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January 21, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Requiem for a DL4

The Line 6 DL4 delay modeler occupies an enviable position on the pedalboards of a lot of musicians, both famous and not. It's considered by many to be not just one of the best delays available, but also one of the best loopers for the money. At the same time, it has a well-deserved reputation for unreliability. Even though it's been a decade since the pedal was first introduced, Line 6 hasn't ever produced a hardware revision to fix those issues. Why would they? The combination of the two means that a lot of people have bought DL4s several times over.

I am, in general, a fan of Line 6. Their modeling tech is impressive, and it's relatively affordable. More importantly, I usually find that they understand the ways musicians will use their products more than a lot of prosumer music companies do. So it's frustrating when an issue like the DL4's fragility goes uncorrected for so long--and it's really frustrating when the flaky DL4 in question is mine. I'm not keen on paying for another faulty unit (or driving it up to Maryland for a costly repair job), but it's hard to find anything that can replace the Line 6 at anywhere close to the same price.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of loopers under $500 that beat the DL4 on a spec sheet. Boss has a whole set of pedals with longer sample lengths, or the ability to save samples for later. Its largest model can play multiple loops simultaneiously. Digitech's JamMan even records its audio to CompactFlash cards, so you can load arbitrary sounds from a computer. Either one of these, just to take two examples, is also much more durable than the DL4.

But neither of them is anywhere as usable for real-time looping. On both, for example, there's no way to go directly from the first recording pass into an overdub pass. The JamMan requires a double-stomp to enter overdub mode, which is much harder to time correctly, and the Boss pedals typically require playback to begin before overdubbing (the exception is the RC-50 pedal, which is A) enormous and B) only allows users to replace the default behavior, not make a decision at runtime). The great thing about the DL4 is that you don't have to make a choice--you can start with an overdub right away, or you can go straight into loop playback.

The same kind of thinking--or lack thereof, for other pedals--shows up in the one-shot feature. On other loopers, the option to play a loop just once (like a triggered sample) is usually set via a small switch on the actual unit, and it can't be changed while the loop is playing. In contrast, the DL4 has a switch set aside just for arming "Play Once" mode. At first, this seems like a waste of hardware, but don't be fooled: that switch is tremendously useful. It's not just good for the obvious applications of trigger-and-forget sample playback. You can also use it to tell the looper that you want playback halted automatically, freeing up your feet to make changes on other pedals at the same time. And if you're really good, you can use its ability to restart loop playback for compositional tricks that aren't otherwise available.

In other words, what you get with the DL4 isn't the most fully-featured pedal. But the designers have made sure that every feature it does have is accessible with one step at all times. If you're playing a looper as an instrument, and not as a foot-mounted samplebank, that's arguably far more important. Any time you have to reach down to adjust an option, or let a sample play through in order to get a proper overdub going, you've broken the performance.

When the DL4 started acting up, losing power or freezing onstage, I went looking for alternatives. The only one I've found with any potential is the Eventide TimeFactor, which offers overdub/play flexibility out of the box. Even then, to get a decent one-shot mode you have to add an external switch--but it at least gives the impression that it was designed with real-world users in mind. This may seem like faint praise (and it is), but it's something I think you can only rarely say about effects boxes. Why this is, I'm not sure. I suspect that the margins are too thin, and the consumer data too sparse, to provide proper incentives at the lower end of the market.

Frankly, when it comes to pedals gone bad, there are few good choices. Repair in our throwaway culture is expensive and hard to find. Reuse is a nice idea, but unlikely in practice, since I don't really have the technical background or patience for DIY pedal-making. And with commodities this expensive, the cost for a replacement is a bitter pill even in the best of times. In a rough economy like this, it's even harder to swallow.

Still, I'm trying to become less prone to fix problems through additional consumption. So if the choices are bad, perhaps the point is to find new ones. I still have looping tools available to me--the Loop Junky or a Mobius-based laptop rig. And I'm hoping this will serve as a reminder of why I started playing with loops in the first place: not just that I'm a misanthrope, but as a set of constraints for channeling my creativity. I like the DL4, but I'd gotten comfortable with it. Its constraints weren't really limitations anymore. It's probably time to find new ones.

