"To me, looping is a fundamental aid to creativity"
March 5, 2014 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Musician Matthew Herbert presents a half hour program for BBC Radio 4 on The Art of the Loop. (Herbert's personal contract for the creation of music.)

Herbert is the founder of Accidental Records, and his catalog can be streamed from their bandcamp page. He is perhaps best known for 1998's Around The House (review), 2001's Bodily Functions (reviews), and 2006's Scale (reviews), which combine jazzy sounds with samples of mundane objects. He has also recieved attention for his One Trilogy: One One was produced using only sounds made by Herbert, One Club was produced using only sounds collected at the Robert Johnson nightclub in Frankfurt, and One Pig was produced using only sounds made by a single pig.
posted by Going To Maine (34 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who has been starting to use loops, a looper machine is a synthetic substitute for discipline (the attention span and technical prowess to repeatedly recreate a past gesture), and for collaboration skills (the ability to communicate and collaborate with an ensemble in real time, the humility to play backup for another).

My personal hope is that the saturation and inevitable audience exhaustion with loops will lead to a rediscovery of the lost art of variation (the one thing a loop can't easily do for you), and along with it a renewed interest in structural variety.
posted by idiopath at 9:16 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Being anti-loop or anti-sample is a weird form of purism. It seems to come from the same place as the "drum machines have no soul" bumper-stickers. And maybe the same place as "Rap? More like crap."
posted by rubadub at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Exactly. No purism here. I use them, they help me make things, I also have complaints about them.
posted by idiopath at 9:45 AM on March 5, 2014

There's quite a bit of middle ground between "constructing a pop song entirely from prefabricated loops" and "virtuoso free jazz". Ambient musician Biosphere, for example, uses loops very artfully. Repetition has always been part of music. Looping doesn't have to be "here's four bars of Funky House Beat 4A; now I'm adding Disco Guitar Riff 2; now I'll drop out the beat and add Clean Synth Bass 18..."
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:49 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rubadub, I think the point is that it bypasses the necessity for skilled live performance. For us chumps still trying to be able to play every note we write loops can look like an easy way out--at least sometimes, depending on the context.

The same goes for things like arpeggiators. Used to be you just had to get good at playing arpeggios, now you can just press a button and hold a chord.

This is not to say there aren't awesome and clever uses for these technologies or others like them--there are many sounds that simply cannot be produced live.

For me the biggest downside of looping is that it shittifies composition skills. Copying and pasting big blocks of sound tends to take thoughtful variation out of the equation, like idiopath said. It's easy enough to have blocks that are different from other blocks, but there is so much subtle possibility for powerful musical effects to be got from varying within the blocks, and for varying rhythms and lengths of phrases. Most loopy compositions I've heard have a tiresome structure of '4 bars of this, 4 bars of this, 4 bars of this, 4 bars of this...'

At my grouchiest I would say stuff like this is sort of like being really good at video game football but not so good at actual football.
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:49 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

To be clear: I'm not anti-loop or anti-sample. I use and create loops and samples in my own professional music work. I'm just tired of it. Like, really, really tired of it, for the reasons idiopath identified.

I'm bored with this as well, *if* you just take a preproduced loop and plunk it down in your timeline. If you chop it up, reverse it, mangle it, run it through a bevy of bizarro VSTs or outboard gear, or otherwise do something interesting with it, thumbs up!

I'm also bored of the sound of a Les Paul hooked up to a Marshall stack, recorded through an SM57, or overly twee acoustic girl pop set to poorly played ukulele, or dad rock blues bar bands with bad harmonica played through a cheap bullet mic into a ridiculously overpriced tube amp cause hey, the harp player is an attorney...

Music making is full of potential cliches - I don't think loop based music is any more played out than many other potential creative pitfalls.
posted by stenseng at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Haha! Loops are like training wheels for shitty musicians.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:57 AM on March 5, 2014

Haha! Loops are like training wheels for shitty musicians.

What a useful and accurate assessment.
posted by stenseng at 10:05 AM on March 5, 2014

That came off quite a bit crankier than I actually feel, sorry. I have no hate in my heart for loopers, I enjoy looping myself from time to time.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:11 AM on March 5, 2014

Ever since getting Maschine, I have taken to creating my own loops, sampling them, and then mangling that sometimes. I've long since tired of messing with other peoples' loops

Though the other thing I like about Maschine is hitting record and actually finger-drumming rhythms out and then not going overboard quantizing them.

