German company Future Artists have been developing and advertising a an interesting product, their MIDI Looper.
Let’s see what this bug-eyed brand is looking for in their progressive, minimal design.
It is a new kind of MIDI sequencer (and cannot record sound directly), that records MIDI Notes and CCs from external gear, and plays it back, repeatedly.
While what it’s doing is technically handled by existing (often more powerful) MIDI sequencers, the Future Artist’s MIDI Looper is unique in how it performs the tasks more like an audio looper than a MIDI Groovebox or Sequencer.
Let’s break this down with the following considerations…
Wait, can MIDI be “looped” ?
Most people may be familiar with audio looping from seeing guitar-players or beat-boxers record, record, and build sounds on top of so sounds.
Mechanically, any system could could loop anything (audio, data, whatever) so long as it…
- providing some medium of recording performance into some passage of Stored Time
- starts recording Performance at some Start Point
- captures audio/midi/whatever performance through advancing Stored Time
- ends/repeats a Loop by noting an End Point (in time), which the proceeds directly back to the Start.
- handles adding, subtracting content, or even changing parameters of Time to create and perform new sounds with(in) that Loop.
Some amazing things are possible with loops (elements of performance) and loopers (the hardware/software devices)…and the essence of “looper as instrument” depends less on what sound(s) are getting juggled as the two factors of “how the juggling work”… specifically:
- how Time is organized (minutes/seconds/etc, OR bars/beats/etc )
- how the Performance is captured ( capturing output of analog/digital sound, capturing input of performance/intent, etc)
Since looping practices as we know them originated and evolved within recorded audio, most innovation we have seen so far has worked from a fixed Capture (the “sound”), and explored novel handling of Time. Let’s keep that in mind while we review some highlights among that heritage.
A short history of (audio)looping technology:
Audio-loopers (such as the pedals popularized by guitar players), effectively share the same methods across a history of various technologies.
- early tape-based looping simply spliced segments of audio tape to loop through the play head(s) of a tape machine. These were often limited to fixed loops cut from recorded material, with control of the sound limited to mixing or changing tape-speed. These techniques were innovated by the “Music Concrete” innovators of the 1940’s, and later explored by
- dub raggae artists like King Tubby, leading to roots of record-based looping in early Hip-hop.
- composers like Steve Reich , for unique phase-shifting patterns
- The Beatles. for background drones in their later pop-psychedelia studio-work
- later tape-based methods by Robert Fripp (“FripperTronics“) allowed players to selectively control editing (read/write/erase/overdub) of the tape loop, to add, subtract, and evolve sound-scapes within a repeating duration of fixed length
- with the advent of digital-based studio studio effects, people soon hacked (and designers later refined) digital-delay rack units digital-delay loopers (DDLs), wherein a single device to pull off various tricks, though not necessarily at the same time (due to limited processing resources) and not necessarily sync up with others (due to inability to perfectly control a the passage of delay-based Time). Some chief innovations affordances of recording/looping in digital memory include:
- record longer phrases that sound better, given increasing memory storage and fidelity of loop-capable delay processors throughout the 80s and 90s
- change loop length while performing, such as on the Digitech JamMan
- change record/playback speed (such as when looping on the )
- change start and end points (simple addresses in digital memory), such as
- copy/paste audio among various bits of audio memory (such as on the highly-revered Gibson EchoPlex Digital Pro)
- innovation in DDLs was carried most visibly by experimental guitarists of the 80s and 90s with a focus on foot-based controls (from simple mechanical switches toward complex messages from MIDI footboards).
- The 90’s and 2000’s saw looping techniques emerge within DJ and vocal/beatboxer markets, who not only had hands free, but also created new forms of synchronization to the audible-beat from record playback or the MIDI clock-messages of a drum machine or groove-box. Many of later groovebox-ready looper were (necessarily) required being built from different hardware and software more akin to contemporary (linear) recorders, so we see a distinction in digital-recorder loopers (DRLs) that offered different freedoms, limitations and quirks. Some notable DRLs and thier behavior include:
- Boss RC- series, which allow for recording and control of loops of varied lengths of beats.
- First, by design, this allowing players to combine short loops and long in any order, without having to play multiple bars of a 1-beat phrase to just “make room” for the longest phrase in a single stack.
- Secondly, the RC loopers opened up a popular (if crude) platform for spontaneous play in poly-meter/poly-rhythm, in which one could explore “3 against 4” simply by capturing your 3-beat and 4-beat motifs on seperate tracks running in parallel
- Korg Koass Pad 3, which allow loops to be readily sliced and re-organized
- while loops would initial be recorded in 1,2,4,8, or 16-beat lengths at the running tempo, a row of 8 keys could allow corresponding time-regions to be “skipped,” performing “remixes by abbreviation” form the original audio.
- one could approach poly-rhythm/poly-meter on this popular looper as well, but this required starting with an even-beat phrase, then re-slicing parallel tracks into the odd/even mixture. Still
- Boss RC- series, which allow for recording and control of loops of varied lengths of beats.
Of course, all of this evolution is in the service of a “audio first,” and we must appreciate that the local arms-race of modern digital audio looping must exists within the larger battle of digital audio in general, where…
- digital audio’s specifications of quality (sampling frequency, bit, depth, etc) are constantly changing,
- new techniques for manipulating digital audio (pitch, tempo, etc) are constantly being innovated, striking new balanced between sound-character, real-time control, and the computational demand they put on their hardware or software,
- since implementing computationally-complex often requires multiple levels of design, from feature designers, to OS-coders, to micro-chip specific programmers, to manufacturers… its both a miracle we see the innovation we do, and unsurprising we see so much stagnation on proven models and products (ahem, boss)
By contrast, the problems and the solutions of musical looping-MIDI uniquely different, because we both represent, and interact with, both Time is and Performance are represented, (so) differently in MIDI than in audio.
