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Part 1: Ambient (1997)

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Ambient guitar looping. As much time as I’ve spent rebelling against it, and as much detail as I go into in these very pages about ways to avoid it, the truth is that before any of that, I was a devoted practitioner of the form.

Granted, it’s a fairly wide-ranging concept: some of this music is pretty enough to qualify as new age, and some of it is abrasive enough to be called noise. But to me, when you talk about “ambient guitar looping,” there’s a pretty specific area you’re generally dealing with. And at the beginning of my looping work, it was territory that I spent a lot of time in.

The material in this section was recorded on March 2, 1997. I’d gotten my first Echoplex in October of 1995, and had started doing solo gigs with it about a week afterwards, so these performances represent about a year and a half of pretty consistent study in this kind of territory. Most of these tracks don’t sound anything like a conventional electric guitar, which was the concept I was working with at the time. The EDP is used here in conjunction with a few specific pieces of gear: a Lexicon Vortex effects processor, a Digitech Whammy II harmonizer/pitch shift pedal, and an E-bow.

These tracks barely scratch the surface of the EDP in terms of how deeply its capabilities are explored. Because of that, however, they make good introductory examples of basic looping concepts, and give some indication of different ways looping can be approached using a few very basic techniques. I’m a little embarrassed at how slowly some of these performances develop, but that quality does lend itself to being looked at in more detail.

The use of the EDP in these particular selections is pretty “static.” That means that most of the musical interest and development comes from the notes that are added to the loops, or various adjustments to the parameters of the effects (there’s a lot of post-processing the loops with the Vortex, for instance), rather than through changes made within the Echoplex itself.

All of these recordings are live performances, played in real-time, directly to a two-track stereo recorder, with only occasional fades at the beginning or end of some selections in terms of editing done after the fact. They’re also completely improvised, with little-to-no idea of what they would sound like ahead of time. Being able to create such thick, dense, often unpredictable textures in a spontaneous manner – as a solo musician, no less – is one of the things that most commonly draws musicians to real-time looping in the first place.

Last but not least: the music on this page, along with other selections from the same session, has been compiled onto an anthology album called Infinite Regression, which is available from Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-like basis.


Some Assembly Required

Key functions:

• Overdub

• Feedback

“Azimuth” is my idea of a textbook example of “the ambient guitar-looping paradigm”: using an E-bow to play single lines which are gradually overdubbed upon one another to generate big, abstract, undulating waves of sound. The Echoplex technique here is extremely basic: there’s one loop, of about 20 seconds in length, which is gradually added to with overdubs. Overdubbing is the process of recording new material into the loop, and layering it on top of previously-recorded material. If Overdub is off, then material can be played over a loop without being added to it.

At around the 7:20 mark, you can hear the volume of the loop start to decrease, which is an indication that the EDP’s feedback level has been scaled back from 100% (which gives infinite repetition to a loop) to a lower value (which causes the contents in the loop to gradually fade away).

Feedback is an extremely important tool in looping, because it offers a solution to one of the most fundamental issues of the craft: Where do you go with the loop once you’ve built up a dense wall of sound? Scaling the feedback down to a lower level allows the loop to evolve and change, by causing the current loop content to fade out, and be replaced by newly-overdubbed material on top.

Feedback can also be brought back up to 100% in order to “lock” the content of the loop at a later state, and cause this new material to repeat indefinitely. You can hear this in “Azimuth” around the 8:00 mark, where a new texture and tonality is introduced, and feedback is brought back up to 100% to allow the new content to repeat without fading. The feedback value gets attenuated between 100% and lower levels throughout the rest of the performance, to develop and evolve the loop. At the end of the performance, feedback is brought down without anything new is added to the loop, so that it eventually fades to silence.

“Some Assembly Required” is dramatically different in terms of style and tone, but the basic looping technique is the same as “Azimuth”: record an initial loop, overdub new layers onto it, and scale back feedback at various points to create development and evolution in the content of the material.


Key functions:

• Overdub

• Reverse

The EDP approach here is similar to the previous tracks, but one thing which isn’t present in either of the first two examples is the use of Reverse. It occurs around the 5:30 mark, and as you’d expect, it flips the loop around and plays it backwards. The EDP can instantly reverse the current loop at any point during playback, and can return to forward playback at any other point.

It’s also worth noting that feedback isn’t used very much in this performance. The evolution and development of the loop occurs more through changing the signal processing and forward/reverse direction of the loop, as opposed to fading out old content and playing new material into it.

Dawn Over I-80

Traveling Planetwide Bailiwick

Key functions:

• Multiply

• Overdub

The EDP technique used here is slightly but significantly more sophisticated; it involves the use of the Multiply function. This is one of the most powerful and distinctive features of the EDP, because it allows the Echoplex to take a preliminary loop (or “cycle” in EDP-speak) and then multiply it out several times, thereby creating a new loop length (made up of several “cycles”) which is longer than the original loop/cycle it began with.

In “Dawn Over I-80,” you can hear, in the initial fade-in (which was applied to the recording post-performance), a basic single-note syncopated figure. Each repetition of that figure is one cycle in the EDP’s memory. But the overall loop is four cycles in length, which you can hear by virtue of a longer, higher-register, three-note phrase, overdubbed on top. That higher phrase takes four cycles (or repetitions) of the initial phrase (which you can still hear underneath) to repeat itself.

In “Traveling Planetwide Bailiwick,” the initial loop length is one measure of 5/4, and you can hear how the preliminary overdubs repeat within that one-measure window. But at 1:10, longer phrases – four times the original loop’s length – start being overdubbed on top of the original figure. The original loop is one cycle, but Multiply enables overdubs longer than that by expanding the length out to four cycles.

Using Multiply to build longer loops off of relatively small initial cycle lengths is absolutely huge, as far as I’m concerned:

• It allows you to develop an idea beyond the confines of the original length of your preliminary loop

• It helps form a strong rhythmic foundation for a loop, particularly at the very beginning of creating it, offering an alternative to the arythmic, free-time sound that can crop up a lot in real-time looping

• It can quickly create a complex initial foundation upon which additional overdubs can be added. This is a tremendous contrast to the “start sparse and gradually build up the loop” approach, or the “play through the entire length of the song with your most basic part, then play through the entire length of the song again for each extra part” routine

• It’s a distinctive sound which is unavailable in less sophisticated real-time loopers (in other words, almost all of them)

• By multiplying an initial cycle out and overdubbing longer phrases on top of it, you can create multiple loops within one another, so that several “wheels within wheels” are happening simultaneously in a single loop.

Sweet Enigma

Key functions:

• Insert

• Quantize

• Multiply

Key parameters:

• InsertMode=Insert

• Quantize=Cycle

This performance has the most advanced EDP functionality to be found on this page, and it involves increasing the loop length with the Insert function.* Insert is related to Multiply, in that it deals with expanding the loop length by Cycles, but Insert produces a completely different-sounding result.

With Multiply, you’re duplicating existing cycles. With Insert, you’re creating new cycles, which contain whatever you’re playing during the Insert.

At 0:16 of “Sweet Enigma,” you can hear the initial loop being created. It’s a short one, and it’s just taking a small fragment of the longer, sustained note that’s being played over it. While the loop keeps spinning, the live guitar switches to a different sustained note above it.

Then, at 0:30, Insert is used to add a new cycle into the loop. But the new cycle isn’t a duplicate of the original cycle, as it would be with Multiply – it’s a loop of the newer, higher note that was just being played. The loop length has been doubled, but it’s not two multiples of the same cycle – it’s two cycles, of the same length, but with totally different sound content in each one.

Insert happens two more times, at 0:42 and 0:53. By that point, the loop is now made up of four cycles, and each cycle has completely different material in it, because each cycle was added using Insert while playing a different note on the live guitar.

(Because Quantize is set to Cycle, the EDP waits until the very ending of the current Cycle before inserting a new Cycle; this is what gives the loop a very precise, step sequencer-style sound.)

From 2:21 to 2:39, the guitar plays a longer phrase over the top, and at 2:39 that longer phrase starts repeating. This is Multiply being used: the four-cycle loop that emerged at 0:53 has now been multiplied out eight times. So, from an initial loop length of less than one second, the EDP has built up a loop of nearly 20 seconds in length, using a combination of Multiply and Insert to expand the number of cycles in the loop.

*Getting to know the Insert button on the EDP can be very confusing, because the InsertMode parameter many different possible settings, which can alter the loop in dramatically different ways. For the purposes of this particular performance, the InsertMode should be set to Insert. I know that sounds redundant, but as further Insert modes are explored in later pages, the distinction will become more important.

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