Get Loopy

March 21, 2012
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DigiTech JamMan Solo
EVER SINCE PRIMITIVE MAN FIRST stood at the mouth of an echoing canyon, sound loops have fascinated and inspired us to create. Over the eons, looping technology has become more flexible and portable (try hauling a canyon to your next gig!), allowing musicians to create multilayered soundscapes all by themselves— live, and in real time. Early looping devices were tape-based machines like the Echoplex, whose analog technology and beltdriven mechanics produced a warm tone. During the 1980s, digital technology trickled down to the consumer world, and pedals like the Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Delay made live looping a relatively simple task. Modern looping devices now have studioquality audio, long loop times, and cool performance features, and they come in a variety of price ranges, making it a good time to get loopy.

Back in the late ’70s, trendsetter Jaco Pastorius performed a looped solo, “Slang,” during his live shows, and electric bass players have since followed his lead in droves. Bass is an ideal instrument for looping: You can play percussion, bass lines, chords, and melodies, all on one axe. A bass with 20 frets and four strings can produce over a four-octave range—plus harmonics—but with an extended-range bass, the potential is staggering.

There are two aspects of looping to consider: the hardware, and the music. First, let’s look at some popular devices and their features, and then we’ll talk about a few simple musical ideas to get you started.

HARDWARE … HARDWARE … HARDWARE

 
Line 6 JM4
Boss offers several options in the looping department. The small yet mighty RC-3 is a single-space pedal crammed with an amazing amount of features. With stereo in and out, you can connect more than one instrument or the send signal from a stereo effects chain. With three hours of recording time, the RC-3 allows you to store up to 99 loops for recall on the gig; it also has preset drum patterns, an AUX input for iPods or other external devices, and a USB port to import or export .wav files. The RC-3’s big brother, the RC-30, adds an XLR input with phantom power, built-in effects, three hours of looping time, and two independent loops. The flagship RC-300 really ups the ante with three independent stereo loops (with dedicated transport/control pedals), a three-channel mixer, built-in expression pedal, MIDI control, and inputs for more external controllers.

Several Line 6 floor units have looping features, but the company now offers a pedal whose sole function is looping. The JM4 has several amp models, effects, and jam tracks that cater more to the guitarist, but there’s plenty for bass players, too: separate XLR or q" inputs for an AUX in channel, each with its own EQ and reverb; a line out for your amp; stereo line outs for recording or PA consoles; a dedicated footswitch for halfspeed; a r" AUX input; and 24 minutes of total recording time. You can import and export files on an SDHC card.

 
Echoplex
If you’re considering a Digi- Tech JamMan looper, you can choose between Solo (mono), Stereo, and Delay models. They all offer 35 built-in minutes of recording time, but with an SDHC card, you can bump that up to 16 hours. Each model includes a metronome with multiple sounds and time signatures, and a USB port that lets you manage your loops with DigiTech librarian software. The JamMan Delay has up to 16 seconds of stereo delay, three programmable presets, reverse playback, and several control options.

Built in the Lone Star State, the Boomerang III E-156 Phrase Sampler is a performance- friendly unit. It offers over 17 minutes of mono recording time, six independent loops that can be played sequentially or simultaneously, an octave-down function for making bass lines out of wimpy guitar notes, and several features that make the ’Rang well-suited to working with complex song forms. The downside is you can’t store loops or expand the memory capacity, but it is wedge-shaped for easy floor operation. (Did I mention it’s built in Texas?)

The big kahuna of loopers is the Looperlative LP1, a rackmount unit that has all the firepower you could need. The LP1 offers eight independent stereo loops that can be synchronized or asynchronous, it produces 24-bit audio at a 48kHz sample rate, and it sends the signal to stereo outs, as well as two different stereo aux outs. To use the LP1 hands-free, you will need to use your own MIDI controller pedal. For those who find the LP1 too much to handle, the new mono LP2 loop pedal is a simpler device that has some unique features. With 12-bit audio and 48kHz sampling, the sound quality is fairly high, and it offers MIDI sync, permanent storage on SDHC cards, and feedback control via an expression pedal input. It also has “rhythmic replace” functions that allow you to create rhythmic loops out of slices of other sounds, and “Random Retrigger,” which allows real-time creation of randomized ostinatos.

 
Boomerang III E-156 Phrase Sampler
MUSIC … MUSIC … MUSIC

Once you’ve chosen a looper and figured out how to operate it, it’s time to make some music. Start with a short loop—say, two bars long. Getting the hang of “snipping” the first loop at the right time takes practice. While some units include drum patterns, it’s totally possible to create groovy drum tracks with your bass. You can get a kick drum sound by muting your strings and hitting the lower ones with your palm, or thumb. Make a “snare” sound by tapping your hand on the higher strings or by using a muted pluck. Start with a simple alternating pattern: kick on beats one and three, snare on beats two and four. You can fill it in with eighth- or 16th-notes on the “hi-hat” by lightly tapping the high strings.

With the drum track in place, play a simple bass line—one bar of E to a bar of A will work. Once the bass line is in place, play some simple two-note chords: playing G and D at the 12th fret with an E root makes Em7, and playing G and C# against an A builds an A7 chord. Keep the rhythm simple, for now. For some texture, add some harmonics: Play the harmonics on the D and G strings at the 5th fret (D and G) for an Em7 chord, and at the 4th fret (F# and B) against an A root for a snazzy A6/9. You can break up the harmonics rhythmically if you like, and a touch of chorus works wonders. Now you have a complete rhythm track to solo over for days.

 
 Looperlative LP2 Mini
Several bassists have taken looping to new heights, and Steve Lawson (stevelawson.net) is certainly at the forefront of the scene. Steve has toured the world as a solo bassist for years, and has released a trove of CDs featuring his unique blend of musicianship and effect mastery. Steve says, “Looping has enabled me to soundtrack the inside of my head without outside interference. I would not be playing solo if it weren’t for looping—it’s as simple as that.”

Michael Manring (manthing.com) is one of the few players who can hold an audience spell-bound with nothing but a 4-string bass and his hands, but he’s also used looping extensively in his solo shows. Manring got his first JamMan in 1994 and immediately went for the MIDI sync option, which allowed him to connect two JamMans together with a MIDI cable. “The loops sync to each other in various multiples,” he says. “I realized I could now play whole tunes, change sections, bring melodies in and out, and basically arrange a whole piece of music rather than being locked into a single idea for the whole piece.”

 
Boss RC-3
Todd Johnson (toddjohnsonmusic.com) is a master of chordal bass technique, and he’s superb at playing walking bass lines and chords simultaneously. He uses a loop pedal to create jazz rhythm tracks and then solos over them. “Looping has been a godsend to me,” Todd says. “In addition to being a bassist for hire, I now have a solo career. I can be proactive and not just sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Looping and performing as a solo act have caused me to start writing my own material. It’s a newfound freedom—I’m limited only by my own creativity and imagination.”

For a modest investment, looping can open up previously unimaginable creative possibilities. It’s a great way to learn more about music, and there is even career potential— imagine yourself playing a solo bass gig one day. It’s a loopy idea that could really work.

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