Anyone with an interest in the world of music production has to know how to get the most out of their loops. Song looping is a key aspect of maximizing your workflow efficiency and putting out music that not only sells but is also lightning-fast to create.
Fortunately, a song loop doesn’t have to be excessively complicated; it’s something even a beginner can get the hang of, in its most rudimentary form. From there, you can take your understanding of what a loop is and how to use it to the next level, creating material with greater depth and more involved beats and chord progressions.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to create something that people want to add to their Spotify playlists, not to create the most complicated repeating section of music ever conceived. Finding the happy medium between what’s too rudimentary and what’s too busy is critical for every audio producer.
What is Song Looping?
In the most general sense, a song loop is a section of music that repeats itself for an indefinite amount of time. The focal point of most song loops is the beat and chord progression, but melodic voices may also be prevalent.
Looping is most commonly found in rock, pop, electronic, and hybrid genres like electroacoustic, but its usage has taken off in recent years. Now, looping has become much more mainstream, meaning that both artists and fans alike will be expecting to hear it.
The Long and Short of Song Loops
Two distinct usages of a song loop can be broken down by how long the particular loop is. For shorter repeated sections, loops are usually applied to a song to make a repeated section that persistently reiterates the same patterns in the same voice and key signature. In music terms, this is what’s known as an ostinato, literally meaning “stubborn” or “obstinate” because of the way it uses the exact same pattern insistently, like a broken record. Its use in music goes all the way back to classical compositions and can be found everywhere in between.
Carol of the Bells is a classic example of ostinato: The most famous line of the piece is repeated throughout almost its entirety. A more modern example would be the Peter Gunn Theme, which features a memorable repeating bassline that refuses to quit throughout the A section. In today’s music, artists in rap, hip hop, and similar genres have taken the idea of ostinato and given it fresh life. These repeating patterns are ideal for choruses to bring the track back to something familiar, or to give the artist something consistent to spit over the top of.
Longer loops are used primarily in verses. These allow the artist to play along with what was recorded in the previous renditions of the loop, steadily building up to a more full and dynamic mix. This process of step recording is how many solo artists manage to fill up a complete sound using only their own talents, plus the strategic looping done by their audio producers and engineers.
Solo performers often use this longer style of looping in order to be a one-person band instead of just singing and accompanying themselves on one instrument. When used effectively, live looping can sound like you’ve packed a full ensemble into a tiny coffeehouse. It’s a great way to stand out from the crowd when playing small venues. Some might see it as a way for multi-instrumentalist to flex their talent, but in reality, it’s a great way to get noticed for the full breadth of your talents, and it’s a great way to deliver those talents to an intimate audience.
What is the Primitive History of Looping a Song?
Although it might seem like a fairly new innovation, at least when it comes to technologically creating a repeating musical pattern, loops as we know them today first hit the music scene all the way back in 1944. Music pioneers in the electroacoustic genre saw the possibilities and artistic advantages that this process of repeating musical phrases could be, and they set out to make it happen. From the experimental work of composers like French composer Pierre Henry, German composer Karlheinz Sockhausen, and Egyptian-American composer Halim El-Dabh, among many others. They inspired future generations to take their looping to the next level.
In the ’60s, eccentric bandleader Frank Zappa, known for his strange and highly experimental music, started working with tape loops and further popularized the movement, at least amongst those in the fringe genres. The 1960s also saw Terry Riley, one of the most famous and influential performers and composers of the era, arguably brought looping even more into the mainstream when he started applying them to his pieces.
Riley’s work in the looping world included a significant advancement in the technology behind what makes a loop possible. In order to achieve the delayed effect, he was going for in his seminal work, Music for the Gift, he had to essentially invent an entirely new piece of hardware designed for looping. This tool, being much more rudimentary when compared to the digital methods in play today, was comprised of a pair of tape recorders that were synchronized and linked, allowing him to manipulate the resultant output.
What is the Difference Between Looping and a Sample?
While both loops and samples are manipulating sound, they are two distinctly different things in music production. An easy way to remember the distinction between the two is that a sample is just a single sound, while a loop is an entire pattern. You can have a set of samples that consists of several different sounds, but it’s not a loop until you have a discernable pattern that repeats itself. Therefore, you can see a loop as a highly organized collection of samples arranged in a specific way.
Just as samples and loops are distinct from each other in definition, the way to use them in your music is also quite different. Loops allow you to give the beat and form of a song a sense of stability and familiarity. Samples, on the other hand, are more often intended to stick out and give a section or moment in your music a bit of a jarring or surprising sound, maybe to elicit a specific emotion or vibe.
Song Looping Software and Hardware
Looping is still done both with software and hardware; it’s up to you as an audio producer to decide which is best for your musical situation. Much of it depends on the performance or recording venue of your work, whether you’re creating primarily on a stage or in a studio, but the genre and complexity of your music will also come into play.
Those who are creating live loops onstage generally work with looping pedals because of their ease of use in a performance-based setting. There is no fiddling around with knobs and dials while your audience starts to check out and look for other sources of entertainment; instead, you can control everything using your foot, so every other body part is dedicated to performing for your audience and making music.
When looping in a studio, however, it’s much more common to see loops created on a computer, using software like a DAW plugin. Most DAWs, digital audio workstations, come fully equipped with everything you need to loop to your heart’s content, achieving everything that professional engineers can without an expensive soundboard. Anything from ProTools to Ableton Live, can give you all the looping power from your home studio or wherever you’re forging your start in music production.
What are the Benefits of Song Looping?
From an audio producer’s perspective, the ability to create a repeating pattern is a highly invaluable tool for several reasons. When you’re stuck on a musical idea, sometimes the only thing to do is run it over in your head again and again until the next chord or melodic phrase reveals itself to you. Even famous and successful composers and songwriters go through this process every day, and looping is the way that they do it without having to internalize the whole process or wear themselves out playing the same thing over and over again.
From the view of a musician needing to put their nose to the grindstone and practice a specific phrase until they’ve mastered it, looping is the perfect solution. Every instrumentalist can tell you right away that practice isn’t always the most fun or exciting thing to do. It’s more motivating when you have the feeling of a full band backing you up, insistently playing over those problem spots for you again and again.
For the listeners and fans, it couldn’t be clearer: People love loops. The reason why might be the sense of familiarity that a repeating pattern gives to a record, making it easy to sing or dance with. Considering how long loops have been prevalent in music, and how repeating patterns have been a cardinal element of every type of music throughout the entirety of its history, it seems unlikely that artists’ tendency to apply looping will ever stop repeating itself.
What are Some Examples of Music that Uses Audio Playback Loops?
If you’re looking for Looping 101 in modern popular music, look no further than the likes of Daft Punk, Bruno Mars, and The Weekend. Each of these artists have many notable uses of loops in their works, such as Get Lucky, Uptown Funk, and Blinding Lights respectively. Once you start listening for these repeating patterns in popular music, you’ll likely start noticing them everywhere, because they are everywhere.
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