Looping has become more prevalent in live performance over the last few years as the technology has become more popular, affordable, and accessible. It’s been used in group settings, and has been very well received by solo performers. Loopers are being used by classical musicians, rock musicians, hip hop musicians, Celtic musicians, jazz musicians, and solo artists from every genre. KT Tunstell uses a looping to create layers of percussion and vocals on her hit Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.
In my case, it has allowed me to perform solo with my bass. It also allows me to rehearse at any hour I desire. So if the muse strikes at 3 AM, I can work a tune out and record quickly…with a set of headphones on, of course! Another benefit; after years of playing in bands with various folks, I can choose to forgo the drama, irresponsible behavior, bad attitudes, and mood quirks that other band mates can potentially bring with them. Practice time is no longer chatter time, drama time, marriage counseling time, “let’s jam with all of our friends because practice is on a Friday night” time, or “screw this and let’s get a beer” time. I can spend practice time focusing deeply on my tunes and my craft. For me, the ability to be selective about potential bandmates, while maintaining my independence to perform gigs made owning a looper well worth the buy in.
I purchased my first looper, a Digitech JamMan, about 4 years ago. After a year practicing with the JamMan, I purchased the Boss RC-50.
Along the way, I’ve gotten a range of reactions to using the looper in live performance. When I first discovered looping, my performing partner at the time wrote off the JamMan after a 3 minute audition, saying he “didn’t trust it for live performance.” Fortunately, I was intrigued enough with the unit to keep working with it on my own. Reactions to the RC-50 included a playful, “It’s a Christmas tree” (spoken by co-worker, upon watching the RC-50 power up). The best reaction I’ve ever gotten to the looper was a couple who slow danced while I was soloing over my chord changes. I really enjoy when people simply forget the unit is there, and they are enjoying the fact I am making music.
The looper is great for live performance, but it has become an indispensible practice and teaching tool as well. Here are some uses for it in the teaching and practice studio:
1) Portable recorder:
One of the best ways to improve your craft is to listen to recordings of your playing. Students are often into their heads (and the notes on the page) so they usually don’t really hear what they are actually playing. I will plug a student into the RC-50 when they begin their lesson. While they play a piece, I record them. They can listen to the recording as soon as they are finished playing. This really helps with hearing and improving a wide range of problems; rhythm, intonation (as in the case of a fretless instrument), tone issues, bowing issues, picking issues, articulation, expressiveness, and seeing if the range of dynamic expression is sufficient for the piece. If the playing is really bad, it can be deleted very easily (once it is evaluated) by pressing “Undo” (much to the student’s relief!) Conversely, if they have done a terrific job with their performance, it is very easy to save and download the performance to my computer via USB. Once hooked up to a computer, the Boss RC-50 behaves like an external hard drive, making file management VERY easy! The performance can be easily emailed to a proud parent within a few minutes.
2) Practicing soloing/improvising over difficult changes
So if a student is learning how to improvise, it is really easy for me to record a 4/12/16 bar progression and then loop it. The RC-50 has a “Guide”, which is essentially an on board drum machine. I usually turn on the drums while I record the progression. I can then demonstrate different soloing ideas while the track is looping. It’s like having my own backing band at lessons, without having to bring my laptop and a Band In a Box. If the student needs the backing track for their own practice, it is very easy to hook up the RC-50 to a computer and email it. I can also save the track to use at their next lesson.
I also love practicing soloing over changes to see what works. So for my own benefit, the changes to various songs I am working on are saved on my RC-50. If a student is running late, I simply scroll to the preset where the song is stored, hit play (there is no waiting…it loads instantly), and the changes are playing. I can usually squeeze in a few minutes working on a tune while I am waiting for the student to arrive.
3) Storage of Pre-Recorded Jam Along Tracks
I often make students work on their soloing with Let’s Jam CDs. I can play the contents of a CD into the RC-50, save any desired tracks as patches, and then carry the contents of the CD on the RC-50. And then if the track is too fast I still have the option to….
4) ….Slow down the recording
I can slow any pre-recorded track down for practice or transcription purposes using the tap tempo button.
5) Improving Rhythmic Accuracy
The RC-50, along with some other looper models, has a built in drum machine/metronome. Other units may simply have a metronome. I will use the metronome and the ability for the RC-50 to record to develop rhythmic accuracy. For example, I’ll work on a slap bass pattern while the metronome is going. I’ll then try altering the pattern (say, subdividing one beat of the of the pattern into triplets, 16ths, a syncopated pattern, etc.). I’ll record the results after I have practiced for five or ten minuntes with the new pattern. Then I listen back to see how accurate it is with the metronome. Then, without stopping the loop, I can swap the metronome out with a drum set pattern part and hear how this pattern would sound in a more realistic application. I also do this exercise with my students.
If you have a looper, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it has helped improve your personal practice, and/or how you have incorporated it in teaching lessons.