live looping

Three approaches to live looping

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From tight grooves to swirls of sound, live looping can open up huge opportunities for musical creativity. These three approaches will get you started.

In “Ready to try live looping? Where do you start?,” New York bassist and composer Dmitry Ishenko talked through the hardware, software, and inspiration behind a successful live-looped performance. Here, Ishenko discusses three unique ways to approach building your own live-looped masterpiece.

1. Loop in tempo

Whether you’re listening in live venues (pandemic permitting) or via YouTube (sadly, much more likely), the most common style of live looping you’ll probably see is a powerful and versatile one — multiple layers of sound recorded and manipulated within a strict and steady groove.

When live-looping in tempo, singer/songwriters can record rhythm guitar parts and sing over top, while adding guitar fills and solos, says Ishenko. Similarly, bass players can record looped bass lines and improvise over top. And that’s just the beginning — but setting yourself up for in-tempo live-looping success takes thought and practice.

To start, Ishenko advises, timing is key. “Your initial loop has to be perfect because everything else will be syncing up to it,” he says. “Thus, it is crucial to record it as cleanly as possible.”

To nail that timing of your first take so your performance grooves rather than lurches, take your time and settle in. “Don’t try to record your loop on your first pass, because most likely it will contain mistakes with which you will be stuck for the rest of the song,” Ishenko says. “Instead, play the passage you’ve set out to loop several times until you fully get into the groove and then record it.”

Extra long loops

If your loop is going to be extra long — like a long verse of a song — and you don’t want to repeat it more than once, Ishenko recommends a different strategy. “Play an intro in the tempo of the song to fully get into the groove,” he says, “and then press record once you’re all settled into the feel and tempo.”

The rules that apply to the first loop you record apply to the fifth and fifteenth as well. “Don’t record until you’re fully ready!” Ishenko advises. “Play your layered part several times over your ‘master loop’ — the first one you recorded and that you’re building off — until you’re fully settled into it. Then press record.”

Regardless of whether you’re building an acoustic ballad or propulsive dance track, experiment with your live-looping tools, practice your timing, and take note of what moves you creatively. The more time you spend shedding your live-looped performance, the more captivating it will be when you share it with an audience.

2. Loop out of tempo

Less common, but equally potent is the technique of looping out of tempo — in other words, throwing your groove to the wind and deliberately looping against the established beat of your song — or building a soundscape that doesn’t have any established tempo at all.

“This is the technique I use the most, as I try to create large swaths of orchestral sounds when I perform,” says Ishenko, who usually begins looping with the middle register of his double bass played with a bow.

Vinyl Guide bannerFor bassists and non-bassists alike, Ishenko says to avoid layering too many low-end passages, as doing so can easily accumulate a bass-heavy sonic mud. Instead, bass players (in particular) can consider recording in a low register, but then doubling the tempo of the recorded loop and transposing the recorded loop an octave up.

“I set my Line 6 DL4 looping pedal to the half-tempo setting, which gives me fourteen seconds of available looping time,” he says, while reminding live-loopers to keep density and phrasing in mind as well: “If I know I’m going to transpose my playing up an octave, I play long, slow passages. Remember that once you transpose your loop, everything will play back twice as fast, so if your initial loop contains a fast passage, it will sound really frantic when doubled in speed.”

Use the right tones

Ishenko recommends exploring all of the tones your instrument can create, and using that sonic palate while you live-loop out of tempo. ”If you’re going for a large atonal sound a-la Ligeti or Penderecki, for example, harmonics with lots of delay and long, slow slides layered over and over will give you that effect. Once transposed up, higher harmonics really go up into the stratosphere and create a beautiful shimmering effect!”

When building an out-of-tempo live looped performance, Ishenko says that focusing on your own body can provide intuitive timing and deep inspiration. “Sometimes, I like to loop something contrapuntal as opposed to textural, like building a live-looped string quartet where I’m playing all of the parts. Since I’m playing out of tempo, I rely on my breathing to help me build phrases.”

In practice, this means taking a deep breath before you play. As you exhale, hit record and play a slow three-to-five-note passage. “It can be tonal or atonal,” Ishenko says. “Repeat it once or twice and set your looper to start layering. Now you’re layering on top of a passage that contains notes and silences, and as you’re adding subsequent layers, try to record something during those silences in a different register, thus adding an ‘answer’ to your initial ‘question.’”

Ishenko recommends repeating this process several times — and being mindful of variety when making your musical choices. “I try to make every new loop contrast with the previous one, so if I just recorded something contrapuntal, I will try to record something big and textural next, and vice versa.”

As with in-tempo live-looping, experimentation and patience are key. Explore, see what crashes and what flies, and put the time in to develop a live-looping technique that you can be proud of.

3. Go random

“This is another technique I use to create a jarring, chaotic texture that seems completely random and forces me to be in the moment and react to myself at lightning speed,” says Ishenko. “The musician who inspired me the most in this area is guitarist Bill Frisell, who is an absolute master at looping. The piece ‘Katzatz’ from the album Masada Guitars put out by John Zorn is a prime example of that.”

For randomized looping, Ishenko uses his Line 6 DL4 delay pedal and keeps his foot glued to the Transpose/Reverse button. He records a passage, then transposes or reverses it while playing a second passage on top of it. The result? Two phrases looping over each other that are playing back at different octaves and speeds.

To build the chaos, Ishenko recommends holding long notes and pressing the Transpose button several times throughout. “This way, during playback, you’ll get a jarring jumping-up-and-down-the-octave effect,” he says. He recommends a similar technique when playing slower passages: “As you’re recording, press the transpose button repeatedly, in or out of tempo. Upon playback, you will get an octave-jumping, slowing-down-and-speeding-up, hiccuping effect.”

As you start layering random and interesting loops, try to react in the moment to everything that you have already recorded. “Embrace the chaos!” Ishenko advises. “Once the loop becomes extra dense and hectic, stop and start over.”

A great randomized, improvised performance isn’t something that can necessarily be practiced ahead of time — but a deep fluency with the tools and techniques of live-looping can certainly help. So as per the above examples, the more time you spend becoming an expert in the textures and technology of live-looping, the more beautiful your chaos will be when it comes time to create in performance.

What techniques do you use when building a live-looping performance? Tell us in the comments below.

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One thought on “Three approaches to live looping

  1. Enjoyed reading this as well as Mr. Ishenko’s performance – thank you for posting. Another great example of live looping that is mesmerizing to watch is the artist Masego. He performs his song “Lavish Lullaby” and it’s truly hypnotic to watch the layering he does on this one. What a cool thing for solo artists to try.

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