Complications In Learning To Loop (And How To Avoid Them)

Looping is one of the most unique and entertaining forms of live performance, and has risen in popularity within the last decade. With the ability to record multiple layers, of potentially many different instruments, complex and full sounding songs can be created before your audiences very eyes (and ears). The sheer creative freedom a loop pedal provides has resulted in many picking one up, plugging it in and start tapping, strumming and singing. You need to just look at Ed Sheeran to see how impressive this can be!

However, when initially learning how to loop, one comes across several challenges that can prevent them from creating the rounded tunes they imagine. In our years of playing with a loop pedal, we’ve come across these challenges, and have often been stumped as to how to overcome them. We know that these hurdles can be daunting, and result in you turning off your pedal in frustration of the loud, out of time mess you’ve created.

But fear not! There is always a way to over come the looping limitations that forbid you from fully fleshing out full sounding and smooth listening tunes. Here are 3 complications every loop artist faces, and how to overcome them.

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Feedback

As a musician, nothing is worse than standing up on stage with an acoustic guitar and microphone, only to have the loud moans of feedback filling the room, as audience covers their ears from the deafening and irritating sound. It plain sucks, and can ruin a performance even before it begins. This is a particular threat to those live loop artists who use an acoustic guitar or a microphone.
The way feedback works is through a building cycle of sound. If I strum an acoustic guitar, the sound resonates within the wooden body. However, if you have a foldback, or are close to a speaker, the sound that comes out from that speaker can also enter and begin to resonate within the body of the guitar.

That combination of sound is then played through the speakers and fold backs, which thus enters the body of the guitar again, starting the cycle again. What results within seconds is feedback; a loop artist’s nightmare. As you are recording the sound that comes from body of the guitar, whatever feedback comes out is also subsequently recorded and looped, and after a couple of recording loops, the feedback has overpowered the chords, melody and percussion you have beautifully established. Even the smallest bit of feedback found in a loop can be irritating to an audience member after it is heard 160 times in a row.

Solution

Problems can also arise from trying to find solutions to these problems. Turning to volume down means the loop remains quiet, so the audience and performer cant hear it. Turning off your foldback means you cant hear yourself, and so you cant hear exactly what is recorded when, and how well. Using less loops can make songs build quicker, but limits how many layers you can have, limiting your creative potential.

The solution I have found works most effectively, allowing me to formulate full sounding feedback free tunes, is the use of a Hole Suppressor or DI. A Hole suppressor covers the sound hole of the guitar, reducing the amount of feedback enters the guitar, and thus how much feedback gets looped. Good quality Hole Suppressors don’t sacrifice the sound quality of the guitar, meaning that your songs remain sounding clear.

Option 2 is using an acoustic amp, with inbuilt feedback reduction hardware. Acoustic amps can project the sounds from an acoustic guitar or a microphone a lot smoother and with a more warm tone. This makes it ideal for simple acoustic looping, to even more advanced forms of looping (especially if you attach a subwoofer, doof).

However, most acoustic amps can reach the volume PA speakers can produce without getting distorted, or without the feedback being too prominent for the suppressors to hold back. Acoustic amps are good for small cafes and rooms, but larger areas will require more volume

If you cant find a Hole Suppressors that fits your guitar, don’t like the idea of getting foreign objects getting stuck inside, or don’t want to buy another acoustic amp, option 3 is using an external DI. By placing one of these between your pedal and you amp, it reduces the decibel level of the sound being produced from the pedal (from up to -20 to -60 decibels) this condenses the sound, as well as makes it quieter.

This means that when you turn the speaker up to higher levels, you can hear the controlled and feedback free sound. These work great with most PA speakers, but not acoustic amps. I personally prefer this option; I use a Behringer DI100 DI Box, which has reductions up to -40 Decibels (but the -20 is sufficient) and has a Phantom Power System (so you don’t have to plug it in) and is a very durable and relatively small bit of hardware.

Volume Levels

When you loop, you are essentially recording all the layers of a song at once, and, like a song, balance in volumes is important. It is very tempting to record all the layers as quickly as possible; and in a performance environment is quiet necessary.

However, in this rush, you might not focus heavily on the volumes of individual layers, resulting in the song becoming very unbalanced and hard to listen to. If your chords are louder than you melody, you can’t hear one of the most important parts of a song. If you harmonize vocals into a triplet at a loud volume, the might over power the song. And if you tap the bridge of an acoustic guitar and full strength to get a kick sound, your song, with it’s complex chords, smooth bass lines and flowing melodies will sound more like a EDM club song. DOOF DOOF.

Solution

As I said before, you are essentially recording all the layers of a song at once. This means you need to have an understanding of how volumes work in ensemble recordings. The most important part of a song should be the loudest, and is usually the lead melody line.

This means that as you are building from the base up, change the volume of the instrument, depending on its importance. This can be done through inbuilt adjusters in the instrument, or by playing at a softer intensity. The order, from softest to loudest should vaguely follow this order:

-Percussion: record the percussion and a softer volume first. Whether you are using an acoustic guitar body, drum pad or microphone, percussion instruments are usually quite loud. This means that this layer doesn’t need to be at full volume to be heard.

