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In the Loop


You can stretch them and shift them, slice them and dice them, hack them and stack them, and certainly use them and abuse them, but a loop is still a loop is still a loop. And so on.

Loop usage — albeit with analog tape — dates back to the late ’50s, when acts such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros, and later Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and The Beatles experimented with tape loops and cuts [See sidebar, p. 37]. Before the birth of digital samplers, engineers treated analog tape like a sort of pro audio bondage tool — wrapping it around mic stands, pencils, paint rollers (in Toto’s case, reportedly) and people, stringing it along various points of a control room while, with razor blade in hand, savvy engineers spliced the end of a piece of tape to its beginning, hopefully creating something more compelling in its manipulated state.

Clif Magness works mostly in Pro Tools, with help from Roland synths and a Digitech S200.

Though some engineers find editing via analog tape “more effective for sculpting and molding sounds,” to quote Meat Beat Manifesto’s Jack Dangers [“Beat by Beat,” November 2001 Mix], the need for speed and the dawn of the computer age paved the way for digital samplers, which ushered in what some consider a loop-based revolution.

Fast-forward to the new millennium, and you’ll find a lot of recordists trading in their old drum machines and outboard samplers for more streamlined packages, with their software equivalents living on a Mac or PC’s jacked-up hard drive. Just as the tools have become more integrated and advanced, the volume of software libraries has grown to mind-boggling numbers. There are virtually bazillions of pre-recorded loops, instrument samples and effects sounds that can be downloaded online or purchased on CD or CD-ROM these days, and most of them sound pretty darn good. However, to keep their music on the cutting edge, and to stay one step ahead of the Joneses, so to speak, many engineers go beyond a mere fancy cut-and-paste when using loops in their work. Whether used to add spice to a track, build a rhythm bed or provide inspiration, loops can serve as ground zero for a virtually limitless array of creative possibilities.

The most obvious way to ensure originality is to create your own loop library, building a catalog culled from live tracks and samples grabbed from obscure films and vinyl (with clearance); the hum of planes, trains and automobiles; or just about any other random noise that strikes your fancy.

According to producer/engineer/songwriter Michael Bradford (Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker, New Radicals) — who spoke with Mix in “Not Just for Dance Music Anymore” in the February 2004 issue — “What makes a song that is heavily loop-based sound human is to have real fills and percussion played over the loop — something to break up the loop’s repetitiveness.”

Producer/multi-instrumentalist Chink Santana would rather play a riff himself than sift through loop

“The loops can provide what the drummers can’t,” adds engineer, mixer and sound designer Rich Tozzoli, whose credits include 5.1 mixes for Al DiMeola, the Marsalis Family, Flamenco composer/guitarist Romero and Blue Öyster Cult; and music composition and mixing for the CMT Flameworthy Awards, the Spike Channel and Nickelodeon, among others. “I think the best of both worlds is to integrate them seamlessly.”

Tozzoli owns an Apple G5 dual processor with 200 gigs of disk space, filled with his entire loop library, not to mention Pro Tools|HD, Apple Logic, Ableton Live, Reason and, yes, GarageBand. When he’s on the road, he carries a similar setup with an MBox and an Apple G4 laptop. “I cut up various instruments and grooves and store them, broken down by bpm, style and type.”

With percussion, for example, Tozzoli will record an instrument specifically for loop purposes; other times, he’ll take an existing live track, chop it up and make a loop out of it. Romero’s forthcoming album, Pulse, was heavily influenced by live loops, he says. “Romero’s a world artist and plays with a lot of world percussionists,” says Tozzoli. “When we were tracking, I cut up shakers, cymbals, cajons and various grooves and stored that [into the library]. We combined live loops with live percussion parts and integrated them with Reason and Stylus. It’s that combination of both that gives you the best production value and the most excitement.”

Rich Tozzoli uses both live instruments and loop libraries in his music and commercial productions.

