Thoughts on looping

This is an article generalising my thoughts on looping.

Nick Robinson

Going Loopy

For nearly twenty year, I’ve been a “looping guitarist”. The technique utilises electronic delays and echoes to capture your sound and repeat it, whilst adding new material and fading away the old. Judging by the current popularity of looping, it may be that like my clothes, I may be alive long enough to actually become almost fashionable.

However, the KT Tunstalls of this world generally treat loopers as live sampling devices, building up huge vocal chords or setting a rhythmic counterpoint to their singing. I tend to work in a more amorphous manner, generally avoiding rhythm like the plague and going for seamless swathes of sound. One reason for this may be that I lack the pedal dexterity required to hit a “loop” footswitch at exactly the right time – if you get it wrong then a) it sounds shit and b) any drummer required to play along has a brainstorm after a few bars.  However, I like to think it’s a more creative choice, to sever any connection between the tyranny of verse/chorus/middle 8 that I’ve spent so many years perfecting.

I began my ambient career with a single delay unit, the ubiquitous Powertran DLL. This is still in use, now highly customised, held together with gaffer tape, cranky and picks up taxi broadcast, but I love it to death. It’s warm, organic, slightly unpredictable and above all else, inspiring.  Over the years I’ve acquired other devices such as a rack-mounted Lexicon Jamman (28 seconds of mono loop/delay) and most recently, a Red Sound Cycloops. Each device has it’s own unique feature set and none of them do exactly what I want, but trust me, there’s so much sonic potential you can play for hours without errrr repeating yourself. In addition, I’ve gathered together any amount of weird little pedals and units to further warp the sound.

So how does a typical set start? I usually start quiet, get louder, then go quiet again (inspired during my youth by Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses). Yet no matter how I try, I’m completely unable to reproduce the same set. A minute or two in and things are already going in their own direction. I like to think I’m subconsciously in charge of it all, but the truth is, it just happens. My playing of both the guitar and the equipment (the small mixing desk is an instrument in its own right) reacts to what I’m hearing, how I feel and quietly frantic mental gymnastics as I try to analyse where the sound is coming from and how it can be taken somewhere appropriate.

It’s true to say that few of my sets are cheerful – the sound invariably becomes denser, darker and more challenging, but I’m always connected to it and to some extent in control. It’s as if you have Dr. Morbius’ “monster from the ID” trapped within the equipment and you alternately loosen its bonds, then restrain it. Set lengths are inevitably determined by the circumstances of the gig, but at home, I can improvise for hours. Audience responses vary, but I’ve long since ceased to care whether anyone “gets it” – if they do, that’s great, if not, it’s all tears in the rain…

Looped improvisation, from a mental perspective, is a balancing act. You’re listening to what’s happening, try to contribute meaningfully to it, but you’re also running a mental stop-watch, making decisions about when to add new material, when to let old material fade, whether to go loud, quiet, whether to stop altogether (silence is an important part of music!) and whether the entire thang has got out of control and it’s time to end the piece! This mental process happens in the background and isn’t a cold calculation, but manifest itself in the flow (or otherwise) of your performance. Personally, loops have a mantra about them and the more you listen, the more interesting they become as you search for meaning within them and begin to hear subtle overtones. I sometimes think it’s like a form of sensory deprivation – they say that if you lie in a darkened room on a soft bed and listen to white noise, your brain will eventually start hearing ghosts in the hiss, voices, sounds etc. Loops are like this for me, especially when they contain poly-rhythmic delays of “conventional” guitar. Depending which delay your ear latches onto, the emphasis changes and you can pick out different melodies.

Clearly, this is a dangerous process in terms of “success” – improvised 30 minutes pieces rarely reach majestic heights every time (unless your name is Keith Jarrett) but this is also the drug that fuels my performances. As a more conventional guitarist in a rock covers band called Muttley, I try to play “out of the box” as much as the genre (and audience) permits, but there’s always the feeling that I’m simply recycling rock clichés and the ghosts of Hendrix, Blackmore, Beck et al are always hovering close by. Enormous fun though this is, a part of me yearns to be truly original and to say something new. This is where looping comes in. Whilst a few other loopers share my philosophy, none (that I know of) actually sound like me. This doesn’t necessarily imply that what I’m doing therefore automatically has a value, but at least it’s my voice and not that of all the soloists I slavishly copied as a teenager. Luckily, I get to “do” both weird and normal, so I must be well-adjusted?

This is perhaps the first time I have tried to analyse my approach to improvisation and looping. I daresay it’s been a bit rambling, but I hope it might inform your experience if you ever get to see me play. I’ve had numerous and diverse compliments over the years, ranging from “I hear there’s a randy whale coming up West Street in search of its lover”, to “I didn’t realise that was you playing, I thought it was a backing tape”. Perhaps the most moving was at a church in Sheffield (dig that reverb!!) where an old dear came up afterwards and said “I’m 87 and I’ve never heard a guitar played like that, it was absolutely breath-taking”. It made my day. Luckily enough, it was captured on film – see www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6Qvbwd0ew4 or search for “nick robinson looping”. Further examples are on my site www.looping.me.uk

Thanks to Tim for requesting this article, published in the Sheffield “Grail” publication


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