Not Just for Dance Music Anymore

Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Erik Hawkins


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When we think of loop-based production, we often imagine techno and dance music or remixed pop hits — or in any case, music that's been assembled loop by loop. But take a close listen to some of the R&B, hip hop and even rock that's on the radio today, and you might notice the use of loops in the mix.

It used to be that “loop” was a dirty word, and for good reason: The material available to build a loop was weak, technology was limited and plenty of loops just sounded cheesy. But the popularity of electronic music has helped usher in a new generation of technology that allows for more creative flexibility in any music production environment. That, combined with the loop-heavy state of modern pop music, results in more music across the board that brings together loops and live audio tracks.

To gain a clear understanding of both the technical and creative sides of combining loops and audio tracks, Mix spoke with several well-known music producers and asked them to share some of their tricks. Producer/engineer/songwriter Michael Bradford (Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker, New Radicals) recently completed production on the new Deep Purple album Bananas (Sanctuary Records) and is about to begin production on Uncle Kracker's next album. Veteran producer/songwriter David Frank has been churning out hits for more than three decades, from Chaka Khan's “I Feel for You” to Christina Aguilera's “Genie in a Bottle” (which he co-wrote with Steve Kipner and Pam Sheyne). Recent work includes tracks with European pop star Ronan Keatings, American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini and a forthcoming American Juniors album. Joe Solo is a producer/songwriter with Famous Music, the music publishing division of Paramount. His credits include Macy Gray and co-writes with John Ingoldsby (Madonna and Elton John) and Arnie Roman (Celine Dion).


Bradford explains that a well-chosen loop adds “spice” to a production that may be difficult to achieve with only an artist's studio performance. “The right loop will introduce a certain ambience to a track, creating a mental picture of where you want to take the listener — whether it's a busy city street, a dark alley or some place more exotic. A good loop can really do a lot psychologically for the listener and help you to tell a story with the song. It's like lighting in a visual setting: It helps set the mood.”

A loop's repetitive nature can also function as a production's rhythmic, and sometimes harmonic, glue. “The basis for all contemporary groove-based music is one- or two-bar loops of repeating rhythmic or harmonic patterns,” says Frank. “A loop can give a track that hypnotic feel, which can be used to a producer or songwriter's advantage,” adds Solo, who will often loop a vocal line during the final chorus to underpin a song's hook. Bradford adds, “The good thing about loops is that they have that steady time, while the bad thing is that they're missing the human part of the equation — that spontaneous element of a performance. What makes a song that is heavily loop-based sound human is to have real fills and percussion played over the loop — something to break up the loop's repetitiveness.”

A loop can be added midway through a track, but it also can ignite the creative process from the get-go. “There was a song I did recently where I just keep repeating an organ riff over and over again, and the whole composition was built up from this loop,” says Frank. Generally, a looped element, such as a rhythm track or obscure melody from an old funk recording used during the songwriting process, will remain part of the final production even if the loop itself does not. As Solo puts it, “The loop may or may not end up in the final mix, but since the production was initially built using it as a starting point, the loop's ‘feel’ stays with the song to the end.”

During the course of a production, a loop may make its first appearance at any time. Loops may be incorporated during the songwriting process and remain through to the final mix or added after a song has been recorded and carefully synchronized to these performances. Bradford says, “If I'm using a loop during the recording, it probably has a beat or a character that I want musicians to key into as they're performing the song. Otherwise, I'll record using a click so that I can edit and fly sections around without worrying about tempo changes; this also gives me a tempo that I can rely on when I want to use my loops.”


While there are numerous sample libraries on the market that offer quality loops, for the most part, these producers sample loops of their own creation. “I'll come up with some sort of sequence that I like,” says Frank. “This could be a rhythmic loop assembled from analog noise samples or a harmonic loop, like I might play a four-bar chord progression on a clavinet or Rhodes. Then I record the performance into Logic Audio so that I have the loop as an audio file. That's when the fun begins. In Logic, I work on the loop some more, filter it, chop it up and throw away the pieces that I don't like. There's a song called ‘Heartbreaker’ on Justin Guarini's debut album where I used this technique. I recorded a four-bar pattern of arpeggiated chords using Emagic's virtual Fender Rhodes, the EVP88. Then I changed the audio around in Logic. That loop is the harmonic underpinning of the song.”