November 13, 2008

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Wow and Flutter

These two words, wow and flutter, describe the charming warble created by variations in speed on an analog tape recorder. Believe it or not, those are technical terms. You've probably heard the phenomenon, even if you don't know it--it's the way that cassette players (back when people listened to cassette recorders) or old TV episodes slip slightly off pitch.

Whenever there's a technical flaw in audio equipment like this, it inevitably ends up being stretched in two directions. Obviously, when tracking musicians, engineers try to minimize the amount of wow and flutter so that the recording will be accurate. At the same time, the effects aren't always unpleasing, and so musicians often begin incorporating it into the music itself. So in much the same way that distortion from primitive amplifiers became part of the electric blues 'sound,' the pitch inaccuracy of tape-based delay and loop effects has become an effect in its own right. It's popular enough that digital delays like the Line 6 DL-4 or Boss Giga Delay have tape emulation modes, complete with adjustable, artificial wow and flutter (not to mention thousands of guitar snobs insisting that they prefer the real thing).

The LoFi Loop Junky I picked up last month in Portland is not a tape delay at all, but it does, quite intentionally, share a lot of the same sound palette. As the name implies, it's a low-fidelity sampler, with a hard frequency limit of 2.6KHz and a lot of self-noise from the storage mechanism. There are also two knobs for a built-in vibrato, giving it the same kind of pitch waver. I didn't buy the Loop Junky for those wow-and-flutter features, but they're rapidly becoming my favorite reason for using it.

When I first started the pretentious solo project, part of the goal (besides the ability to play music without subordinating my ego to a guitarist's) was to work on songwriting within the constraints of a loop pedal--and those constraints are not inconsiderable. But with that said, the equipment I've used has still been very capable: the DL-4 is not only very high-fidelity, with a long running time and layer-on-layer abilities, but it can also alter playing speed, reverse loops, or play them as one-shot samples. So while structurally it imposes some limits (oh, for an undo function!), sonically and mechanically it's a powerful machine, and it gives users a lot of freedom to explore.

You get none of that with the Loop Junky. It plays loops one way, at one speed, with no automatic stop--and it makes everything you play through it sound a bit like a cheap 8-track, to boot. When I originally heard about the pedal, that didn't matter: its main selling point for me was that it was a boutique pedal with a small footprint, a long recording time, and a battery life measured in centuries. As an occasional open mike player, where setup time is important, the heavy power draw and sheer mass of the DL-4 had become cumbersome. I figured a more agile pedal would be worth some feature set sacrifices.

What I didn't anticipate was the degree to which the Loop Junky, like all Z. Vex pedals, would make up for the loss of flexibility with character. For example, the vibrato is a lot of fun, but it has a kind of low-pass filter on its sound so it's really only audible on mid-range notes, or on chords higher up the fretboard. On low-fret basslines or percussive riffs, the effect is wasted. As a result, with only one layer available, I find myself adapting my approach: instead of looping beats and basslines, it's much more fun to loop the chords and play the rhythm parts by hand. Sometimes this means that a given song just won't work, but the challenge of adapting material to the pedal is markedly different from the Line 6. Instead of simply adapting a song's parts into structural cues, it feels more like creating a new arrangement.

To be honest, it's not surprising that I like the pedal for these reasons. I'm a digital aficionado for recording and production, but when playing out I usually prefer the simplicity and character of analog effects, and I doubt that I'm alone in feeling that way. It's part of what makes the words "wow and flutter" so appropriate--they capture the distortions and flaws that musicians have embraced and incorporated into the genres and forms of their music, not as a burden, but in a sense of joyful play.

December 4, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Moore's Loops

Roland, the parent corporation of Boss pedals, has announced a loop pedal the size of a regular compact pedal for release this fall. It's a tempting package, and if I didn't already own a looper that I like very much, I'd probably want to pick it up. It has a mind-boggling amount of loop time (16 minutes) with non-volatile memory and an aux jack to store backing tracks or samples. There's an undo function, tap tempo, and built-in drum patterns. I really like that it's switched on by the output jack instead of the input, so that it doesn't have to be a part of a signal chain. Plus, Musician's Friend has it priced at $180, which makes it the cheapest and smallest looper that I'm aware of.