Chink Santana is a multi-instrumentalist and producer who has sped through the ranks from founder Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. (now The Inc Records, home to Ashanti, Ja Rule, Charli Baltimore and Cadillac Tah, among others) to Gotti’s protégé to producer for A&M/Interscope artists Keyshia Cole and Ms. Dynamite, among others. “I’m very experimental when it comes to just going into the studio and doing whatever the hell comes to my mind,” he says from his New York base. “On Ashanti’s first album, on a song called ‘Over,’ I actually started that song with the drums. I sent a click track from the [Akai MPC-2000XL] to my headphones and just played the drums to the click track. Once I had a good four bars that I liked, we copied and made a pattern out of it in Pro Tools and then I went back and added everything else to the drums.”

Santana does most of his sequencing on the MPC-2000. “I put everything besides my live instrumentation [on the MPC]. If it’s a sample of a kick, a snare, a loop, I’ll sequence it and then I’ll put it in Pro Tools. Once I have that part of the song in Pro Tools, I’ll add everything else — live guitar, violin, strings, bass…anything that I add live I like to add after I have the sequence in Pro Tools.”

Like Santana, Clif Magness also plays on many of his productions, including recent tracks for Avril Lavigne, O-Town, The Calling and Kelly Clarkson, but he uses a mix of session drummers and loop libraries to create the rhythmic element. “And anytime I record a drummer for a project, if I need to, I’ll use those tracks again in another song, which I’ve done several times,” he adds, stressing that he treats this recycle process as another session gig for the drummer. “I put Josh Freese [A Perfect Circle, Puddle of Mud, Guns ‘N Roses] on an O-Town song without him coming into the studio,” he says. “I took his performance from one of Avril’s songs, sampled it and made loops out of it. The whole drum performance is Josh sampled, and I paid him a session [rate] without him really being there because it wasn’t an ‘approved’ loop. For instance, I use a lot of BT loops, which are extraordinary. His library is amazing. And when you buy a library, it’s understood that it’s to be used without licensing or anything, but when somebody comes in and plays drums on a session and you use their stuff again, they need to be paid union scale.”

Of course, loops can be created from other instruments, as well. “I took a lot of Aaron [Kamin, The Calling]’s guitar parts, soloed them and put them through the [Line 6] Echo Farm plug-in, and made echo loops out of them,” says Magness. “It sounds like another instrument because of the regeneration of the echo on a harmonic. You can make an eighth note, a dotted eighth or you can do both so you get a polyrhythm and it’s all a guitar loop. You can do that with piano, too.”

Mix Master Mike prefers drum machines to loop libraries.

With a little ingenuity and smart sleuthing, engineers can find source material for original-sounding loops lurking in all sorts of unusual corners. Those dusty old funk and soul albums hiding in the closet may contain a wealth of sample-worthy sounds (provided you obtain clearance), while our natural and man-made environments — from the chug of a railroad train or a helicopter, to the homeless guy on the street — can yield endless possibilities.

One of the kings of vinyl manipulation, Beastie Boys’ resident DJ Mix Master Mike, found samples from old B movies, a UFO documentary, AM radio IDs and even old jingle records to create his self-described “hip hop instrumental” solo album, Bangzilla. Though he fills the album with manipulated samples, beats and a symphony of skillful turntablism, he uses very few loops. “I try not to use loops. I try not to play that out. When you’re making loops, you don’t get that live feel for music,” he says.

One of the few loops he does use provides a segue between the songs “Skanner 13” and “Burn Center.” “It’s a two-bar drum loop into a two-bar flute loop,” says Mike, who works primarily in Pro Tools on an Apple G4 laptop, surrounded by an Ensoniq ASR-10 drum machine, rows of vintage keyboards and stacks of vinyl. “This specific [flute loop] I got from an old-school Italian cop film. I pulled like a two-second snippet and repeated it a couple times. It’s always cool to grab little vintage pieces of music that you know for sure people will bug out on.”

Santana found inspiration from Isaac Hayes for Ashanti’s “Rain on Me.” “I took four bars of the [Hayes] record [“The Look of Love”] and then I took the bridge and we used that for Ashanti’s B section,” he says. “But I added [my own] drums to it — subs, fade-away, rim shots, cymbals — and guitar. He had some horns in the record, and I chopped the horn stabs and placed them in the bridge so we could EQ it differently from the rest of the sample because we wanted them brighter than the way he had it. We also changed the level to actually turn the volume up. So whenever you hear anything that I loop or a sample that I use, most of the time it would be an interpolation; I would go and replay every part over so I could have it the way that I want it.”

