I have been wanting to get into live-looping for a considerable amount of time. Over three years ago, I started looking into what sort of setup I might need to enable me to achieve this goal. There are thousands of ways to skin this cat. I certainly found myself heading down a few wrong turns along the way.
I started out building up my looping setup around a Boss RC-300 loop station. The RC-300 is an incredibly powerful looper, with 3 independent looping tracks available on pedal switches, and an expression pedal for phasing in effects and transitions.
Being a guitarist by background, I felt sure that this was the right choice. To cover drums, I was using a Roland SPD-30, and I ended up eventually opting for a TC Helicon Voicelive Touch to use as a vocal effect. Well the inputs on the RC-300 did not allow me to plug in audio from my MacBook, the drum machine and a hardware synth too, so I opted to get a small mixer to handle the sound sources (Edirol M10DX). By the time I had this setup going, I had wires all over the place and a 10-way power adapter completely jammed with power supplies. I could achieve looping with this rather fiddly setup, but it didn’t feel very instinctive, with far too many different units to concentrate on. And it didn’t help having to use my feet to control the floor based RC-300.
Other floor-based loopers are available, such as the Digitech Jam Man or the KT Tunstall endorsed Akai Headrush.
My second phase of loopery revolved around expanding the possibilities of the Voicelive Touch. Not only is it a brilliant vocal effects unit featuring a powerful harmonizer, autotune and all the other expected gubbins, but it also features its own looper mode.
After getting hold of the TC Helicon floor switch, and the MP-75 microphone, designed to work with the unit, I thought that simplicity might be the answer. I found that setup too minimal, and over reliant on my modest abilities to produce beat-boxed drum lines. Some of the most talented loopers around today such as Dub FX and Beardyman come from a beat-boxing background, but my attempts at cracking out kicking beats from my face produced an array of saliva rather than a wall of hard-hitting rhythms. Version two of the Voicelive touch is now available, and I must say it’s far and away the best vocal effects unit out there for creative singers. It’s fantastic that it clips onto a microphone stand too.
Phase 3 of my looping quest led me to the Ableton Push. I had been using Ableton Live for a couple of years with my APC-40 controller, but the new Push hardware allowed for much more creative control over Live. It could not only trigger clips in Live, but it could also be used as an instrument in its own right. Powerful for sure, and a lot of fun to use. Getting the actual looper instruments into a Live session that was workable proved to be quite fiddly. One problem I had was that when a foot-switch was hooked up it could only be allocated to one track, so unless I bought a massive MIDI foot-switch controller, such as a Roland FC-300, I wasn’t going to be able to control multiple tracks. Push is great for building tracks and song-writing. In fact as an instrument, I found it so playable that I started getting into learning how to play melody lines. However, that just resulted in me realising that I would be better off learning how to play piano, so I went down that road instead. The Push still wasn’t what I needed for my live-looping needs.
Custom Software Setups
Artists such as Tim Exile and Beardyman were clearly two characters in the music business who have been trying to crack this conundrum for years. Exile had been working with Native Instruments in Berlin using the Reaktor software system. He has produced what he calls his ‘performance machine’, and it works wonderfully.
But with the thin hours left to me by my day-job, I realised that I wouldn’t have the time to use Reaktor to build the ultimate bespoke looping set up. Beardyman went one step further by working with a programming team to build his looping software (Beardytron 5000) from the ground up in C++.
Very impressive, but unrealistic for my situation. Scaling down my expectations, I finally stumbled upon the ideal looping setup to suit my needs.
The Boss RC-505 was released in autumn 2013. It’s essentially a table-top based five track looper. It was designed for the beat-box community who were starting to use the other loop stations, such as the RC-50 and the RC-300 at table level.
It not only provides two more tracks than those units, but it also has two different stages for effects. Input effects allow for the incoming sound source to be processed for the recording, while the output effects can be dropped onto the recorded loops. There are also basic global effects allowing you to apply compression and reverb for that final touch. Input-wise, it features left and right jack inputs as well as a stereo mini-jack auxiliary input. There is also an XLR input and it’s possible to stream audio from a computer via the USB socket, which I don’t think other loopers are capable of. With my Shure WH-20 dynamic headset mic plugged into the XLR, I have a great way of inputting vocals. My Roland SH-01 Gaia synthesizer is the perfect sound source to holler down the stereo jacks. Needing drums was a priority too. Because of the awkwardness of the SPD-30 (it’s just too fiddly having to pick up a pair of drum-sticks), I thought I might go for an app to give me drums. I tried using Drum Pads 24 on my Galaxy Note 3 into the auxiliary input, but while the sounds were ok, it wasn’t possible to provide your own samples, plus the latency of the drum hits made it nearly unplayable. Luckily, Akai had just released a new hardware sample player which was perfect for this; the Akai MPX-16. So that’s synth, vocals and drums covered without needing a mixer. I may not have the key-mashing abilities of Tim Exile or Beardyman, but I am starting to find that the results I am getting are great. I can very quickly put together rich soundscapes and tight sounding song sections.
The only other drawback is that there is no guitar input with this setup. But that could potentially be fixed by introducing a mixer, so that the synth shares the jack inputs with other sound sources. Alternatively, Guitar Rig could be used via the USB port. Truth be told, the synth can cover many bases, so I am happy to be guitar-less with this setup. And it is to great advantage that this rig works without the need to hook up a laptop. My system is great for me, as it involves only three instruments. They work together well, and price-wise it’s not even been that expensive to put together:
- Boss RC-505 – £350
- Akai MPX-16 – £130
- Roland SH-01 – £479 (mine was £300 second-hand)
- Shure WH-20 – £99
There is no single solution for live-looping. It all comes down to the skills and needs of the musician. You need to work out what sort of sounds you want to loop (vocals, guitars etc). Then you need to work out how you are going to produce beats (beat-boxing, MPC, full drum kit). And finally, you need to decide how much flexibility you want with the recorded loops, and how much you want to warp things once they are in your loop system.
There are other answers to looping, such as the Elektron Octatrack (eight channel hardware sample looper!).
There are also app solutions. The Looper app is available for Android, while the iOS answer is an app called Loopy.
Unfortunately, I’m an iPad away from using this option, but using tablets is a great idea, so long as the latency of the signal isn’t a problem.