Looping
Glenn Poorman, September 2001


Terry Riley
Looping is a name given to music created with repetition of audio samples. The music can be generated any number of ways ranging from recurring playback of pre-recorded snippets of tape to live feed into a delay or echo device to live performance of repetitive patterns without the aid of any technology. The actual origins of looping are pretty hazy. Especially considering that music dating back to the dawn of man was based on rhythmic repetition and this type of repetitive music was engrained into so many cultures. Beginning in the middle ages, that kind of music took a back seat in the west to more complex pieces of music which focused more on the laws of harmony. It wasn't until the 20th century that some revolutionary composers began to experiment with new forms of music such as ambient music, 12-tone music, and minimalist music.


Brian Eno
As the experimentation in music grew during the 20th century, so did the marriage of music and technology. Today, it's largely believed that the first musician to employ tape echo technology in order to perform looped music was Terry Riley. In the early 60s, Riley setup up a delay/feedback system using two Revox reel to reel tape recorders that he called the Time Lag Accumulator. Basically, the way the system worked was that the two tape recorders were setup at some distance from each other with a single loop of tape running between them. When an audio signal was played into the first recorder, it was recorded onto the tape. When that part of the tape reached the second recorder, the signal would be amplified and (at the same time) fed back into the first recorder to be taped again. While this was going on, new audio signals could be fed into the first recorder so as to build up very complex works from just one performer. In 1963, Riley employed this system in public for the first time on a piece of music called Music for the Gift which was written as accompaniment for a play. In the early 70s, Brian Eno discovered Riley's Time Lag Accumulator and began experimenting with the system eventually showing it to Robert Fripp in 1972. Both musicians used the system on a handful of recordings and Fripp began touring delivering live performances using the system that he began referring to as Frippertronics. Fripp continues to perform his style of looped music today although the Revox machines have been replaced by digital technology and his style has been renamed Soundscapes.


Matthias Grob
For years, the double reel to reel system was the only reasonable way to perform looped music. The expense and complexity of the system, however, kept it out of the hands of many who would have otherwise been draw to it. Many players were experimenting with some simple looping using the echo boxes available at the time but not even the most expensive of boxes could generate a long enough delay to adequately do the job. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, digital technology was becoming cheaper and new digital delay devices were putting the idea of looping into the hands of the hobbyist with low cost 4 second digital delays eventually becoming 10 or 20 second digital delays. While these units made looping more of a reality for the average musician, looping was not what they were built for specifically so they had many shortcomings. In the early 90s, Matthias Grob set out to build a dedicated looping device. Being a musician with a desire to play looped music and a musician that had tried all of the available boxes, Grob had a keen insight into how to build it and what it should and should not have. His original box was called the Loop Delay and was built in 1991. When the technology was sold to Gibson, the resulting unit was called the Echoplex Digital Pro which is still available from Gibson today and is generally the unit that all others are measured against. As you would expect, the Echoplex is no longer the only game in town and many manufacturers are making products that they advertise as looping devices or phrase samplers. This, of course, means that the number of musicians performing looped music has really taken off over the course of the last ten years.


Robert Fripp
So what is it that makes this kind of music making so appealing? The easiest answer is that it's the only way for one musician to generate that much music. Robert Fripp described looping as "a way for one person to make an awful lot of noise". There's so much more to it than that though. Looped music has this uncanny ability to take on a life it's own and go off in directions that are not even known to the performer before it happens. Combinations of ideas initiated by the performer become new ideas as they merge. Plus there's that sense of uncontrollability that can make performing looped music a very exciting prospect.

Looped music can be heard in so many different forms today. Aside from the heavy and/or ambient works of Eno/Fripp, there are many other performers who borrow heavily from those earlier works. Others may keep the actual looping much simpler employing more common parts over top of the loop (drums, basslines, solos, etc). Much of the electronic music heard today, while not specifically billed as looped music, is essentially nothing more than variation over a repeating pattern. And with the cost and available of the technology becoming more within reach everyday, it looks as though the popularity of this form of music has nowhere to go but up.

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