In The Loop by David Torn

david torn photo nick robinson

(originally written for the September 1996 issue of Guitar Player, republished here with David’s permission)

While some guitarists seem mystified by the concept & practice of looping, I’ve found it nearly as esoteric as using a Marshall stack & a wah-wah; ie, not very.

Unlike using the standard time-based effects, (like chorusing, flanging, reverb, etc.), looping can be approached as a new instrument capable of both transforming & amping-up the most personal nuances of one’s guitar-playing. Looping can be likened to live, spontaneous multi-track recording within a limited time-frame, and as such, my tendency is to separate its usage, execution & playback from my more (seriously ab-)normal guitar playing. Yeah, I’m a guitarist, first & foremost; but, in the interest of attempting to create singularly expressive music, I also consider myself a loopist, and a texturalist.

Its possible (& often desirable) to mix both loopage & guitar in a single mono rig; but in order for me to illustrate how one might physically divide the two instruments, allow me to descend into some signal-flow-oriented semi-techno-glop:


In my preferred guitar+loop set-up scenario, I use a Rivera M100 amp w/Celestion 1-12″ cab, fed by a stompbox-processed Klein guitar. The Rivera acts as the source of my (questionably) inviolate guitar sound; it also provides a separate line- out to a Mackie mixer, which is dedicated to effects. This line-out goes to one channel of the mixer; the mixer’s L/R output is sent to the amplifier-ins of 2 Rivera 100 Duo- Twelve combo amps for reproduction in the wavy air.

This mixer has been factory-modified to provide 4 pre-fader effect sends, so that I can monitor the mixer’s output without any of the “dry” Rivera signal present, whatsoever, facilitating the ability to separate guitaring-from-looping. (Note: Paul Rivera installed a rather large foot-switchable load-resistor into my M100 amp, so that I can switch off the dry amp’s output at any time, and still be able to feed the mixer’s & loops’ hungry sonic appetites.)

The looping devices’ outputs are sent to individual channels on the mixer, so I can adjust their levels, eq & further effect sends manually, while I’m playing. (As this mixer uses channel faders rather than rotary pots, it also supplies visual feedback on the relative levels of my loopers.)

The looping instruments themselves often come with fairly extensive foot controls, for functions like ‘level’ & ‘dry/wet mix’. (EG, the Lexicon PCM 42 includes a footpedal-control jack to that purpose, so one can create seamless fades for the appearance and disappearance of a loop. While playing guitar- or, whatever- I often make loops without hearing them, and then fade them in with the aforementioned pedal for a big surprise, yer standard “where in hell’d that come from?!?”-type effect. And if said surprise should prove to be a loop spawned in hell, well, I can fade it out quick, or turn it all the way up: depending on the prevailing mood, natch.)

Okay, anyway: end of techno-goop seepage.

A Brief Overview of the New Breed of Looping Devices

There are a variety of looping instruments avast, these days, each offering it’s own version of audio-playback quality, recording time limits (which is generally expandable), idiosyncratic features & user- interface personality.

Of the devices that are truly designed for looping, the rack- mounting Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro is undeniably the deepest & most looping-specific of the lot; it seems that Oberheim (& it’s R&D wing, G-Wiz Labs) have a commitment to the establishment of looping as an instrument in it’s own right, & their commitment clearly shows in the Echoplex DP’s current feature-set. With the Echoplex DP, one can reverse audio (& continue overdubbing, ad infinitum), append a copy of a loop to itself (so that one might overdub longer patterns over shorter ones), edit a loop’s length, MIDI-sync to the outside world, undo one’s last action (including un-doing an overdub!), enter multiple contiguous loops & switch between them, etc, all on the fly. (The Echoplex DP respects the loopist’s efforts; there are provisions for MIDI Sample Dump/Load, should the looperson wanna save their work, for later re-call. While that’s not quite as hip as instantaneously saving/re-calling to/from a PCM card might be, it’s certainly a running start on all other looping contenders, outside of the new non-volatile-RAM based Roland MS-1 & Yamaha’s SU-10: these Roland & Yamaha “phrase samplers” retain their samples on power-down, though they’re not configured for overdubs & are clearly aimed at keyboard-sampling players). All functions on the Echoplex DP can be accessed remotely, via a thorough, optional foot-controller. Right now, I use an Echoplex DP with 50.3 seconds of sampling, primarily for rhythmic & reverse-effect loops. (In a fit of foresight, Oberheim has fitted the Echoplex DP’s recording- time capacity at *way* more than 50.3 seconds, which is purty goldang awright by me. If only they’d re-write that obtuse user manual!)