“I have a great drum kit, a ton of snares and a bunch of percussion instruments,” says Bradford. “Often, I'll just go into my studio, have a click running and record myself playing. Then I'll process the performances, do various things with ambience and echo, and burn loops out of them. I'll also record individual drum hits and then put everything together to build my own pattern libraries.” Bradford fashions loops from his guitar playing, as well. “A lot of the loops I make are guitar that's been heavily processed, sort of repeating, sonic patterns. I have TC Electronic's G-Force, a guitar processor with nine built-in effects — like compression, delay, distortion, reverb, some filters — that can be chained together in any sequence. And there are all sorts of modulation choices. It's an incredible sound design tool that I've used to make loops from guitar playing that sound nothing like guitars.”

Solo takes a similar approach to creating loops. “In order to have my own custom building blocks, I'll sample my guitar playing and extract parts from my productions that haven't been released. Then I'll spend time mangling these elements with plug-ins, effects units and even stomp boxes, like wah wah and whammy pedals, to invent really unique-sounding loops.” Solo says that he has two “special weapons” for processing loops: Antares' Kantos and Roger Linn Designs' Adrenalinn II. “I love the Kantos plug-in. It can twist an audio file in really unconventional ways, and the results are always original. Adrenalinn is a groove-filter stomp box, which can impart that classic, dirty loop feel to any instrument. I run instruments through it that aren't usually associated with loops, from guitar to vocals and acoustic piano. It can even synchronize to MIDI Beat Clock for some amazing rhythmic effects. I once spent six hours straight running a couple of looped vocal lines through Adrenalinn and exploring all the various possibilities.”


But there are times when these producers employ loops from a commercially available library. For example, both Frank and Solo name Spectrasonics' Stylus as a drum loop source. Bradford also names a few of his preferred CD-ROM releases: “One of my favorites is Zero-G's Chemical Beats,” he says. “And E-Lab's Vinylistic Series is always great to have on hand. I've used that one on everyone from Terence Trent D'Arby to Uncle Kracker. One other library is Big Fish Audio's Alien Guitars. It's really good for sounds that you don't necessarily recognize as guitars; the loops just become ambience.”

“I recently did a production for American Juniors, where I used a loop from Stylus,” says Frank. “The track needed more of a swing feel, so I found a loop in Stylus that had the right type of feel. It was almost the right tempo as well, so rather than time stretch it, I simply tuned it to match the song's tempo. The song's original drums had sort of an eighth-note feel, while the loop from Stylus featured more of a swinging 16th-note feel. In this case, tuning the loop to lock it up with the original groove worked fine because there were no conflicts between any of the parts. The loop added the perfect feel for the final production.”

For those times when more drastic measures must be taken to synchronize a loop, Solo employs Digital Performer's built-in time compression/expansion tool. “To change the tempo of one of my homemade drum loops, I use Digital Performer's graphic time-stretching tool. Initially, you need to be meticulous about truncating the loop so that it starts and ends perfectly in time, but after this, you can just grab the end of the loop and snap it to your sequence's tempo grid. The loop is then automatically stretched or compressed to match the tempo of your song. I have the whole process down to about 20 seconds.”

Bradford depends on Serato's Pitch 'n Time plug-in for his time-stretching tasks. “If it's a matter of speeding up or slowing down the entire loop a significant amount, Pitch 'n Time is great. A lot of percussion has pitches, and if you speed them up or down, you don't necessarily want the pitch to change, just the tempo. You can do this with Pitch 'n Time.” When even more detailed editing is required, Bradford employs Pro Tools' Beat Detective. “The Beat Detective feature lets me take any loop and chop it up into smaller sections, which can then be quantized. Between Pitch 'n Time and Beat Detective, I can pretty much line up anything with anything.”

Most loops are in 4/4 meter, but with a tool like Beat Detective and some imaginative editing, it's possible to lock a 4/4-meter loop into a song of a different meter. “On the Deep Purple album, there was one song where the verses were in 7 and the choruses in 5,” says Bradford. “I found a very cool Latin percussion loop in 4/4, then chopped it up to make it in 7. A lot of people think 4/4 time in terms of loops, but there's no reason why you can't do other time signatures. As long as you can get the loop to blend in so that you feel it but don't necessarily hear it.”


