active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Let’s loop again

The first recording device I owned was a Philips reel-to-reel tape deck my mother had bought around the time I was born. It had a microphone on a lead so I could record myself tootling worthlessly on the descant recorder. I used it to make loops.

When she passed the tape deck to me, my mother probably hadn’t listened to it in almost a decade. It had one 30 minute, two-track (stereo) tape but, being a mono recorder, it only recorded one track so you could flip the tape over to give you an hour of recording.

The tape was full of songs she used to play me in the cradle. They still bring back special memories, deep in my genes, every time I hear them. I always recognize a “tape song” when I encounter it.

But back then, when I was 10 years old, I didn’t care about childhood nostalgia. I soon wiped the songs and began experimenting. I cut pieces off the tape, stuck the ends together crudely with Sellotape (Scotch tape), and recorded primitive vocal and rhythm loops.

Of course, the system had massive limitations. I could determine the length of the loop I wanted easily enough, and I soon figured out a way of holding it in tension around a pencil stuck in a cotton reel, but I either had to record the sound first and then snip the tape in the right places, or try to record onto the actual loop. I couldn’t overdub, as there was no easy way to disable the erase head. And I couldn’t get rid of the audible bump of the splice.

In my teenage years, I forgot all about making loops. The tape deck broke (which is a euphemism — see my post Idiotic For The Masses), and anyway I moved on to cassettes (which you could use to make loops, but they were fiddly), albums, and an obsession with the Mellotron, which is a different type of tape device.

Instead of making my own loops, I began collecting other people’s. There are a surprising number to choose from.

Loops are an old device, almost as old as tape recording itself. They were first used practically by the film industry to synchronise picture and music in early talkies. Soon tape music composers started experimenting, and then composers on the psychedelic fringe of the early 1960s, such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, located just on the edge of the cheap housing district of Haight-Ashbury where the students were accumulating.

When Riley moved to Paris, he met an Australian beatnik called Daevid Allen, with whom he occasionally performed live. Riley showed Allen how to make his own tape loops. Soon Allen had become a master of the technology, shifting the loop even further away from its musique concrete/classical roots into freeform psychedelia.

Allen compiled a collage of thirty minutes of loops into a piece called “The Switch Doctor” which the BBC broadcast in 1967. For the most part it consists of his voice looped and speeded up or slowed down. The loops fade in and out continually, some heavily processed, forming waves of sound that build and ebb repeatedly. Allen would continue to create interesting loops for the rest of his long career solo and with the band Gong.

When Allen shifted base to London in 1966 to form Soft Machine, he found a kindred spirit working in the same sonic area: Paul McCartney, who’d begun playing with tape loops in 1965.

The producer Giorgio Gomelsky tried to put the two men together, but it never quite happened. Nor, sadly, did McCartney’s proposed solo album of tape loop experiments, Paul McCartney Goes Too Far, which would have rightfully put McCartney two years ahead of John Lennon’s Two Virgins. (I’m still waiting, Paul.) But McCartney did manage to gatecrash tape loops into the homes of millions by adding them to Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the first track recorded for The Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.

It took a long time for the rest of pop and rock music to latch onto the tape loop. This was perhaps evidence that only The Beatles were able to experiment in the studio in the mid-1960s, other bands being more likely to receive incredulous stares from the staff engineers.

The exception was The Pink Floyd, the pop group most closely associated with the avant garde at this time and mooted as The Beatles’ successor in the field of experimental psychedelia.

For what was effectively his first solo work, Floyd’s bassist Roger Waters compiled arguably the best tape loop collage of all time: “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict” from the band’s 1969 album Ummagumma. Even more than “The Switch Doctor,” its probable model, it explores the possibility of loops made up entirely out of vocals and mouth noises.

After this, the loop slowly came in from the avant garde — both Robert Wyatt (The End Of An Ear) and Hugh Hopper (1984) from Soft Machine made notable examples — until loops were part of the texture of pop. The bridge into the mainstream was probably Robert Fripp’s glorious “The Heavenly Music Corporation” from Fripp & Eno’s No Pussyfooting, recorded in 1972.

But the physical tape loop is now a thing of the past. Its last hurrah was Peter Hammill’s phenomenal Loops And Reels in 1983, an album that should be much better known than it is. In tracks such as “My Pulse,” Hammill redefined the possibilities of the loop in ways that other artists, even today, haven’t begun to emulate.

Though I always liked the ability of sequencers to make repeating patterns, and have used them to create backgrounds for solo improvisations on guitar, piano, flute and saxophone, tape loop emulators remain my favourite way to make noise on a computer.

For about ten years, I’ve been a fan of a little piece of free software called Ambiloop. It’s simplicity itself: hook up a microphone, choose the length of your loop(s), set delay and effects, and get creating. The current version of Ambiloop gives you eight tracks to layer and mix your creations, and some ability to manipulate speed.

Though I myself use it to make my own versions of “Several Species” and “Heavenly Music,” my five year old son has really taken to Ambiloop. He screams, yells, coos, grunts, and gabbles into the microphone, producing extraordinarily sophisticated waves of sound.

He seems to have an instinctive feel for the technology, and will often let a loop slowly decay for several minutes before adding just the right sound to bring it back to life.

Of course, being half Japanese, he sounds a lot to me like two of my noise-rock heroes, Masonna and Yoko Ono. And I’m not just being a doting father here, honest, when I say that sometimes I sit and listen to him creating on Ambiloop and I’m astounded by his creativity. This is music in its rawest and purest form.

If my son never loses this love of experimentation and feel for the beauty and power of noise, he’ll be in good stead to keep creating all his life. I really hope that’s the case. And I can’t wait to introduce him to Loops And Reels.

Tessellation Row-S

Robert Maas’s loop obsession is put to use in Tessellation Row, available to buy at Amazon.


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