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Part Four: Arranging for Loopstation

Welcome to Part Four of my multi-part series on live a cappella looping. In the “Overview” I covered the basic principles behind using a loopstation in live performance. Parts Two and Three covered choosing a loopstation and choosing a song, respectively. Now, onto arranging.

I use the word “arranging” deliberately because, if you want to use the loopstation to full effect, it’s best to imagine that you’re writing an arrangement. The added interest and excitement in live looping is that the “arrangement” is built right on the spot, in front of the audience.

(This would be a great place for a cheap plug. Many of you know that Deke Sharon and I are writing what we hope will become the go-to book for a cappella arranging. It’s called -- appropriately enough -- “A Cappella Arranging”, published by Hal Leonard, and you can pre-order it here.


Since any talk of arranging for loopstation can potentially get wrapped up in specific technical details, I’m going  to talk in musical and conceptual terms. If you’ve gotten to know your loopstation by now, you’ll know how to put these ideas into effect.

Most loopstations (hardware and software) can allow for multiple loops at a time, and/or in separate sequence (ie a verse and a chorus). Each loop can be seen as a “container” in which you can layer specific parts usually of a similar type, and each container allows you to overdub as many parts as you want. Put another way: having 3 loops doesn’t mean you can record three vocal parts: it means you have 3 places to record a nearly-infinite number of vocal parts! In arranging terms, you might have a bass loop, a loop for similar instrumental-style vocals (say, guitars), a loop for “vocal” parts (say, for a chorus), and so on.

I could explain this verbally for pages, but nothing beats a “live” demonstration. So, I’m going to take you through one of my FreePlay Duo looping songs (with monster-singer Suba Sankaran). So, go to http://www.freeplayduo.com , and click on the first video you see on the front page (embedded below). The song is Michael Jackson’s sexy R+B-flavoured B-side, “Butterflies”. Read along while you watch and listen.

Unlike most of my loopstation arrangements, this one started life as a real-live choral arrangement by former Wibi/Cadence member Aaron Jensen. The challenge was to adapt the 8-part arrangement into something two people could do with the loopstation.

Like many R+B songs, this one is based almost entirely on a 4-bar chord pattern. The verse and chorus use the same chord pattern, but with different vocal textures. It has a bridge, but I’ll explain how we dealt with that as we go. So, overall, it’s a good looping choice according to the parameters I mentioned in the previous blog.

In deciding how to allocate the “containers”, for the loops, I did it like this:
1.    Drums
2.    Bass/baritone (long tones)
3.    Keyboard (rhythm parts)
4.    BG vocals (“fly-honeys”), for the choruses only.

Regardless of what order the parts are brought in, I always use a similar order (drums/bass/rhythm/extra stuff) for allocating the loops. If you do many songs in one set, it’s good to keep a consistent organization scheme! Some people might always do them the order in which they’re sung. I don’t, since I’m often manipulating or adding to the loops throughout the song, and I’d forget which one is where.

I have a few aesthetic principles I try to live by when doing loopstation songs:

1.    Keep the momentum going.  It can be really easy to get wrapped up in adding more and more layers, but if you spend a few minutes doing this in each song before the song gets off the ground, it can stall the energy. A good solution is to creatively add things in the middle of the song as well, rather than all at the beginning… if you can do so without “stopping” the movement of the song partway through.

2.    It’s about the music, not the technology. This is just my own thing, as I’m a performer first and a technologist second. For some people, the technology takes centre-stage, and it’s really cool. These guys record some stuff, then spend more time acting as a DJ, mixing and manipulating the sounds in real-time. For me, this means making sure my arrangement choices are about making the best musical result, rather than just an exploration of what the machine can do. I usually find that, in imagining what I want the music to do, I end up using a lot of the benefits of technology anyway. But more me, the technology is there to serve, not to lead.

3.    Remember, you’re still on stage. Perform! A big drawback of using technology onstage is that it can disconnect you from your audience: if you spend more time with your head in your laptop, or staring at your footpedals, you lose that beautiful connection between you and your audience, and this is one of the great strengths of a cappella music to begin with. Much of my practicing is about trying to keep my interaction with the technology as transparent as possible, subtly pressing buttons and such while keeping a focus on the actual performance.

