Last week I bought a loop pedal. Tomorrow, I am taking it back.
That is the short version of the story. Here is the long version.
I am getting more gigs now. This is a good thing. I gig solo, just me and a guitar. I have no band, in part because I haven’t the time. But largely because I haven’t the inclination. Music is a solo affair for me, other than when recording – in the studio I love having other musicians get involved on my songs. Plus – as a music producer in my day job, I need my ears in perfect condition. Drummers are great behind a sheet or two of sound proof glass, but not next to me on stage, thank you very much!
So my mind has been wandering recently for ways to make my live set more varied. This is where the loop pedal idea came from.
A loop pedal, for those unaware, is a clever little device that allows you to “loop” a section of music you play live over and over, and then layer this loop with more sounds, creating a real-time soundscape on stage. Every note is played by you, but it simply repeats and layers the sections you lay down. Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall have both been big advocates of this, in no small part because they are also solo singer songwriters. Especially true in the early days for both, as bands are expensive things to trek around on tour!
I duly took my cue. I went out and bought a loop pedal that seemed perfect. The pedal has two inputs and two outputs. One for my guitar, and one for my vocal. Perfect! Well… not quite. I will not go into the full technical side of this, but, in order to get a gig-ready setup that is workable by a front-of-house sound engineer, I would need to spend more money and use roughly a dozen leads of various types in the chain. My current setup up is two leads – one guitar, one vocal. This move from straightforward to complex is disconcerting, especially in the hazy world of live sound where simplicity is king.
At first, my inner tech geek was salivating. Don’t get me wrong – in the comfort of the rehearsal studio, with a careful set up, this pedal works. Looping in time came naturally, and I have had a lot of fun layering in real time. I started to plan some of my songs to adapt to this set up, coming up with some funky ideas.
And then the pedal crashed.
The red recording light stalled in the “on” position. The pedal had “stuck” on record mode, layering upwards without punching out of record. No button presses were stopping it. The room started to heave with low end hum from the undying loop… I dived for the master volume on my mixer and unplugged the loop pedal.
Concerned, I powered on again and all was dandy. However, since this occurrence, the pedal has crashed twice more over this week. Now – the pedal is reliable over 95% of the time. This would be fine in the studio. But live, it is all or nothing, and I feel uneasy at the risk of that 5% cropping up on stage.
As such, I am taking the pedal back. I considered an exchange but (a) it seems the model is new and other people online are reporting similar inconsistent behaviour and (b) I am having other concerns…
The set-up using this device is complex and will take me from being a breeze to manage on stage to a potential nightmare. This is because I want all or nothing. I want to loop vocals AND guitar. Looping just the guitar is straightforward. My desire to push the boundaries created 4 outputs and a string of connectors. I actually like the simplicity of my current guitar/vocal set up. It gives me comfort to know very little can go wrong, and, if it does, I have a spare guitar and spare mic. Easy fixes abound. Should this new, fancy loop-pedal set up go wrong on stage, I’d be in trouble!
I think I also liked the *idea* of a looper more that the actual result. Adding a looped, 8 beat guitar clunk as a rhythm track, then layering some guitar lines and vocal oohs seemed cool. Later that afternoon, I played the same song vanilla, unplugged in a reverb heavy lobby at the studio. I liked the vanilla more, even though, technically, it was less impressive. When it is just me, I found I concentrated more on the notes and words I was performing. Once I started looping, the mesh of sound stated to take over, and keeping track of it was reducing my performance. Or, at least I felt like it was, putting me ill at ease with the set up.
I’ll admit, I wanted a “wow” factor. And I wonder if I am looking in the wrong place, or whether I need it at all. Yes, looping can be really cool, but it is no longer a “new hotness”. People have seen it before. For those that are new to it, once the wow passes, you are left with songs that are potentially hamstrung by it. Either the loop has to cut out for the chord change sections, causing a sudden drop in arrangement density, or you simply keep the same chords looping throughout a song. I am no dance music artist, and I found myself grating on my own songs, dying for a middle eight, a relative minor, a rhythmic variation rather than addition.
I do feel that perhaps I am jumping ship too early. Perhaps I should replace the pedal and persevere. However, I have spent many hours this week acclimating. Hours I could have spent writing. Recording. Mixing my new record. Put bluntly, I fear I am playing technician, not musician, and as such not getting the returns I crave.
I also wonder whether I am trying to fix a problem that isn’t there.
Last weekend I played my longest live set yet. A full hour to a chilled Sunday afternoon crowd at a lovely venue in Hertfordshire. This was me, my acoustic guitar, a microphone, and a dozen of my own songs. No cover versions, no guest musicians, no gimmicks. And it went really well! The feedback I got was all positive. The hour flew by on stage and I felt really comfortable. The compliments I received from both friends and strangers afterwards mentioned the intimacy of the set. Hearing the words clearly. The variation of styles I use. No one but me seemed concerned that the guitar/vocal set up wasn’t enough.
Some of my favourite gigs as a spectator have been these intimate close-quarter set ups. Laura Marling, Amos Lee, Scott Matthews… Seeing each of these artists play solo with their guitar, I never longed for a loop pedal, a sampler, or any other tech gadget. I was happy with the music, the words and the artist. The focus is beautiful when the material is strong. Why dilute this? I should be writing better songs, not orchestrating complex technical set ups.
Earlier this evening, I looked across my studio at my Yamaha stage piano. I have recently started tinkering again on this lovely instrument. I even have a rather pretty piano led song on my second album, (which I am heading towards completing over the coming months). Perhaps here lies my new “thing” for the stage. Not a gimmick, a real tangible skill. I should practice and gain some proficiency, one day dragging the piano on stage, bringing a few new songs with it. Piano skills would be useful all round, so this seems like a no brainer.
This has nothing to do with a minor Tim Minchin obsession of late. Nothing whatsoever…