Do the Loopy Loop

Ever since the introduction of drum machines, the chore of programming them was left to the keyboardist. Perhaps because of lack of frets and strings or something big to beat on, the guitarists and even drummers took a slow shine to them. Luckily, some generous percusionists began to include them in their arsenal and became quite successful, sometimes even programming drums rather than play them. Naturally, when the idea of sampling parts of recordings and using them live to play along with (i.e. loops) the role of keyboardists expanded to include computer expert.

Loops require a piece of gear such as a sampler, a computer or a stand alone 'loop' device, such as a Boss Dr. Sampler. I have heard of people taking the loops from their computers and mixing it to a dat-one channel the loop, one a click track for the drummer. This, of course, makes it more difficult to change the arrangement 'on the fly'. Whatever you have, I find it is best to get the most recent technology you can afford, since the new gear is set up easier to make loops and manipulate them.

The material for your loop can be found in several places. A lot of folks sample riffs and beats off of CDs. This is cool, but there are several things to consider,-first, there is a matter of a licensing fee if you intend to make money off the loop. Second, if you had the idea to sample that cd, there is a good chance that a lot of other people did as well . The same is true with sampling CDs (although with a little ingenuity, a loop can be manipulated to sound quite different than the original). The most inventive loop would be one that you make up on your own-through percussive ideas, keyboard riffs, guitar riffs-whatever. It is great to hear a manipulated vintage keyboard line in a new song. (Check that great wurlitzer line in Beck's "Where it's at.') Putting the idea on recorded media first-such as a dat- is preferable before you sample.

Playing with a loop live is an interesting proposition. The easiest way to trigger the loop is with a computer using a sequencing program. In my experiences, the music that I have been doing only requires a few loops a night, which would make the set up of a computer an added burden. A common trigger is a midi keyboard, whereas you play the loop by hand (finger, really). It would be possible to have a sustain function for only that note through a mod wheel, button, or pedal. If all else fails, do what I do. Start the song and duct tape the note down! Anyway you do it, you must be certain the drummer hears the loop loud and clear to avoid a major catastrophe. Hopefully, your sampler will have a separate out for the loop that you can crank it in the drummers wedge. When I was on a recent tour with 'Grant Lee Buffalo', we had two songs that used loops, so my sampler was volunteered. I was using an ancient Korg sampler that was practically at the end of its ram with my Mellotron and Chamberlin samples. I squeezed in a sample from the song "Seconds" which was basically an old drum machine pattern that the boys made up. I would start the song, sustaining the note of the loop, blaring in my monitor (not having a separate out) , rush to my guitar, play a few chords, then back to the keyboard to turn on a few drones, manipulated the volume pedals all the while. About halfway through the song, the tempos would get a little askew (wasn't loud enough in his monitor). So I started the sample over, making it to the mike just in time to sing my background. Thankfully, Joey bought one of those all in one sampler loop boxes I mentioned, taking over the loop duties (as all drummers should) and made my life a little less grim.

Starting in the mid 80s, people got the brilliant idea that they could sample background vocals and play them back, making the band sound like a million bucks. Yes this is true, put someone has to trigger them right in time, or else the band ends up looking like a bad Milli Vannilli tribute band. If the sample is short enough, a keyboardist could trigger it with a key (leaving the release long enough to sound the whole sample), but usually we have enough to do without having to push more buttons. A lot of times this duty went to a road crew member behind the curtain with a midi keyboard and a sampler (they told him he could play keys on the tour).

As you can see, playing with loops can enrich your life and make you more valuable as a player. The more original your loop is, the cooler the effect will be. And remember-don't fear the machines.

1999 Gig Magazine
Reprinted with permission