Growth due to limitations

LiveLooping started with tapes in the 60’s, improved a lot with digital delay units around 1980, and became easy to use with the dedicated digital looping tools since 1992. Using a computer, personalising and integration with recording became possible in 2002.

This little history of LiveLooping shows how, once again, limitations inspire innovation at least as much as new features do:

The delay or pioneers phase: Delay Looping

The little flexible tools of this pioneer phase only had the functions Overdub, Feedback and TapeSpeed. Those parameters were rarely changed during performance. The Loops deteriorated over time. The musicians usually overdubbed all their playing into the loop.

These heavy technical limits inspired very unusual music and was a necessary step and is warmly recommended to study. Get a feel for what was never felt before LiveLooping! By its limitations, its not quite suitable for a bigger public. There is a special magic in the resulting constantly evolving repetition. Delay Looping creates structures similar to a spiral and is a typical development form in nature.

The names given at the time did not help much for popularization: Time Lag Accumulator (Terry Riley et al) and Frippertronics (Robert Fripp).
Unfortunately several popular recent looping tools don’t allow this classic style any more due to the lack of FeedBack control. The continuous speed change also was not possible any more when the digital delays started to contain DSPs which need a fixed sample rate.

Some digital delays had the option to freeze, so musicians like Jaco Pastorius usually recorded one phrase into the delay and let it run constantly. This form was also used in classical music and called ostinato. It is similar to the circle.

The Lexicon PCM42 deserves a special mention: Although it was clearly built and marketed as a digital delay, the creator Gary Hall had looping in mind and the built in tempo light helped the musician to find the timing. He and Bob Sellom kept modifying the unit further for some special users like David Torn who used them for looping. As a result, some recordings like Eberhard Webers ‘Pendulum’ already sounded similar to the following phase:

The EDP phase: Classic LiveLooping

In 1992 the first dedicated looping tool, the Paradis LOOP delay, was manufactured 100 times and sold directly to mostly german and swiss musicians. In 1994, it came improved to the shops as Echoplex Digital Pro (EDP). For the first time it was possible to spontaneously create precise rhythmic loops with tap-record-tap-playback. Seven buttons and MIDI brought dozens of functions instantly to extend, chop, invert, restart, synchronize,,, the loops. The competitors Jamman and Boomerrang had similar qualities, but the EDP feature set became a standard.

All those units have volatile memory and therefor force the musician to develop all his loops each time new in front of the audience – a limitation which most musicians and listeners welcome!

In 1996, the creators of the EDP launched the meeting of the users on where all live looping techniques are exchanged and the most technical hints can be found. This community also contributed to the upgrades of the EDP and to several other looping tools and made amazing new techniques possible, mainly in the range of real time editing of the loops and composing them with fragments of notes. Again, the technical limitation of having just one loop running at the time was necessary to create and elaborate advanced looping techniques.

Song like structures became possible and some of the music reached a big public. A lot more works sound quite different or experimental. Many of these techniques are not possible with later popular looping tools.

Unfortunately Gibson did not invest into the evolution of the EDP. Projects for an entry level pedal version or a stereo version were rejected several times between 1996 and 2006. Lexicon stopped the Jamman December 1996.

In this phase, musicians usually play most of the time and use a set of footswitches to record parts of the playing and manipulate the loops.

The Repeater or Techno-phase

The first unit with clearly new functionalities after the EDP was the Repeater in 2002. With 4 tracks and a marvelous pitch and tempo control, a real time studio kind of looping became possible. Muting or changing pitch or tempo of single tracks allows to compose similar to studio mixes in real time. So it allows to produce music similar to electronic music with real instruments and live feeling, but also to interpret complex orchestral compositions solo. Possibly by a management error, Electrix, the manufacturer of the Repeater, went out of business shortly after it came out. Only in 2006 begun a small production of the expensive but amazing versatile Looperlative which does most the Repeater did.

In this phase, the DJ kind of creation, the experience from livePA, real time mixing of brought along samples came in: Many musicians started to process the loops more and play the instrument less. Some took it to the extreme of only playing one note and create a whole piece out of it.

The Laptop phase

Since 2004, many plugins emulate all kinds of LiveLooping techniques and come up with new features and integrate with classic recording techniques. Several use the EDP feature set, enriched with the Repeaters and more mixing techniques.

The Musicians limitations

So far we have been talking about technical limitations. But to dominate all this functionality while playing takes a lot of work by the musicians and in fact we don’t know of any one who dominates them all. So the more the technical limitations fade, the musicians make a choice of a set of functions that they use and train, while neglecting the others. This gives each musician its color and to LiveLooping an amazing range of languages.

The Massification phase

In 2001, with the appearance of the Roland and Digitech looping pedals, the price reached the bed room musician level and livelooping became very popular. But these tools were made without the input of the Loopers-Delight community. They have amazingly basic problems and limitations, not due to technology, but rather to the limited user interface and the lack of praxis of the developers. They allow to layering of rhythmic and harmonic patterns to carry a solo but then there are no functions to evolve the loop, it can only be stopped.

One of the major motivations for this work is to inform about all those different techniques and help to preserve them, just like traditions or species in nature. Its shocking how much culture is lost by the outdating of the (electronic) instruments!

Remaining Limitations

While technology always adds possibilities and hardly cuts any, it carries the spirit of limitation because the new possibilities may lead in only one direction, by the limitation of the user interface and to simplify marketing.

Looping is very open in this sense, serves for any instrument and most styles. Its worst limitations are:

  • difficulty to change key (changing the complete pitch is not enough)
  • difficulty to follow the tempo of the player
  • multi track looping brings a lot of possibilities, but even more parameters which are hard to control and overview by the musician.

To play live and to use organic instruments is not technically related, but naturally: a certain faith leads to both…
While the first message may be: “see how much sound I can create from my instrument!”
Slowly, the message turns into: “lets make the creation of music a natural, spontaneous event”

Matthias Grob, 2009