Looper Pedals: Buyers Guide
More and more musicians are using the concept of “looping” to do unique live performances, regardless of the instrument they use. For those not familiar, “looping” is where you record a musical phrase and have it repeat, or “loop”, with the assistance of either hardware or software (and in some cases a combination of both). Many musicians add looping to their repertoire mostly because they’re solo musicians who either don’t want the help of other musicians to perform the other parts or because they want to cue in and out different parts on their own. For example, with guitar players, they may use a looper to record a musical phrase, such as a simple chord progression, and then solo over said progression. For vocalists, they might use a looper to record harmonies stack upon each other. In many cases, musicians may record different parts of the songs onto different tracks and cue different parts at different times.
One of the many benefits of looping is for practicing. You can’t always depend on your friends playing the same chords over and over and over again (believe me, I’ve tried), but with a loop pedal or loop software, you can have it repeat until your heart's content and solo continuously until your upstairs neighbors start banging on the ceiling for you to stop.
Looper pedals are also great for creative expression. One way you can get those creative juices flowing is by layering multiple phrases on top of each other to create a dynamic musical composition. Perhaps you can start with chords, then on top of that, you can add a bass line. Next maybe you want to add a lead part, a harmony for that lead part, and then perhaps a solo. The creative possibilities delivered by loopers are virtually endless! For many musicians, it can be an incredibly liberating way to express oneself because all the parts are created by you and there’s no one else you have to play against except yourself. Want to add more sounds? Get rid of some? Start or stop the music? All of it is your call!
The two most popular loopers are stompboxes and loop stations, and each one has its own pros and cons.
Stompbox Loopers A stompbox looper is a simple, guitar pedal-sized looper, usually with one button for recording, overdubbing, and stopping. It’s a great tool for many musicians that are just getting into the concept of looping and/or are looking to practice at home without the assistance of other musicians. All a musician has to is press it once and start playing, press again to save the phrase, and if you were to stop there, you can just solo over it and you’re good to go! If you choose to, you can record more phrases on top of it and have a musical phrase that repeats endlessly. The only downside is you’re limited to playing different types of phrases and can only play over one phrase unless you decide to delete it. When looking at looper stompboxes, there are a few tried-and-true ones to go with if you want to jump in and have some fun without stressing yourself out:
For those that are just starting to get into looping, this is as simple as it gets! With just one knob and one button, it’s a no brainer how to use this pedal. Just one press to record, one press to save the phrase, once more to record on top, lather, rinse, repeat. Want to erase? Hold down the button and you erase everything. On the contrary, if you love your loop you created, it’s automatically saved in the pedal, whether or not you unplug it. If you want to adjust the volume of the recorded phrase, adjust the loop level knob to your preference. That’s it! You have 5 minutes of looping capability with this pedal, so you can create a full song using just this one pedal. Since there’s no drum machine included, you'll have to trust your inner timing to make sure it loops in time but that's not difficult to do. With true bypass and analog-dry-through, your tone going through the pedal doesn’t change at all with 24-bit uncompressed high-quality audio.
The Hotone Wally+ Looper has a small footprint with lots of potential! For those familiar with its predecessor, the Wally, the Wally+ does everything the previous model did and more! It works identically to the TC Electronic Ditto looper, but has some added features that are perfect for those who are constantly brimming with ideas. For example, instead of only being able to have one loop saved onto the pedal, you have 11 banks to save 11 different loops on it (each with 30 minutes of recording time) with its 8GB internal storage. Simply press the SAVE button, select which phrase you want, and then you’re done! Want to take those loops and edit them on the computer? Connect your pedal to your computer via USB and now you can take your ideas, edit them to your heart's content, or even share them with the world! You can also change the tempo of your loops with this pedal to either speed up your loop or slow it down, although you risk changing the key of your loop by doing so. This is a great pedal for those who want the simplicity of the Ditto looper but want to save multiple ideas.