By recording this layer at a lower volume, you get the sound quality and tempo keeping qualities of a percussive layer, without it overpowering the other more melodically and harmoniously important layers. If you have a complex percussive layer, make sure that louder instruments, like kick drum or snare sounds, are quieter than shaker or high-hat sounds.

-Bass Line: If you have a layer with a bass line, it should be slightly louder than that of the percussion. Remember, while the bass is a deep and loud instrument, in most recordings it isn’t always as loud as the chord layer or melody. Its there encapsulate the sound; not over power it.

However, in some genres, like funk and soul, the bass role might be more important than the chords, and thus will need to be louder than the chords, but not the melody. For example, the bass will need to be louder than the chords in a Stevie Wonder song, but softer in an Ed Sherran song.

-Chords: The instruments that play the chords should be slightly louder than the percussion layer and bass layer, to not to overpowering (remember you want layers to blend and work together) Methods of playing chords in looping include turning the volume up loud and playing softly, or tuning the volume down and playing loudly, and depend on the song your looping.

Playing chords on guitar and keys are easy enough, but you must be careful when building chords out of vocal harmonies. Make sure each individual note you sing is at the same volume, to give a sense of unity in the chord. If anything, sing the root note of the chord at a louder volume as to establish the tonality of the chord.

-Harmonies/counter melodies: the harmonies and counter melodies are there to bring out the sound of the main melody, so they shouldn’t be as loud or louder than the main melody. If creating multipart harmonies, like chords, make sure that each recording is at the same level as each other.

-Main Melody: The main melody is not often recorded in a loop, but is played or sung over the top. This means that this should be louder than the other instruments. However, just because it is the most important part of the song, doesn’t mean it should overpower the over layers. This means that you have to find a balance, so that the melody is easily heard over the other layers, but that the over layers can still be heard.

All this being said, the percussion shouldn’t be inaudible, and the melody overpowering. You’ve got to experiment with the volume levels when practicing with the pedal, finding the perfect blending point of all the layer’s volumes.

Most multi-track loop pedals have separate volume controls for the tracks, such as the ever-popular BOSS RC 300. This means you can delegate certain roles to different tracks, and adjust the volume accordingly.

Multiple Sounds

Say you start a loop with a riff on an acoustic steel string guitar. Then you want to encapsulate the sound with a deep resonating bass. Then you want to introduce a chord progression on a piano. Hmm, its missing something, like maybe a violin part to go with the piano. Now you want percussion, like a nice deep kick drum and a ringing base.

Oh, you know what would really go good? A Harmonica part to play a counter part to the main melody. Wait! What if the main melody is played on the Kazoo!?… When you get into looping, you start to experiment with what sounds you can input into a loop. But, depending on the pedal, you may only have a certain amount of inputs available for cables. Also, it might be hard to bring an entire orchestra of instruments to a gig, let alone use them as effectively as each other.

Solution

For creating songs with complex soundscapes, you want to use as few instruments as possible to achieve the widest range of sounds possible. This will require using instruments with multiple soundscapes on them. At the most, you should have 3 instruments plugged into a pedal; a guitar, a keyboard or drumpad, and a microphone. The uses for each are as follows.

Guitar: In looping, an acoustic guitar is all that is needed for the rawest of loops. Apart from being an acoustic guitar, effects can be applied to it through pedals or in built effects to turn it into a bass guitar or electric guitar. Note that some effects won’t work to well (in terms of feedback and resonance) with an acoustic, so experiment around with these effects. An acoustic guitar can also work well in creating percussive layers.

Depending on what part of the guitar’s body you hit, scratch or rub, you can achieve different sounds, with enough variety to create complex percussion. This can include tapping the bridge to get a bass drum sound, the neck to get a snare sound, the lower body to get a bongo sound, knocking the bottom edge to get a click, and rubbing you hand over the stings to get a shaker sound. If you want more dynamic sounds, effects can be applied.
I personally predominantly use only an acoustic guitar when looping, as I can achieve all the sounds I want with only one instrument.

Keyboard or Drumpad: if you want you sounds to be even more specific and accurate, you can plug in an additional keyboard of drumpad. Keyboards with multiple inbuilt effects can provide you with an orchestra of instruments to play around with.

Longer keyboards give you a wider range of notes, but can be a hassle to move around, while smaller keyboards don’t have the immediate range, but are easier and can get the job down for simple chord accompaniments. Drum pads, for you drummers, can be programmed with whatever drums components you desire, meaning you can produce the sound of a kit, without the requirement of bringing an actual kit.

Microphone: If you, however, want a wider range of instruments, played in the rawest sense, using a microphone can be a versatile option. While it can be used for vocals, it can also be used to record the sound from instruments that can be plugged in, such as a harmonica, melodica, trumpet, tambourine, egg shaker or kazoo (I’ve seen it work, trust me).

In this sense you are only limited to how many instruments you can have with you on hand. For personal recording, you can have as many instruments as possible, but for live performance, consider how much space you have, and what you can achieve with other instruments

So there you have it, hurdles that every loop artist faces, but can easily be overcome. While getting perfect loops can prove difficult at first, following these tips will help you overcome whatever challenges you face, and make you looping sound as good as a fully recorded song!

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What are some challenges you faced with your looping endeavors? What’s the weirdest instruments you’ve looped with? Let us know in the comments down below, and stayed tuned for some more looping tips!

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