In Defense of Looping

Most of my recorded music is created by looping. Just in case you don’t know, “looping” is the practice of recording a portion of a song and reusing it multiple times to build the composition. My wife, upon discovering this sleight-of-guitar, declared “You’re cheating!” and left me to pave the road to my own damnation without her.

My recording booth is in my studio…my studio is in my office…my office is in my living room: if you follow the logic carefully, you’ll see that I’m doing my recording in my living room. With two children under the age of ten, in our 1400 square foot house, this is a  huge challenge: sound carries, and the living room is the pathway from the family room to the bathroom.

For a long time, I would produce a song like this:

1. Record a scratch track. Me, singing along with my guitar with one microphone. Do the whole song. Two, maybe three tries.

2. Record the guitar track. Play along with the scratch track’s volume turned way down so I could hear myself. This would typically take six or more tries, depending on the song.

3. Record the lead vocal track. Could take a few tries, but easier than the guitar part.

4. Record each harmony track. Just like #3.

5. Add a bassline or piano.

6. Mix, mix, mix, equalize, reverb, compress, mix some more, get a song.

Between day-job, kids, household duties, it would take about a week, if I was lucky. Usually more like two.

I don’t remember the day the “click” happened, when that particular set of synapses fired up and the realization dawned: you can produce small pieces successfully with little effort…small successes chained together equal larger success…and so on. I tried it. It worked. I was hooked.

Typically, I’ll record two or three verses and two or three refrains, an intro, and an out-tro1. In my software, then, I take each of the pieces and assemble them, copying and pasting as needed, until the musical base of the song is complete. Having more than one version of each verse and each refrain allows me to mix and match and provide some randomness to the performance. Unless there’s some quirk in the performance, like a particular fret buzz or breath or an errant note, you’d never know.

I don’t usually loop my vocals; as there’s no need for it. Usually. We’ll get to that in a moment.

To my mind, it’s no different from a musician recording and combining several tracks for several instruments, a guitar, piano, and bassline for instance, or going back and punching in a few seconds of correction to a mistake made on the last recording.  To this solo musician producing his own CD, it gives several benefits.

First is a more consistent performance. By the time I’m able to record on any given day, I’m pretty wiped out; playing an up-tempo song with seven verses is tough even when I’m in top form.

Second is faster results in less time. If you’ve ever tried to record your own music – or had someone record it for you – you know that performing in front of a microphone is different than sitting on your couch just running through a song. On my couch, I can do a song a dozen times flawlessly. In front of a mic, I can barely get past the intro on the first several tries.  Somehow, I can produce one or two verses without mistakes much easier than I can the aforementioned seven verse song, and not having to start all over when I make a mistake on the last verse is a real time-saver.

Third: I can fit in a recorded verse between commercial breaks, when my children are occupied with whatever episode of Sponge Bob they’re watching for the eighty-third time and are therefore unlikely to move into audible range.

I said before I don’t usually loop my vocals, and that’s true. There are times when it becomes a real benefit, though. Wayyy back in October, 2009, I had a run-in with H1N1 that eventually made it into my lungs. I got over the flu part pretty quick, but the cough – even now, three months later – lingers.

I have pretty good breath control – years of acting and singing helps, eh? – and can usually work my around most issues, but at one point when I was recording South Australia, a cough tried to work its way out on one of the “heave away, haul away”s, and the phrase came out sounding rather bad – like I was drunk, actually. I would have punched in a correction, but just as I was getting up to turn on the mic and get that done, the kids came blasting through in the throes of some life-or-death struggle over a toy helicopter, and the opportunity was lost.

Did I despair? No sir. I grabbed a previously successful “heave away, haul away” and plugged it in.

There’s another instance where looping comes in real handy: if you have a song with pauses – Jamie Raeburn, for instance – coming in with the vocal at the precise moment when the guitar starts up can be frustrating as hell if you’re doing instrument and vocals separately. Being able to…okay, I’ll use the word… “cheat” the opening phrase so it enters at the right moment solves that problem handily.

So, is looping appropriate for every circumstance? Probably not, though in my body of work I’ve not found that circumstance yet.  When I do, I’ll let you know.

Oh, and the errant “heave away, haul away”? Don’t bother listening for it: you’ll never find it.

1 Is that even a word? Heh…it is now.

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One Response to In Defense of Looping

  1. David Plumlee says:

    Your article on looping was interesting. jFor my part, I see much similarity between a musician and a magician – especially when one-man productions are involved. My philosophy is that I will “cheat” any way that suits me to get the sound I want, provided that I am not breaking a law or harming myself or another person. In the country song “Satisfied Mind,” the singer starts it “cold”: “How many” the instruments and backup vocals come in on “times have you….” My cheat on that one was to have two measures at the beginning: on piano, four quarter notes, “D, F#, A, D,” and two quarter rests. The lead singer then starts – “cold,” but not really; the four piano notes aren’t heard because I enable the final recording on the second quarter rest. And listeners are left to wonder, “How did he get that timing and pitch exactly right?” That’s the “magician’s” part of it.

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