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Part 2: Studio Looping (1998-1999)

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Disruption Theory is an album I recorded between the fall of 1998 and spring of 1999. It was a combination of looped textures, ’90s dance culture beats, and angular post-fusion/quasi-prog/avante-skronk guitar playing. Put another way, it was TOTALLY me trying to remake David Torn’s What Means Solid, Traveller?

The Echoplex played a major role in how the album was created, and was utilized in many different ways. Sometimes loops were used to flesh out details of pre-existing tracks, while other times they created spontaneously-generated raw materials which formed the compositional basis of a new track. The Echoplex use isn’t always front-and-center on this CD, but it’s there on every tune on the album.

One of the most common approaches for Disruption Theory combined spontaneous improvisation with meticulous after-the-fact analysis and editing. It began with synchronizing the EDP to a hard disk recorder, which sent MIDI clock data to the EDP. I then started the recorder, and began improvising into the EDP, which was synced to the exact tempo of the song. The audio output of the EDP was fed back into the hard disk unit, which recorded all of the material as I played/looped.

I’d record several minutes of improvisation this way, building up different textures on the EDP, taking a given loop through different permutations, all while recording the entire thing to hard disk. (This was often done while the song in question was still far from being completed. In many cases I had no idea where, or even if, the looping I was recording at the time would end up fitting into the final track.)

I’d listen back to what was recorded, and try to figure out how any of the material might be used in the actual track. In some cases, I might take a few seconds out of a minutes-long improvisation, and use that one fragment as an element in a track – either as a sporadic event, or as a repeating figure. (The half-ambient, half-glitchy loop in “You Cannot Come Back” is a good example of this, as are the intro/outro loops on “In Time” and “The Reason Why.”) In other cases, I might use extended sections of a loop, keeping the original real-time development and evolution intact as a deliberate compositional element (as with the intro pad to “You Cannot Come Back” or the solo in “In Time.”) And in one specific case, I approached a track from the point of view of using the EDP as a lead instrument in and of itself.


Echoplex solo from “Disruption Theory”

Download the EDP solo • Full song at SpotifyFull song at iTunes/Apple Music

Key functions:

• Overdub

• Multiply

• Remultiply

• Loop windowing

• Reverse

 

Key parameters and settings:

InsertMode=Insert

Quantize=Cycle

This was one of my first real attempts at doing a “looping solo”: trying to use the Echoplex in a “lead” sense, in the same manner that an instrumentalist might take a solo in a tune. This selection is completely live and unedited, recorded in one pass and then pasted wholesale into the relevant section of the song.
There are several specific technical issues at work here. The first is the setting of the EDP, with Quantize=Cycle and InsertMode=Insert.

Quantize is a state of operation in the EDP in which the start and end times of various functions (Insert, Multiply, etc.) are locked to various points within the loop. Quantize is therefore an excellent setting for highly rhythmic looping approaches, particularly in cases such as this one, where the EDP is following an external clock.

The second key idea here is the use of Insert, a very powerful and flexibe EDP function. For the purpose of this solo, InsertMode=Insert, which means that it can add new material to an existing loop in increments of new cycles. (For more on Insert, see the performance notes for “Sweet Enigma” in Part 1 of these pages.)

The third noteworthy technical element to this solo involves the use of a feature called “Loop Windowing,” which I first stumbled across by accident with David Torn back in March of 1998. The basic idea of Windowing begins with taking a loop of several cycles in length, and then “remultiplying” it down to a smaller number of cycles. By its very nature, this has the result of eliminating part of the loop, because when you reduce the number of cycles in a loop, you’re losing the content of the cycles you’re eliminating. (Again, this is a technique which makes more sense heard than read).

The interesting thing here is that when you hit the undo button after remultiplying down to a smaller number of cycles, you can actually scroll through different sections of the loop from the cycles which were lost. So even though they’re no longer in the loop you get following remultiply, they’re still contained in the EDP memory, and can be “scrolled through” by hitting undo. Pressing the undo button at different times can dictate where one section of memory ends and another begins, hence the concept of “windowing” – which is a term Torn coined himself long before it entered EDP parlance.

This feature was technically a software bug, but I (and the other users who had discovered this functionality on their own, independently of myself and David) asked that it remain intact in future software upgrades. It has survived, and in fact been expanded upon, in the LoopIV upgrade. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

Because of its fairly basic structure, and the way different functions were used, this solo makes a good opportunity to pinpoint specific EDP functions. The following is a function-by-function transcription of the solo:

:00 to :02 – the initial cycle (which is equal to one quarter note at 180 BPM, the tempo of the song) is recorded.

:02 to :03 – a second cycle is added using Insert, with a new phrase being played while Insert is active, after the first cycle. The Insert button is pressed twice here: once right before the new cycle, and a second time during the recording of the new cycle, to close the Insert function.

:03 to :09 – the basic loop (which is now two cycles long, due to the second cycle being inserted) is multiplied out to a length of four cycles (or one measure). This isn’t immediately audible until…

:09 to :59 – You can hear the newer, longer cycle length, by virtue of the new phrases which are gradually overdubbed onto the loop, giving it a much denser and more complex sound.

:59 to 1:09 – The loop is reversed.

1:09 – The loop is back to normal direction, but is re-multiplied back down to two cycles; you can hear this by virtue of the loop repeating after every two quarter notes.

1:15 – Loop Windowing is in effect, by hitting the undo button to scroll through different memory sections of older parts of the loop which have been erased from normal playback, due to remultiplying the loop down to a smaller number of cycles.

1:20 – the loop has been remultiplied again, back down to a single cycle (of one quarter note in duration). Between 1:20 and the end of the solo, you can hear the single-cycle texture of the loop change at certain key points; again, this is the sound of Loop Windowing being engaged by each successive hit of the undo button. In effect, the solo itself loops structurally: compare the very ending to the very beginning.


Signature loop from “You Cannot Come Back”

Download the signature loop • Full song at SpotifyFull song at Apple Music/iTunes

Key functions:

• Replace

• Overdub

Key parameters:

InsertMode=Replace

Quantize=Off

This loop is just about the closest thing in this particular track to a “hook,” and makes use of a specific technique which would become a huge part of my EDP technique in later years: using an InsertMode called Replace, with Quantize turned off.

The Replace insert mode completely erases any existing sound in the loop, and overwrites it with whatever is being played through the EDP at the time that the insert button is engaged. It’s the same basic principle as “punching in” with a DAW or a tape deck. The earliest example of this sort of thing in live looping that I’m aware of is Terry Riley’s “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band.”

The EDP’s Replace function operates in what’s called a “momentary” manner. That means that it’s active for as long as the button/pedal is pressed, and it stops as soon as the button/pedal is released. In other words, Replace only happens as long as you’re holding down the switch. Because of this momentary functionality, and because Quantize is turned off (and therefore doesn’t map the start or end point of any functions), Replace can drop very small fragments of sound into a loop – if you’re fast enough, they might be only a few milliseconds long. This is called “SUS” functionality in EDP-speak, and it ultimately became probably the single most important concept to my own looping approach.


Back to 1999: there are a large number of EDP “replacements” (so to speak) in this particular loop, and probably some reversing going on as well. One review of Disruption Theory assumed that this bit was an analog synthesizer being triggered by a MIDI guitar, and while that’s not the case, I certainly take that observation as a compliment.


Ending loop from “You Cannot Come Back”

Download the ending loop • Full song at SpotifyFull song at Apple Music/iTunes

Key function:

• Overdub

On the other end of the spectrum is this loop, reminiscent of (among other things) the synth in the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” This loop evolves and grows over the course of a couple of minutes, using overdub instead of Replace, and appears towards the end of the track. Sounds like mostly E-bow to me, but some of it could be “manual” volume swells as well. The pulsating, 8th-note rhythm here comes from a technique which I used quite a bit on the album, which involved sending MIDI controller data to different effects parameters of an old Alesis Quadraverb GT, to produce rhythmically-quantized vibrato and tremolo effects.

