The sequel to our loop pedal article summarises the historical milestones that led to the exploration of loops as a musical resource. Together with Grandmaster Flash and Jarle Bernhoft we look back – and ahead
During the mid-1970s, a "loop revolution" was taking place in new New York. DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa came up with new DJ techniques like back-spinning and scratching and thus laid the foundations for hip hop and turntablism. As part of our exclusive interview – his first in two years – Grandmaster Flash recalls how he started to use duplicate copies of records to extend prominent parts of a song.
“When I watched DJs play in my teens, I was quite amazed when the part of the record came where the drummer played prominently. However, I was frustrated that the drummer would only get a couple of seconds; thus began my quest to elongate these passages that were originally way too short. I went on to purchase duplicate copies of records and noticed that I could mathematically extend the chosen part by leaving the hand on the vinyl and spinning the record in a counter-clockwise direction a certain number of times to return to the beginning of the drum solo.” When the break finished on one turntable, Flash used his mixer to switch to the other turntable where the same drum-break was already cued up to play. Using this ingeniously simple technique, he could loop the same short phrase of music indefinitely. Without a shadow of a doubt, Flash and his peers established looping in hip hop music. But who was the first ever looper in history?
The art of looping was initially introduced by electroacoustic music pioneers like Edgard Varèse, John Cage, Musique concrète exponents Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, avant-garde maestro Karlheinz Stockhausen and others. In 1948, Schaeffer started to use pre-recorded sounds on records as a compositional resource. He manipulated these sounds through reverse play, change of speed and so-called sillon fermés – prepared records with infinite grooves that simply repeated short parts of the recording.
The origin of tape loops, on the other hand, is not entirely known. Louis and Bebe Barron, a couple best known for the first completely electronic film score Forbidden Planet (1956), are often credited with writing the first music for magnetic tape and inventing the tape loop some time during the late 1940s. In 1951, Schaeffer and Henry also replaced records with more precise and easier-to-handle magnetic tapes: They recorded individual sounds on separate sections of magnetic tape and then chopped them up into small pieces, rearranged them and spliced them together. The resulting sounds were modified via tape loops, filters, reverb and additional effects.
In 1952, Stockhausen used Musique concrète techniques of tape manipulation in his first piece of electroacoustic tape music Etude. The composer, in turn, inspired The Beatles to experiment with tape loops who introduced the technique to a mass audience through songs like 1966’s Tomorrow Never Knows.
Two key figures of minimal music and the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, have also contributed to the creation of looped sounds. Reich’s innovations encompass the use of tape loops to create phasing patterns (e. g. in his early works It's Gonna Rain and Come Out). Riley's most important invention might be the Time Lag Accumulator, a revolutionary tape delay/feedback system that enabled him to lay down a musical line, loop it through the device and then improvise over his own playing. It first came into play during Music for The Gift (1963), a piece based on his recordings of a Chet Baker performance. In the late 1960s, he rose to fame with his psychedelic loop song A Rainbow in Curved Air and All Night Flights, a series of extended concerts with his accumulator.
Brian Eno, the innovator of ambient music, rediscovered Terry Riley's Time Lag Accumulator during his experimentation with tape techniques in the early 1970s. In 1972, Eno presented the system to British guitarist Robert Fripp. Without rehearsals or a detailed introduction to the system Fripp started to improvise – and the rest is history: The resulting song The Heavenly Music Corporation went on to become one of the key songs of the groundbreaking album No Pussyfooting (1973) and further collaborations were to follow. Robert Fripp also continued to use the system – later known as Frippertronics – on his own releases, on tour and as a session musician for artists like The Talking Heads and David Bowie.
At the same time, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Bambaataa explored the musical capabilities of record players, including their looping potential. Soon afterwards, in 1984, house music was forged in Chicago. Although it evinced several characteristics of disco, its sound was more electronic, minimal and based on repetitive rhythm loops generated by drum machines.
The 1980s also marked the meteoric rise of sampling. Although the first digital sampler EMS Musys system was developed as early as 1969, the exploitation of samplers in popular music was not possible before samplers were commercially available. Early samplers like Synclavier (1975) and Fairlight CMI (1979) were very expensive and tended to reproduce pre-recorded natural sounds; to this end, they were rather used like synthesisers than to loop segments of sound. The emergence of the E-mu SP-1200 sampler in 1987 finally moved hip hop from its ubiquitous drum machine sound to the loop and sample-based aesthetics of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
During the 1990s, the first digital loop pedals became affordable and started to replace old technologies. The launch of the DigiTech PDS8000 in the early 1990s was followed by the roll-out of many other devices. These gadgets encouraged a growing number of musicians to experiment with loops on stage, but they were rarely used for recordings. Vocalist, guitarist and looper Jarle Bernhoft assumes it was down to technical shortcomings:
“Ideally, the AD/DA converters and sample/bit rate should increase for that to happen. For my own part, I would rather have the ability to separate sound sources on different channels in the studio than to squeeze them into one or two stereo outputs. This would imply a vast increase of the pedal size, something that might just take all the charm out of it.”
By all appearances, loop pedals have reached the mainstream in two different ways: While a vast number of up-and-coming musicians use it around the world, well-known artists like the American Reggie Watts, Canadian multi-instrumentalist Owen Pallett, Scottish songstress KT Tunstall and Norwegian artist Bernhoft attracted a lot of attention with loop-based performances within and beyond their respective homelands. But what does the future of looping hold?
Besides hardware tools like samplers and loop pedals, there is plenty of software on the market that offers looping abilities. Most applications are Digital Audio Workstations or sequencers that offer a large variety of features. In addition, there is software that simulates the functionality of traditional hardware loopers – Livetronica Studio and SooperLooper are good examples. In recent years, loop-centred software for iPads and iPhones such as GrooveMaker and Loopstastic HD rose to fame. In many instances, though, these programmes seem to target hobby musicians rather than professional artists.
So, which direction is looping heading? When asked about the next evolutionary step and loop-related gadgets, Flash replies, “there are too many gadgets to mention. I personally like Cubase and Ableton Live.” On the other side of the spectrum, Jarle Bernhoft states (supposedly in jest) that “real musicians shall be the future.” Regardless of how the evolution will proceed – this dichotomy between progress and traditionalism will continue to dominate and divide the music scene.