Part Five: Perfecting Your Loopstation Performance
In my last installment, I took you through a blow-by-blow demonstration of a live looping song. It takes an long time to get there, so for this final installment in the series, let’s figure out how to do it. Many of the practices here follow good practice techniques for just about anything, with a few special techniques for looping added in.
First off, a repeat of what I said in my first installment. A loopstation is a musical instrument, not just a simple box with buttons. It needs to be learned like an instrument, with the same repetitive long-term practice you’d use when practicing guitar, or vocal percussion. Don’t expect to master a piece overnight: be prepared to put some work into it. Imprinting technique is not like cramming for an exam: you need to give it, days, even weeks or more, to really stick.
Standardize your technique/methods, especially if you plan to do more than one piece in a show. For example, I always put my drums on Loop 1, bass on Loop 2, rhythm things like guitar or keyboard-like parts on Loop 3, or as consistent as I can get from song-to-song. If you have to mute or record a drum track (whether as part of the arrangement, or in an emergency if something goes wrong), you’ll want to do it easily without fumbling around with buttons, remembering what is what.
Coming up with vastly-complex arrangements can be fun in the comfort of your own room… but remember, you have to be able to replicate it onstage, without correcting yourself, and while putting out energy to the audience! Err on the side of keeping the arrangement simpler than you think you can execute. For me, I don’t usually have more than 3-4 loops going, and some songs only use one. Complicated doesn’t equal better.
Consider working up a form of “notation”, something that tells you what to sing while pushing what buttons. Here’s a little sample of mine:
Patch 21: sankofa. Vol PEDAL DOWN!
P1 2 3
Breath breath breath
Sing form, unison. S sings harmony on “high in the heavens you soar”.
“again and again” 2 3 PLAY/OVERDUB
Sing soprano and bass
“again and again” 2 3 PLAY
… and so on. This probably doesn’t make much sense to you, but you can see how it helps organize things. Not only is it helpful for performance, it’s particularly useful if you have a long time between gigs. I can remember vocal parts for 20 years… but I’ll forget the button-pushing stuff after a month or so.
I tend to see practicing a loopstation piece in three stages: learning/perfecting, performance simulation, and (most important in loopstation stuff) troubleshooting.
This is pretty similar to how you’d learn a piece of music, except of course there are two layers: learning the notes to sing, and learning the “instrument”: which buttons to press, when, and why. It’s more work that you think. First of all, unlike your average a cappella chart, you’re probably singing multiple parts in multiple voice registers: lots of mental gear-shifting going on. Second, your performance is going to be caught on loop… over, and over. You’ll want to sing it well, and accurately, one the first try. Third, you have the extra layer of button-pushing.
At first, focus on the vocal parts. Record them one at a time, and let them loop plenty of times. Don’t try to do the piece in “real-time”: if you need 20 cycles of the loop before you’re ready to move on instead of 4, no problem. It’s like the old idea of practicing slowly, then gradually speeding up. Focus especially on the transitions between parts, ie singing a bass and a guitar part. Get used to switching “instruments” quickly. Mentally “imprint” where to press your buttons. Since we all know how to imprint music well, I attach the button-press to a word or note, ie “record loop #2 on the word/syllable ‘PANcakes’”. Attach it mentally to the music, and it’ll stick.
So, you’ve practiced a lot, you remember your parts, and can sing them accurately. You remember your button pushing. What’s next?
Simulate Live Performance
There are a whole lot of things when practicing at home that we forget will be different when we’re onstage. First and foremost: you can’t stop if you make a mistake. Now’s the time to do full run-throughs, live with your mistakes, make note of them, and repeat the process.
And don’t forget, you’re probably sitting down comfortably, listening on headphones, with your loopstation comfortably in front of you. It’s not going to be like that onstage, so get used to doing it differently. Stand up. Put your loopstation wherever you’ll keep it onstage. Start listening out loud on a PA or some speakers, rather than headphones, so you can get used to the different balance of sound, and how loud or soft your click track will be.
Here’s a big one. Turn the lights off, or low. Stage-lighting can make loopstation lights and buttons hard to read: you’ll need to get used to this, or even know what lighting you’ll need to see properly. One of the design flaws of the RC-50, for example, is that the green “play” light and the yellowish “overdub” light are somewhat similar in colour, and under certain coloured lights, actually look the same! One of my MIDI controllers is nearly impossible to read in bright-sunlight outdoor gigs, a lesson I learned the hard way.
While you’re at it, turn the TV on. Why? There’s always a little element of distraction when you’re onstage, either from the audience, or just from your own nerves. You’ll need to learn how to work through that and stay focused, as looping stuff requires a higher degree of concentration than just performing.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably also had a number of great run-throughs, a few near-misses, and a couple of train wrecks. Time to deal with the trainwrecks.
The mark of a professional is not the ability to avoid mistakes, but the ability to work around them gracefully. This is much easier in live performance, where a mistake likely happens, then disappears. In looping, a simple wrong button-push can drag your whole song down. But, if you’re lucky (and a quick troubleshooter), you can dig your way out of a hole.
First, get into the habit of confirming every loop you put down. Check for the record/overdub light as you record, and the play light when you’re done. Sometimes it takes a while for an error to make itself known. But if you see that the light never changed, you’ll already know if it worked or not. Breathe a sigh of relief if the loop worked, and you heard it. Be prepared to adjust if not. If you need to, allow a little breathing time between loop-records, just to confirm, relax, and move on. I’ve expanded a few arrangements when I found that moving from section-to-section too quickly was also too stressful and prone to error.
Loop errors can be broken down into a few simple categories:
1. Performance errors: maybe you sang the wrong part, or the timing was bad. No big deal. Hit “undo” (if you custom program your own MIDI controller, have an undo button easily available!) and redo it. If it happened near the beginning, don’t be afraid to stop and restart. It’s not the end of the world, and people actually like to see a little humanity in a performance sometimes. Plus, the little errors can underscore how difficult it is to do, and perversely make the rest of your (mostly-flawless) performance seem all the more impressive!
2. Something didn’t record. Watch for the recording light. Chances are you just didn’t press a button, or hit a foot pedal hard enough. Just wait for the next loop to come around. It’s like waiting for a bus.
3. Something recorded that shouldn’t have. You may have not turned off the recording… or maybe you recorded on the wrong loop. Get friendly with that undo button. Or, you may have just left a loop running where you were supposed to stop/mute it. An even easier fix.
If you’ve practiced enough there’s a good chance you’ve made almost every error conceivable. That sounds awful, but it’s a good thing! It means that, if a problem happens mid-performance, you may very well recognize it right away, fix it, and move on.
More importantly… chill. The slower you can make your mind go, the more you can focus on what’s going on and fix it. Remember, no-one gets hurt if a loop goes sour. And the more mistakes you make, the easier they’ll be to fix. Now get out there and get 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.