Anyone who has heard me wax scornfully on the subject of loopers will wonder at the news that Ralph Shaw has bought himself a loop pedal.
While researching loopers (aka. loop pedals or loop-stations) I kept hearing the phrase, “It’s a miniature studio right at your feet.”
With a pedal click you can record a line of music straight from your instrument or voice onto the pedal. At the end of the phrase, simply click the pedal again and it automatically plays back what you recorded in a sound “loop” allowing you to record new phrases over the top of your first recording in a process known as overdubbing. Repeating this process with different musical parts makes it possible for a single musician to sound like a full band.
My first experience of overdubbing was with my friend Stuart. We were fourteen years old and each armed with a cassette recorder. We realised that we could record ourselves onto one tape and then sing along with what we’d recorded onto a second tape and thereby multiply our voices. We delighted ourselves with layers of idiotic sounds that were absolutely hilarious – to us.
Years went by and with my band Birds of a Feather I recorded an album called UnPlucked, in Vancouver’s Bullfrog Studio, onto 24-track Tascam tape whose parallel recording tracks ensured, unlike cassette tape, no degradation in the sound quality. The process was essentially the same as my earlier efforts except now I was in the high church of overdubbing where we paid handsomely for each studio-hour and every roll of tape. We weren’t allowed to actually touch the tape though. Only Bart the engineer was trained to operate the complex and expensive tape machine.
Being in a recording studio in the 1980’s was heady stuff. Studio time cost money which for us, unlike for U2 and Bananarama, was limited. Getting every part recorded accurately and quickly made the process come alive with focussed energy. It was a nervous thrill. You needed to know your stuff and be on your game while staying as relaxed as possible.
Nowadays we record directly onto the microchips inside computers and other devices which make sound an absolute doddle to edit and manipulate. From the 1990s musicians realised that recording does not have to take place within the hallowed confines of studios but can just as well be done in your home and, when loop pedals arrived in 2001, live onstage.
My first experience of seeing live-looping was at Alberta’s North Country Fair in 2004. That’s where I saw a performer called Tippy Agogo whose improvisatory act was centred around a microphone plugged into a black looping machine that might have been wrestled from a studio console. He made vocal and percussive sounds and overlapped the layers to create unique recordings while we watched. And I, as someone who had spent years practicing musical instruments and memorising songs, remember being mystified by this evolution of Tippy’s act. It seemed too easy. Surely this was cheating?
Loopers became smaller as more musicians adopted them. Through the mid-2000’s I attended showcase events and witnessed one singer who went onstage and built up a one-man a cappella chorus by singing all the parts himself. During another show a cellist came into the green room laughing because he’d slipped-up and recorded his tune in 3/4 instead of 4/4 and then had to reconfigure all his other musical layers to go on top to match it. Before long ukuleleists such as Hal Brolund, Victoria Vox and others were cleverly incorporating the technology into their live shows.
But for me the novelty had worn off and I became regularly bored at music festivals watching singer-guitarists going over their sounds, layer after layer, taking twelve minutes to construct a song that could have been over in three. And, amazingly to me, people not only put up with this but actually seemed to like it.
I could not for the life of me understand why it was suddenly cool to play along with a looper but extremely uncool to perform with pre-recorded backing-music. Surely, they are the same thing? The only difference is the time scale, right? One set of backing music was made last week and another was created onstage in front of our eyes. But that my friends is the all-important difference: looping is a technology-driven performance art. You can now display work that used to be hidden away in a studio by rehearsing it for reproduction in front of a live audience.
In the wrong hands, this process of making the audience hear the same sounds over and over again can get tedious, but it can also be spectacular. Imagine that in 2017 Ed Sheeran headlined Glastonbury – Britain’s biggest music festival – using only his voice, a ¾ size guitar and a looper setup. It really is a phenomenal use of technology as well as his musical and performance skill.
I’ve already discovered that making the right loops with dead-on timing is a lot more difficult than it looks. But not like learning an instrument. From what I can tell it’s more like being good at a video game. Excellence at looping won’t make you a better uke player any more than scoring high points at Guitar Hero will make you a better guitarist.
Here is a video of Chersea, a BOSS Loop Station championship winner. The skill involved in putting these sounds together without messing up (while also in this case avoiding a wardrobe malfunction) is indeed remarkable and entertaining to watch – but do I like it as music? Well, that’s a different question isn’t it.
My tentative conversion to the idea of looping came thanks to my old friend Stuart. He bought a pedal and lent it to me. I finally tried it on Wednesday and immediately saw potential. By Saturday I was using it on a live gig, but not as a looper. I discovered that many of these devices come with built-in drum rhythms, and the event – a Sixtieth birthday party – was in a venue that didn’t have room for my kick drum. So, I pre-programmed rhythms into the looper to give my songs the Oomph needed to get people foot-tapping and head-nodding.
Now I’ve got a looper of my own so we’ll see how it goes. Having got the hang of the drum-machine let’s discover what other delights there are for this technophobe to enjoy (like looping my own drum rhythms for example.) It does feel weird that, after years of waiting for loopers to go away, I’m now finally accepting them as a musical tool. Although at Saturday’s gig it did not escape my attention that towards the end of my performance, when I turned off the rhythm and got out my banjo-uke to announce, “It’s George Formby time!” the roof lifted off the place.
I guess it’s all about contrast and novelty. The crowd had been quite happy with what I’d done earlier but the sight and sound of a Formby song on a banjo-uke was the perfect thing for that moment and I suddenly had the attention of the whole room.
With several strings for your bow and many arrows in your quiver – with good luck and persistence, you may, occasionally, hit the target.