Lexicon’s JamMan is an extremely affordable rack-mounting looper, with multiple contiguous loop capability, MIDI-sync, single trigger & single trigger reverse, real-time loop insertion & editing, & some cool tap-tempo delay features that allow for lotsa user- selectable subdivisions of a beat. (Most of my rhythmic loops, till now, have been done on a JamMan, loaded to it’s red-line capacity with 32 seconds of record-time). There are a coupla pretty insubstantial- feeling footpedals that one can use with the JamMan that control most functions, though external MIDI-control is required for access to certain JamBoy features. (Weighing in under 4 lbs, the JamDude is a smoove l’il travel-thingie). As the JamGuy’s features are straightforward, I’ve found it super-easy to get into & to control; this box is a boon to looping novitiates. (And, the user’s manual works well.) However, as Lexicon has historically been known as the cutting edge leader in high-end digital signal-processing, I still wait for them to produce a more complete unit, one that acts like a well-conceived musical instrument, rather than a by-product of simpler delay-based effects. (I can dream, can’t I?)

My trusty standby & mainstay for less rhythmic looping is a Lexicon PCM42-MEO delay which, unfortunately, has been out-of- production for a few years. (They can be found, used.) Gary Hall modified my 42 to provide about 19.5 seconds of recording; currently, Bob Sellon @ S-Tech Electronics is the only source of 42 mods of whom I’m aware. Mr. Sellon can alter these pups to deliver increased memory, reversed looping & MIDI-sync, amongst other things. The PCM42 sounds warm & wonderful, maybe due to it’s already outmoded method of Pulse Code Modulation, it’s limited frequency response & special input/output filters. The 42 is also unique in that 1) there’s an onboard LFO to modulate loops, in square-or-sine-wave shapes, or via input level,

2) the pitch/length of the loop can be continuously controlled via a foot-pedal (a powerful feature for altering basic timbres of input instruments), 3) the ‘feedback’ & ‘wet/dry mix’ controls are accessible via foot-pedals, & 4) it’s got a buncha knobs on the front that can actually be twiddled by sweaty little guitar-oriented hands. So visceral, kiddies.

The Boomerang Phrase Sampler is a new contender in the looping ring. An economical unit in an oversized-stompbox package, the Boomerang offers 60-240 seconds of recording, half & double- speed/pitch playback, a coupla different reverse modes, single trigger, an auto-fadeout feature, a foot-roller (!) for control of the loop’s output volume & a handy “input thru” switch, which mutes the output of the original input signal without affecting the loop’s input & output. All in all, this is a neat’n’nifty, guitar-targeted looper; easy to get a handle (or, footle) on, & great for live applications w/ a mono or combo amp style rig.

While I don’t have a truckload of personal experience with *all* of the devices that loop & provide for endless overdub (without degeneration), here anyway is an utterly incomplete & non- authoritative listing of some other available loopers:

  • TC 2290
  • Electro Harmonix 16-second delay (used, only)
  • Eventide H3000/H4000
  • Lexicon PCM70 (atmospheric reverb loops, only)
  • Lexicon LXP15 II
  • Roland SDE3000 (used, only)
  • Various Yamaha delays
  • Various Boss delays, pedal & rack-mount
  • Various DigiTech delays, pedal & rack-mount,


Any delay line which implements both repeat/hold AND regeneration controls; just remember that more available delay- time=more recording time, which allows for greater variety & animation from one’s loops. Generally, I’ve found that 2+ seconds is a damn fine starting point.

a buncha perfunctory answers to some questions & misconceptions about looping & it’s attendant techniques:

1) Q: “so, uh, why should i try looping?”

A: as looping requires sonic input, and you already play one of the most expressive instruments ever developed, you’re more than halfway through the learning curve.

A: looping seems to engender a valuable, reflective quality in the players who employ it, either from a meditative or “musical self- study” perspective. like multi-track recording, you get to stop & listen to what you’ve performed & then respond, play &/or overdub to it. but: it’s instantaneous, and its nearly infinitely mutable.

