Guitar Moderne reader, Michael Garfield has a natural science-based perspective on looping and live sampling that is mind expanding. He also offers some straight, nuts-and-bolts info about his gear and how he uses it.
I’ve been playing guitar for eighteen years and looping guitar for eleven. Originally the looping started as a way of providing very simple accompanying grooves behind singer-songwriter material, but it has since eaten and digested my entire way of playing and my philosophy of music. I now see the process of sampling and remixing live instrumentation as a performance version of my academic background as an evolutionary biologist. My pedalboard is “the tangled bank” of Darwin’s evolutionary vision, an ecosystem of interacting players whose identity emerges out of their relationships, a musical version of the genetic sampling and remixing that goes on all the time in nature and in our bodies.
The goal with this rig is to perform a cybernetic, evolutionary worldview in which human subjectivity is understood as the behavior of entire ecosystems. I tell my audiences that this music implicates us both as the near and far ends of a single event observing itself from multiple angles. For “cyberacoustic” music, the self—the human-with-guitar that more traditional styles place in the foreground—becomes the “fruiting body” of a vast web of connections we don’t ordinarily perceive. It’s explicitly transhuman even as it cherishes the warmth and the tradition of acoustic folk guitar, by weaving the familiar into that “tangled bank” of signal path and temporal manipulation.
A simpler way of saying it is that I want my concerts to help people understand intuitively how we’re all just something Earth is doing, indistinguishable from nature, and that our machines are every bit as natural as the jungle, and that we aren’t separate from them or from each other. Cyberacoustic guitar seems to work really well for this, taking people into trance with just enough emotion to create a sense of having made it as a species, having overcome the boundary between the body and the mind that made modernity so difficult.
That’s the why, and here’s the how:
These days, my entire pedalboard is made of Boss devices. This happened very gradually and naturally as I optimized my gear for interoperability and ease of repair. Because my concerts are mostly about playing with time and rhythm and coaxing alien sounds out of the guitar, I’m more interested in delay and pitch effects than I am in some of the well-worn tone geek rabbit holes like “world’s best distortion.” The goal is to have the most flexible possible sound in a small and relatively lightweight package, something that allows me to completely mangle and remix the acoustic guitar with a novel tonal palette and nimble on-the-fly operation.
The Taylor Guitars 322e guitar is key to the whole “cyberacoustic guitar” performance style because of Taylor’s Expression System pickup. The paired transducers and under-neck magnetic coil pickup let me capture both percussion on the body of the instrument and EBow playing, which allows me to vastly expand the tonal repertoire of the instrument through looping and further processing. This is how I get overdriven bass synth sounds, lots of cool jungle percussion noises, and other tones resembling harmonicas, concertinas, horns, and electric violins.
I used to use an LR Baggs M80 pickup on a Martin D35. I found that, not only does a soundhole pickup rob the natural tone of the instrument, but it also isn’t balanced to the precise make and model like the factory-installed pickups at Taylor. Plus, the Taylor is a very playable guitar, small-bodied with a comfortably wide neck. It is an easy instrument for touring and recording. The tightly focused and slightly compressed tone from the mahogany top makes it especially user-friendly for heavy overdubbing, whereas previous guitars with a more open sound tended to step on their own toes after several passes with the looper.
I use a Boss TU-3 as a tuner and mute. It is very handy to have this for troubleshooting noise in the rig and discretely tuning while I’m also twiddling knobs and keeping the loop-based performance going up front.
The Boss PS-5 pitch shifter lets me access the sonic spectrum, from growling sub-bass to shimmery, squeaky, high-end violin- and piccolo-like sounds. Controlling it with an expression pedal, I can loop pitch drops, flutter in and out of octaved lines, bring in a backing third for solos, and tweak harmonics in ways that would destroy the instrument if I tried to bend them on the neck itself. It’s a surprisingly flexible toolkit when combined with any looping pedal. It is one of the oldest and most-used mainstays of my rig.
The Boss SL-20 slices the continuous audio signal into a grid of step-sequenced (and sometimes filtered) rhythmic slices that can be synced to another pedal via MIDI. At first it seems like a silly novelty pedal—I purchased it at a steep discount because it had sat in the guitar store for ages. But its strengths became obvious as soon as I linked it to my looper: it’s an automatic transmission for grooves, instantly turning the guitar into an arpeggiated synthesizer and rhythm engine.
Beyond stacking perfectly synced slices that I can then stack and cut up further with other pedals down the chain, it’s also great for segues from one scene to the next: while I’m busy tweaking delay knobs or erasing loop banks with one hand, I can thump or stroke the guitar with the other and continue the groove without any active loops, then immediately jump right back into it without having to reset everyone’s internal clocks or jar people out of one space on the way to another. Getting this pedal in 2011 marked my transition from simply looping guitar to treating the guitar and pedals together as a new instrument in its own right. The line between looping, sampling, and coasting on staccato grooves got really blurry.
The Boss DD-500 digital delay has replaced the DD-20 I used for over a decade. The DD-20 delay was especially good for nimbly moving from one sound to another without having to create presets or mess around too much with knobs. With it, I learned to play barefoot and turn knobs with my toes so I could “press, turn, and hold” the delay time knob while still playing lead guitar. But the DD-500 offers many more options, including nearly 200 amazing presets that are easy enough to cycle through with foot controls, and it syncs via MID so now my looper, slicer, and delay are all in lockstep—no guessing.
Major updates for this pedal include the Tera Echo, LFO Delay, Shimmer Delay, and Pattern Delay—so I almost never find myself using the more conventional and familiar set of delay sounds, abandoning them in favor of these more complex moving sound-shapes that marry delay with other effects. Anything that turns a strum into a spray of glistening alien particles is good in my book.
After years of using Dunlop and Vox wah pedals, I now use the Boss PW-3.
This one is far more rugged and reliable, due in part to the chassis and in part to the use of an optical switch, instead of a mechanical one. It also gives the option of a classic wah sound or a “rich wah” that keeps the low end in the mix and is true bypass. I’ve set up the expression pedal so I can pump the delay dry/wet balance and the wah with one movement, leading to some interesting interactions.
The Boss RC-505 looper is the crown jewel of my rig and the most indispensable pedal I’ve ever owned—in spite of the fact that it’s not technically a guitar pedal. This tabletop unit, designed for beatboxers, is the only hardware looper in the world that offers not only a great selection of input effects, but also a huge variety of built-in time-mangling effects modeled after Ableton Live (Beat Repeat, Beat Shift, Beat Scatter, Granular Delay, and Vinyl Scratch among them) for the loops themselves. These can turn the looper into kind of a machine accompanist.
Not guitar but a good overview
In spite of the fact it’s made from fairly brittle plastic and cheap-seeming components, this pedal forever changed my looping style from one focused on hypnotic and usually ambient groove-scapes to one that emphasizes live remix, leaning hard on foot control via expression pedal over both input and track effects to provide live breaks and fills while I’m playing. I can now add the kind of build-ups/drops and stuttering cut-and-paste loop hacks that I loved from the studio productions of acts like Prefuse73 and Four Tet, and add the psychedelic granular delay sweeps that play such a big part of the trademark sound of psytrance acts like Shpongle. It has vaulted my playing sideways into different genres, made it possible for me to play to more hip hop- and trance-inspired audiences, and given me some lovely new vocabulary words for speaking “ancient-future live guitar remix” as a novel language that emerges in between the wood and wires.
I can’t overstate the liberation of going from the monotony of ordinary looping to the dynamic and super glitchy driving beats the RC-505 makes possible. I love it and it lets me do some magic things, even though I’m constantly afraid I’ll break this pedal if I look at it too hard, and even though it has some major bugs I’ve discussed at length with Roland Support to no effect. The worst is that turning “Loop Sync” off disables loop record quantization, so if you want your loops to sync at all you have to pin them all to the same “one,” thus losing its functionality as a foot-controlled MPC-style sampling instrument, which was what made the RC-300 pedal looper so great.
One pro tip is that, whether intentionally or not, this pedal overdubs with the track effects in place, so you can record the Beat Shift or Granular Delay on an overdub pass and then undo it when you want to return to the original timing.
This box is the hub for both guitar and vocals. I run the vocals through a Beyerdynamic M88 TG, a feedback-resistant microphone with flat EQ response that fills a room well and delivers an awesome “thump” that I can loop for kick drum sounds. Having everything at hand on stage to mix myself before I send it to the board has saved me from the trauma of drunk sound men ruining my mix—plus, sound engineers love it when I send them only two lines: Left and Right.
Last note about this pedal is that it syncs perfectly with software. Even though it only loops in 16-bit (a disappointment when compared to the RC-300’s 24-bit audio), it’s a very handy audio-to-digital converter and MIDI CC message source that also can receive MIDI, audio, and tempo from the computer. Right now I’m using it to launch audioreactive visualizer scenes by sending MIDI every time I start or stop one of the five loop phrases, which is pretty cool.
If Boss made a loopstation that took everything this one gets right and added one-touch undo/redo; triplets and dotted notes for Slicer and Filter options; ability to only control one phrase at a time via MIDI; LCD screens that can read by daylight; and housed it in something that could take a beating on the road, they would be very close to having the perfect hardware looper.
I don’t use Ableton Live for looping because I’ve found no way around the glitches in Ableton’s Looper instrument when I try to set the master tempo with a new loop; and because visual and haptic feedback on foot controller hardware is not as good as it is with self-contained pedals: I still have to check the screen to confirm that I’m recording, playing, or overdubbing. Plus, all of the RC-505’s onboard effects would crash my laptop if I tried to run them all at once in Live. But I will gladly switch to software looping on the day that it’s a better workflow and more stable platform for this style than pedals.
I use three Boss EV-5 expression pedals. One is for the PS-5, one for the DD-500, and one for the RC-505. If I could use more expression pedals for the 505, I would, but though the RC-300 has the option to plug two separate EV-5s in and use them for independent foot controls, the 505 does not. It would be excellent to segregate control for input and track effects on the RC-505, but for now I use the same expression pedal to control them both, and have to turn off Reverb (or whatever input effect I have active) if I don’t want to record the same effects envelopes into both effects banks.
So that’s my rig. My library of live recordings, going back a decade and exploring four successive generations of live looping rigs, is online. I host a local live looping showcase here in Austin where I lead entire groups through MIDI-synced improvisations and teach private lessons over Skype – so please feel free to get ahold of me if anyone would like to level up their looping game!