Onstage Applications: Using Loops Live

Like it or not, drum loops have become an entrenched element in today’s popular music. Yet some drummers remain turned off by the fact that a drum loop removes a degree of spontaneity from recorded drum tracks, and ties the hands of the live drummer on stage. But hey, this is the 21st century, folks. It’s better to pull your head out of the sand and embrace technology before you’ve been passed by.

There are solid, creative reasons for you to consider drumming along with loops on stage. Your timekeeping skills will most likely improve from playing with a constant pulse, and you can add textures and additional rhythms to the music without fear of losing the groove. And don’t worry. Even if you are a club drummer, it’s easier than you might imagine to incorporate this technology into your live performances.

In fact, this article is all about using loops in smaller venues, where you have to handle all the setup and transportation yourself. (You arena-rock drummers can just log back onto to the home page.) It’s possible to do this in a club situation with a relatively simple setup – I’m living proof of that. Like any technology, the further you get into it, the more you discover and use. So consider this your starting point.

The Components

Here are the parts you’ll need to make this work, as well as some general things to consider. You need a sound source to play the loops and you’ll need to hear them well enough to play along with them. Of course, the audience will also need to hear them through the house sound system. And you need a way to start and stop the loops during the show, since you will also be playing the drums at the same time.

The four components that would work best in general for most players are a sampler (although a drum machine or DAT player will also work), a powered monitor, a direct box and a stereo volume pedal. This combination will accomplish everything you need, although there are some other options that might better suit your needs and budget.

Option One: A Sampler

The sound source is where the loops come from. A sampler is the optimal tool that offers the most options and allows for the most growth. But it may also give you a headache! With a sampler, you can basically loop anything and use any sound you can imagine. You can modify and edit, and you can create your own sounds to make your loops or buy sample libraries that contain readymade loops and sounds.

The possibilities are almost endless, but there is a downside – you may spend a lot of time fiddling around, and the choices can be a bit overwhelming for some. Samplers can be more complex to master than some of the other alternatives, but still, it’s not rocket science. To learn more about samplers and their capabilities check out the DRUM! article, “Sampling Basics” by Norman Weinberg (Vol. 9, #4 June/July 2000 issue).

Option Two: A Drum Machine

A drum machine might be the right place for you to start. While the sound library will be considerably more limited than you would find on a sampler, there are other benefits. Not everyone needs the amount of choices and options a sampler affords. Drum machines also usually cost less than a sampler and often have a lot of great sounds, sometimes even ready-made loops to get you going. Be sure to check out the sounds before you buy to see if your needs are covered. So while you are limited by the onboard sounds, you might be spared from a lot of hassles!

Option Three: A Portable DAT player

A portable DAT(Digital Audio Tape) player is yet another sound source, which is an especially attractive option to those of you who already create loops on a computer. It is very small and a relatively reliable way to playback your loops live. Make sure that you’ve recorded each loop long enough to complete each song. And keep in mind that it can also be a bit more precarious to find specific loops during the gig. You’ll just need to use the id numbers and fast forward button wisely.

DAT players usually work better in live situations than a CD player, since a compact disc may skip when it’s in close proximity to the vibrations caused by the drums. Still, if you play at a relatively low volume, you may find that a CD or mini-disc player works just fine. Just don’t let your singer jump up and down near you!

The Mono/Stereo Out Theory

It’s simplest to have your loops in mono. That means you want to create them so that exactly the same thing comes out of the left and right sides of the stereo outputs (all of the sound sources discussed have stereo outs). Doing this assures that you hear exactly what the audience hears. And since most club P.A. systems are in mono anyway, sending them a stereo signal won’t enhance the sound out front.

More About Loops

Using the mono/stereo out theory, you will need to write loops with a dual purpose in mind. You don’t want the loop to interfere with your acoustic drum part, and the loop will have to work for the entire song. You may want to experiment to find the right balance. Perhaps you will only need to double certain parts of the looped beat. Or you may have a song where all you need is a very subtle percussion loop.

There may be times when it is appropriate to play the exact same part that’s on the loop, but this can quickly become redundant. You also risk getting a lot of “flamming” between your drums (especially if they’re miked) and the loop, which will be amplified in the P.A. system. It’s a good idea to record a few rehearsals to help sort out what works and what doesn’t.

You will need your sound source to be within reach for operations during the show, so set it up close by and on something stable like a small table or milk crate.

Start And Stop

Create your loops so that you can just press “start” at the beginning of each tune. That may mean that the loop starts the song, or perhaps another instrument can play something before you hit the start button. These starts and stops are an aspect that you will probably want to get creative with to add a bit of variety.

By using a stereo volume pedal designed for guitar players as our off switch, you can cut off the loop at the end of the song, even while it’s still playing, to assure that the audience won’t hear it anymore. You can then just stop the loop by hand on the sound source afterward. Set the volume pedal next to your hi-hat pedal, so that you can slide your foot over and cut the sound off at the end of the song. You’ll need the rest of your limbs to do the big crash and kick hit at the end.

Your sound source may come with a start/stop footswitch, but you need to check to see if the switch cuts off the sound immediately when you hit it. Some samplers are setup so that the loop plays to the end of the pattern, no matter when you hit the supplied footswitch. So if you have endings that land in the middle of the loop, you’ll find that the volume pedal will work much better.

Hearing The Loops Onstage

To insure that you’re not at the mercy of the club monitor system and sound person, you’ll either want to bring along your own monitor or play while wearing headphones. If the headphones suit you, simple – just use the headphone jack on your sound source. But if you prefer the “ears free I gotta bounce my head to the music” approach, try a powered personal monitor. This way there are no worries about losing the phones while you’re in a state of musical bliss.

Most of the major companies (Fender, JBL, Carvin, Roland) offer powered monitors. Rule of thumb: the larger the speaker, the better the sound for you. Those little tiny monitors are attractive when you think about lugging ’em to a gig, but you may be very disappointed in the sound you have to play along with (of course, if you’re in a low volume band situation, a small speaker will be just fine). Some larger powered monitors even have detachable volume controls that you can keep within reach while you’re playing, which is an added bonus. A few also allow you to add an extension speaker, so you could have another monitor onstage for your bandmates. The sound person can also send your output back through monitor system. That should be fine for your bandmates and is another way to get more playback if you need it.

The Full Setup

Now we need to make sure we’re sending the signal where it needs to go. Take a look at Fig. 1 for a map of how the sound is routed. The signal comes out of the stereo outs of our sound source into the stereo volume pedal. One side goes through the volume pedal and into the powered monitor – which is what we play with. The other side goes through the volume pedal and into a direct box, which goes to the club sound system – this is what the audience hears. Most clubs have direct boxes, but it’s a good idea to bring one of your own just in case. Of course, you won’t need the stereo pedal if you use headphones, because you will only need to deal with one out to the house sound system (you could use a mono volume pedal or the footswitch in that case).

Got It?

Hopefully this helps those of you who’ve thought about adding loops to your live performances. Still unconvinced? Just turn on the radio and listen for a while. Loops are here to stay. So have fun and happy looping!