Rick Walker prowls the stage amid a veritable sea of orange-colored plastic objects. He works his way through them, starting with an orange spoon that he grabs, holds up to a microphone, and uses to tap out a simple, syncopated rhythm on a small collection of three orange plastic plates with different "pitches." Walker himself is swathed in an orange jumpsuit, bookended top and bottom by his orange sneakers and orange hair.
After eight bars or so, Walker steps on a footswitch and the rhythm he just played starts playing back from the speakers in a loop. Slowly, he builds the complexity of the rhythm, as well as the texture, by adding new instrument and rhythm loops, one at a time.
As the surging orange plastic percussion orchestra reaches a climax, Walker stomps another pedal and suddenly everything drops precipitously into low gear as the sound is kicked down an octave in pitch and falls to a half-time tempo. He calmly warps the slowed-down sound until it becomes a swirling maelstrom, at which point one more footswitch instantly kills everything except the first, sparse rhythm he tapped out, recalled for an unexpected encore.
Walker, a multi-instrumentalist who calls his act "Loop.pooL," has pursued live looping as his primary occupation and musical direction since around the turn of the millennium. Summer 2008 found Walker on his second tour of Europe, this time with the support of several European governments.
Speaking with Walker draws a steady stream of ideas. In his years of live looping, he has worked his way through a host of hardware and software tools that offer creative looping facilities. Fascinating, musical, and playful, Walker's techniques often feel a little like a high-tech extension of banging on pots and pans in the kitchen. Which, given his affinity for playing "found objects," it's likely he has done at one time or another.
Looping is one of the most popular ideas in modern pop music, but in the pop context, it generally indicates the use of loops made from prerecorded material, i.e. somebody's album, movie, or speech. While there are live loopers who work with prerecorded material, the thrust of the genre is much more towards live performance.
The live looping musician takes his or her instrument of choice (which range from Walker's plastic effluvia to bass, tuba, percussion, vocals, guitar, software instruments, or analog synthesizers) and performs a phrase into some variety of digital recording device, be it a specialized piece of hardware or a program running on a laptop. At some point, the artist loops what has been played and begins to work with it.
Techniques for building loop pieces start with adding and manipulating layers, often supplemented by effects processing, half-time/double-time changes, reversing loops, muting and unmuting loops, and on and on. Using unconventional instrumental techniques to obtain interesting source material is entirely the norm in live looping, though many loopers use straightforward, tonal techniques.
Instrumental skill, while always desirable, is less of importance in live looping than having sufficient command of the combination of the instrument and the electronics to effectively paint sonic pictures. Phrasing and timing are crucial. A key point of live looping technique is precise timing — stepping on function-control footswitches at the exact end of a phrase to obtain a loop that cycles smoothly. In rhythmic environments, this entails knowing (by feel) the latency of the looper being used, as well as the feel of the footswitch.
Once these basics are mastered, loopers become extremely adept improvisers. Walker commonly strides onstage with no fixed idea of what he is going to play. He just dives in.
As Walker explains Looping 101, things start off simple enough, but quickly get tricky. "When you're looping, you're playing a musical figure," he says. "And, if you're playing a figure that has a rhythm to it, you turn on a digital recorder as you start to play, and once you get to the end of a phrase, you truncate that loop on the downbeat of the next measure. What the (looping) device does then is immediately loop back to the start of what you played and begin to play that digital recording over and over and over.
"This immediately brings with it a lot of potential problems. If your timing isn't good, you can go too far over the start of the next measure and add a fraction of a beat to the last measure, causing what I call a 'lumpy' loop. If you're doing something in simple time, that can really be a problem." Getting the loop length correct is often complicated by the variation in response times across different devices.
But timing is just the beginning of the performance considerations. Any situation in which a looper is using an acoustic source opens the door to any number of difficulties related to having a live microphone onstage. "One of the beautiful things about the Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro (a high-end hardware looping device) is that its buttons are silent. The biggest drag of the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler (a popular, less expensive hardware looping tool) is that its buttons makes a physical click. If you have a microphone, you're recording those clicking noises into the loop, which is a drag."
Once you have a good loop, the real fun begins. Most live looping happens at the point where instrumental performance meets the creative use of technology. Here are a few of Rick Walker's favorite techniques for mangling loops and structuring his pieces.
Half-Speed Playback. When you slow a loop to exactly half its original tempo, the loop lasts twice as long, but all internal rhythmic ratios are preserved. As Walker explains, that means "you can continue to play in the same tempo over the half-speed loop, but your playing now has a double-time feel. As a rhythmatist, I love that."
Secrets of the DL4. Because loopers are often playing an instrument while creating and manipulating loops, footswitches play a crucial role in controlling the loop device. Walker's experience using the Line 6 DL4's versatile footswitch system provides an excellent illustration of a typical live looping composition approach.
"In the DL4, you can start and stop a loop with one footswitch, while another footswitch controls the half-speed and forward/reverse play functions; one switch controls both functions," says Walker. "You can use that footswitch to set up half-time or reverse before you record or play back." (Reverse is only available for playback.) "If you set it up to be half-speed, when you hit the footswitch, it will go to full speed, and vice versa. So, you can have either a half-time or double-time feel, but you have to decide in advance.
