With the right gear, timing, and technique, a solo performer can summon multi-layered sounds that are worlds beyond the limits of a single instrument or voice. Here’s what you need to get started.
Live looping — the process of recording yourself playing short and repeated chunks of music, layering other repeating phrases on top, and editing your performance in real-time as you go — can make a single artist sound as big as an orchestra.
The applications are endless, and skilled live loopers can create everything from intense dance tracks to ambient acoustic atmospherics using creativity, technology, and minimal manpower.
Here are some tips from New York bassist, composer, and veteran live-looper Dmitry Ishenko, who will be releasing a new album of live-looped solo double bass compositions later this year.
Find loop-friendly inspiration
If you’re new to the concept of live looping, there’s much inspiration to be found from the artists, producers, and composers who have used repetitive musical elements with the help of modern looping technology and without.
When Ishenko was just getting into live looping, he says his key goal was finding ways to expand the range of sounds that a solo double bass could create. He found inspiration in a world of textured, ambient, orchestral works that relied heaving on repetition, including pieces like Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.
As you experiment with live looping yourself, look at musical innovators in your genre of choice who have used repetitive phrases or motifs, as Ishenko did, but make sure to look beyond as well, as you may find great inspiration in unexpected places. Two of my personal inspirations include singer and beatboxer Kid Beyond and musical Buddhist monk Yogetsu Akasaka. I also love the Phish track “Taste,” which builds on repeated arpeggios and rhythms that evolve throughout song.
Look at software
Live looping requires technology that allows you to instantly record and play yourself back while tweaking layers of looping sound on the fly. There are a number of software programs that let you do this.
Ableton Live is the go-to software suite for many loop-based musicians, and in an informal survey of my live-looping musical colleagues, Augustus Loop and PreSonus Studio One were also called out as tools to look into. Most software options offer free demo functionality, so you can start by downloading multiple programs, experimenting, and seeing what resonates with you.
If the idea of sophisticated looping software sounds intimidating, start with no expectations and play around and see what happens. “There are infinite possibilities when looping with a laptop and some powerful software,” says Ishenko, “and I would encourage everyone to explore them.”
Look at hardware
Ishenko describes himself as a “devout hardware musician, which means I use standalone pedals — as opposed to software like Ableton Live — to create my loops.” And while software can present huge capabilities for live looping, Ishenko usually finds the most inspiration “by limiting myself with gear and figuring out what is the maximum I can achieve within those limitations.” Ishenko is not alone — many live-loopers do brilliant things with pedals alone.
“My bass signal, preferably taken from a nice condenser microphone — though occasionally I am forced to use my pickup — goes into the DL4, where I can record only one loop at a time. I call this my ‘manipulator pedal’ because it gives me the most options for what I can do with my loop. I can slow it down to half-speed, thus transposing it an octave down, speed it up to double speed, thus transposing it an octave up, reverse it, and add various amounts of delay using the attached expression pedal.”
Next, Ishenko’s signal goes into the Boomerang, which he calls his “storage pedal.” “Here, I can store up to four loops and stop and start them at any time,” he says. “The Boomerang also has a nice option of fading out your loops, and you can control the fade-out time. This is particularly effective when you’re building a new loop on the DL4 while the Boomerang is playing back material that you recorded earlier in your performance. Fading out the Boomerang as your new loop takes the foreground creates a beautiful transition effect.”
Regardless of the hardware you choose to build your own looping masterpieces, spend plenty of time experimenting with every feature your gear has to offer. And like Ishenko, experiment with combining multiple loopers and see what magic can happen.
Stay patient on and off the stage
It may take a while to master your gear or software of choice, dial in your live looping sound, and end up with a performance that’s true to your creative vision. Give the process the time, attention, and experimentation it deserves.
Patience is important not only when you’re developing your live looping chops, but when you decide to present your work to an audience. “Performers onstage perceive the passage of time differently than their audience,” says Ishenko. “In my experience, time seems to go by much more slowly when I play — thus, when I repeat a passage several times before recording it into my looper, I get an anxious feeling that I’m stalling and that my audience might start getting bored.”
Luckily, says Ishenko, this isn’t true. “For an audience, a repeated passage is not perceived to be nearly as long as it is for you, and can actually create a hypnotic effect, putting them into a pleasant trance. It’s up to you, as a performer, to exude confidence and assertiveness and show no signs of anxiety in order to win your audience over.”
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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