…since the be-MIDI-ing
MIDI is (just) an over-30-year-old, simple protocol for sending messages among music equipment, and has stuck to it’s “1.0” spec since it was hungrily adopted after launching in 1983.
MIDI Time is
- serial data is sent (standard) at a 31,250 baud (bits/sec, “1s or 0s per moment”), allowing roughly 3.9 thousand separate 8-bit messages to roll by
- MIDI messages are usually 3-byte chunks, so (standard) MIDI can (only) pass about 1.3 thousand messages in a second.
However, the this has proven (quite) adequate (for decades), as the the sound is outside the message-spec, at the bookends of the process; the the nuance of whatever generates MIDI messages, and the nuance of the system that interprets these messages into sound.
MIDI Performance is represented chiefly by a few music-specific message types:
- Note: to convey timing and dynamics
- Pitch Bend: creating nuance within a note over time.
- Control Change(CC): messages to control mix, vibrato, effects, vibrato, embouchure, etc…depending on the nature of the instrument/context used.
- Clock: carry the “ticks” of musical time, with each 24 clock messages passing within each quarter-note (beat), so that tempo can fluctuate as directly as the ebb and flow of clock-messages are received.
So, for 30 years, the tech that uses MIDI has evolved and lot, and MIDI itself and remained a fine messenger. Let’s continue to “don’t kill the messenger.”
As we can see from its MIDI Implementation Chart, the MIDI Looper only captures messages that pertain to Performance (Notes, CCs, Bend) and Time (Clock)
From this point, we see the the Future Artist MIDI Looper has great freedom for control, since it is only juggling relatively lightweight data of small messages. It is interesting to see how Future Artist built their MIDI Looper to have a user interface that remains distinctly familiar and usable within the traditions of audio loopers.
Distinctions of User Interfacing
First the MIDI-Looper works to mimic the creative immediacy found in audio based looping of audio-based looper-pedals, where can can just and touch simple remote controls to grab, repeat, and build without the setup, planning, or stopping that has remained common among the heritage of conventional MIDI sequencers.
Secondly, its highly context-dependent controls seem a natural adaptation of those found across the heritage of (audio) “looping,” from the early closed-loop-systems of early mechanical tape looping on tape machines, to later innovations on (digital) delay studio hardware, to multi-track system now virtual-ized in personal-computer-based music software.
Thirdly, this MIDI Looper’s spartan user-interface and simple feature set extends the spirit of being easy to learn and fun to play. By contrast, most linear audio- and MIDI sequencing is done on visually-rich computer programs packed with feature sets, shortcuts, and sub-menus.
By contrast, this little device seems almost like a toy in comparison (in a good way), as it has
- no screen
- only 2 (muli-colored) buttons
- only 2 encoder knobs
- only 2 modes
- play, where one knob selects tracks, and the other changes playback timing int the presently-selected track.
- Settings, where one knob selects, and the other sets one of 3 parameter settings
MIDI Looper’s flow:
The color/context-dependent actions of these buttons are followed as easily as they are explained in the product’s user manual (recorded in HTML to fit a single page).
Display left button
Connect the MIDI LOOPER with your setup (see chapter “Which setup options you have”)
(1) Push the left button
(1) Pulsate red = ready for recording
Push the left button
When you push the left button, you are switching between play and overdub
Push the right button during play
When you push the left / right button, you switch between play / pause
Push the right button when in pause and hold for one second
Push the right button when in overdub and you reject the latest recorded layer of music notes
So far, found the MIDI Looper to be a very exciting experiment in a new form of looping.
On one hand, it definitely NOT a “loop pedal,” as you don’t stick it between audio source (guitar) and device (amp), but it feels VERY “fast” and “idiot-proof” for the task of grabbing ideas in real time or building them up with patient layering.
On the other hand, its definitely NOT a drum machine. It doesn’t bother with display or control time as grid, nor do you have to fiddle with menus to pre-determined tempo, meter, subdivisions, etc. You play, and it repeats the performance, and you can tweak the the perofrmance(s)’s interpretation (voice choice, dynamics, timing etc) on the fly, and ONLY on the fly. No screen, no copying, just listen to, and play with, what you just played.
It’s literally a gamer-changer that scratch an itch in a creativity niche that I did not previously understand could be handled by 1 piece of technology.
It took me less than a day to figure out how to use it, and over 2 years to fully appreciate how much value this simple device adds to my other and my workflow.
While I keep my heavy-artillary synths and drum machines in my basement studio (with all the drum kits), I keep a small pile of second-string studio gear in my upstairs office where handle post-production and gear repair. This “sketch” pile is mostly there to take breaks and capture ideas that bubble up there.
When I first unboxed my MIDI Looper, I tied it into my QuasiMIDI Sirius, a 90’s era rave-box that can do drums and synthesis, to replace that synth’s dismal onboard sequencer. I now play that that synth not only more frequency, but in new and creative ways.
- Great “realtime” sketchpad to helped me capture simple motifs and experiment with how they might work up into larger rhythmic ideas.
- Hepful practice tool as I (re)teach myself scales and chord progressions
- Endless fun to just jam and zone out for the pure value of of the musical mediation.
The MIDI Looper will always stay close by wherever I want to “just play.”