"If you hit that same switch twice, it will reverse the sound at the tempo you're at. So you have half-time, double-time, and half-time or double-time reverse available. Plus, you have a one-shot footswitch, which, when hit, plays the loop once and stops.
"I would record a long melody on some sort of instrument and then turn the loop off [mute it]. Then, I'd pick up another instrument, and, as I'm getting into playing something on that new instrument, suddenly go back over and kick the first loop back in. I can bring a loop back in like a theme, and have three or four manipulations at once for which I can control how they come in and out.
"There are also expression pedals [continuous footpedal controllers] that let you add delay, and control the amount of modulation on it, too. You can build a nice dry loop, then do something on top of it which has reverb on it, and it won't add the reverb to the original track."
About his gear, Walker concludes, "There are cool things about the Gibson EDP and the Line 6 DL4, but my main instrument for the last three years has truthfully been the Looperlative LP1. Not only did I use it on all of my touring in Europe, [designer] Bob Amstadt has been incredibly supportive of my career and the looping community. In fact, he told us he was inspired to create the Looperlative after seeing me play with Steve Lawson at the San Jose Museum of Art."
Walker soon became an endorser, and got to consult on the LP1. "It's been very exciting to be involved with the design of software features for this incredible unit, which marks the first time in my career that I worked on designing the instrument I'm playing," he says. "The built-in network port allows anyone who owns a Looperlative to automatically install any new software version for free. I suggested a software upgrade on the day I left for Europe, Bob wrote the software, and I went to do my two-month tour with software that had not existed before. It was pretty miraculous."
Walker's textures are the result of more than simply his loop manipulation; they come from a combination of his choice of sound sources, his playing and looping technique, and the capabilities of the looping device he is using. Often, Walker will start with an interesting sound source and then apply technology to transform it. One of his favorite techniques involves looping a percussive sound source, and then using a MIDI controller to change the speed of the loop and, consequently, the apparent pitch of the sound.
"I love taking a found object, like a brass bowl, and, while playing it in front of an audience, recontextualizing it as a chromatic instrument," he explains. "You can take a really normal, prosaic, triangle part, make a loop of it, and then, by picking up a MIDI wind controller, play that triangle like a melody.
"People have been doing that ever since sampling got started, but nobody's been able to record it live in front of your face. The hardware samplers that were out before weren't designed to loop a sound on the fly and then play it, let alone have the algorithms to change it around."
Walker frequently blends tonal instruments with his "recontextualized" sounds. Since his found objects rarely produce pitches that can be found exactly on the instruments, tuning issues come up.
"I particularly love altered tunings on bass and guitar because, not being a super-accomplished string player, I find it easy to do bar harmonics," he says. "One of my favorite things is to build a found-sound piece and then really quickly tune the bass so it's in tune with the found sound. This gives me a gamelan-like effect. I can lay down a really simple loop of harmonics, and, just by manipulating it or replacing things, have it morph over a long period of time into something really interesting."
Since his very first live looping experience in 1980, Rick Walker has paralleled advances in looping technology with his own pioneering efforts in defining and refining the live looping genre. While the repetition of loop playback evokes the minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, live looping's performance aspect introduces a much more interactive and improvisational element, and it is here that Walker has staked out his own ground with a recognizable style. This style melds his percussion skills, his textural sensibilities, his sense of musical structure, and his desire to find out where the winds of fortune will bear him on any given night.
"I have always thought of my live shows as 'the laboratory,'" says Walker. "I love to go out and try things, and, in the middle of a piece, discover something really hip."
One of the beautiful things about live looping is that rank beginners who are just fooling around can still make music of beauty and have fun doing it. But Walker's years of live looping have earned him the kind of mastery of his instrument (in this case, the looper) that enables a musician to transcend mechanical considerations and live purely in the creative space he creates.
Walker's shows veer from hypnotic to energizing to amusing in the space of a single minute, yet all of his sonic wizardry is not enough for him. In order to achieve total absorption of his audience, Walker throws in bright colors and an almost circus-like theatricality.
Watching Walker at work, plowing through piles of brightly colored plastic toys and objects, dancing on his footpedals, leaving a vibrator to buzz on a table, and weaving a potentially cacophonic scene into a phantasmagorical sonic landscape, one is left with the unmistakable feeling of watching a madman in full rave. And what a glorious madness it is, the madness of a man determined to grow old with no regrets for things he didn't try.
"When I'm 85 and in my rocking chair, should I make it that far," muses Walker, "I want to look back on my life and be proud of all of the things I did and the risks that I took." Should Rick Walker make it to 85, you'll likely find him still stomping on footpedals as he furiously loops the squeaking of his DayGlo-painted rocking chair.
Lately, Walker has been exploring low-res video, using his more ambient looping compositions as soundtracks. Here are excerpts of "Orange" and Flocking." For more videos, see his YouTube channels DaygloOrangePlastic and LooppooL.
From Walker's new series of EP/DVDs that have attendant lo-fi, toy video animations called "Orange," "Lemon," and "Ruby Grapefruit":
From the CD Purple Hand:
From the live looping record Translucent DayGlo Lime Green Plastic: