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Experiments with Live Looping

Performing electronic music with loops is a technique known as live looping. It has been used for many years by a variety of different artists and it has been used on stage and in recording studios.

This article aims to introduce the reader to the techniques used in live looping and to describe what a live looping performer needs to know in order to do perform effectively.

To program a drumbeat is to align an external rhythmic device to an individual’s biorhythm. Saul Williams Williams-The Dead Emcee Scrolls

See also Generative Music Iteration

Fundamentals of Looping

You must place the fundamentals of rhythm at the heart of your rig, because those are the sounds that will make people move.

Focus on getting a beat or simple riff looping, and once that is done, start putting a little seasoning onto the beat.

There are many ways to spice up your basic rhythm, but one thing is undeniable: It should act as a strong foundation for the rest of your mix.

Now, you can always add a dash of sugar. Sugar comes in many forms: A catchy melody in your main synth line, an uplifting chord progression using synths or a well placed vocal breakbeat.

Keep building, and then remove some elements, build some tension, and then suddenly drop all of the elements back. Now do it all over again.

Artists who live loop

  • Animal Collective
  • Marc Rebillet
  • Reggie Watts
  • Imogen Heap
  • Beardyman
  • Jacob Collier
  • Andrew Bird

Core principles

Tempo sync

To get a satisfying flow while performing live loops, the loops in the rig have to be at the same tempo. This is a complex task, because it involves connecting some gear using MIDI, while other gear doesn't even have a MIDI in.

Fortunately, the TR-8, SP-555, and RC-505 have a "sync" function, which can be used to send a synth and MIDI clock to other devices. This means that if the TR-8 is playing a consistent beat, the rest of the gear can receive that beat and use it to start automatically looping and recording their tracks. I usually have my RC-505 as master and have the TR-8 sync to whatever tempo it is set at.

Dynamics & crescendos

It's important to leave enough space in a performance to build up from a quiet side to a peak. This is done by adding and removing loops from the mix and fading their volume in and out.


When there are too many loops happening at the same time, the performance becomes oversaturated and loses it's dynamics.

A small correction in tempo to correct a mistake will sound very abrupt and will ruin the performance.

The only way out is good preparation: be careful when you play, and know your gear really well.

If you choose the right amount of loops to perform with, it will be much easier to keep track of what's going on.

When performing with a number of different devices, there will be some degree of randomness to your loops, and riding the natural drift is part of the art of performing live.

Live Looping Pitfalls

Too Repetitive

If you play the same loop over and over again, the performance will become boring.

The solution is to add new loops to the mix, and to remove old loops. There should almost always be something changing at any point in time.

Losing sync

If the loops are not in sync, the performance will sound bad.

The solution is to use the sync function on the TR-8, SP-555, and RC-505.

Not making changes on-beat

Every change that you make, whether you think it will affect the sound or not, should be made on-beat. That way even if it has unintended effects, it at least happened in the right place and can sound a lot better.

Not enough inputs/sounds

If there are not enough loops in the mix, the performance will sound empty.

If there are not enough sounds, it gets boring quickly. Having a library of diverse instruments available keeps things sounding fresh.


Roland TR-8 (Drums)

The TR-8 is a drum machine and sequencing interface that emulates the sound and feel of the classic TR-808 and TR-909. It can be used for triggered live samples or as a percussion instrument in a live setting.

The TR-8 is great because you get individual control over the volume and timbre of each drum, so you can easily add or remove just the hi-hats or snare at any time.

Xone 96 (Mixer)

The Xone 96 is a DJ mixer with loads of inputs and fx, but where it shines is as the center for audio controls for all inputs.

Delay and reverb pedals (effects)

At least one delay and one reverb pedal on loop make any performance infinitely better. The DD-7 and DD-3 have different delay times and sound, so they make a great pair in my opinion.

Traktor F1 (Sampler)

The F1 is NI's controller for the Traktor DJ software. It's a limited sampler with 4 slots, but it's useful in a live looping setup due to it's ease of use during a performance.

In the context of live looping rhythm, the knobs correspond to decay, filter cutoff and other performance oriented controls.

SP-555 (FX)

In my opinion, the SP-555 is the definitive looping sample player. It's a classic, the one where it all started. It's somewhat confusing interface is eclipsed by its usefulness as a looping tool. The library of loops and samples available for these devices is second to none, and so are their warm saturating sounds.

Midifighter (Controller)

The Midifighter is a controller that is designed to perform samples in a live setting. It's small, it's sturdy, and it's easy to use.

Keylab 49 (Controller)

The Keylab 49 is a MIDI controller with 49 keys, a pitch bend wheel, a modulation wheel, and a bunch of knobs and buttons.

Turntables (Controller)

The turntables are the classic DJ tool. They are used to control the pitch of a record, and they can be used to scratch.

RC-505 (Controller)

The RC-505 is a looping controller. It has 5 tracks, each with a fader and a knob. It also has a bunch of effects and a built in sampler.