Getting Loopy: More Practice Tools/Toys

Boss Loop Station (RC-20XL)
click the image to learn more or to buy one.

A book is like a man: clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.
~John Steinbeck


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Before I dive in to this topic, you might want to check out the sister podcast to this blog. There are 2 new interviews posted. Professional musicians talk about how they practice. One is with jazz musician Chad McCullough, the other with Colin Oldberg, principal trumpeter with the Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra. I’ll be turning this blog into a blog/podcast soon with more interviews from many different kinds of musicians. Stay tuned! Okay. On to the toys.

I like to use electronics to make practice more fun and I think, more demanding. In this quick post I’ll show you the Boss Loop Station. It allows me to layer recordings. It can be used with a microphone (that’s how I record trumpet and various percussion), electronics (you can input beats or any other digital media), and/or guitar.  You’ll need an amplifier to make it work, too. Mine is set up with a microphone and guitar input. I won’t get into the details of how the loop station works, but here’s how such a device helps with practice.

Precision. When you play with a device that loops a particular sound, rhythmic precision is essential. If you use electronic drum beats or the device’s built-in drums (what I used on the recording below), any variance from the beat will be immediately (and sometimes painfully) audible. With this device, it’s easy to trash a loop and begin another. In this way, feedback about what you played is immediate, and you just keep going over the passage or idea until you’ve got it.

For this clip (also below), I wanted to practice a minor blues in concert E (F# for trumpet), so I recorded the guitar with a drum beat, added shaker and triangle parts, then put the melody/improvisation over the top. If I had a bass in my office I’d probably add a bass line, too.  Normally I won’t record the trumpet  parts, just the chord progression so I have some solo space. It’s great fun and does take some practice, but it’s well worth the time spent. And really, the time spent is pretty fun. If you don’t play multiple instruments, you can play duets or improvise with yourself or better yet, patch in some percussion, or a Kaoss Pad (post on this gadget coming soon), or from a program like Garage Band.

The device is easy to use: you simply stomp on the pedal to start recording, then stomp on it a second time (as precisely as possible) to loop what you just did. Then the process can be repeated when you’re ready to layer another part. It’s great for recording duets with yourself (or trios, quartets, etc.), for creating harmony parts, or for improvising. Even though it’s designed to be used in performance, I find it a fun practice tool.

I’ll explore and improvise until I get something I like, then add it to the loop, then repeat the process, always removing attempts that have any errors. Below is the result of about a fifteen minute micro-practice session (more on these soon). I had to make several attempts. This device forces you to listen to yourself very closely. And all the research literature in practice, and all the books, and all the professional musicians people I’ve interviewed about practice agree that if you want to get better, you have to eliminate all mistakes and practice slowly. This device allows you to do that.

Practice session from 2-12-11: Minor 12 bar blues in E w/ guitar, shaker, triangle, and trumpet.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. mrG says:

    so I thought to myself, gee, a computer must be able to do all this too, and I typed in “ubuntu loop station” and sure enough, someone had been having the same thought and posed their question to a form, and there it was, the leads to SooperLooper and FreeWheeling, two free opensource audio process tools that do much of the same task although not as portable and convenient as a foot pedal. There are a number of videos on the setup and use of both programs if you hunt the package names on YouTube, but I will also report that where the Loop Station is “plug in your mixer and you’re set to go” I just spent the afternoon trying to wrap my head around realtime jackd and USB MIDI input devices through ALSO and all sorts of other things that, while I didn’t really understand a shred of it, led to making a great deal of bubbly noise.

    Thanks for the tip on this, I do think there’s some potential here, once I break down and read the manuals 🙂

    1. Great idea! Open source ethics is so great, I can’t believe I didn’t consider that option or at least mention it in the post. I’m going to go check these out and see if I can make sense of them. Thanks for sharing this. Much appreciated.

      1. mrG says:

        not a problem, and while you’re at it, I hope you’ve already hipped everyone to the fantastic MuseScore opensource notation program! 🙂

  2. sweet. didn’t know about that one either! I’ve been recommending Noteflight, which is free but not open source. I’ll go check MuseScore, too. Thanks, man!


    1. mrG says:

      the Petrucci Library of online royalty-free scores recently announced a plan to use MuseScore to produce a free download edition of the entire Goldberg Variations; I figured if the software can do that much music typesetting, it certainly can handle anything my ensemble can throw at at. Previous to that we’d used Rosegarden but were getting frustrated at core concepts missing (eg alternate endings and codas) and it seemed odd that Rosegarden just sort of stalled after version 12 — I’m beginning to think the reason might be because everyone jumped ship to MuseScore.

  3. mrG says:

    On the topic of practice aids and opensource, another extremely useful program we’ve recently added to our studio computer is the Rhythmbox for Ubuntu, and while Rhythmbox itself seems to be an orphan project that is a little clunky and has its odd bumps and crashes, there is an exceedingly useful plugin that will independently vary the speed of the playback and/or modify the pitch in semitone increments. Fantastically useful for learning from recordings, even when those recordings might be in a different key (or put together by George Martin!)

    There are other programs to slow recordings without changing the pitch (eg Seventh String’s fantastic super-cheap but not free Transcribe! for example) but since Rhythmbox is primarily a music library manager, it indexes the whole collection to make any given recording quickly findable with a few keystrokes (a look-ahead search box). So for example, if I want to play against the Count Basie ‘Legend’ album, I just enter “Legend” and chances are all the tracks I want are there to be selected.

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