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

5. Creating a Project: Using Project Templates

In our last entry we discussed how to get input into the GarageBand on iOS. With that somewhat complex (and possibly expensive) problem behind us, we’re ready to create a project and start recording a song.

Projects are where you do the work of arranging the song, choosing instruments, recording tracks, editing and mixing. That’s basically all the rest of the things you need to do to produce a song. The big things that are left are mastering to produce a final product that includes content from multiple projects or songs, and distributing the results.

In this blog entry we’ll look at various approaches to creating a project, including the use of project templates to speed things up and save work. We’ll look at song layout and different approaches to recording songs: either a section at a time, or by laying down more complete or even free-form tracks.

Creating the Project

Each song is created in its own project, what GarageBand calls a Song. Most DAW’s use the concept of a Project since there are many things you might record besides songs. So we’ll use the terms interchangeably when referring to GarageBand.

When GarageBand starts up, it usually picks up where you left off. That’s very convenient, but can sometimes be confusing to new users. To create a project, you need to be viewing the song list. If you’re in a song, you get back to the song list by pressing the My Songs button.

To create a new song, press the + button. You are presented with two options, New Song or Duplicate Song. Press New Song for now, we’ll look at using Duplicate Song later when discussing templates.

GarageBand immediately presents you with the Instruments selection page where you select the instrument for the first track. Let’s pick Smart Drums as that’s a great way to lay down a quick drum track we can use to set the tempo and guide the rest of the tracks.
Next you will want to press the puzzle piece button to edit the song sections. We’ll cover this more below when discussing different ways of laying out and recording songs. So for now, just use the default Section A with 8 bars. Next select the Drum Machine you want to use. I like the Vintage kit or the Classic Studio Kit to use for a drum backing track as the drums are fairly simple and clean, making the track easier to follow. Select a few drums and arrange them for intensity (up/down) and complexity (left/right) until you get a rhythm that seems to fit the song, and provides a good solid rhythm track. Keep this simple as simple tracks are easier to follow when recording other live tracks.

Make sure you set the tempo and time signature correctly before going any further. This is another good use of a simple drum rhythm track. It gives you something to play and sing along with to be sure the tempo is right before recording any other tracks. It is very hard to change tempo once analog instrument tracks have been recorded. Some DAW’s do support temp changes and will stretch the audio to fit the new tempo without changing the pitch. GarageBand on iOS doesn’t support this. And it can only be done to a very limited extent without starting to introduce distortion. So its best to get the tempo right before recording anything.
Now press the rewind button to make sure the play cursor is at the beginning of the section and press record. GarageBand will record the drum loop and stop recording and switch to playback when it gets to the end of the 8 bar section A.
This might be a little surprising. If you forgot to set the section length to the right number of measures, or you didn’t have Automatic section length turned on, then recording will stop when the cursor reaches the end of the section. This may not be what you intended. But it is convenient for getting the initial drum section recorded as we can easily loop the drum track in the other sections.

Now you can go to the tracks view to see what got recorded, and get ready to create and record the rest of the tracks, using the drum track as a guide for different song sections, tempo and when the song ends.

Using Project Templates

GarageBand for iOS does a great job keeping the song creation process simple and easy to do. But there can be a lot of repetitive activities that are the same from song to song, especially for the same band. Most DAW’s support project, track, instrument and effects templates that you can setup for common recording needs. Templates have everything already setup so you are ready to pick a track and start recording. They can save a tremendous amount of time in setup and management of projects.

GarageBand doesn’t support templates directly, but you can simulate them by creating what we’ll call “template projects”. Essentially these are projects you create that have a drum track, and all the other tracks added with instruments selected for a particular recording situation. Say you have a band, and most of your songs will use the same instrument and vocal tracks. Why not create those tracks once, and then reuse them for each new song?

To do this, start with the simple drum track you created above. Now add tracks for each instrument you want to record, but don’t actually record anything in any of the tracks. GarageBand will let you switch to the track view from a selected instrument as long as there’s at least one track in the song. That’s our drum track. The label for the track depicts the instrument you chose for the track. You can’t change this label. But once you’ve recorded something in the track, you can relabel the region itself. You can use the region names give the tracks more reasonable names, indicating what actual instrument is being played and/or by whom. My project templates have mostly audio input tracks that all look like microphones and are labeled “Audio Recorder”. So I can’t tell the vocal tracks from the acoustic guitar tracks. And some of these tracks may be configured specifically to what is being recorded. For example, some might be configured as mono and others stereo. Note that with Audio Recorder set to stereo, and careful separation of the inputs, you can record two things at a time in GarageBand, and use only one track. You can use the Pan control to somewhat control their relative volume. But these will be essentially hard-panned left and right, so you’ll need to choose instruments appropriate for that positioning in the sound stage.

Now save the song and change its name to My Template or something that indicates what the template is for.
To use the template, go to the My Songs list, scroll to the desired template and long press the the song project template until it starts wiggling. Then press the duplicate button (+ in a square) to create a copy of the template. Next, long press the name of the template copy to set the name of the new song project. You now have a new song with an initial drum loop and all the tracks setup that are appropriate for that song. This can be quite a time saver. Now just set the tempo, adjust the song layout, and you’re ready to start recording tracks. Depending on the song, and the drum track in the template, you may have to redo the drum track to something more appropriate. That’s part of the reason for creating very simple drum tracks in the template – they’re more reusable in other songs as a simple rhythm backing track to augment the metronome while tracking.