On the other hand, like all Boss compact pedals it doesn't lend itself well to complex hands-free operation. The single footswitch will apparently handle record, play, and overdub functions, plus undo (hold the switch) and stop (double-tap). Overloading a switch with that many functions makes timing far too complicated, especially for players that really integrate the looper into their songwriting: Undo is useful for inserting and removing chord layers, for example. Play Once (or "One-shot," as Roland calls it) automates ending a loop, taking some of the timing burden off the operator, but here it's been moved onto a separate playback mode of its own and requires turning the selection knob by hand to activate. The RC-2 accepts two extra footswitches via an extension jack, but it looks to me like those are only used for Stop and Tap Tempo. The more that I use the Line 6 looper's four-switch layout (Record/Overdub, Play/Stop, Play Once, Speed/Reverse), the more I appreciate it. And although the footprint for the Line 6 DL-4 is much larger than a Boss pedal, it's capable of going battery-powered for a surprisingly long time with a set of C-cells. Generally speaking, a 9-volt can't handle the drain from a loop processor for very long, so I'm guessing Boss's entry will really require a wall-adapter.

Bottom-line, it looks like it'll be a great entry-level pedal, but is probably more oriented to musicians with backing tracks or already-determined arrangements. That's kind of a theme for Boss's loopers, as far as I can tell--they lend themselves better to solo performers fleshing out their orchestration, as opposed to jam- or purely loop-oriented songwriters.

August 22, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Stripping Mobius

After two days of work, the process of virtualizing my pedalboard has taken a big step forward with the emulation of my Line 6 DL4 in Mobius. You can get the scripts here, and Mobius itself is a free download. The process of moving my effects rig to a laptop may be a really bad idea, but it wasn't even a possibility until I got this running.

The essential functionality I missed from the DL4's looper is the Play Once button, which I think was inspired by the Boomerang loop pedal. If Play Once is pressed while the loop is active, the mode is armed and the loop will stop playing after the current cycle. If the loop isn't active, the loop will play once (huh!), then stop. Pressing the button while Play Once mode is armed will stutter the loop, restarting it from the beginning of the cycle, kind of like a skipping CD.

I hadn't realized, until I began looking for software alternatives, how much I've used these functions in my compositions and covers. On "My Foundation," for example, I use it to trigger the chords in the chorus. In a lot of songs, Play Once sets the loop to end, while I simultaneously switch my other effects off or on--something I otherwise wouldn't have enough feet to do!

Now, it's not clear if I'm an oddity or if I just haven't transitioned fully to the dominant looping paradigm, but most other people with this kind of equipment don't seem interested in these functions--and it shows in the tools they write. Loopy Llama is a fine enough plugin, but it's clearly been coded by someone who has either more equipment than I do or a very different musical approach. Mobius itself is itself an emulation of the Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro unit, and so it doesn't even technically have a "stop" function, just different modes of "mute."

Luckily, you can script Mobius, and it has an almost obscene amount of capabilities. The difficult part is overloading one button, so that it will trigger different effects depending on where the user is set, at the proper time (hardest of all). So while the other two are nice (having Record and Overdub on the same button saves space, as does Play/Stop), it's the Play Once button that caused me the biggest headaches. But I'm proud to say that it should work properly now, assuming that you let it use the InsertMode variable to store its state, and you don't have some weird quantize settings. It wouldn't be hard to change the script to handle that, but this is a good starting point.

January 31, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Mobius

Wow. The moment I get all excited about a free looper and building an Echoplex, I run into Mobius, which is a full-featured Echoplex emulation, also supporting ASIO. I will be downloading this and playing with it. The feature set, including its implementation of Multiply, looks really sweet. It doesn't include Undo yet, which is unfortunate.

Why don't I use these PC-based tools personally? For one thing, because it's a pain hooking a laptop up at a show. I like the bulletproof nature of standalone effects like the DL4. I never have to worry about CPU spikes or driver conflicts on the pedal looper. Also, I like being bound to a highly-restrictive toolkit, just for the challenge.

On the other hand, if I were starting over today--or if I decided to work in a different context, perhaps with other musicians--it would be really tempting to break out the laptop instead of my pedals.

Future - Present - Past