Loopers and the Mother of All Loops

Posted: 9/27/2014 9:36:17 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

From time to time I may write little quixotic posts in musical areas that interest me that also relate to the theremin, or theremin playing, in some way. I think TW could use a bit more musical-based discussion for variety’s sake.

As many of you likely know, a “looper” is the common name for an overdubbing recorder used by many guitarists, singers and thereminists as well. The term is normally associated with a guitar pedal function that lets you easily in real-time start and end a “loop” (musical phrase) and then allows you to punch-in/out similar timed phrases  in most cases an  unlimited number  of times. That “loop” might start with a bass line and then you can layer in an accompaniment and then maybe improvise to that if you like, possibly adding more lines harmonizing with yourself as you go. It makes a great practice tool as well as performance device. Or you can just use it to create background effects, looping in more and more phrases or motifs. And using the looper with a long delay/reverb can create some interesting sounds.  You can easily compose some looped experimental piece on the fly, maybe chaining loops together (if your looper supports this function – though most times you just quickly clear and start looping again). 

It is a very useful tool for the thereminist and a very fun box to play with. Some only store 30 seconds to a minute of sound, but others allow for minutes and even hours of loop time with the possibility of using a memory card for even more storage. Some allow you to reverse the loop for a nice effect or slow down or speed up the loop. Others allow you to store and recall multiple loops. An indispensable feature your looper must have is the Undo function. This allows you to throw away an overdub you don’t like (some loopers give you twice the loop time if you turn off Undo as it takes buffering memory).  Of course these functions can be found in most all DAWs as well, but the nice thing about the looper pedal is that you don’t need your hands and you can control it easily in real-time (perfect for a thereminist!). 

Looper functions also can be found in numerous music processing boxes that are primarily meant for other purposes, like for example the loop function in the Voice Live2/3 vocal processor boxes  and looping functions in numerous general purpose guitar effects processors like the Line6 POD, or Boss Multi-Effects Pedals, etc.

Here’s a small sampling of loopers out there with approximate costs. The selection is a bit dizzying. Many of these include other functions such as delays, limiters, gates, etc. If you are interested, go to www.sweetwater.com and see more as they have a lot of instructional videos for some of them (I have nothing to do with Sweetwater, I just find them a great place to order from, have a large and interesting inventory, have good educational resources and they have excellent support if you choose to buy from them). 

DigiTech JamMan Express XT Phrase Sampler/Looper - $100

Electro-harmonix 45000 Foot Controller - $120

Electro-harmonix Nano Looper 360 Pedal Looper - $135

DigiTech JamMan Solo XT - $150

Vox Lil' Looper - $160

TC Electronic Ditto Looper X2 - $180

TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay and Looper Pedal - $250

Boss RC-30 Phrase Looper Pedal - $300

Pigtronix Infinity Looper - $450

Boomerang III Phrase Sampler - $480

Boss RC-300 Loop Station  - $550

OK, now that we’ve talked about today’s loopers, let’s talk about the original loopers. The general concept of looping a sound has been around a long time – before computers or even for that matter the discovery of electricity. Back when candle light was all that was available to see your manuscript at night, composers were hard at work writing loops galore – but they called them “canons”. Musically, the canon is nothing more than a sophisticated loop. Other terms exist for this that carry a bit more specific meaning – primarily the round or rota. A canon is a composition that starts a melody and then that melody soon re-enters in a time delayed fashion (basically overdubbing in time if you will). Possibly 3 or 4 (or more) voices can enter successively in this fashion. Think “Row, Row Your Boat" and "Frère Jacques" as the simplest of cases. But these are trivial musical examples compared to those composed by the master canon writers.

Of course, the more voices that enter, the more difficult it is to write a canon and the more you change keys or tonal centers, the more difficult it is to have all those voices align properly. Today’s loops may not be as concerned with following traditional harmonic practice, but in the “old days” this made writing canons something of a unique art form requiring a very special skill. There are even canons that go in reverse (they had that reverse looping function way back as well!) There are canons that work forwards and backwards at the same time (the crab canon works like this – kind of a musical palindrome). Back then, writing canons was for some a kind of mental exercise to show off their skill (and I’m sure a few got a date or two out of it). Various other canonic permutations can be found. Bach has them going forwards, backwards, inverted, all at the same time. 

These pieces can have a repeating bass line/harmonic pattern that help solidify the canonic writing. These bass lines are often referred to as a “ground bass” or ostinato (though ostinato can mean any repeated pattern). In the Baroque period many pieces were built on these repeated harmonic patterns (today's kids would simply call them loops) and the terms chaconne and passacaglia are two very common composition types of that time (and since) that are built up by basically creating variations on these harmonic loops. J.S. Bach again wrote some of the finest examples but other great "loopers" of the time are Henry Purcell and G.F. Handel. Purcell's "Dido's Lament" from Dido and Aeneas is an exceptional chaconne that would be a great theremin piece. I'm working on that now. So anyone with a looper can lay down one of these old ground basses and easily create their own set of variations. 

