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If you’ve ever been to an Ed Sheeran concert or listened to indie fave Andrew Bird, you’ve likely heard a loop station in play. A portable device used in studios and live sets alike, a loop station lets you quickly record a section of your playing or singing in real-time and then play it back on repeat, or yes, on loop.
WHAT IS A LOOP STATION?
According to Justin DeLay, Director of Product and Category Marketing at Reverb (a leading website and app for buying and selling musical instruments), a loop station is an essential part of a musician’s setup. “With a loop station, you can build up layers of looped guitars, vocals, synthesizers, percussion and more, transforming yourself into a one-person band,” he says.
The best-known example of looping in recent years probably comes from Ed Sheeran’s live performances of “Shape of You.” Using a custom loop station, Sheeran lays down a chord progression and beat with his guitar, then uses his keyboard to add a couple of tinkling notes. He uses one more pedal to add background vocals, and in just a couple of steps, he’s got his whole accompaniment set up before even singing a single note.
In addition to Sheeran, Bird uses a computer-based loop station/digital audio workstation and a delay pedal to create his evolving, organic looped performances in real-time. Math rockers Battles also use a loop station and pedals, DeLay says, “to recreate their dense, multi-layered arrangements.” And then there’s Robert Fripp, the British guitarist for artists like David Bowie and Brian Eno, and the main songwriter and lead guitarist for the progressive rock group, King Crimson. DeLay calls Fripp “the godfather of looping,” as someone who “pushed the envelope of available technologies of the time to develop his ‘Frippertronics’ live looping system based on reel-to-reel tape machines.”
HOW DOES A LOOP STATION WORK?
Before you purchase a loop station, it’s important to understand how they work. Think of a loop station like an old-school tape recorder, only using your foot to control the recording panels versus pressing a button with your finger. Place the loop station on a stand or on the floor, then hit a button to start and stop recording. Hit another button to play back what you just recorded, whether it’s a guitar strumming pattern or a vocal pass. Many loop stations let you add additional layers of sounds over what you’ve recorded (“overdubbing”), and some let you change the timing of your looped patterns (I.e. speeding them up or slowing them down). A bunch of loopers also let you add sound effects, to bend the pitch, say, or change up the tempo.
Most loops will have one or more inputs, where you plug in your guitar, microphone, keyboard, etc. “Check that the loop station has the right kind of connections for your expected use,” DeLay says. A loop station will also have one or more outputs, DeLay explains, so make sure that the outputs match your use case. “Look for instrument-level outputs for pedalboards, or line-level if plugging directly into a mixer or audio interface,” he says.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD LOOP STATION?
Loop stations come in a variety of price points, sizes and features, so it’s important to know what to look for. “The first question to answer,” DeLay says, “is what kind of sounds or instruments you are planning to loop.” Many loopers are primarily designed for guitar, with instrument-level inputs, so if you are looking to loop vocals, make sure the loop station has an XLR or microphone input. “Beyond inputs,” he says, “the biggest consideration is your workflow and how you plan to use it. Most loopers on the market will provide basic single track looping and overdubbing,” he explains, “but if you need multiple independent loops, more advanced inputs and outputs, MIDI clock syncing, loop export to computer, or more, it’s important to check the specs of the specific loop station.” In short: a basic loop station is great for most musicians and producers, but if you really want to take your effects up a notch, you’ll want to look for something that’s a little more feature-rich and versatile.
Once associated with DJ acts and hip-hop, looping has now become a great way for all musicians to expand their range when it comes to producing and performing music. That acoustic coffee house set can now feel at once intimate and immersive, while touring acts can use loopers to expand the sound of their band (even if they don’t actually have a full band behind them). Casual musicians also like using loop stations at things like conferences and church.
“Learning to live loop can be a tremendously rewarding experience, but like all techniques, there is a learning curve,” DeLay says. “As with any new-to-you piece of gear, start with simple and affordable options—you can always upgrade to the latest and greatest loop station as you learn more about what you like.”
1. Boss RC-30 Loop Station Bundle
The multi-track looper features two pedals that get you two synchronized stereo tracks, each with its own dedicated volume fader and track-select button. The built-in internal memory gets you up to three hours of recording time, while built-in effects let you do everything from altering the pitch to slowing down the tempo with the press of a button.
This all-in-one-set includes an instrument cable, patch cable and an XLR input, complete with phantom power. You’ll even get a set of guitar picks and a polishing cloth. A USB 2.0 port lets you save your loops to a computer or hard drive, and easily import or export your sound files.
PROS: The “auto recording” feature starts recording the moment you start playing or singing. “Count-in mode,” meantime, gives you one-bar of rhythm before the recording kicks in.
CONS: Some users say the buttons are too small for quick changes during a live performance.
2. BOSS Audio RC-3 Loop Station Pedal
The small but mighty “stompbox” gets you up to three hours of recording time, storage for up to 99 loops and an on-board “rhythm guide” that lets you play along with built-in drum and rhythm patterns. It’s all housed in a super lightweight pedal that runs on a single 9-volt battery, making it great for intimate performances where you don’t have a lot of space to set up and plug in, and also for touring musicians on the go. A USB 2.0 port allows you to connect the pedal to a computer.
What we like: the pedal’s on-board library features ten different drum patterns to help you play in time, and to add some background beats to your track. BOSS says the drum tracks were all created using real instruments.
PROS: Separate volume knobs let you control volume of the rhythm/drum track with one knob, and the current loop with the other.
CONS: Battery and USB cable is not included.
3. Boss RC-1 Loop Station Bundle
This set gets you all the basic features you need, like recording, overdubbing and playback. The RC-1 also has the ability to undo or redo loops.
Stereo-quality inputs and outputs get you decent sound with no annoying “buzz” or lag. Users also say the looper is grippy and sturdy, so it won’t move around even if you’re stomping on the pdeals.
This loop station gets you 12 minutes of recording time and slots for up to 99 loops. It runs on a battery or can be connected to AC power.
This set include picks, an instrument cable, a patch cable so can chain your pedals together, and a polishing cloth.
PROS: The LED “loop indicator” lets you easily see the current status of your recording or playing modes.
CONS: Only 12 minutes of recording time.