FIG. 1: Looptastic Producer (soundtrends.com; $14.99) can mix up to 20 loops at once. You can load original loops over Wi-Fi or via AudioPaste from compatible apps.
Like many musicians, you probably have dozens of half-finished songs gathering dust on your hard drive. But dig deeper, and those abandoned riffs, grooves, and chord progressions can be a gold mine of inspiration. After all, something in the original recording caught your ear enough to make you save it.
One easy way to exploit your old recordings is to slice them up into loops that you can layer into new compositions (see “Step-by-Step Instructions” on the next page). For the most flexibility, it''s best to work from multitrack recordings, but I''ve pulled some rousing loops from complete mixes. The theme on my 2005 Art of Digital Music DVD soundtrack came from a demo I recorded back in 1991, enhanced with more modern sounds.
But the power of loop construction kits really hit home when tech pundit Sam Levin asked me to help him whip up a demo of Looptastic, an iPhone remixing app I helped design (see Fig. 1). Levin was booked on the Cranky Geeks show and wanted to impress Head Crank John Dvorak, who delights in bashing products.
Figuring everyone pays special attention to his own voice, I sampled Dvorak boasting and sputtering from an old episode, and then massaged the syllables into rhythmic loops in Ableton Live (see “Um''s the Word”bit.ly/cranktastic).
Loop Before You Leap
How do you create the components for loop construction kits? “Rule number one is to keep the performances simple,” says Jason Donnelly of Peace Love Productions, who designed almost all the Looptastic factory loops. “Use one to three notes in a single key signature. Use only one or two chords, preferably simple triads. Make most performances resolve to the root note—that will make loops from different kits more compatible.”
Doug Morton of Q-Up Arts agrees. “Leave enough space in the parts to allow users to create their own custom mix,” he says. “If the parts are too ‘signature'' or complex, the control is lessened.”
For most genres, Donnelly creates basic stems such as drums, bass, percussion, synth, guitar, brass, and piano. He especially likes percussion and sound effects because “they are simple layers that can help create fills between part changes. They are also good for creating intros and breakdowns.”
Donnelly says two variations per loop (an A and B section) are usually enough. More than that can complicate layering because it''s harder to ensure that all the combinations will mesh. He also favors simple drum beats. “I will often mix kick and snare as one loop in Looptastic,” he explains. “I''ll then have a separate hi-hat loop that can be added or removed easily to create a desired dynamic effect. Crash cymbals are good on the downbeat, if you make the loop long enough to let the decay ring out.” The longer your loops, the less repetitious they''re likely to sound. But see Web Clip 1 for tips on spinning even 4- or 8-bar loops into exciting performances.
Mixing for Effect
“Construction kits to me are mini song ideas,” Donnelly says. “I often start with a beat because it''s the backbone and can double as a metronome. The recording process is the same as recording a full-length song: Mix the track levels and EQs just as if you were mixing the tune for an album. Use small amounts of compression on each track. Adjust levels so the master mix is just below unity. Add a limiter to the master channels, set for a slight amount of limiting.”
Regarding effects, Donnelly advises, “Use as little effects processing as possible so there''s more flexibility for final production—unless the effect adds a necessary characteristic, such as tempo-synched delay.”
Morton says he covers the bases by offering both dry and effected versions of loops.
Ableton Live has a slick “render as loop” feature that wraps echoes and reverb tails around to the beginning of the loop to prevent ugly cutoffs when the loop repeats. For other sample editors, Donnelly suggests this clever workaround: “I always record my performances twice and keep just the second repetition,” he says. “That gives the loop a seamless looping point. You will get some of the effect on the first downbeat, but in most cases that''s not as noticeable as a jerky loop point.”
So don''t let your abandoned songs decompose on your hard drive. Instead, tear them apart and recompose them. You may be surprised how many new ideas that brings about.
CLICK ON PAGE 2 FOR "STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS"
STEP 1: Isolate a 4- or 8-bar section of your song in a DAW, or create a new region.
STEP 2: Identify the hook and record complementary tracks (drums, percussion, bass, melodies, chords, sound effects, etc.).
STEP 3: Record variations of selected parts on new tracks.
STEP 4: Adjust levels and apply effects to each track.
STEP 5: Export individual tracks, load into a sampler or looping program, and listen for glitches.
STEP 6: Apply a fast fade to the loop end if necessary.