Once upon a time, DJs' crates were full of acoustic music with no sequenced beats in sight. As synthesizers, drum machines and samplers showed up on the scene, dedicated acoustic disco bands mostly went the way of leg warmers and the Moonwalk, yet loop-based music — such as house, acid house, downtempo, jungle and countless other subgenres — took center stage in the wake. Alongside this ever-expanding plethora of genres are an equal number of loop-based tools to get users making music fast, especially in the world of software.
ROLL UP THEM SLEEVES
Applications such as Ableton Live, Propellerhead ReCycle and Reason, Sony Acid Pro and many others are either partly or primarily dedicated to the art of making music with loops. I've heard countless arguments that working with loops is not original. I believe that's nonsense. Few would argue that Miles Davis was one of the greatest horn players who ever lived. Did Davis create the trumpet? Of course, he didn't. He didn't invent his tool, but he did use it with profound skill. Likewise, raw loops can be just such a tool. Just because a loop is a prefabricated sound snippet doesn't mean that everyone who uses loops will make stale music any more than it means that they will automatically create masterpieces.
The tools available nowadays are so powerful and easy that you don't have to work hard, right? Wrong. A simple demonstration of this concept is to take the prepackaged loops that come with any of the commercial software and slap them together at random. What do you mostly get? Something that resembles '70s clothing: Day-Glo striped shirts with earth-tone plaid pants. In other words, the parts don't match. For starters, you should build — and use — as large and musically diverse library of loops as possible. Then, when it comes time to build your songs, experiment! Don't settle for one mediocre match. If every sample in your track doesn't immediately make you go, “Yeah!” then it just ain't working. Don't fool yourself. If you're not almost jumping out of your chair with excitement from each addition, your audience won't feel it any more than you do.
OUTSIDE THE 4/4 BOX
Loops are usually sound clips of a specific length in a specific time signature. If you are working on dancefloor material, that means your loops will almost always be in 4/4 time. With that unwritten rule in mind, my suggestion is, of course, to break the rule. For example, find a couple of loops that lock together nicely in mood and rhythm, but with one in 3/4 time and the others in 4/4. There is something rare and instantly recognizable about a track that contains elements that cycle every 12 or 24 measures instead of the standard 16. If you are a perfectionist DJ type, that may seem awkward, so an alternate approach is to keep your loops in multiples of, say, eight bars, but match loops of completely different lengths. By placing tight four-bar loops with constantly morphing 32-bar loops, you can go a long way toward keeping things interesting. Another seemingly obvious yet often overlooked idea is to deliberately use loops way out of your target bpm range. If you are making 126 bpm house, don't go straight for folders labeled House and Techno. Try that 75 bpm funk loop on for size. You just might find it to be the perfect hook.
Now, it's time to discuss some nuts and bolts. Several years back, a then-small company called Propellerhead released a revolutionary program called ReCycle. Although it may be considered old hat by many today, its main function was and still is revolutionary: It automatically finds all of the initial attack points of a loop and creates splice points at each spot. This accomplishes two tasks. First, it allows you to change a loop's length (and thus its tempo) without altering the loop's pitch. Second, it effectively splits a loop into its component parts — particularly useful for uploading the different slices into a sampler as a drum map. The reason this technology is still relevant today is that it has fully matured in the company's more recent opus, Reason. In Reason, you can set a global tempo and load as many Dr.Rex (ReCycle on steroids) loop players as needed. Best of all, you can apply synthesizer features such as filters to your loops, and you get mixing controls for each individual slice. You can make each slice individually louder, softer or muted, all in real time. You can play the loop or individual pieces in reverse or pan each slice separately. You can play the slices manually from a MIDI keyboard, which also means you can program an original loop from scratch, right on top of the pre-existing loop.
Live, yet another well-known software package, has some of its own original merits. Besides performing the obvious — time-stretching loops — it is capable of rendering loops entirely elastic. Like ReCycle, Live also allows you to set clip points, but you can assign those points manually and then time-stretch individual areas within the loop. This powerful feature can make any loop like rubber, allowing you to radically alter its swing and overall sound. In addition, Live also has the ability to define start, end and loop-start times, again, within loops. Remember the idea of putting a 3/4 loop into a 4/4 song? Well, how about immediately changing a loop from eight beats to six beats in length but starting it on the third beat?
The key to making original music with loops is to remember that just because loops are prerecorded chunks of audio doesn't mean that they are made of stone. A wealth of ways is available to customize your loops before arranging them and committing them to CD, vinyl or the Web. Like with a drum kit, you can tune your snares, swap out your cymbals or add a gunshot sound where the rim shot was. Like a found-materials visual artist, if you remember that loops are just raw materials and that you can really crack open the code with today's tools, you are on track to making fresh new product.