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Do I Obsess Much?

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How Geren Chooses a Looper

Frippertronics Live

A couple of weeks into making my Jamuary2023 jams, I came to a couple of conclusions.

The first was that long-loop, Frippertronics-style improvisation was a way of making music that I really enjoyed and wanted to pursue more. The second was that, although I was making music, some of which I did really like, my existing looping gear was lacking in a couple of ways. While they were, and are, perfect for traditional guitar looping, they don’t work quite as well at emulating the tape-based sound-on-sound techniques popularized by Robert Fripp in the 1970s.

Although it was Fripp who arguably did the most to popularize the technique, the idea was not his alone. He collaborated with Brian Eno to expand upon ideas that dated back into the 1950s and earlier. The site has a fantastic article by Michael Peters on the history of tape looping.

“Must Have” Features:

  • Loop Decay
  • Delay Time at Least 7 Seconds
  • Full Stereo Signal Path

After coming up with a few criteria, I set about researching available effects pedals to find something that would provide the relatively long delay times necessary to replicate effect of stretching a tape between two recorders. After guestimating the distance between the record head of the first deck and the play head of the second deck and accounting for the typical routing of the tape, I determined that a delay time of about 7 seconds would be a good starting point for the delays. The other most important criteria for a direct replication of the technique is being able to introduce decay into the loop, such that the recorded loops eventually fade away, allowing it to be replaced with newer material.

Of course, it also occurred to me that it would probably be a “good thing” if the device had some other capability as well. I had enjoyed the extremely long loop times of the Boss RC-3, and the nimble, two-button operation of the looper in the Zoom G3n multi-effect. By the time all was said and done, I had three or four dozen criteria in three sets covering nearly 30 loopers, delays, and multi-effects.

Ableton Live Looper

One tool that I used to help develop the list of desired criteria, surprisingly enough, is the looper device that’s included with Ableton Live and it’s extremely versatile. It allows loops to be quantized to the project’s tempo and time signature or free run, it can run forwards or backwards at varying speeds. Recording can be accomplished at any speed, forward or reversed. There is one thing that the Ableton looper can do that I haven’t seen in any hardware looper or delay, and that’s the ability to insert additional effects into the feedback loop of the delay. Subsequently, the Ableton looper became the “gold standard” when choosing a hardware looper.

Yeah, I obsess much.

I finally determined that there were a couple of units that stood out as the most likely candidates: first is Strymon’s El Capistan dTape delay, and the second is the Electro-Harmonix 1440 looper. The two, obviously, are very different effects.

Strymon El Capistan

The El Capistan perfectly replicates the tape delay function, providing an excellent tape delay/sound-on-sound emulation with up to 20 seconds of delay. There are controls for the sound-on-sound level, as well as controls to emulate tape degradation as the repeats pile up. It’s even possible to drive the “tape” to the point of oscillation.

So, I chose the Electro-Harmonix.

Wait. What?

Electro-Harmonix 1440

As good a fit as the El Capistan is, it’s somewhat of a one-trick-pony. It does “the tape thing,” and it does it extremely well. But, I’d like to be able to go beyond, by varying the “tape speed” or reversing the loop or processing two separate instruments at the same time, which the El Capistan can’t do. The 1440 also brings the ability to store a number of loops in memory and control almost every function using MIDI. About the only thing it doesn’t do is allow insertion of additional effects in the delay loop, but as mentioned previously, I haven’t found any loopers that allow that.

A close runner-up is the Pigtronics Infinity 3 dual looper. It can do pretty much everything that the 1440 can do with the exception of recording when the loop is playing in reverse, but adds a second stereo loop that can run in parallel or series with the first loop. The total loop storage time for the Infinity 3 is significantly higher than the 1440, but individual loops are limited to about two and a quarter minutes — significantly longer than the 7 second target, but far shorter than the 1440, which tops out a 24 minutes. As expected, the Pigtronix pedal is also significantly more expensive.

The 1440 will arrive sometime tomorrow (as I write this), and hopefully, I’ll be able to make some noise with it by the weekend. If it works as I think it will, the 1440 will become my “standard” hardware looper. I suspect there will also be an El Capistan in my system in the long run as well, but as noted above, it’s a little more specialized effect.

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