interesting feature-sets, it usually means that you have some integration hurdles to jump over, whether that be in the realm of multi-device synchronization, tactile control or audio routing. Either a desktop or iOS solution can be seriously powerful, so if you are a rather technical person like myself it might be worth checking out. Ultimately, it ended up being too much of a hassle for me to justify bringing all the gear to the gig that I would need to make it all work, but it might be perfect for what you need.
I should also mention that all of the major All-In-One units (Line 6’s Helix, POD HDs, the QuadCortex, Headrush, etc etc) have looping capability built in, but they generally have very simple feature sets in regard to their looper, so you’ll generally get a single loop with undo, redo, reverse and octave capability.
So if you’re in the market for a looper, start with the list above, and then I’ll be back in a bit with Part Two, where we’ll talk about Five Ways To Improve Your Looping Fast.
More in a bit.