Or just sitting there and finger-drumming without recording, just for the fun of performing.
posted by Foosnark at 10:22 AM on March 5, 2014

I make a baldly obvious joke and people take me at face value and get their musical panties in a twist. Look, loops are fine for dance music or other disposable pop designed to sit in the background and provide a nice din for your hang or your dancing or your imbibing or whatever. It makes it easier for ONE partially trained musician to create a texture upon which to attempt to improvise. Or you can channel your inner Steve Reich and set up an interlocking groove or vocal/instrumental pattern. But it's become so tired and so overdone by now. And what interesting innovations have come out of this movement? Has anything worthwhile for the history and continuum of pop music come out of loop machines other than giving so many people the false impression that they're doing something really super duper awesome? Half the time, I'm waiting for a vocalist to record a section of their loop where they don't... quite.. hit that note they're going for. Now I get to listen to their flat disembodied intonation 50 times while they add a pizzicato note here, a slide there, a jagged rhythmic underpinning here, thickening the texture until it sounds like musical mashed potatoes, and they haven't even gotten to the first verse.

It's a particularly funny problem in the "indie-classical" world. A few string players do some gigs with an indie band and suddenly THEY buy their own looping machine and start looping and singing with their violin or viola. It's such a short cut, and to mediocrity at that!
posted by ReeMonster at 10:25 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seriously. *It* Doesn't* *Matter* whether you're working with Ableton, Fruity Loops, Cubase, Logic, ProTools, a cassette four track, your iphone, a boombox and a casio keyboard, a theremin, a nose whistle, a kazoo, some pots and pans, an Ondes Martenot, a Mellotron, an Optigan, a guitar, a piano, a cello, an mc505, or a fucked up xylophone.

These are all tools, and all can be abused, and all can make it easy to fall into the same creative patterns/doldrums. Stop blaming tools, do something different.
posted by stenseng at 10:40 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

"dance music or other disposable pop"

I expect that quite a number of people don't lump these two very large and arbitrarily defined categories together.

I also understand that there's no way around the tendency for more recently developed technology to take the blame for poor musicianship. Not many critics blame the viola for someone playing the viola poorly, for instance. In time, the idea of looped structures will probably fade into the background of available techniques and won't have the lustre of some newfangled thing killing music. Frankly, I thought it had already largely gone that way.

Likewise, critiques that focus on (or obsess over) the tools and techniques rather than the composition and its impact have the hallmarks of dud criticism.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:43 AM on March 5, 2014

> I make a baldly obvious joke and people take me at face value and get their musical panties in a twist.

Other experienced musicians here have been trying to discuss in a nuanced way how they personally find loops good and bad, and how it compares to other musical tools on the cliche vs originality spectrum.

Your comment sounded like a cheap shot of a variety that many people have made in many venues with the intention of being taken at full value. If you didn't mean exactly what you said, your intentions could have been more clearly stated.
posted by ardgedee at 10:46 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I may have been a bit misleading. I should be clear that I don't necessarily have a problem with repetitive music.. more specifically with self-indulgent live performances (or anything Basinski ever created) using a loop machine to build up a texture on the fly. That shit's got to go.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:05 AM on March 5, 2014

Sort of funny timing, this. I've been making a lot of lazy music lately, instrumental rock and pop, mostly, that I build from looping short phrases, but more often than not, I go back and re-track everything live top-to-bottom once I've worked out the arrangement.

I've been thinking a lot about getting together with some musician friends and making sort of live-loop-based instrumental post-rock. Which is totally self-indulgent, of course. But there's something special about playing the same thing over and over again until it loses meaning. Sort of semantic satiation for music.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:14 AM on March 5, 2014

Also, somewhat-related, the baffling BBC Orchestral Toolkit. Which I have filed under "lolwut."
posted by uncleozzy at 11:36 AM on March 5, 2014

Nobody is forbidding self criticism - if anything, some of us are calling b.s. on blaming tools instead of examining methodology and effort.
posted by stenseng at 11:36 AM on March 5, 2014

I should probably note here that the radio program itself is mixed about the ease with which people can now make bad sample-based music.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:41 AM on March 5, 2014

Check please!
posted by stenseng at 11:43 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not many critics blame the viola for someone playing the viola poorly, for instance.

While I was playing violin as a student, I started to wonder if there was something fundamentally wrong with the viola, or if there was simply a lack of good instruction and viola virtuosos to look up to. Because viola players invariably had bad tone, bad intonation, and I always had the impression that they were all sullen and moody.

