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Using a loop station is an easy, fun way to get comfortable improvising (with yourself!) and it can even be a helpful tool for working out accompanying parts to your songs during the writing process.
But loop stations are also highly useful in a live performance, and some artists have built their reputations around incorporating creative and mystifying live looping techniques into their acts.
At some point we may cover a wider range of artists and instrumentalists that use live looping, but today I’m focusing solely on vocalists. The human voice box is capable of creating such a diverse spectrum of sounds, textures, and tones — loop pedals help to bring them out and expand vocal possibilities. Richard Strauss once said that the human voice “is the most beautiful of instrument of all, but the most difficult to play.”
Here’s just a handful of my favorite looping vocalists out there.
Let’s start out with the spectacular Kimbra. Because, in case you haven’t heard, Soundfly just launched a brand new course with Kimbra, in which she herself demystifies her variety of vocal techniques and the creative inspirations behind her most beloved songs. Go ahead and check out this comprehensive and awe-inspiring new course, Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, and Production, exclusively on Soundfly.
Kimbra makes uptempo, soulful dance-pop using almost nothing more than her voice and her loop station, and she is one heck of a performer, too. She’s been playing with a live band in recent years, but here’s a really nice example of how she is able to coax out all these wonderful textures from her loop pedals in a solo performance.
No list on looping would be complete without mentioning this man’s spectacular mega-genius, so we might as well just get it over with now. You may know him from being the one-man soundtrack of “Comedy Bang Bang,” or his viral TED Talk, or “The Late Show With James Corden,” or literally almost any other web and tv show, but he’s been making music and comedy for years and has basically become virtuosic at goofiness. Ladies and gentlemen, Reggie Watts!
Hailing from Louisiana but now based in Brooklyn, Juliana Barwick takes a much more ethereal approach to her music. She uses layers and loops of vocals with synthesizer and keyboard textures to move through her slow song journeys. One of her greatest assets is her ability to build these delicate walls of notes, thickening the atmosphere around her vocal melodies before tearing them down to bring in instrumental elements
Grace McLean is another Brooklyn-based singer, but she is inspiringly multi-talented. McLean is a singer, writer, actor, and teacher, and basically owns New York City as she bounces from theatre to venue to school to video shoot all in a week’s time. She also created one of my favorite ever music videos a few years ago with writer-director Adam Lerman, which despite not being a live performance, showcases her vocal looping abilities extraordinarily!
Flypaper readers should be no strangers to the young and talented Briana Marela. Hailing from Seattle, she introduced us to all of her favorite musical and sonic places around the city in her edition of Flypaper‘s “The Compass”. Marela’s music is written first digitally, making use of electronic processing in Ableton and MaxMSP, but in live performance she’s able to recreate many of these effects using her voice and a loop station, which is always a treat!
Jarle Bernhoft, who also goes by simply Bernhoft, is a Norwegian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. People, he’s actually a maniac. I’ve rarely seen a songwriter command their use of a loop station like this before, with this level of precision. His voice sounds like some kind of mutant John Legend/D’Angelo hybrid. It’s a sheer delight to watch and listen to this man make his music, it’s like a one-man soul band.
Last year, Soundfly had the immense pleasure of watching Julia Easterlin perform during a party we threw in New York City. Suffice to say she blew us away. The next thing we know, she is off doing an album with the Malian guitar legend Vieux Farka Touré! Julia’s looping music uses beatboxing, alternative vocal sounds, and layered chords to create compelling solo masterpieces. She’s influenced by singers like Regina Spektor, but Easterlin has carved out a deeply unique sound over the past few years that truly sets her apart from everyone else out there!
Kishi Bashi (a.k.a. Kaoru Ishibashi) was a former member of the band Of Montreal. He loops both his vocals and his solo violin compositions to create these deep worlds of sound, but his super power is his ability to change the mood and tempo of a song in an instant, even with the all the repetitive looping going on around him. He’s an amazing performer, I’ve never seen anything like it.
Watch this performance below and wait for the crazy vocal breakdown at 2:50…
tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus, a singer-songwriter and composer of the highest degree, but she is also one of the most virtuosic live-loopers I’ve ever seen. And apparently, Music Theory for Producers instructor Ethan Hein agrees, as he wrote an in-depth blog post about one of her shows five years ago!
In fact, Ethan describes her process so well I might as well just quote him on it.
“Merrill G records her drum patterns into the loop pedal right in front of you, one instrument at a time: floor tom, rim shots, snare, cymbals. She couldn’t use rock cliches if she wanted to, since she plays standing up and doesn’t use a kick drum. Because she doesn’t always nail her patterns exactly, her loops have an appealing human quality. And she mixes it up, so some tunes use only looped drums, some use both looped and live drums, and some are played entirely live.
Merrill G’s looped vocals are even fresher-sounding than the drums. Sometimes she uses them to do conventional backing vocals with herself. Sometimes the vocals act as a rhythmic element. Sometimes they build into hair-raising noise collage. Most songs use some combination of the above. By stopping and starting the loops in unexpected places, the tunes are spiced with attention-grabbing silences, a much better way to snap the room into focus than boring fills and crescendos.”
Okay, I admit I was totally skeptical about this guy at first, Vienna-based beatboxer/comedian Fii (a.k.a. Michael Krappel) kind of just blew me away. He is what happens when you Google “live looping beatboxer,” and this ridiculous barn-burner entitled “Hummus” is what happens when you follow through on that search. He even beat-boxes the “wump wumps!”
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by Ryan Lott, Com Truise, Jlin, Kiefer, RJD2, and Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production.