How to use chord progression in live looping

When you loop live it can be quite a challenge to make use of such a basic musical component as a simple chord progression. This may have to do with the sad fact that some looping devices can only play one loop and this loop can not be re-pitched either. Not much to do about that, I’m afraid. The two techniques I’m about to describe relies on using many loops and on modulating the pitch of one loop. As an example I have uploaded this video where I play a song with a melody theme that stretches over a progression of five chords. I create these five chords in the beginning of the piece, as separate loops, and then I simply swap loop as the melody passes through the chord progression. At the middle section, the breakdown, I change key from minor to major by pitching up the dominant chord of the minor key five half steps. This makes this major chord land at the tonica pitch – and so we’ve moved from minor to major in the same key! Notice how the rhythm of the loop changes as its pitch is being modulated. This happens because I’m using Rate/Speed Shift rather than Pitch Shift combined with Time Stretch. Since I’m overdubbing two layers of eight note arpeggio playing, to build “a chord”, this Speed Shift break-down section also goes into some odd grooves. I think those kinds of “poly rhythm accidents” are great fun and a reason I  love varispeed and don’t miss the time calculated pitch shifting function I had with that old Repeater (looper) back in the days.

Gammal fäbodspsalm (Old Cottage Psalm) from Per Boysen on Vimeo.

The Bare Bones Course
For those of you who want to know exactly what is going on in this live looping performance, here’s a step by step walk-through (using Mobius software looper):

  1. Kicking “Record” EXACTLY on the first downbeat as I play the arpeggio of the first chord, B minor.
  2. Kicking “Overdub” EXACTLY as I play the fifth note in the arpeggio. This causes four things to happen: (1) the arpeggio loop starts playing back the first four notes I just played in a loop, (2) my recent playing will overdub a second layer to the loop and (3) the technical tempo is set by my looper (Mobius standalone software looper) and a MIDI Clock signal is sent out through the OS X IAC Bus (internal MIDI pipe system on Mac). (4) My pre amp and effect rig software, Apple MainStage, is receiving the MIDI Clock tempo signal and corrects its tempo setting to follow what I’m playing and looping. If you listen carefully you may hear a filtered delay slap-back gated to short 16th note slices behind the 8th notes I’m playing. This is a typically useful application of musically synced effects in MainStage. I hope this explains why I don’t like to play live looping with a click track; it’s more fun to start playing as you feel the music coming out through you rather than adapting to a machine. I don’t mind a lot of machines adapting to my own playing though. That’s sort of the point in using instruments – you express yourself through them and not the other way around :-)
  3. Kicking “NextLoop” somewhere before the loop reaches its turnaround point. My looper is set to “SwitchQuantize=Cycle”, which means the first loop I record sets the resolution for when all kind of “switching” commands will be applied. I like it that way because you can relax and focus on the music; just kick the pedal at any point during the last cycle before you want the switch to happen.
  4. The looper switches from Loop 1 to Loop 2. Now the old loop I just recorded stops playing back and nothing else plays back instead, since this is a new and yet empty loop. I have set up my looper to behave like this when selecting an empty loop slot: creating a new loop of one cycle’s length and putting it into Overdub Mode. So, you see the point; that I can seamlessly start to overdub my live playing into a new loop (Loop 2) that has the same length and tempo as the first one I created. In this piece of music one loop cycle equals one musical bar and that makes it easy to play a different arpeggio for the second chord (F# major) without loosing the tempo. This time I don’t have to worry about kicking pedals with a precise timing. I play the F# major arpeggio for two bars and make sure I kick the “NextLoop” pedal again during the second bar/cycle.
  5. The looper switches from Loop 2 to Loop 3. I perform the same routines but with the difference that I now play other notes: an eight note based arpeggio matching the chord A major.
  6. The looper switches from Loop 3 to Loop 4. I perform the same routines but with the difference that I now play other notes: an eight note based arpeggio matching the chord G major.
  7. The looper switches from Loop 4 to Loop 5. I perform the same routines but with the difference that I now play other notes: an eight note based arpeggio matching the chord D major.
  8. Kicking “Direct Call Loop 2”. Loop 2 is the F# major chord arpeggio and I want to start the melody line with an upbeat from that chord.
  9. Stepping through the loops while playing the melody. Now, the song doesn’t utilize the chords in the same order I created the chord arpeggio loops. On the MIDI pedal I now kick this sequence while playing: “Loop 1, Loop 2, Loop 1, Loop 3, Loop 4, Loop 5, Loop 2”. The melody stays for two bars in each loop except for Loop 4 which goes on for 4 bars.