For those that have been looping for a while and want something a little more sophisticated, the Electro-Harmonix 720 looper is something you'll want to check out. The simplicity of the Ditto and the Wally+ is still there, but now you have a few more options to play around with. For instance, you now have the option of pressing the LOOP button twice in order to stop the loop (exactly as you would with either the Ditto or the Wally+) or you can press the independent STOP button. You can also make the STOP button function as an FX button, which allows you to choose to either reverse your loop for a very wild throwback sound or as a ½ speed effect to slow down your loop and make it have some heavy bass. Two other features unique to the EHX 720 looper are the ability to plug in a footswitch for easy bank switching and instant undo/redo, as well as mono or stereo operation should you use this with two amps or speakers to create a wider sound. Another distinctive feature of the 720 is that you can set the mode so that it records, overdubs, then plays, OR it can record, then play, and another press goes into overdubbing; again, totally the user’s preference. The 720 is a fantastic pedal for musicians who love looping but want to do more with their sound in a live setting.
As far as compact loopers are concerned, there’s arguably nothing more powerful than the Boss RC-3. Recording is identical to the previous loopers, but there are some extra features that are perfect for musicians who want no limitations when it comes to looping. It shares the option of playing in mono or stereo like the 720, but unlike the previous three loopers, it has a drum track! This is an incredible feature on multiple levels. First, you won't have to guess the timing of the loop, secondly, you can get inspired by the multiple types of built-in rhythms, and lastly, you can create new styles for your loops. You can also change the rhythms into either 4/4 time or 3/4 time! You also never have to worry about not having room to save your ideas; there’s 99 (yes, 99) banks for recording, with up to 3 hours of recording time of internal memory. Much like the 720, you can upload your loops to a computer via USB, but on top of that, you even can download WAV files onto it so you can play over loops or rhythms that you recorded outside of the pedal. Another feature the BOSS RC-3 has that the others don’t is an auxiliary input. This allows you to record external audio such as tracks from your mp3 player so you can play over your favorite songs or parts of songs. If you have great timing, you can use count-in mode to play after a count-in or auto record so it starts recording once you start playing. If you love playing over one phrase but want to get the most out of it, the RC-3 is the way to go.
So you’ve played around with different loop stompboxes but feel that the simple stompbox loopers are constricting your abilities to implement the unique and creative ideas you want to try. If that’s the case, you might want to consider the leap into using a loop station. Loop stations are without a doubt for the more advanced musician and those that are very familiar with looping, so we recommend you understand what looping is, how it works, and what you ultimately want to do with looping before diving into a full-on loop station. For example, you can have more phrases to switch between while in the middle of performing, decide if a phrase should only play once or infinitely, use an external footswitch to change tons of different parameters, a bevy of built-in rhythm tracks and time signatures, and so much more! If you’re a musician who wants to play a ton of different parts at once and doesn’t want to rely on a backing track, loop stations are ideal. However, all these more advanced features can be overwhelming to someone who just wants to practice and keep it simple. A new feature that the following pedals will all have in common is MIDI capability, which allows you to truly get the most out of them by syncing them to MIDI clocks or using external controllers to activate certain aspects of your pedal without having to be restricted to the buttons on the loop station. If you’re ready to take the plunge, take a look at some of our favorites:
If you want to take the next step into a more engaging, dynamic loop performance, the Ditto x4 is a fantastic option. The playability is more or less identical to the TC Electronic Ditto, but with more bells and whistles. Right out the gate, the Ditto X4 is basically two Ditto loopers in one with two independent loop banks with 5-minute recording time each… don’t let the X4 name fool you; 4 does not equal 4 loopers but rather 4 buttons. What’s cool about the two loopers is you can either use them as two independent loopers and switch between them for a verse/chorus type switching or you can use them as two separate banks to stack songs on where you can take away or add in overdubs at your choosing using the Serial/Sync switch. Now that you have two banks, another cool feature is the ability to have one loop that’s 4 measures long while another is just 1 measure long, depending on what parts you may be recording. The Decay knob is a very cool and unique feature on the Ditto X4, as it allows you to set your loops to repeat endlessly or have your loop layers slowly fade out. You also have the option to add effects like you would with the Electro-Harmonix 720, but now, you have a bunch of bonus effects like Hold, Tape Stop, Half, and more. Along with the previous loopers we mentioned, you have the ability to save your loops and upload them to your computer via USB as well as being able too import audio into the pedal itself.
