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Percussion Looping

By Rob Cummings


On this page:   Background | Problems | Approaches

Next page:   Audio Examples



PRESCRIPT:
If you belong to those who think that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, then you'll probably want to skip to the audio examples!

Background

This page deals with some of the possibilities for using percussion in a looping environment. Although it seems that guitarists have generally lead the fray in exploring the possiblities available with this technology, looping machines are actually ideally suited to percussionists. This techo-shyness on our part probably has to do with the fact that we drummatists are not usually confronted with electronics - after all, acoustic drums and percussion sound fine on their own, don't they? However, electronics can be a lot of fun and they offer many opportunities for applying rhythmic ideas. I know that this has opened up many new doors for me and my way of playing.

Some of the possibilities include:

  • Becoming a one-man multi-layered percussion band
  • Creating several multi-part loop tracks based on rhythms/sounds and then stepping back to do a live mix of the loops
  • Mixing a rhythmic (e.g. drums) groove with melodic percussion (e.g. marimba)
  • Practicing ideas and recording them to your looper for self-evaluation (i.e. "dammit, I'm dragging on the 'e' of '2' again")
  • Looping ostinatos (e.g. clave's, agogo's) that you're too lazy to program or that sound cooler when played live

Problems (or why you still need to woodshed)

Well, as with all instruments there are a few things to practice. Some of the "problems" that I have encountered are:

  1. Recording loops from acoustic percussion without having monitor feedback destroy the sound
  2. Recording multiple rhythmic loops (i.e. different loop tracks) at exactly the same length (down to the millisecond)
  3. Not having sound transients brutally clipped at the loop boundary
  4. Synchronizing to drum machine, sequencer MIDI clocks etc. (generally not a problem)
  5. Synchronizing in odd time signatures
  6. Balancing loop sound level with live level and creating loops without "level jumps"
  7. Dealing with the looping aspects of performance (i.e. what to do on stage when you're tweakin' parameters)


Approaches

I have come up with a few "workarounds" for the above listed. These are based on my own experience so these may or may not apply to you:

  1. How do I record multilayer loops without the feedback and "overlooping" destroying the sound? A tough egg to crack. Being drummers/ percussionists etc., we are used to having a good 'n' loud monitor sound so that we can play accordingly. I usually use headphones to monitor my sound. But I still have problems with bleed-over from other musicians monitors. Because of this, I have added a gate/compressor to my processing chain (post-looper) to try to gate out unnecessary sound between rhythm stuff. This can be difficult and requires sufficient sound-check time. I have also started looping a lot more electronic percussion to simply by-pass the entire problem. Maybe, I'll start looping triggered samples in the future for ultimate headache-free looping. And for those of you who've read this far, I'd love to hear from you if you've approached this problem!
     
  2. How do I get all of my loops to be the same length? What I mean by this, is how do I record multiple loops to EXACTLY the same millisecond accuracy? This is actually not a problem with an Echoplex, but the Jamman requires that each loop has the same length. As I understand, the Oberheim Echoplex provides more elegant ways to deal with this basic looping problem. For Jamman users like me, I've come up with three possibilities (hey I'm a drummer, I like counting):
    • To have perfect time. Or not have. By perfect, I mean +/-1 ms. I think it's safe to say that few of us are really consistently this accurate, especially while stumbling for the start/ stop foot button. If your time IS this good, I envy you ...
    • To use a digital delay. You can use this to "meter out" eighths, quarters or whatever. Disadvantage: You have to want that "delay" sound.
    • You have a drum machine or sequencer. You can use this as a MIDI master clock. This is probably the most useable method because you can program beats that are actually integral parts of your songs (they're loops, too!). And if you don't want to include them in the music that the audience hears, you can route them only to your monitors. Disadvantage: You have to play to the merciless "clock" of your drum machine/beast.


  3. How do I avoid having sound cut off at the loop boundary? The first method would be to restrain from playing any "ringing" sounds on the last eigth or so of a loop, while being sure to really nail the "1" if you're going to play it. The second method is a coarse patch-up technique: hit a crash or something loud and broadband-ish at the boundary. The third method is a more elegant patch-up: use the "Replace" function to play something completely new at the boundary. I personally find this works quite well. In fact, the "Replace" function is generally very cool. Use this also to slice your loops.
     
  4. How do I synchronize to a drum machine, MIDI sequencer? This is not too hard. Jamman users: Check the Jamman manual where this is quite well explained. If you do not want your Jamboy to get confused by program change messages, then you should be sure to use the start-up procedure described in the manual. If you have any problems receiving a MIDI signal (tap tempo LED should rapidly flash), check first that you've correctly connected the cables and then (prime suspect) the cable(s) themselves. Most of the "mysterious" problems can be traced back to faulty cables.
     
  5. How do I synchronize in odd time signatures? If you're a Jamman user, you're quite limited on this front. Of course, as long as you're not synchronizing, you can play in 43/8 or whatever signature you want. This also depends on the drum machine you're using, so experimentation is the only way of knowing what's possible with your setup. This whole problem is dealt with much more elegantly in the sophisticated Cadillac looper, the Echoplex. So all of you fans of looping 11/8 Balkan grooves, proceed immediately to your next Obie dealer.
     
  6. How do I balance my loop sound level with my live level OR: how do I create loops without "level jumps"? Well, this comes down to having sufficient sound check time and knowing what levels to expect. I use a little 6-channel mixer and I find that this helps me adjust levels "on the fly".
     
  7. How do I deal with the looping aspects of performance (i.e. what to do on stage when you're tweakin' parameters)? Jump up and down while tweakin'. Pretend you're actually doing something and not just pushing in the next sequence (joke). Take a smoke/beer break. Talk to members of the opposite sex. Look all academic and serious ("this music is heavy, dude"). Go backstage and put on your next stage outfit. Any more ideas?


 


On this page:   Background | Problems | Approaches

Next page:   Audio Examples



Last Update: June 9, 1998


If you have any questions, comments, or spelling corrections, please drop me a line at r_t_cummings@cis.com.

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