The mid section, where I change the Loop Speed/Rate, uses only Loop 2, the F# major arpeggio. This is a different technique to induce chord change in live looping and I like it better because it is all open for improvisation. I have a pedal bank set up to speed shift a loop into any of nine optional intervals. If you know the intervals and the key of the source loop, then you have all the information needed for improvising melodies as you also improvise chord progressions. I use to compare this to two hand improvisation on the piano; not very complicated at all, you just have to get used to dividing your consciousness into following and coordinating two simultaneous processes. This is a powerful technique for doing what I call Instant Composition, improvisation that also includes musical structures. I’ll post a video on that later, because I’d love to see more live looping musicians follow into this exciting new field!

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7 thoughts on “How to use chord progression in live looping”

  1. @Adam,
    Yes, if you run the looper as the Sync Master the Record command instantly starts recording. The second time you hit the Record button it closes the loop and it starts looping back as you played it. I always loop like this, running the looper as the Sync Master and everything else as the Sync Slave – be it Ableton Live, Apple MainStage, a beat synced delay box, a drum machine or whatever I have at hand.

    I’m afraid I can’t come up with any good advice if you want to run the looper as the Sync Slave to a host application etc. It just contradicts how I experience the act of making music. I wouldn’t be able to play fluently in such a set up – I really need the technology to follow the tempo I start playing in rather than play to a click track or pre programmed tempo.

  2. Hi. This is really amazing sounding! I am so frustrated though! I am used to using an BOSS RC-50… with that I can hit record immediately as I start a bar, and immediately where that bar would start again, and my loop plays perfect and all my slaved midi gear syncs perfect. The problem is (as you may know) the RC-50 sounds horrid when you change tempo in the slightest… and it doesn’t behave well slaved (and neither does live with it)…

    So I want to be able to loop like this from within ableton and either just use ableton or ableton + mobius. I can loop with these but the only way I can do it (while keeping sync with live) is for me to start the recording of a loop BEFORE the bar I really want to start on comes around. I guess it’s just that I’m not used to this, but this seems so awkward to me and kills my creativity. Is there any way to loop where I hit record and it instantly starts recording and ends instantly when I hit record again, and it quantized that loop to whatever the tempo in live is and keeps it synced?

    I hope this made sense. I would be SOOOO greatful if you can help me, I have been racking my brain for weeks trying to get this right, haha.

  3. I see the light. I was messing around with loop copy mode but I hadn’t messed around with the time copy mode yet.

    I was talking about Mobius although, as I have been working out this project in Mobius, I have been trying to figure out the best way to do the same with SL. I have gotten a nice button layout for the soloing and have the muting quantized but so far I don’t think the next loops/solo can be quantized. I have to ask Jesse about that.

    Thanks again for the help! Hopefully I’ll get this working and put up a video today. I got Radiohead arrangement for bass I’ve written out that would work perfect with this style looping.

  4. @Todd M
    Hi Todd – This step may turn out different depending on what looper you are using. At the demo video I was using Mobius software on a laptop. The trick to have the new (empty) loop created at one cycle’s length and overdub you set it in the preferences at “Configuration/Preset/Switch” as “Loop Copy = Timing” and “Time Copy Mode = Overdub”. If not using the latter setting you will have to play it by hitting Overdub after having hitting NextLoop but before the NextLoop is executed i.e. during The Lame Duck period ;-)

    I just checked and you can really set Mobius by general preferences to create such a new empty and overdubbing loop of once cycle’s length. It doesn’t matter if you have multiplied a loop to many cycle’s length, the next fresh loop will always appear at one cycle’s length.

    I’ve done this kind of looping with my physical EDP looping device too (Echoplex Digital Pro) and it works about the same. I recently gave my EDP to someone else, so I’m afraid I can’t check it out in detail for you. But I think the EDP doesn’t auto create a new loop of one cycle’s length, rather by the loop’s length (from where you’re coming).

    If you are using the SooperLooper software plug-in this session would have to be carried out a little differently though, since SL won’t let you create and cue up alternative loops to switch between. This looper does only create parallel loops, so you have to make a workaround that mutes one loop while it un-mutes the next on and vice versa. Just mentioning this because I don’t know which looper you are working with. Cheers / per

  5. I’ve been working on this Per but having trouble with step 4. I finally figured out from the manual to have auto record selected so that when you hit next loop, an empty loop slot automatically records…. but for it to automatically be one cycle length and to automatically overdub… that a script or is this accomplished through some more settings?

  6. Hey Per you old loopaholic, Greets from India where I spend the winter once more. Just checked your loop stepping thru harmonies, WOW ! nice ! I like your instructional stuff and the triple feel when you go to the dominant is kewl too :-)


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