Many years ago I took part in an inspiring NORCA workshop with the very talented trombone player Dennis Rollins. Best known for his work with Courtney Pine and The Jazz Warriors, (A gig I was lucky enough to see as a teenager, at the UEA, Norwich), this was my first upfront introduction to The Loop Pedal. Dennis Rollins uses live looping of his trombone to create landscapes of musical layers, enabling him to play as a solo artist, or with others. His workshop was a vocal based one at Norwich Arts Centre. Encouraging us to layer up vocals working collaboratively, we created dramatic vocal scenes and had a very enjoyable day making music. I was hooked. Shortly after that workshop, we bought the Boss RC20XL loop pedal. I’m sad to say it sat in a cupboard for many years, mainly as I had no idea how to begin to use this, and small children took precedence. You may be familiar with artists that are using the loop pedal today such as our home grown Ed Sheeran, or way before that, KT Tunstall. Four years ago, I purchased a very nice Roland BA 330 All-in-one portable digital PA system suitable for use anywhere. This amazing speaker is used by buskers and has, I’m going to get geeky here, two XLR inputs combined with jack inputs, and another two channels for stereo inputs. Here is a picture just so you can see the thing of beauty-
This, combined with a second hand Sure SM58 microphone and the pictured Boss RC20XL loop pedal that I dusted the cobwebs off, was where my journey began.
So what is a loop pedal?
Well, a basic pedal like the one I’ve featured allows you to record a track, like a vocal line, or in my case I plug in an electric ukulele, record a track of about 45 seconds, press the pedal again, and it plays the track back. When it gets to the end it ‘loops’ the track by playing it again and continues to do so until you press stop. Then the fun begins, as you can then record vocals over the top, or play another different line of uke, or mic up a cello and play over the top, or the spoons, cazoo, didgeridoo, whatever you can get your hands on. To be honest, you don’t even need a speaker, you can plug headphones into the pedal and hear what you’re doing like that, but I do like a bit of volume in my living room.
So, as primarily a singer, (although I loop with ukulele and cello too), I began experimenting with making short loops, layering them up and exploring what I could come up with. At this time I had had the pleasure of seeing Girl In A Thunderbolt (Maria Uzor, better known more recently as one of the fantastic Norwich duo making it big, Sink Ya Teeth). She was playing at The Workshop locally, and she used the loop pedal with skill and mastery, not an easy thing to do. The reason being (depending on the pedal’s functionality) your timing has to be very sharp in order to press the pedal in just the right time so that your loop replays in the correct time, for example, every eight bars of four beats, rather than eight and a half bars of four. Skills. I spent many months making loops of about 40 seconds, I thought I might make an album entirely of loops. As much for my own pleasure as the thought of others listening to it. That is something I am still working on, but other opportunities took over.
I had a lot of fun with the RC20XL, as it runs off battery, and so does the Roland speaker, I took it to an eight day festival called Dance Camp East a couple of years in a row, and ran some spoken word workshops centred around the loop pedal and my bass guitar. It worked a treat, but I found there were limitations to the output of creativity with this pedal, you can only layer up on one track and can only remove the last track you recorded from the composite layers. Fine for gigging but less so as a devise to use for recording and using with DAWS (a Digital Audio Work Station used by musicians and producers to create audio tracks, for example Ableton or Cubase, or there are many free downloadable audio editing software packages available too.)
After doing a bit or research, I decided to upgrade. Although there are many other reputable brands other than Boss delivering loop pedals, I thought I’d go with the brand that I knew and their reviews were great, so, with the help with a loan from a good friend, I purchased the Boss RC300. Oh My. Now this is a lovely piece of kit.
As you can see, this has THREE pedals instead of one. That means, you can get one track playing, experiment on the other two tracks and keep or delete them. (The build quality is lovely, this is a foot pedal loop station so very popular with guitarists and the like.) You can also layer up as many loops on just one of the pedals as you like. Better still, you can plug this into a computer and download the .wav audio files straight into your music program, in this case Ableton 10 lite which came free with a midi keyboard purchase. With an XLR input for the microphone and jack lead input, I nearly filled the 100 tracks this machine can record, over a few months. Of course you can delete the recordings and re-record, but sometimes its nice to have instant access to earler work. Another very useful feature is that I could import a .wav audio file to use as a backing track to experiment vocally on one of the pedals, so for gigging out this would have been a great devise as a solo artist, if I hadn’t found anyone else to work with. Fortunately, my partner DJ Steve Scratch Wurly was at the time making some fine EDM tunes (Electronic Dance Music) and this with the help of the RC300, is where our journey together musically began. He’d write a tune, I’d put it on the loop 1 track and then experiment vocally on the other two pedals, export it to Ableton and recomposite the track, tweak the vocal effects and three years later we are soon to release our first album under our name WonKy. Now all I have to do is learn my own lyrics (I'm quite forgetful) and look forward to the time when we can all play out live again.
