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Using Loopers As A Practice Tool


By Michael Manring


One of the cool devices digital technology has us afforded us in this computerized age is the instant looper. These boxes were originally modeled after tape systems where literal loops of tape were threaded through a tape recorder so a sound could be recorded and played back repeatedly. In the tape systems, the length of the repeated sound was a function of the speed of the recorder and the length of the tape loop, so if you wanted your loop to be a certain number of measures, it was necessary to calculate the exact length of tape you needed and splice it together. For extended repeat times, tape loops could be yards long, sometimes wrapping around an entire stage or studio! Today's tape-less random access memory devices offer much more flexibility and control, better fidelity, tap tempos, unprecedented loop lengths, unlimited overdubbing, and even undo functions. All this, of course, is available in a nice, neat package without the awkward splicing. The appearance of the original digital loopers and their ability to allow one musician to create huge walls of sound live, on-the-spot, produced an enthusiastic cult following of loop-based musicians. The wonderful music these folks create has firmly established looping's potential for live performance, but I think it's the effectiveness of loopers as a practice tool that makes them especially valuable.

As soon as I got my first digital looper, the flagship Lexicon JamMan when it hit the market in 1994, I became interested in the idea of developing some practice exercises with it. As I worked with the JamMan, I kept finding more benefits to loop-based practicing so much so that I've come to prefer having a looper plugged in and ready to go permanently in my practice space. Over the years, I've developed a number of different strategies for practicing with loopers, and I'd like to share some of those with you in this column.

I can't stress enough how important it is to listen to recordings of yourself playing. As the saying goes, "the tape doesn't lie," and I know of no more effective impetus to make you want to play better than to have to listen to the performances you're putting out into the audiosphere! Recording yourself is so useful, in fact, that we all should probably have a recorder on for every practice session and spend plenty of time listening back. I don't know about you, but I always found it a pain in the butt to try to do this with cassettes, DATs, or even digital audio workstations. By contrast, loopers are always ready to go at the touch of a button. They play back instantly without the need for rewinding. There is no waiting for the system to crunch numbers or fumbling through menus. Plus, it's very easy to erase what you've played if it's lousy (if you're like me, you'll be using this feature a lot!). These qualities make loopers ideal for recording bits of what you're working on to make sure you're on the right track. One of my loopers even has a metronome built in so I can see how close my performance is to the click which is a very useful session skill, but the real fun begins when you start using the overdub functions.

Loopers are great for helping you develop your skills as an accompanist. I can't think of a much more effective skill for a bassist than to know what it feels like to play along with your lines! So one of the things I do often is to lay down a bass line and then alternate playing melodies and solos over it. This is a great way to work on jazz repertoire, but it works for just about any genre of music. I find I gain a deeper understanding of the music I'm playing when I've spent time working alternatively in groove, melody, and solo modes. If you like, you can also try doing a pass of chord comping in there, too. As bassists we don't often have much need to do chordal accompaniments, but I think a thorough understanding of harmony makes you a better all-around musician, and it is nice to get a feeling for what our piano and guitar-playing colleagues are thinking about when they're accompanying a solo or melody. Besides, you never know when those comping skills may come in handy! If you're really feeling adventurous and would like to get a feeling for what our other rhythm section brothers are dealing with, you can add some percussive parts to your loops as well. I find that a muted E string pluck makes a pretty good faux kick drum, and a slap over the pickups functions pretty well as an ersatz snare. No matter what kind of parts you decide to try, make sure to record the results and spend some time just listening to what you've done. I'm not sure what kind of strange psychological phenomenon is in effect, but I'm always amazed at how different everything sounds when you're playing as opposed to sitting back and listening. Some loopers give you the option of saving your loops so you can listen a few days later, too. Perspective is a good thing.