So, let’s get started.

00:00 Since I know the tempo of the piece well, I decided to set it up so that it starts “cold” without hearing the click count in. I press the button to start, and sing along with the click instantly. Instead of starting with drums, I decided to start more like the original, which starts with the keyboard part (loop#3). The part is 8 bars long.

00:20 Without a break in between, I add drums (loop #1). Since it’s a simple beat, the drum loop is only 4 bars long. A helpful hint: it’s easy to use loops that are multiples of each other like this (4 bars, 8 bars, even 2) since they’ll always stay lined up with each other. Also, a 4 bar loop means I get a 4-bar rest before adding in the bass part. A bonus, since it can be mentally (and technically) hard to switch “instruments” in the space of an eighth-note or less. And, from a practical perspective, it gives me a moment to make sure everything’s working  properly, and if not, I can probably fix it before it’s too late!

00:41 add bass (loop #2). For this loop, I have it set up so that only my mic records. This allows Suba to sing the introductory riff while I’m still layering. It’s not essential, but it allows the piece to keep moving.

(a quick aside to those using a hardware looper, such as a Boss RC-50. Some of these techniques are not possible with hardware looping. A song like this can still be done: I’d put the bass and drums on the same loop, and simply take a cycle to record the bass line without Suba singing the intro riff on top).

01:02 add baritone, on the same loop (#2), while Suba sings verse 1.

I’m done looping for now. I sing verse 2.

01:43 record loop #4: chorus vocals. In this song, the chorus is in 4-part harmony. So, we do the melody part, and one harmony.

02:04 mute loop #4. Sing Verses 3 and 4. At 02:24, I add a drum “break” as per the original, simply by muting the drum track (loop #1) for 3 beats. A nice little touch that breaks up the repetitive nature of the loop.

02:46 record chorus vocals (loop #4). We add the 3rd and 4th harmonies, which builds momentum since it’s now thicker and lusher than the first time around. It’s a double-chorus, so we just style over the next chorus.

03:28 Uh-oh… the bridge. The chord changes are completely different here. I couldn’t get rid of the bridge –it’s an important part of the song – and I couldn’t find a way of creating new loops for it without stalling the piece. Plus, the bridge only happens once, so recording loops for a single 8-bar section wouldn’t really be worth it. So, I went with the simple solution: mute all the loops except the drums, and make it a 2-part live harmony bridge! I was surprised how well it worked.

03:48 back to the chorus. As per the recording, I included a simple vocal-breakdown by muting the drums, bringing in the chorus vocals, and using a live-drumfill to bring the drums back in. More styling over the loops in these choruses.

04:51 how to end? Aaron’s arrangement had a vocal-breakdown end, so we did the same: mute all the loops but the vocal chorus (loop #4). Suba sings an added soprano part on top, and I add a bass part, and we have a nice juicy, jazzy live ending.

I hope you liked this piece. As you can imagine, it took a little while to put together. In my next and final installment, I’ll offer some tips on how to practice your singing-and-button-pushing to make for a smooth live performance.

Happy looping!


part 1 - http://www.casa.org/content/live-looping-blog-series-overview
part 2 - http://www.casa.org/content/live-looping-blog-series-choosing-your-loops...
part 3 - http://www.casa.org/content/live-looping-blog-series-song-selection
part 4 - http://www.casa.org/content/live-looping-blog-series-arranging-loopstation
part 5 - http://www.casa.org/liveloopingfinal

About the writer:
In a word…multifaceted. Juno-nominated, multiple-CARA-winning Dylan Bell is a performer, composer/arranger, music director and producer/engineer. As an a cappella singer, arranger and producer, Dylan has worked with many of the world's renowned vocal groups including Cadence, the Swingle Singers and the Nylons, as well as his own groups Retrocity and the FreePlay Duo. He’s played stages across the world from his native Toronto, Canada to Stockholm, Sweden, to Calcutta, India, and his compositions and vocal arrangements are performed everywhere from Arnprior to Zurich. Dylan also has a secret life as a freelance multi-instrumentalist, touring internationally as a pianist, bassist, and guitarist. Visit Dylan at www.dylanbell.ca.