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Looping: A talk with Matthias Grob
Monday, December 13, 2004

By Courtney Grimes

At the Musikmesse trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1993, Matthias Grob showed up with a new digital music device – or art form, or instrument – for what has become known as live looping. Gibson Labs, the technology division of Gibson Guitar was also there at Frankfurt, and the convergence of Matthias and Gibson resulted in a dramatic new version of the venerable Echoplex (which started life in the early 1960s as a an analog device using a loop of magnetic recording tape). Today, thanks to Matthias, the echo/delay effect is only one small facet of the “looping” capabilities of the Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro Plus.

The idea began when Matthias sought to create an ensemble effect which was not possible using existing methods of recording, and it became a loopers’ movement when he set out to collect live looped music on a CD as a demo of versatility of the tool. He wanted to exchange experiences between members in ‘92. “I called it Loop pooL or Loop Groop,” he explains. “There was no internet. I did not get enough contributions for a CD and was too far away, in Brazil. There were big discussions about whether looping is a common art style or form, or whether it is an instrument.”

On Loopers-Delight.com, Matthias was always trying to push the conversation toward art, transcendental experiences, improvisation, parallels of music and other art forms or science, and was constantly encouraging philosophical observations - the effect of the loops. “The crowd naturally pushes towards gear, wiring and sometimes as low as string brands,” jokes Matthias. “They have to have some courage to either change their music to what easily comes out of the looper, or to study how to recreate their music with this tool.”

 

Matthias Grob on….

How it started
I am a Swiss electric engineer and had my first strong music impressions with Pink Floyd in the beginning of the ‘70s. Since then, guitars, distortion and delays have been the focus over every day. In 1984 I discovered that whole compositions can be based on long delays. While living in Rio in 1987-88, and playing with the excellent musicians there, I discovered what was lacking in the available digital delays to do this well, which then led to the development of the LOOP delay, interestingly in Biel - the world’s capital of watches.

We showed it at the PARADIS booth in Frankfurt in ‘93, sold 100, and were discovered by Keith McMillan (then general manager of Gibson Labs), which led to a licensing contract with Gibson.

What it is
It’s neither an instrument, nor an effect, but something in between, we call it a tool. It does not play by itself, but keeps on playing after you feed it. It’s an acoustic mirror. It shows you what you just played, so you can feel what the public feels, and you can learn about yourself, your playing and the energy you express. It helps to practice, arrange, and gather ideas... It enables a single musician to play a whole orchestra, use all the different sounds he can produce on his instruments at once! It makes the musician feel free and interpret his themes anew, and go much beyond of what he prepared or what he could do with prerecorded samples. It’s what comes after MIDI and Electronica. It gives the steady repetition to the player of “traditional” instruments. It allows the joining of the organic expression and stage appearance of a “real player” with the intensity, richness and trance of electronic music. It allows full synchronization between several looping artists and looping machines so beats can either run perfectly together or spread over time.


Operation
It’s a real-time tool, so whenever the idea comes to the musician, he wants to execute it at the next press of a switch. This is new to a market which is used to program and call programs and banks... but it perfectly fits to the comeback of the “knobs” we observe on synthesizers and filters.

The EDP (Echoplex Digital Pro) user interface is completely unique on the market. The seven buttons allow the user to reach dozens of functions immediately and many more with a few presses. Depending on the state, they change their function to what the user may need in that state. This turns it complex somehow, but since it is totally based on practical use and thus very intuitive, the user loves it once he understands.

The learning curve
Some call it the Echocomplex. It really is extremely complex if you want to know all about it, but there is no need. There are very few people who know all the features and no one uses them all. But from the start, the concept was to keep it simple for those who are afraid of technology. So it’s very easy to understand the essential functions. With just the “Record” and the “Overdub” button you can create big arrangements of any style, and many never need more. Then naturally, the user discovers more options and their musical meaning. And this is a crucial point: As opposed to an ordinary effect unit that “sounds better” as soon as it’s switched on, even the two basic buttons only work well if they are pressed at the right moment!

The musician needs to learn to tap in the correct tempo, which phrases sound well when looped, and which arrangements are possible to build with loops. The advance user can also discover which functions he needs to create his kind of music either by thinking about the structure or by playing around and experiencing, how to sync to another EDP or a sequencer, how to rearrange the achieved loops, how to create completely new sounds by chopping into tiny slices and remounting, and how to simplify operation with additional MIDI commands or sequences.

Competitors
Before the EDP, the TC-2290 and the PCM42 served for similar purposes, but are clearly overcome now. There are some pedals that persist like the Akai Headrush, some ZOOM units and the Roland RC-20 because they are small and cheap. The Roland has the advantage to save loops, which is appreciated by some musicians, but the “hard core” wants to do it all fresh. Line6’s DL4 is a common competitor because it’s cheaper and in stereo, but its functionality is limited. And all of those units fail completely when it comes to sync with other tools.

It’s amazing that there is no real competition from computer software yet. Some Loopers use LIVE and/or Augustus Loop or a few other plug-ins, but none of these setups allows a user to do what the EDP does.

The unique memory structure
It’s difficult to fully explain quickly… The EDP is the only unit with an internal structure like a tape delay - running always through the whole memory, leaving open to the musician to interpret where the start of the loop is. Everything happens “now” instead of “at the next loop,” unless you choose so. All the other looper tools use a sampler kind of structure, which means that they jump to the beginning of the sample when they reach its end. In this structure it’s very complex to start a function at any time. This and the revolutionary user interface are the secret of the EDP’s success and make it difficult to be copied.

The freedom
The tool helps musicians to feel free to play or not to play, and to carefully feel what to play next. So it tends to give the musican an air of freedom which is percieved by the public (rather than the technical aspects of looping) and hardly found in composed or "insistently" improvized music.

The future
I can see millions of musicians using LiveLooping in some way or other. It will naturally mix into most of the existing styles but also stand out as live solo or duo style.

Imagine if all of the flute, violin and cello players realize that a little box allows them to play polyphonic and rhythmic arrangements at their wedding gigs, without sounding “electronic.” To tap a rhythm on a guitar is not so interesting for a soloist, as long as he cannot play the guitar at the same time. So tap a loop...I guess that Techno music will meet its limits soon and become enhanced with looped acoustic instruments, especially percussion. A future EDP will need to be stereo, multi-track and time stretching to adapt the loop speed.