Tozzoli, on the other hand, assembled a collection of sound design elements into a loop library. “I’d record subways, radios or downtown Manhattan or something and I’d loop elements of train wheels or something like that,” he says. “On one piece, I used the wiper blades from a Conrail train — there’s a certain rhythm to them. You can put that into a sampler, pitch it, loop it and you have an absolutely unique sound. Then you can add certain live instruments over it and it would just be this beautiful rhythm bed that couldn’t be found otherwise.”

So how do you build something original from a loop that someone else created and many more have already used? “It helps to change the tempo or pitch, which will create a new feeling,” says Tozzoli. “Apple Loops — one of my new creative wells — are especially good for that. They are designed to flawlessly transpose and change tempo, so they can keep your recordings fresh.

“I’ve also been really into FXpansion’s BFD drums and Spectrasonics’ Stylus RMX,” he continues. “Each has its own ability to creatively ‘improvise’ by offering slight feel changes — certainly where loop production should be headed in the near future. That becomes invaluable when doing longer loop-oriented pieces, such as four-minute songs versus a 30-second commercial. Also, both are expandable, which is important, as it provides many more possibilities than a closed-ended system.”

Both Tozzoli and Magness like to layer various loops together in a mix. “Loops love to be in the company of other loops,” says Magness. “It’s like a drum circle of guys on the beach — you just keep layering. And the energy increases without speeding up [the track].”

“I like to layer loops of the same bpm and use EQs to filter each one,” adds Tozzoli. “For example, I’ll filter the bottom of one loop to remove the kick pattern, but keep the snare, hi-hats and cymbals. Then I will do the opposite on the second loop, filter the top to focus on the bottom end. Then I will layer a real percussion/cymbal pattern over that to keep things creative.”

Others, however, stay away from libraries altogether; instead, maybe finding a sample or two, and flipping, chopping and otherwise manipulating them to nearly unrecognizable (i.e., lawsuit-escaping) proportions. “They’re so accessible,” says Santana. “When you hear a guitar loop that’s on a sound library, you might like that shit but at the end of the day, everybody has access to it and you don’t want the same riff that’s in everybody else’s record.

“There’s a sample in [Puff Daddy’s] ‘It’s All About the Benjamins’ that has been heard by everybody, but the way that Puff took it and flipped it and sped it up was genius,” he continues. “You’ve got to be able to hear [a sample] and say, ‘Okay, that’s going to be hot.’ And then everybody else from me to Dr. Dre would say, ‘Why the hell didn’t I think of that?’ It’s taking a sample and making something brand new out of it. That’s why I wouldn’t go and do the sound library thing because it’s almost like having a keyboard with the demos in it and taking the demo and trying to make a record out of it.”

Santana adds that library loops can spark an idea that kick-starts the songwriting process, which is probably one of the most popular ways to use loops. Producers, songwriters and even the artists themselves can create a rough demo out of loops (using Apple’s GarageBand, for example), sketch out ideas on the road or build a rough track and replace the loops with “real” instruments later. In this regard, loops play a valuable role in the embryonic phase of a song.

“If you’re stuck or just beginning to write a song and you have no ideas, and maybe you have the artist in the room with you, which is even more nerve-wracking, you can always put a loop up and if the artist goes, ‘Yeah, like that,’ you already have it looped and that loop already has a shape,” explains Magness. “It’s got a certain groove to it and a certain attitude. It makes it so much easier to come up with a guitar riff to go with it or piano or even a melody.

“Some artists will start singing with a loop without any chords at all,” he adds, “because it just has the beat, you know? It’s like American Bandstand when they would play the two records in the contest and they’d rate them. They’d always pick the one that had a good beat.”

Magness used loops to rework the demo for Clarkson’s single “Low” from her debut album Thankful. “I had to decide how to approach the song, and the first thing I did was find a loop that fit the character of the song and had the right rhythm,” he says. “I found those first loops, and then I played the whole song with just acoustic guitar to those loops. In the chorus, I added some sampled drums to simulate a real drummer. I’d replace that with a real drummer later, but I would punch it up to just the samples to play along with the loop and add other loops to that.”