“The remake of Dobie Gray's song ‘Drift Away’ on Uncle Kracker's No Stranger to Shame album is a good example of how I work,” says Bradford. “I cut the rhythm section with drummer Russ Kunkel, one of the best drummers in the world; he played on Jackson Brown's ‘Running on Empty,’ Bob Seger's ‘Like a Rock’ and Carly Simon's ‘Anticipation.’ At that point, the song sounded very retro — too similar to the original. So to give it a more contemporary sound, I decided to try some loops, which really brought it into this century. The loops alone would have been too youthful, too hip hop and not paid any respect to the original version, which is one of the most popular songs of the last 30 years. It was really the combination that made everything work. And it paid off. ‘Drift Away’ was Number One on Billboard's AC chart for a record 24 weeks, and the album went Gold largely on the strength of that single.”

All three producers often use filtering to help a loop sit in the mix. As Solo explains, “I'll filter out all the frequencies below around 5 kHz, leaving just the high end. That way, the loop's kick and snare won't interfere with the real drummer's performance. This technique was used in Macy Gray's ‘Sweet Baby,’ the first single from The Id album, which was co-produced with Daryl Swann and Rick Rubin.” According to Bradford, “I'll occasionally drop a loop out during the mix, but I'm more likely to filter it. The downside with loops is that they take up so much room; if you take them out completely, you feel like the bottom has dropped out of the song. So rather than having a loop go away completely, filtering just changes its tone.” Frank also employs bit reduction. “The effect is to remove some of the loop's bottom end so that it sits behind the main drum groove.”

Processing the same loop in different ways, for different sections of a song, can also help to keep things interesting. For example, you could lightly filter the loop during the verses, then put a phasing effect on the loop for the choruses. Bradford says, “Another thing I do is use different kinds of loops, one for the verse, another for the chorus and a different one for the bridge. To do this, you want to select loops that are similar, but not exact, so switching between them doesn't sound abrupt. It's the same idea as a live drummer who might play one beat during the verse and, for more energy, a slightly different beat during the chorus.”

Bradford offers some wise advice to integrate loops and live percussion: “If you're going to use loops against live percussion, it's very important to have a drummer who has really good time. Loops are so steady, they can really show any flaws in the drummer's timing. But when you have a drummer who can really play in the pocket right along with the loop, it's a magnificent sound.”

The right loop can add flavor to your production, and using a loop of your own creation will ensure that the flavor is not canned. As Solo puts it, “If you just stick with factory loops, you're using the same musical building blocks that everyone else in the world has access too.” Don't be afraid to experiment, because as Frank points out, “Playing with a loop in a digital audio sequencer is not unlike working with another musician: You can get different ideas from your interplay with the program.” Loops have become a staple in popular music production. If you need proof, just look at the charts. So throw out any preconceived notions about what type of music loops belong in, and dig in.

Erik Hawkins was totally looped when he wrote this story. Look for his new book, How to Remix: Produce Dance-Floor Hits on Your Personal Computer (coming next month from Berklee Press) to learn more sizzling production tricks.

Prescription REX

With Propellerhead's ReCycle application, loops can be chopped up into component “hits,” where each hit becomes one sample. An associated MIDI file plays back all of the samples in order, re-creating the performance heard in the original audio file. These are called ReCycled loops. Such loops are often referred to by their extension, .rex, for REX files. (There are actually two types of REX files: .rex, the original mono version, and .rx2, the more recent stereo version.) REX loops provide a high degree of tempo control without any of the nasty artifacts normally associated with traditional time compression/expansion. Moreover, because of their unique architecture, ReCycled loops can be easily quantized, re-grooved and even rearranged.

Many of today's top digital audio sequencers can read REX files, including Digital Performer, Logic Audio and Cubase SX. A handful of other popular programs also work with REX files, including Propellerhead's Reason (the Dr. REX module) and Emagic's EXS24 sampler. There are a lot of cool REX libraries available, but it's also possible to write your own REX files with the ReCycle application. With this program in your loop-making toolbox, you can recycle your own loops to create the ultimate and totally flexible custom loop library.

Locking a ReCycled loop with the groove of a live performance is a piece of cake: By altering its MIDI performance file or the placement of each individual sample (as is the case when importing a REX file directly to an audio track), you can change the actual “feel” of the loop as easily as you can change its tempo. For example, you can create a groove template based on the drummer's performance and then quantize all of the REX files' samples to that groove. This allows many loops that wouldn't normally sound good on top of each other to be layered together because they are all locked to the same groove engine.
Erik Hawkins

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