Everybody has a different angle that they take when producing or writing music. This process will derive from how the user has learnt to play their chosen instrument, or how they have learnt to write music within a sequencer. It is quite common to think that electronic music made in the box will be made up of loops and while this may be the case, it is not the only situation that this can occur. I’m not particularly interested in arguing if writing with loops is a good or a bad way of working because I believe that if a musical idea is conceived, that it should be realized in any way that the writer chooses to compose it. Some of the most well known pieces of music in the world have been based around loops, even when the computer music workstation wasn’t at the heart of the producers studio. The question that I want to ask is, does loop based music restrict or free your creativity? The first example that I want to show you is the Nine Inch Nails track – “Something I can never have”, which starts with a piano riff that seems to fall over itself at times, but is still a loop playing constantly throughout the track. The loop almost seems to fall out of time as it drifts in to the soundscape around it – but yet always starts in the right place musically. The song starts with the piano but this is not the main instrument. Nine Inch Nails are considered or recognized as a band, but the music is generally written by Trent Reznor and as this example shows, a loop can allow great freedom to experiment within the boundaries that it puts in place.
NIN – Something I can never have
I think, as with most things in music, this original question doesn’t have a straight yes or no, black or white answer. But I believe very strongly that if the writer has varied influences, is open to experimentation and most importantly doesn’t build the whole track from loops, there is no reason why an original and interesting piece of music can be produced. The situation that a developing music producer could find themselves in with sample packs containing loops is the basic regurgitation of music that has already been developed, which goes without saying. But if only one loop is used within the track this can actually give a strong foundation for the musical content to weave in and out altering the emphasis and energy of the track. This can be identified in all styles of music and shouldn’t be thought of as a purely electronic direction. I mentioned earlier that some of the most famous pieces of music that exist are based around a loop, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is one of those, and is undeniably one of the most highly respected and loved pieces of music ever written. The bass line is the loop and is continuous throughout the track, allowing the other elements of the music to develop, the vocals and synth parts primarily, which in turn build up the energy in to the chorus. Now its safe to say that Thriller was not written in a modern DAW, and it is more likely that the main riff of the song, written by Rod Temperton, was brought to the musical table – so to speak – the other people in the room would have started to add their parts until a track started forming. And we all know what happened with the track.
Michael Jackson – Thriller
The point that I am trying to make is that music of any genre can be created around a loop. The loop provides a constant for the rest of the music to swing in and around the said constant. This can be taken to the extreme where the loop is very obvious throughout the track, Little Dragon – Paris, is a good example of this. Little Dragon, if you have not heard of this outfit, blend electronic composition and sounds with a more contemporary live performance. The use of loops is more obvious in this track than in others but the example shows an extreme of loop use.
Little Dragon – Paris
Similar to Simon Green aka Bonobo, another example of an electronic producer who blends all sound sources at his disposal in his creation of the music, the culmination of this in the live performance show that is put on. The loop in the following track is not the main hook in the track, like with other examples, but it sets the scene and is the underlying phrase throughout the song. Bonobo is known for the his compositional style that evokes a emotional response as well as making people want to dance.
Bonobo – Cirrus
How many pieces of music will you listen to now and realize that there is a loop involved, it won’t ruin the piece for the listener but it certainly makes you think about how to approach your next track. The loop can of course be taken to its extreme with producer performers such as Dub FX or Denis Jones, who use loop stations, loop pedals and various effects to to build up a track layer by layer. The guitar style footswitches allow the effects and more importunity the loops to be triggered as part of a performance. This is a genius way of producing music, and to a certain extent, a very minimal amount of equipment needs to be used, but extreme confidence and detailed knowledge of the equipment is needed to be able to manipulate it in a live situation.
Here are a few more examples from well known artists that use the idea of a loop to lay down a theme or phrase in a track, you may be surprised at some of them, you may know these tracks already. The John Cage example is slightly tenuous as there is varied progression in the pattern in places but the phrasing and riff that essentially loops is audible every time it plays. The Paul Simon track, has two loops that are running, the bass part throughout (with exception of the bass solo) and the fanfare horns that introduce us to the track and return for the chorus.
Paul Simon – You can call me Al
Finally, our use of loops in the music industry can also be attributed to some fairly “out there” installation artists. Firstly, I would like to point you to Alvin Lucifer, who’s iconic installation experiment of recording a sentence explaining what is happening, projecting the sentence back into a room, recording it and playing back etc etc leads to a degradation of the sound, illustrates how a loop can be taken out of context and experienced in a completely different light.
The second video I would like to highlight is “6 Drummers and an Apartment”. As the title suggests this is a video about 6 Drummers in an Apartment, who are playing found sounds, playing live looped patterns with the sounds and creating a extremely musical pieces. It’s not written and composed music in the same way that the majority of the other examples have been, but the principle of all the musicians playing loops draws parallels with the solo performers like
6 Drummers and an Apartment
So what can we take from all this? When it comes down to it, loops are used everywhere, riffs or phrases that we write, play and repeat are technically loops. Live bands are playing loops, but with the exciting exception that because these are never played the same way every time, (through improvisation, variation, or even error) the possibility of creativity is enhanced. If there is an element of performance involved in the music, the possibility of increased creativity certainly becomes a possibility. A constant loop can set the precedent for the track, giving slight restrictions but allowing for experimentation in the spaces. If we think about how Ableton Live works, loops or clips can be triggered to play within an arrangement, this again is great in a live situation, but it is interesting how this piece of software has a certain area that is focused on allowing experimentation with loops.
There are no right or wrongs when it comes to making music, but there are many different ways to skin a cat. Try something different next time you sit down to compose a piece of music, and that goes for those of you that play guitar or keys too, any instrument can be used to create a loop for which the rest of a track can be born from. If you struggle with creativity or finding a direction, try starting with a loop and see how the track progresses, you never know, this could be the revelation you have been looking for to free your creativity.
On a side note, don’t confuse loops with sampling, in the way that sampling can be used to create a the whole basis of a track, for example, Snoop Dogg / Dr Dre – The Next Episode, which was originally, David McCollum – The Edge – and the original is on one of my all time favorite tracks.
David McCollum – The Edge