I’m a bit of a loop fanatic. Anyone that turns up at my door (before COVID), would be subjected to me persuading them to have a go on the loop station. Seriously, I could be a sales representative I’m so enthusiastic about this devise, obviously I’m not. Now the RC300 is great, but it only has three pedals and is better suited to guitarists than vocalists due to the foot pedal operation. To my surprise, last year I got given the best Christmas present a person like myself could have been given. My partner had saved up and presented me with the Boss RC505! Oh boy, let’s take a look at this one….
Not three but FIVE pedals and lots of effects for vocals and it is finger touch operated. This unit is primarily used by vocalists and beatboxers such as the likes of the very talented Beardyman-
Beatboxing, if you didnt already know, is when a person uses their mouth and voice to mimic drum machines and synthesisers, and came out of the hip hop scene in the 1980’s. I’ve been having a lot of fun with this model, but I have a lot of learning to do to use the effects. You can also link this to the RC300 and use this as the slave. Giving you, oh wait for it, eight oprtunities for separate loops. Hahahaha.
You may already know of UK artists using a loop pedal for their music like the musicians I mentioned earlier, but I’d like to introduce you to some other artists you may not have heard of.
Mark Rebillet has a prominent Facebook and YouTube profile and combines his huge talent with comedy and humour. Here he is, as usual, performing in one of his many dressing gowns from his home in New York City. An American-French electronic musician originally from Dallas, Texas, he is a superb improviser and always makes me smile-
An artist I admire from further afield you may not have come across is Juana Rosario Molina, named the "one-time Queen of Latin chill" by The Guardian’s Robin Denselow. He describes her as having “built up a global cult following as one of the most experimental musicians in Argentina”. This pioneer of folktronica, born in Argentina in 1961, uses the loop station to make layered loops of acoustic and electronic complexity and she has a lovely unique sound. Check out her live performance ‘Concierto en La Ballena Azul’ from 2015 here-
I don’t think I could write an article about Loop artists without mentioning tUnE-yArDs. Tune-Yards, an American Oakland, Californian music project of musician Merill Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner who use Loop pedals, ukulele (yay-good choice), vocals and lo-fi percussion. Used by Google Pixel for advertising and featuring in the sci-fi film Sorry To Bother You, they have gained a massive following since their album Nikki Nack was released in 2014. Their first album Bird-Brains was self-released on recycled cassette tape and recorded using a hand held voice recorder. You can’t get much more lo-fi than that. Check them out in their unique school classroom based video Bizness, it has a lovely African melodic feel to it-
There are so many talented artists using loop pedals/stations out there, including classical artists. I'd recommend researching how versatile these performances can be. One such artist is Gustavo Strauss featured below, who uses the violin and a loop pedal to create a tapestry of melodic vibrancy. I'm hoping our Sistema Musical Director and professional violinst Juan Gabriel Rojas might like to have a go sometime.
Our very own brass and singing tutor Mark Read used the loop pedal RC300 last year in our Sistema In Norwich Christmas concert with a group of our Sistema young people, yes, it sounded amazing.
For me, the loop pedal has revolutionised my creative output. As a solo artist or in collaboration, it is something I would encourage every want-to-be musician, or experienced musician to try out. You can, as a beginner, create really simple tracks but the ability to layer up creates sophistication and complexity you could only achieve if you were an accomplished musician. The basic Boss RC20XL pedal second hand will set you back about £80-£100 if you’re savvy, and you can just use headphones and a mic and lead to get started. I’d recommend the Sure SM58 microphone which can be purchased second hand for about £70. That could be the best combination you ever saved up to buy. Ive taken the RC20XL with my electric ukulele and a microphone into schools and worked with year one up to year six children to create music, sometimes just a lot of laughing and noise looped over and over again, but youre never too young or old to get joy from looping.
Don’t get me started on microphones……