The Electro-Harmonix 95000 is a loop station with features that are not common to most loopers. If you’re familiar with recording using a mixer, understanding this loop station will be a breeze since it has 6 banks for recording along with a 7th stereo mix down track. Without this knowledge, it can be daunting for those who simply want to play without the fuss of mixing and recording for permanent use. With the SD Card slot, you can have up to 100 different rhythm tracks to upload and choose from. One thing the 95000 can do that the Ditto X4 can’t do is allow you to plug in either an instrument cable or a mic cable into its two inputs, depending if you want to record and instrument or vocals. If you’re using a mic that requires phantom power, you can use the +48V Phantom Power button to active phantom power, but make sure you know beforehand whether or not you need it. With the tempo/speed fader, you can use it to either slow it down like a tape machine being unplugged or change the pitch in semitones. Like some of the previous pedals, you also have the option of multiple effects to choose from like Reverse and Octave to create wild sounds! There’s also onboard panning knobs so you can choose whether you want the whole mix to project more to the left or right of your mix or just specific tracks. Need some space for more loops? Upload the loops you’ve created to the mixdown track to then free up some more space for looping! Keep in mind, if you do this, all the loops are together in one track, so all those sounds have to start and stop together. With the quantize button, you can choose whether you want to freely record without worry about keeping time or have your loops sync to a beat. Since many of the onboard knobs and faders are easier to use with a hand, it’s recommended to use an expression pedal with the EHX 95000 in order to prevent yourself from having to bend down repeatedly during a performance to manipulate the pedalboard. If you’re a vocalist, you have nothing to worry about considering you’ll always have at least one free hand! Another very awesome and advanced feature is if you’re bold enough to own two of them, you can sync them up with a MIDI cable for 14-track looping! To sum it up, this is a wonderful pedal for a musician who knows how to loop, wants to change the parameters of their sound, and perhaps wants to mix the song on board.
If you’re a musician focused completely on the live performance aspect of looping and are willing to learn and get every facet out of manipulating loops, you’re probably ready for the Boss RC-300. Right out of the box, you can use it just like any looper, but now you have 3 tracks to record and overdub onto. What's more? You have countless features built into it to do almost anything you can think of when looping. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the RC-300 can do all of the following that I mentioned previously:
- MIDI capability for connecting to multiple devices to syncing to a MIDI clock
- Stereo instrument inputs and outputs
- Two expression/controller inputs
- Mic input with phantom power switch
- Individual faders for the three tracks
- 99 memory banks to save projects
- Individual knobs to change output levels for master volume and rhythm
- Individual knobs to change input levels for auxiliary cable, instrument, and mic
However, while it’s very similar to the Electro-Hamonix 95000, inside the device you have nearly unlimited possibilities of what you can do with your sound and performance. For instance, while playing one loop song, you can set it so you can jump into another saved loop project and start playing immediately. You can also get really detailed with how certain buttons operate. For example, you can order the loop station to continue or not continue recording once a button is pressed, record to one track or multiple tracks simultaneously, start/stop individual tracks or all of them at once, play a track once or infinitely, and so much more. If you love playing to a rhythm track, not only are there different rhythms, but there are also different beats so you can play in simple time signatures like 4/4 or interesting time signatures like 15/8! With the company's famous line of Boss effects, you also have the ability to use different effects on your instrument or voice and cue them for specific tracks! What’s great is that you have an onboard expression pedal so you can use it to change the volume of the entire songs or specific tracks you’ve recorded. I could go on and on about the details of this pedalboard, but the best way to go about it is reading the instruction manual because you can get into some really detailed mapping with the loop station. With the instruction manual, you can get the RC-300 to do nearly everything you can think of and then some. All in all, this RC-300 is for the loop musician who doesn’t want to be tethered to any restrictions whatsoever. Musicians who use looping in their live setup
- Jacob Collier
- Ed Sheeran
- Reggie Watts
This is just a small selection of different loop stompboxes and loop stations so don’t feel that you’re limited to these choices. Many companies make different types of loopers for different types of musicians for different types of situations. You can even use software and a MIDI controller to have infinite loops and trigger infinite cues, along with, well, INFINITE possibilities. However, if you’re a guitarist/bassist/vocalist looking for a simple setup while gigging, the looper pedals in a stompbox format are a great way to dive right into the wonderful world of looping! Click here to check out all of the amazing loopers we have at SamAsh.com!
Reggie Watts Demos the EHX 95000 Performance Loop Laboratory