Watching live music usually falls into one of two camps: listening to a full band or a solo performer. With a band, you can count on musicians working together to create a multi-layered sound. When you listen to a solo artist, however, you expect a simpler sound--e.g., somebody singing and strumming a guitar.
Regardless of what you're hearing, the music is often repetitious, whether it's 12-bar blues, a new radio hit that declares its chorus ad nauseum or a pristine classical piece that replays its motif in various guises. The typical contemporary song contains three or four chords repeated in what musicians call turnarounds. These turnarounds are further used to build typical song structures consisting of verses, choruses and (sometimes) bridges. On top of the turnarounds are repeated melodies of the song. Some musicians play the repetitious card to the max (e.g., Boards of Canada, Chemical Brothers, et al.). Basically, it comes down to the notion that the vocabulary of modern song is repeated chord changes and repeated melodies and motifs. With the advent of looping technology, modern-day solo performers are increasing their word counts with every performance.
Looping is something you may have heard but not known what it was. Often, the first time someone hears looping, they think the musician is playing with "canned" back upthey aren't. With looping, solo artists are their own accompaniment. They are able to digitally capture sounds and repeat them as often as they'd like to create layers upon layers of music on the fly. These sounds can originate from anywhere: a whistle, the clinking of two beer bottles, the vocal hook of a chorus or the ubiquitous four-chord vamp on a six string.
The most common looping devices are footpedalslittle contraptions that sit on the floor wired into the sound system and into a sound source like an instrument or a microphone. They come in all colors, most are a rectangular shape, and most have at least one knob or button that no one knows how to use. When the pedal is stepped on initially, recording begins. When it is tapped again, recording stops, and the playback of the newly recorded loop starts. After the first loop is laid down, the musician can solo over the loop or continue to layer more and more loops until a sublime wash of sound is created. Loop pedals offer features like the ability to reverse loops, speed them up or slow them down, but all that really matters is the basic premise that musician can record themselves and then incorporate that into their songs immediately.
Piloting a loop pedal can be harder than winning the dart throw at the county fair. The musician's sense of timing should be pneumatic and precise. To start a loop a fraction of a second too early or too late creates the musical equivalent of a badly dubbed foreign filmit totally loses its power. The live artist doesn't have time to stop and think about how to set up layers, but must keep playing and using the pedal to add sound and rhythm, leaving very little margin for error. But to watch a skilled musician looping, as with most any art form, the artist can make the craft look effortless.
Musicians who have brought the practice of looping to the forefront can be found at the national as well as the local level. Artists like Keller Williams and Joseph Arthur base their whole stage approach on the foundation of looping. With Williams, any sound is fair game and no two shows are the same.
Around these parts, there are a handful of ninja loopers. Doug Cameron, Marcus Eaton, Ned Evett, Dan Costello and Krispen Hartung all use a loop pedal as an integral part of their live shows.
Local guitar guru Dan Costello offers his insight: "You can use looping as a sincere way to make the music better, or you can use it as a gimmick. The people who are using it most effectively are the ones who are making the most of the capabilities of layers and parts."
And what does the future hold? Since looping is fairly new technology, loop pedal features and abilities will only improve. Looping master Krispen Hartung, who plays what he calls "improvisational looping music" predicts, "the technology will become more advanced and will become better at interfacing with other professional audio gear ... more manufacturers are coming out with loop pedals that compete with the best units on the market right now."
If you've ever been in a band, you understand that creating and sharing music with your best friends isn't always a walk in the park. Maybe your bass player quits to "spend more time with his girlfriend." Maybe your drummer made your whole band look foolish at a gig because he had too many Bronsons and fell into his kit. If you don't want to deal with this kind of hassle any more and are looking for a way to create a rich, layered sound on your own, here's an option: quit the band and invest in a loop pedal.