Workflow: Section at a time or track at a time

Before recording much beyond the initial drum loop like we did above, you need to plan the layout of the song. Typical songs have an intro, some number of verses and choruses, perhaps a bridge between different parts, and an outro or ending. There are three different approaches to laying out a song. Each has advantages and disadvantages and one may be more appropriate for a particular song than another.

1. Free Form Layout

In free form layout, you will often turn off or delete the drum layout track, and turn off the metronome. Then you create a single section for the song an set the section length to Automatic (on). Finally, you pick an instrument like an acoustic guitar or piano and play the whole song start to finish. The length of the section is automatically set to the length of this track.

This is the way analog recording with at tape machine was always done. You may have had an external metronome to keep tempo, but the layout was often done with a “layout track” that established the different song sections and tempos, and is used as a guide for the rest of the song. This track may or may not be included in the final mix, so its not necessary for it to be mistake free – only that it keeps the desired tempo and has the song sections the way you want them.

This can also be very liberating because you’re not bound to a strict tempo or measure boundaries. But this freedom comes at a hight cost when you start adding tracks and editing later on. If the song is not following a metronome and/or rhythm track, then the measure boundaries aren’t meaningful. This makes region selection difficult when you need to edit later on because the tracks don’t lineup on measure boundaries.

Free form is however useful if you’re recording a number of instruments at the same time, and there’s a lot of interaction between the musicians that requires flexible tempo, pauses, etc. In some DAW’s you can record a video of a conductor while the audio recording is being created so the conductor is available to direct subsequent tracks.

2. Track at a time

The next technique is to record a complete track, but following sections you laid out ahead of time, and using fixed tempo with a metronome and/or drum track to ensure the recording is on measure boundaries. Using this approach allows you to plan out ahead of time the different sections of the song, but still play the whole track all they way through with each instrument. After laying out the song sections, make sure you select All Sections in the Song Sections list or recording will stop at the end of the current section.
When you are recording, you can see the section labels in the timeline to help guide the musician. The labels are very dim and hard to see, but they are there. Remember you can also drag down from the timeline in the instrument recording view to see the track you are recording, and adjust its volume, solo or mute.

A GarageBand song can have a maximum of 26 sections (Section A through Z), with a total maximum length of 320 bars. Each section is 8 bars by default. Tap the information button to change the number of bars. The last section of a song has an Automatic button. Automatic means this section will continue to record until you press stop (or reach the 320 bar limit). The length of the section is determined when you stop recording. Turn off Automatic in order to manually set the number of bars for the last section. You can also duplicate and rearrange song sections. This is particularly useful when building a song a section at at time as described next. But its also useful for duplicating the drum sections you may have created for verse and chorus sections.

You can also start with a single Automatic section, record a scratch or layout track, and then go back and create the individual sections based on the layout track. Each new section will slice the layout track at its length. Just select All Sections, and change the length of the layout track to expose the original length so you can create the next section.

Once you have the song sections laid out, you can select each section in the song sections (or arrangement) list, and record different drum patterns in each section. Adjust the drums, volume and complexity in each section to fit the section of the song. This establishes a good starting point for the rest of the tracking.

3. Section at a time

In this approach, you record each section of a song independently, then you can duplicate and rearrange sections to change the layout after the recording has been completed. DAW’s like RiffWorks make great use of this technique to very quickly create songs. The benefit is that you only have to focus on getting one section at a time right. And then you can duplicate that section as many times as you need it to complete the song. Use this on instrument tracks that repeat in different sections of the song to quickly build up the song. Then the final vocal or lead instrument parts can be done a track at a time as described in the previous section.

This approach is fast and easy, but has some drawbacks.

  • It may be hard to get a sense of the whole song doing a part at a time. You can minimize this effect by combining approaches 2 and 3. Use section at a time to get instruments recorded that are background or rhythm section instruments that don’t change much in similar sections (verse, chorus, etc.). Then use track at a time to record the vocals and solo instruments that need more flexibility within similar sections.
  • The sections can all sound the same. Address this by using the same technique as the previous item, record the main instruments and vocals using track at a time and the less important instruments section at a time.
  • Transitions from one section to another may be more noticeable since they were recorded at different times, in a different position, with slightly different timing, different mic placement and settings, etc.
  • Counting out the measures can be a pain – sing the whole song agains the drum track to be sure you got the layout right before proceeding.
  • You have less content to choose from when editing. Its often easy to fix an error in one section by copying content from another section that doesn’t have the error.
  • You hear the same mistakes over and over in the song.

Section at a time is a very good way to get a song laid out and the initial tracks recorded very quickly, especially smart drum sections. You aren’t spending a lot of time performing the same content over and over. It provides a good foundation for the more important instrument and vocal tracks that often come later.

The important thing is to make sure the tempo, time signature and layout sections are right before recording anything beyond the initial drum sections. Recovering from incorrect song tempo or layout can result in a lot of very difficult editing and a poor result. Planning ahead of time here can save a lot of problems, disappointments and poor compromises later on.