Using a Looper for Solo Gigs

I had a very nice discussion with Tim (didn’t get his last name) at restaurant in Darling Harbour Saturday, Sydney Australia, Oct 12, 2013. He was doing an afternoon solo gig. Tim is a bass player, but seems pretty well rounded. He played a combination of acoustic guitar and a uBass leveraging a looper, along with his vocals. We discussed his approach and best practices for using a looper live which are summarized below. This entry summarizes some of the points of our discussion, and a bit more thought I put into afterwards.

A looper is like adding another instrument, one you are playing along with other instruments. It takes a lot of practice to get good at using a looper. The key skills are starting and stopping accurately, on the beat, and using the loop layers effectively to add to the performance, and not clutter it. I hope you find these best practices helpful. Let me know if I missed some.

1. Using a looper requires careful selection of the songs – they must be amenable to looping as described in some of the other best practices. Not all songs are good candidates for looping.

2. Avoid songs where the only practical thing to loop is the verse, not the chorus. This tends to make the chorus fall flat instead of being a crescendo as is usually the intent.

3. Pick songs that are relatively simple. Complex songs are hard to manage with a looper as there’s too much going on already, and the looper can become a distraction that inhibits the rest of the song.

4. Keep the loops really short, ideally four bars or so. This minimizes the time required to create and/or layer loops.

5. Don’t dedicate too much time in the song creating the loop layers. Five minutes to create the loops for a three minute song doesn’t make sense.

6. Create the loop at the beginning of the song, introducing each instrument in a layer as part of the song introduction.

7. Alternatively, create a verse or chorus loop while doing the first one, while singing the vocal, so the audience never notices the creation of the loop and it adds no time to the song.

8. Don’t run the loop the whole song. Turn the loop on and off to give the song some dynamics and flow. Keeping the loop on too long can become distracting, and makes the songs sound thin when the looper is off or when starting the next song. The sound needs to be relatively consistent within and across songs.

9. Keep the loop layering simple – no more than three layers usually. More takes to long, introduces more chance for errors requiring undo or loop creation restart, and can make the overall sound distracting as it clearly isn’t coming from the performer.

10. Practice starting and stopping the looper to ensure good loop timing.

11. Starting a loop creation directly off a count-in can be tricky. Practice this. But often its better to start the song intro without the looper and then create the loop after the song is in progress, the tempo is set, and you’re in the song groove. This will make it easier to be more accurate with the loop start and stop times.

12. Work out the arrangement of the song ahead of time and lay it out in your SongBook. Don’t try to do the arrangement and loop planning live. Have it worked out ahead of time what will be looped, when and with what content, and when the loop will be on or of.

13. Avoid creating multiple loops in the same song (which requires a loop reset). Its too distracting.

14. Rehearse with the looper, practicing exactly what you planned to perform. A looper is like learning another instrument and takes practice all by itself.

15. Use loops mostly to provide a background instrument for solos. This keeps the song consistent since the loop is the same thing you were playing during the vocal with the solo guitar replacing the vocal.  The song will have a coherent and consistent structure and sound without the loop adding a lot of unexpected and inconsistent content.

16. Be consistent. Your performance is a conversation with your audience. You can move from tension and release within and between songs, and reinforce this with the looper as another instrument. But if you use a looper in one song, use it consistently in similar songs for continuity of the sound. Don’t perform with no looper on one song, followed by five layers of loop on the next similar song.

17. You have to somehow synchronize the start and end of a loop, and anything you add to a loop, either with overdub or multiple loops. If you have a foot pedal, then you can start and stop the loop while keeping you hands free to play. This can take some practice, especially for establishing the tempo for the first loop. But it works best and requires the least amount of loop reparation time. A good looper (like Loopy HD) can even determine the tempo from the first loop, and establish the number of measures in order to support changing the length of subsequent loops.

If you don’t have a foot pedal, then you need some way of getting the loop started and stopped at the right time. This usually requires:

  1. setting the loop tempo
  2. setting the loop length so it can stop automatically
  3. doing a count-in to synchronize your playing with the start of the loop
  4. Using a click or metronome with the loop to keep tempo

That’s a fair amount of setup for the first loop. After that, you have more flexibility on subsequent loops since the existing loop is essentially providing the count-in synchronization, and you’re free to start the overdub anytime that is convenient.

If you’re using multiple loops, and they can have different lengths, then more setup is required between the loops. Subsequent loops are generally whole-number multiples of the initial loop in order to ensure synchronization. So keeping the initial loop very short, even just one measure, makes it easier to add loops of different lengths.

If you’re using the looper in Apple MainStage 3, note the following:

  1. The metronome doesn’t necessarily start on the one. Rather it appears to be running all the time, and you just turn its audio on and off.
  2. Pressing the count-in button in the Looper will count in up to one measure. The count-in starts when you press record and the beat is determined by the metronome. So if the metronome is on the 3rd beat of a measure when you press record, then you’ll only get 1 beat of count-in.
  3. The metronome needs to be on for the count-in to be meaningful, and to provide something to sync with since the looper should be syncing to the beat and stopping at the end of the bar of the last measure.
  4. When sync is off, and there is no number of measures set, the following happens:
    1. pressing record starts record and play
    2. the next press of record sets the end of the loop, but does not turn off record
    3. to set the loop end, turn off record and turn on playback all at once, press the play button while recording
    4. press record again to turn on recording anytime while the loop is playing back to add additional layers. Record can be turned on or off anytime during the loop playback and does not restart the loop. Playback simply continues