Live looping – the art of recording layers upon layers live in real-time in front of an audience to create an entire performance (often with just a single person) – has become hugely popular in recent years.

I’ve always been fascinated by it and it’s fair to say that recently it’s become a small obsession of mine. I use a looping app on my iPhone or iPad (more on equipment and app choices later) and have been known to practice looping in the car while waiting to pick up my kids from school (it’s a great way to kill time!).

From a performance point of view, live looping allows a solo musician to create an entire multi-part arrangement by building percussive and melodic layers. It takes skill to craft an effective arrangement and skill to execute the performance through the use of technology.

That appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show

Recently, live looping was thrust into the spotlight when late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon paired up with Billy Joel to perform the Lion Sleeps Tonight with the help of a live looping iPad app (Loopy HD – the same one I use). In case you haven’t seen it already, here is that performance:

A few favourite looping videos

More and more artists are incorporating looping into their live performances and there are hundreds of great examples on Youtube. Ed Sheeran, KT Tunstall, Walk off the Earth, Mal Webb, Mr Percival, Beardyman, Gavin Castleton, Reggie Watts, Kimbra and Kewahi all use looping to perform their music.

Some of my favourites examples include:

1. Kewahi – The Way You Make Me Feel

2. Ed Sheeran – Wayfaring Stranger

3. Walk Off The Earth – Payphone

(a “clean version” that includes a couple of swear words that have been censored)

4. Gavin Castleton – Hot Knife

For more video examples visit my Live Looping and Beatboxing Pinterest board below (if you have a Pinterest account, you can follow the board so that you’ll see when I add new videos to it):

Follow Midnight Music’s board Live Looping & Beatboxing on Pinterest.

Want to try live looping yourself?

Anyone can have a go at live looping and it’s a perfect activity for older students.

First you’ll need a loop recorder of some description. You can either go down the hardware route – by using a looping pedal – choose to use software, or you can try one of the iPad/iPhone apps.

1. Hardware – looping pedals

Before smart phones and iPad came along, the only option available for loop recording was to buy a piece of hardware – usually a looping pedal. Although these were originally made for guitarists (and designed to be operated by the feet), singers and other instrumentalists recognised their usefulness. Cost-wise all of these options are in the vicinity of $200-$500.

Popular options in this category include:

  • Boss RC-50
  • Akai Headrush
  • Korg Kaos Pad KP3

More recently, the VoiceLive Touch made its way on to the market and was designed especially for singers. Operated by the hands, the VoiceLive Touch includes auto-harmonies and other vocal effects which can be applied live as you’re laying down a loop.

New Zealand artist Kimbra can be seen using the VoiceLive Touch in this video:

Australian musician, comedian and vocal gymnast Mal Webb has a detailed write-up about many of the different loop recorder options available on his website.

You can also see Mal Webb in action with his loop recorder of choice here:

2. Live looping software

If you’re happy to have a laptop on stage with you, there are some looping software options too. The most commonly used one is Abelton Live which has a considerable learning curve. Australian a cappella group Suade use Abelton Live extensively in their performances, including in this cover of Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel:

3. Looping on iPad or iPhone – apps

If you’re not keen on spending a few hundred dollars and you’d like to have a go at live looping, I can highly recommend trying an iPhone or iPad app which will set you back less than $10.

The best option in this category is Loopy HD (made by the same Australian developer that makes the fabulous Audiobus app). In the past, I’ve also used Everyday Looper – which I still have a certain fondness for – but Loopy HD offers much more flexibility and is now my app of choice. Everyday Looper has also not been updated since 2012 which prevents me from recommending it anymore.

Loopy HD iPad live looping

Looping for Students

I think live looping is an excellent activity for secondary school students to try – it’s perfect for older students who like a challenge.

It allows solo artists to perform many parts without the need to enlist a lot of friends. They can develop excellent arranging skills: in order to build up all the parts of a song you need to be very clever with how you arrange the piece so that it flows. During a live performance, they need to be intimate with all the parts and which order they need to be sung and they need to be very comfortable with the technology. The loop recorder is essentially an instrument and you need to learn how to “play” it. Timing is crucial!

You can also use looping with younger students: I have set up the initial loop or two for a song and then had students come up to the iPad, tap a free recording “slot” and sing or beatbox the next loop. You can also use it with choir groups: set up a few loops as an accompaniment yourself (such as the “wimoweh” parts in The Lion Sleeps Tonight) and then have the choir sing the melody live over the top of the looped backing.

Getting started with live looping

In my experience, it’s best to start simple. Choose a song with a cyclical chord progression (a chord progression that repeats throughout the entire song) and build up the accompaniment layer by layer. Include some percussive tracks as well as melodic tracks for variety. Once you’ve built up the accompaniment you can sing the melody over the top.

Many people mistakenly think that all songs performed with a loop recorder must have cyclical chord progressions, but that’s not true. You just need to be creative with the way you arrange the song! Make use of percussion-only loops to bridge different sections, and think outside the square when it comes to song form. Sometimes it’s best to lay down section B of a song first, mute it and then lay down section A. That way, you can sing section A and switch seamlessly to section B (unmute it) when you reach that part of the song.

Further reading, listening and resources

1. Excellent 5-part series on live looping for singers: part one: Overview (other parts in the series linked at the end of the post)

2. Live Looping website

3. List of musicians that use live looping

4. Live Looping channel on Youtube

5. Sound On Sound article about live looping using Abelton

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