Intro loop from “You Cannot Come Back”

Download the intro loop • Full song at SpotifyFull song at Apple Music/iTunes

Key functions:

• Overdub

• Reverse

The backing drone behind the guitar solo here was built up using an EDP and an E-bow. That’s a pretty standard looping approach, but there’s a catch here: the loop was actually performed AFTER the solo was recorded, and was played in reaction to different musical contours in the guitar solo, which is the opposite of how the “backing loop + lead guitar” equation is usually solved. After it was recorded, the backing loop was fed through a lowpass filter, which was gradually opened up and then closed throughout the length of the solo. 

Intro/outro loop from “In Time”

Download intro/outro loopFull song at SpotifyFull song at iTunes/Apple Music

Key functions:

• Overdub

• Reverse

This loop’s content is a combination of Ebow and “regular” guitar, and also makes use of a Lexicon Vortex and Alesis Quadraverb for stereo imaging and tremelo effects. (It’s just the stereo-spread, pulsating texture that was done on the EDP. The ZZ Top-sounding riff, which gradually emerges from under a filter in the middle of the stereo spectrum, was recorded separately, and looped within the hard disk recorder itself, without any EDP use.)

Solo from “In Time”

Download the soloFull song at SpotifyFull song at iTunes/Apple Music

Key functions:

• Overdub

• Feedback

 

Key parameters:

Feedback=0

This is actually a guitar solo, and the basic sound you hear is what was actually happening in real time as it was played live to disk. The setup was E-bow guitar into EDP, through the Quadraverb (for the pulsating effect) and the Vortex (for the wha-wha/formant filter-type sound). What’s unusual here is that the feedback on the EDP was set all the way down, which means it only produced one repetition of a loop.

By their very nature, loops with a high feedback level tend to build up to dense walls of repeated sounds. But a loop with feedback set to zero, as it is here, means that you have to keep playing live in order to sustain a constant sound. It also means that, unless you keep playing the same thing into the EDP, the texture constantly changes and evolves, and does so quite quickly. The sound of this solo is kind of interesting, then, because it’s a non-repetitive loop played on an E-bow, which leads to a series of dyads (muso-speak for two notes being played at the same time.)

A couple of chunks of this solo were chopped out after the fact to make it more to-the-point, but the bulk of the live improv is intact.


Intro/outro loop from “The Reason Why”

Download the intro/outro loop • Full song at Spotify • Full song at iTunes/Apple Music

Key functions:

• Overdub

• Reverse

This is the very dense pad which explodes at the very beginning of the track (and reappears at the coda). As you might guess from the sound of the loop, this bit you hear is actually a four-measure excerpt of a much longer and larger loop, which was built up over a period of several minutes. I went through performance, decided I liked this one bit, and used that as a repeating element. The section you hear in this clip was reversed at the moment in the loop which I extracted it from.

Chorus from “Walking Stick”

Download the chorus • Full song at Spotify • Full song at iTunes/Apple Music

Key functions:

• Reverse

• NextLoop

Disruption Theory was made without a hardware sampler, and was recorded on a Roland VS-880 hard disk recorder. While the Roland was a cool piece of gear, it was very limited in terms of audio editing, and couldn’t reverse audio on its own. So the backwards guitar part here (a sort of pseudo horn section pad) had to be recorded on an EDP and then reversed within the Echoplex in order to get the backwards sound I was after. Each different chord was recorded as a separate loop within the EDP, which I then manually triggered live via NextLoop, scrolling through each loop at the downbeat of the chord change as the hard disk recorder was running.

Drone from “Signify”

Drone from “Signify”Full song at SpotifyFull song at iTunes/Apple Music

Key function:

• Overdub

The EDP presence on this tune is the tambura-like drone, which is most obvious in this particular excerpt. It’s a largely subliminal part, but it plays an important role in creating the ambience of the track, and I actually had to record several takes before coming up with a final loop which sounded and “sat” right in the arrangement.

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