Or maybe it's just because the viola always seems to play second fiddle to the violin.
posted by Foosnark at 12:07 PM on March 5, 2014


posted by Foosnark at 12:07 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by stenseng at 12:08 PM on March 5, 2014

Rock over London! Rock on Chicago!
posted by stenseng at 12:44 PM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I thought The Art of the Loop was kind of boring (yeah, yeah, I know. tape loops.). However, Bodily Functions is one of my absolute favorite albums. So I'm just listening to that instead.
posted by aubilenon at 12:50 PM on March 5, 2014

For an inerested layperson like myself, it was an interesting half hour documentary, shoved in amongst the light saturday morning programming and news based comedy.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:37 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I personally hate how much I loop. I try and try and try to build and change, but... it's so hard. I wish I had better musical skills for playing an instrument. I think doing "live" makes it easier to be able to alter it up.
posted by symbioid at 2:03 PM on March 5, 2014

Playing live doesn't make it easier to change it up. It just fails to make repetition super-duper easy.
posted by aubilenon at 3:25 PM on March 5, 2014

Loopers are responsible for the plague of buskers who assail me with 8 bar chord progressions for half an hour while they go "meedly meedly meddly" over the top.
posted by awfurby at 6:38 PM on March 5, 2014

I've delved (or descended, if you will) into looping with a MIDI guitar, doing sloppy free-form 8 or 16 bar counterpoints with a dozen tonal voices competing -- and getting anything that isn't a bad substitute for pink noise (I'm kinda partial to bass) is surprisingly difficult and rewarding. Often times it's random errors or hesitations that give the piece what toborradarrobot character it has.

The secret, tho, is to unfailingly throw the resultant Big Glob O' Sound right out the ol' electronic window and start fresh each time. Otherwise you'd have to record the damned things externally to capture the creation process, and then you have to make sure every sound is properly mixed into the sonic field and and and suddenly you're not improvising anymore and you might as well just track.

What I can do with this messy fun is in doubt -- I don't think anyone's ever gonna pay to let me wipe my sonic nose on their sleeve. Still, I enjoy it and sometimes surprisingly cool things sorta fall out of the process.
posted by tspae at 7:58 PM on March 5, 2014

This post reminds me that if I ever wanted to be a decent soloist I'd progress immeasurably by using one of these things.

I am a bass player, my time is immaculate, my sound is whatever you want, and am I ever fucking lazy.

Middle age!
posted by Wolof at 5:26 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

These are all tools, and all can be abused, and all can make it easy to fall into the same creative patterns/doldrums. Stop blaming tools, do something different.

Well, that's a bit simplistic. There are musical tools that require mastery and insight, and they actively inspire new ideas. In fact so often it's technology that shapes the thinking of artists, not the other way around. The current Spectralist school of composition might never have come to fruition without IRCAM, which wouldn't have been founded without the development of FM synthesis. I think the problem with easy do-it-yourself beat-making toys is that sophistication of technology does fool a lot of people as being sophistication of musical ideas.
posted by daisystomper at 3:11 PM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

From Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas: Why We Love Repetition in Music
posted by Going To Maine at 7:43 AM on March 14, 2014

calling b.s. on blaming tools instead of examining methodology

For a significant cohort of working musicians, it seems, the tools have become the methodology to some extent. That's an issue worth examining.

I can't find an actual cite for this, but I once read a quote from Brian Eno*:
"The problem with synthesizers is that musicians waste hours scrambling through the electrons for a new sound, when it's clear that what they're actually looking for is a new idea. Sit them down at a grand piano and that same musician will focus instead on the notes they're supposed to be playing."
Of course I can only speak of my own experiences, but I think I agree with Idopath, TWF, et al; they are indeed useful and can produce great end-products but I have become increasingly dissatisfied with that process and am slowly breaking free of it.

The other day I found a piece of music that wrote ten years ago, well before I had access to much of anything. I didn't even have a MIDI keyboard or a proper DAW. No, my process back then was essentially:

1. Fire up Finale
2. Write in all the parts by hand in traditional notation
3. Try to make Finale's rudimentary (at the time) playback features sound good, using only free soundfonts I could find online.

I listened to one of these tracks the other day and was genuinely surprised at how good it sounded. On the one hand, sure, the instrument samples were janky as all hell (velocity-controlled articulations? HAHahahahahahahaWAT), but the composition itself? Shockingly good. It was pretty humbling.

Perhaps over the past decade I've relied a little too much on time-saving technologies and this has slowly eroded core disciplines once sharpened by now-forgotten constraints. Of course this is an old song, too (cue similar statements regarding Original Star Wars vs. New Star Wars, Old Stephen King vs. New Stephen King, etc...not that I'm comparing myself to them, only to the effects of constraints on the creative process).

*Which is a sort of self-contradicting statement since Eno has often said that he's not very good at "composing at the piano." Maybe it's an aspirational self-criticism.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:53 PM on April 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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