Many composers through the centuries have written canons. J.S. Bach, as alluded to above, was the all-time king of canons for sheer artistry as well as complexity (see the “Art of the Fugue” – the pinnacle of the form), but other composers were well known for writing them. Christoph Graupner (1683-1750), who few have heard of, was a well-known master of this art form. One of the earliest and also best-known rounds is “Sumer is a cumin in” (ca. 1260). That means looping has been around for over 600 years!

Which brings us to Pachelbel. Sooner or later any talk of canon surely gets around to him. This relatively unknown composer just happened to write a canon that has arguably become the most popular ever written (in today’s parlance we would call him a “One Hit Wonder”, but he was a well-known composer in his day and wrote many pieces of all sorts - he actually was a good friend of J.S. Bach’s father and taught J.S. Bach’s older brother). “Pachelbel’s Canon”, which virtually everyone has heard at some point in their lives (some of us many more times than we wanted to) is a true three-voice canon over a ground bass (so he combined a canon with a chaconne). You may not realize it with all the orchestral variations we’re exposed to, but in its original version, it’s easy to hear as a canon. Watch this video and you will notice the first violin start, then the second violin comes in playing what the first violin just played, then the third violin comes in playing what the second violin just played and things continue that way until the end of the piece.

Pachelbel's Canon (Original Version)

It is actually a pretty simple (brilliantly simple in fact) composition because of the ground bass repeating that nice simple harmony throughout. It’s not that difficult to come up with canonic note combinations that match its simple triadic harmonic structure. No complex key shifting in this case. In some ways, this piece is quite experimental for the time. Simple is not bad! 

So next time you hear Pachelbel’s canon, remember, it’s nothing more than a big 300+ year old loop – and in my view, the most popular loop in history!

But this is Theremin World and some readers are starting to circle the wagons getting nervous that I am straying off topic - so let’s get down to business.

Recently a friend had us over to a party and decided that background music was required so he looped Pachelbel’s Canon endlessly throughout the day and night on his stereo system (which also played outdoors so there was no escape). Well looping Pachelbel’s Canon for eight hours was both the "mother of all loops" on one hand and pure torture on the other. I can’t remember being in so much pain – well aside from the dentist of course. So I thought I’d have some fun with this altogether too oft played piece and create “Ein musikalischer Spaß” (accepted term for a musical joke). Next time I go over there and he decides to subject me to a full day of canonic torture, I’ll have this to pull out and put on his .mp3 player to get my revenge.

So l set up the DAW as a looper, fired up my trusty Theremini and layed down that iconic bass line with a cello-like patch (I’ve found it’s actually excellent for this purpose) and then added a looped keyboard accompaniment and finally some looped Etherwave Plus phrases, then threw in a couple improvised Etherwave lines on top of that and presto, I was looping my socks off. Here is the fruit of my looping labors:

The Day Pachelbel Got Attacked by Marauding Cats

Happy Looping!


Posted: 9/28/2014 4:09:01 PM

From: Brooklyn,NY

Joined: 12/1/2009

You forgot to mention the Boomerang III-   my favorite and the rightful 'king of loopers'

Posted: 9/28/2014 4:15:09 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Chobbs wrote: "You forgot to mention the Boomerang III-   my favorite and the rightful 'king of loopers'"

Added it to the list - thanks.

Posted: 9/28/2014 9:55:21 PM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as WaveCrafter.com . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

I really like your marauding cats, Rich! I think this has potential! (not quite there yet, but IMO you are improving! ;-)

And thanks for the music / history lesson - its always (IMO) good to have things demystified, and good to be reminded that "there is nothing new under the sun" - probably nothing "new" in this universe!



(I know its different - but dont loops go back far further, if we include purely rythmical loops? ... Also, I hypothesize that we got our music from evolving in a daily background of music from the birds - every dawn and dusk - and there certainly are loops in that symphony! ;-)

Posted: 9/28/2014 10:00:15 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 7/29/2014

Thanks Fred.

I could have made it a bit more in tune - but it would have taken away from the silliness of it a bit.

And maybe you are right - we're all just a bunch of loopers from the beginning of time.


Posted: 9/29/2014 3:54:01 PM

From: Eastleigh, Hampshire, U.K. ................................... Fred Mundell. ................................... Electronics Engineer. (Primarily Analogue) .. CV Synths 1974-1980 .. Theremin developer 2007 to present .. soon to be Developing / Trading as WaveCrafter.com . ...................................

Joined: 12/7/2007

"I could have made it a bit more in tune - but it would have taken away from the silliness of it a bit." - Rich

I actually prefer "silliness" to "deadness"

And deadness / boredom / fatigue is what I get from over auto-corrected theremin.

I think perhaps if one auto-corrects to a severe extent and loses all traces of the theremin, it can perhaps sound ok - but not as a theremin, as some other instrument.

And really slight correction can sound almost ok IMO.

But its that mid ground where one has a "theremin" - but its dead.. that's the mode I really detest.



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