A: lotsa guitarists feel the need to orchestrate, as well as to play guitar; looping might fulfill a bit o’ that need. (for example: ya know that little bell-like thing ya do on yer Strat-type guitar, where ya pick the G-string up above the nut while either lightly wiggling the bar or shifting the string’s pitch w/the bar? ya know how it always bugs ya that ya never get ta quite make enough of that potential psychopathic chorus of nasty-bells? well, fire it up, & loop it! rhythmically, non-rhythmically, dry, wet, dirty, clean, whatever: looping can open the stage-door to your phantom orchestra, wherein the tiniest detail of your playing can become a jumping-off point to some fresh sonic mayhem (or, order….. as you like it).

A: s’like adding another player, w/all their riffs, textures, atmospheres, etc., butcept they play exactly what you want them to play. an added bonus: you can lose that over-busy keyboardist with the canned sounds.

A: suddenly, you may find that you’re no longer ‘merely’ a guitarist, but a multi-instrumentalist as well. this could provide motivational feedback & inspiration whilst you plumb the depths of a world that so loudly lauds the most exceptionally mediocre of guitarists; it might also suggest a coupla new ways to earn your living in this increasingly dog-eat-dog music biz.

2) Q: “i’m not into effects, & i’m not into ‘ambient’ music.”

A: looping isn’t an effect: it’s your playing, only more of it and, if you hang with it, it’ll uncover previously hidden facets from the body of your music. remember: the original source of any loop is whatever your sound is, at the moment of input.

A: ambient, schmambient, not necessarily somnambulant: you can make some molto-ignorant loops that are the most ass-kicking, boot- bloodying, anti-matter-eating motherfuckers this side of the other side of the thing, even when the thing seems round. nyah: so there.

A: s’great for ambient music, though, & can be far more animated & humanistic than yer typical synth-pad!

(…..and for those of you already in the loop:)

3) Q: “how can i get rid of those occasional, annoying ‘clicks’ @ the loop-point?”

A: if your loop-length is pre-set, do not be caught holding a note when you close the loop.

A: if you like the loop and it’s already got a click in it, then overdub something- possibly even a doubling of the previously entered part- across the offending loop-point. this can often obviate the problem.

A: the improviser’s option: in a subsequent overdub, make something of the click; make it work for you.

4) Q: “how can i my stop my loops from sounding exactly like other guitarists’ loops, or from always sounding the same?”

A: stop playing like other guitarists.

A: try a number of things to keep your looping from getting stale, like:

a) loop the guitar/amp feedback thang.

b) keep some other devices at hand, for loop-entry: an E- Bow, a microcassette player w/pre-recorded material (which can be held over the guitar’s pickups), a cheap salt-shaker mic (to be switched into the guitar’s signal path, for feedback & vocals), a harmonica, an alarm clock (really useful, especially when the loop’s pitch/length is shifted) and yer voice (for singing into the pickups). these kindsa sounds can all be mixed & matched in a single loop, if you so desire.

c) alternate using clean, fuzz, wah, dark & bright sounds, etc.. feed reverb, harmonising or other manual &/or electronic effects into the loop, or post-process the loop w/same.

d) make an effort to expand yer harmonic palette, so you can go to a new place. (a new harmonic palette is a new emotional palette, spud.)

e) use the looper’s pitch/length/reverse controls to alter it’s character; then overdub more material. (can be done endlessly.)

f) use a different guitar tuning.

g) use the guitar’s volume control to fade individual notes (& whole phrases) in & out.

h) try playing w/o closing the loop.

i) mix ‘n’ match all of the above, and whatever…..

5) Q: “i really like certain loops i’ve created; some, like good solos, are unrepeatable. i’d like to save them, but how?”

A: in a non-performance situation, you could take the time to record these loops to DAT, cassette, multi-track, an HDR, a sampler w/storage, etc., for future re-use. if you start to build a catalog of loops, i strongly recommend that you document yer loops’ relevant information: key sig, tempo, special processing, chordal movement, tunings, etc; it’ll help ya, later, both educationally & if ya wanna access these loops for use in other material.

A: write to the manufacturers of these looping devices, and implore them to build a looper capable of fast storage & recall (and broader, more instrument-oriented visual & tactile real-time controls). (please?!?).

so: its bye-bye from the LooP PooL,