This is the first in a multi-part series on live looping in a cappella music. Consider it a preface on what’s to come…
“So… how do you like that loopstation you bought a while back?”
“Well, you know… I played with it a couple of times, but never really gigged with it. It’s in my closet. Wanna buy it?”
I hear this all the time. What’s the problem here? Simple.
People think of a loopstation as an effect, something to pull out and use on occasion. It’s not. It’s an instrument, and requires the same amount of practice as learning a new instrument. If you treat it as an effect, you’ll have fun for the first few hours, but won’t get far enough to actually put it to use in a performance setting or integrate it into your group. Here’s a 3-step process to get “over the hump” and get going. The key to all this: give yourself time. Learning can’t be rushed!
Step One: Open it up and get started. Minimum time: one evening.
This is where you get started with it. If you’re a manual-reader, start reading. If you’re a jump-in-and-try type, keep the manual handy for when you get stuck. Like installing new computer software, plan for the setup stage to take a couple of hours. You don’t want to have to pack up and leave just as you’re getting started, so give yourself a whole night to set up, troubleshoot, and get jamming. Once you actually get started, you’ll be up till the wee hours having fun with it. Take notes as you go: this will help you when it comes to…
Step Two: Figure out how you want to use it and make your first “song”. Time: minimum 3-4 hours (I’ll offer some more detailed help in subsequent installments).
This involves a little planning, some manual reading, and a lot of experimentation.
By the time you got through Step One, you will have spun out a bunch of ideas on how you could use this thing in practice. Now you have to translate your ideas into workable plans and button-pushing: in other words, you have to make your ideas fit how the machine works. If you spent a bunch of time jamming before, you probably came up with some jams, or fully-fledged, performable songs. Now figure out the practical, performable parts. How does it start? How does it end? How do I remember what buttons to push and where?
The first step is what I consider to be “arranging”, in the usual vocal-chart sense: what parts, where, and how to layer them. Think of this like a real-time vocal arrangement, and you’ll get a good sense of how to make it flow. One suggestion here: rather than work a little bit on five different ideas, start with one simple one, and see it through from start to finish.
Step Three: practice, practice, practice
You’ve probably seen some killer looping stuff on Youtube. What you don’t see is the hours, hours and more hours that they spent perfecting that particular piece, screwing it up, and starting over. Practicing a vocal part is one thing, but practicing the mechanics of the loopstation is more like instrument practicing: it has to be done repeatedly, until it’s just right.
But there’s one added element. With an instrument, if your finger slips and you hit a bad note, you grimace (or pretend it didn’t happen) and move on. But with looping, you have a couple of things to think about. First, your performance has to be pretty much flawless, your tuning and timing near-perfect, or you hear that error over... and over... and over. Or, you have to redo it, which slows down the performance and ruins the vibe a bit. Then, you have to make sure your button-pushing chops are just as flawless, or you get an uneven loop, or forget to turn the loop off and record your “unlayered” improv by mistake. I’ve done this onstage a few times!
I actually make charts for myself, just like music, and I’ve seen other loopers do the same. It’s usually some sort of shorthand that reminds you what buttons to push when, along with what parts you’re singing.
People think that if you’re a “professional”-level performer that you don’t make mistakes. Not true! The sign of a true professional is not an absolute absence of mistakes, but rather the ability to maneuver around the mistake so gracefully that noone catches it. This is easier said that done with a looping station where that damned mistake just keeps repeating. But if you practiced enough, you probably made that same mistake at some point. And hopefully, instead of cursing and starting over, you somehow figured out what was wrong, and managed to fix it, without dropping the ball. In other words you need to practice making mistakes, and fixing them. Sounds crazy, but it works.
Well, that’s enough of an overview to get you started. Tune in next time when I cover these steps in more detail. 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.