Another way I like to use loopers is to really hone in on rhythmic accuracy skills. Our ears are fantastically well-tuned to perceive differences in timing. I once read about a scientific experiment that demonstrated our ears are actually more accurate than our eyes at sensing brief time intervals. This extraordinary auditory acuity is often put to use in music, and in my opinion, one of the most important rhythmic concepts is that, in most cases, what we perceive as an effective groove is created through rhythmic accuracy. Although there is a powerful connection between accuracy and groove, it's often a challenge to develop rhythmic accuracy on bass because the instrument has a relatively soft attack sound compared to say, a snare drum. This soft attack can make it hard to tell how close to any particular beat you are. When a groove doesn't feel quite right but you don't know why, this is often the culprit. Playing along with a metronome is great, but since the sound of the bass and the click are dissimilar, you can be pretty far off the beat without realizing it. Using a looper that has the ability to make short loops allows you to use different sounds as a click and really focus on this skill.

Here's the deal. First, turn the treble knob on your bass all the way up so the attack of the instrument is as clear and percussive as possible. Then, completely cover your strings with your fretting hand so that you can produce a short, pitch-less pizzicato thump. Get your looper ready, press record, immediately play one of those percussive thumps, and then hit the loop button. You should now have a single attack-only bass note looping in machine-perfect time. It doesn't particularly matter how long the loop is for the moment, but the longer the loop, the harder the exercise! Just listen to that loop for a moment so you get a feel for what very accurate, regular quarter notes or half notes sound like, and then try to play along. Remember that the more similar the timbre of two notes is, the easier it will be to determine their rhythmic simultaneity so keep your fretting hand covering the strings, and try to play in the same way you did in creating the loop. As you play, listen for "flamming" between the recorded note and the one you're playing. If you get it just right, you'll only hear one note. In fact, in rare instances, you may hear nothing at all. If you manage to play a note that's rhythmically and timbrally identical to the looped note but 180 degrees out of phase, the sound of the two notes will completely cancel each other out and there will be silence. It sounds weird, but it happens to me every once in a while! If you have the option, you might even chose to set your looping system up so that the live sound is electronically out of phase with the looped sound. This will make those perfect silences more common and really let you know when you're right on. If you have the capability, record yourself as you do this exercise and listen back to see if there are any patterns to where you're playing ahead or behind the beat. You'll probably find that you become more accurate after a minute or two of trying to lock in so vary the tempo frequently. After you get used to playing directly along with the one-note loop, trying playing twice as fast, three times as fast, and so on to work on your ability to subdivide. You can also use a long loop to play various rhythmic figures and see how close you can come to hitting the downbeat. This is especially challenging when doing complex subdivisions using a combination of triplets, sixteenth notes, and long rests.

One of the interesting variations I like to do on this exercise is to set up the single percussive note loop as before and think of it as the first note of the complete four-sixteenth note set within the quarter note space (the "one" of the "one-ee-and-ah" pattern). Then, turn the looper's overdub function on and attempt to play each of the other notes in the pattern one at a time. You might start with the "and" first and then fill in the "ee" and the "ah," but try it in different sequences. The goal is to end up with four, regular, evenly spaced notes with no "swinging." After you get pretty good at doing this for one beat, try going to two or even four. It's a bit tough, but this exercise will really teach you how to place each of those sixteenth notes where they belong.

If you play fretless, loopers are your best friend for working on intonation. As with rhythm, it's easier to hear intonation inaccuracies between two similar sounds. If you're doing overdubs with the same instrument, you need to be right on! I like to set up infinite drones of octaves and fifths on the looper and improvise over them, but don't stop there. Another exercise I enjoy is to play scales into the looper with my fretted bass and try to play along in unison and various intervals with the fretless. You'll want to do this slowly at first, but make sure to work with faster tempos, too. I've noticed that a lot of fretless players play pretty well in tune at slow tempos but get a bit more ragged when the tempo goes up. You don't have to limit yourself to just scales, of course. You can do this kind of exercise with any line or melody. I recommend that you work this way with anything you're going to be playing on fretless in an important context, just to make sure your intonation is right on.

Every once in a while, a tool comes along that makes me wonder how we ever got by without it (remember when we didn't have telephone answering machines?!), and I'd have to put loopers in that category. It's so handy to have an instant, inexpensive, hi-fi way to record, and I don't think I'll be getting rid of my loopers any time soon. Looping is still a new technique so I hope you'll experiment and see what kind of ideas you can come up with on your own. Something tells me there are exciting new frontiers out there waiting to be discovered.

Happy looping!

© 2006 Michael Manring/The IIB