Tozzoli mapped out much of Pulse during one of Romero’s touring jaunts this past year. “The record was composed to loops,” he says. “We’d compose in hotel rooms — wherever we felt like it — and I’d always have my laptop, speakers and an MBox and we could come up with ideas and lay out songs very simply, as the verse-chorus-intro, and finish them up at home.”

With the rise of prosumer loop sequencers such as GarageBand, anyone with an Apple G4 and a musical muse can write a song entirely built on loops. But even though GarageBand is compatible with Apple Logic Pro 7, it takes a bit more than a mouse to beat loops into submission and create a track that’s exciting and potentially groundbreaking in the spirit of those analog tape-twisting trailblazers of 50 years ago.

“A loop is simply a tool. Just like a hammer or a drill. It’s the method and its result is the final art,” Magness notes. “A loop takes on its artist’s characteristics. It becomes something other than its original self.”

Heather Johnson is a loopy assistant editor at Mix.

As co-founder of R&B/funk group Chic, multi-Grammy-winning producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers and partner Bernard Edwards gave Warner Bros. its biggest selling single of all time with “Le Freak.” Lurking on the flipside of that 45 rpm Number One was “Chic Cheer,” one of many Chic songs to incorporate ¼-inch analog tape loops. The song has since been relooped for Faith Evans’ single, “Love Like This.” Rodgers says that “Chic Cheer,” recorded in 1977 at The Power Station in New York City, incorporates “probably one of the coolest, most subtle ways we used loops.

“The Rolling Stones were in the studio next door making [Love You Live],” he continues. “We were looking for the right crowd, and instead of using a sound effects record, we wanted to get something that was uniquely ours. We went into the studio after they left and recorded their audience cheering [with the engineer’s permission] and made a really, really long tape loop. So even though the Stones were using it, you couldn’t tell it was the same crowd because we made it so long. It was going around the studio quite a ways; we had to string a bunch of mic stands together.”

Rodgers explains that mic stands or some other stationary object placed around the room help keep the tension on the tape even so that it has the same amount of tension as it would on the reel. If it’s a long loop, that tape can stray pretty far. “We had one going outdoors because the loop was so long,” he adds. “Everything was going great. We’re making the record and we’re grooving and I’m jamming along with it and then all of a sudden, the loop starts to wow. It started raining, but we were inside and didn’t know the tape was getting wet. Talk about your session coming to a screeching halt. Except that it wasn’t quite screeching, it was more like a slurring halt.”

Rodgers is currently finishing a new Chic album featuring the single “Let’s Bounce,” which debuted in the film Rush Hour 2.
Heather Johnson

John Lennon on creating “Revolution #9” from The Beatles’
White Album: “It has the basic rhythm of the original ‘Revolution’ going on with some 20 loops we put on, things from the archives of EMI. We were cutting up classical music and making different-size loops and then I got an engineer tape on which some test engineer was saying, ‘Number nine, number nine, number nine.’ All those different bits of sound and noises are all compiled. There were about 10 machines with people holding pencils on the loops — some only inches long and some a yard long. I fed them all in and mixed them live.” (Excerpt from Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, by Barry Miles, p. 484. N.Y. Owl Books, 1997.)

To hear clips of some of the tracks mentioned “In the Loop,” click here.

Veteran guitarist David Torn is known for his adventurous, improvisational, left-field music, and his equally adventurous guitar-looping rig. Read Electronic Musician assistant editor Matt Gallagher’s interview with Torn here.

Mix L.A. editor Maureen Droney talks with Jack Dangers, Rhys Fulber and Dave “Rave” Ogilvie about loop-based production, click here for the “beat by beat” feature.

Name that loop: “I used to love making these little 15 and 30-second tape loops on these cassettes you could get at Radio Shack…I probably thought I was being like Brian Eno or something. When I used to go down to Mexico a lot, I’d sometimes go to this bar in San Felipe where you could bet on the dog races in Mexico City. You’d sit there drinking, and then you’d find out later if you’d won. So I recorded [the radio call] of the dog races and some of that made it on there. We flew it in.” “We took a piece off the radio and made it into this huge 1/4-inch tape loop that had to be about 18 feet long. I remember there were four of us with pencils and this great loop going around and around, hoping to God it would go around for one more minute!”

Read “Classic Tracks” in the March 2005 issue of Mix to find out the answer!