A ‘loop’ is what happens when you take a short (or long) snippet of music and repeat it again and again – on a loop. So, you can take a drum or guitar part and loop it. You can even sing a line and loop it. In fact, using a looper; as long as you can record it in, you can loop it. And, you can not only loop snippets of music, but record and stack endless ‘overdubs’ over the top. In this blog, we’ll take a look at the history of the loop pedal and find out exactly what you can (and can’t) do with these magic boxes.

Loop Stations: What Are They & What Can They Do?

A Complete Production

By layering loops and overdubs, you can quickly complete a full one-person production. You can do it with instruments or with nothing more than your voice: from a capellas to close harmonies. Loops open up an entirely new world of creative options, and since repetition is an essential element of a lot of music, there’s a lot you can do with just a few loops. That repetition didn’t come from nowhere, either. Just listen to your own heartbeat or your breathing and you already have a steady drum beat. Pop music relies heavily on repetition and there’s a good reason why it’s so popular, especially when you listen to the tribal music from Africa and New-Guinea to get a glimpse of where it all began. Even the Bolero by Ravèl, blues, jazz music and the endless funk of Bootsy Collins repeats and repeats. Modern classic composers like Steve Reich manipulate repeats to breathtaking effect. Repetition works because, once you’ve stumbled on a great idea, you only want to hear it again and again, right? And what would really come in handy is some kind of machine that you can play or sing that idea into and it will repeat it endlessly, while you add other ideas and new elements over the top.

The Loop Machine

At the San Francisco Tape Music Centre during the fifties, a group of composers designed a tape-based machine – the first machine ever that was able to loop samples. Besides George Martin (the man behind The Beatles’ production), and together with Brian Eno, one of the biggest looping pioneers was Robert Fripp who used two Revox tape recorders: the Time Lag Accumilator, a machine that was designed by Terry Riley and would later be rediscovered by Brian Eno in the seventies. The machine literally looped a tape through a series of tape heads, so it could be used to record something and play it back at the same time, while overdubs were layered over the top. Robert Frip used the dual setup to weave carpets of guitars, calling it ’Frippertronics’. It worked like this: play in a note and the note repeats. Play in another note over the top of the first. The first note sounds a touch ‘deader’ than the last, as it’s kind of pushed into the background, which was the charm of this tape-based method. The effect was a really specific kind of echo, and was later harnessed by the Roland Space Echo, which worked in the same way by basically combining the two-machine ’Frippertronics’ setup in one unit. The only downside was that the maximum loop length was limited to the length and playback speed of the tape. But that didn’t stop genres like hip-hop and house from getting the most out of these original loopers and the models that followed. Brian Eno’s ambient classics could not have been possible without them. Eno also co-produced the unforgettable loop-heavy album ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ by David Byrne.


Using tape has one really big disadvantage: tape eventually wears out. So, at the end of the seventies, MXR released the M-113 Digital Delay, a unit that didn’t use tape at all, but (at the time) an eye-wateringly expensive memory chip. Despite the price, Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius famously backed himself up on stage with one. Despite the innovation, the music-making world would have to wait another twenty years for the concept to evolve, when Roland released the RC-20 in 2001. This pedal was a real milestone on the looping landscape and was accompanied by the Boomerang which was released around the same time. Every loop station and loop pedal that followed is still based on these first-generation models. Of course, now you get some new tweaks thrown on top of the looping and overdubbing functions, like an integrated drum machine, multi-tracks and built-in effects. The latest innovation at the time of writing is the Roland RC-505 (featured later in this blog). This extensive unit took the loop station off the floor and put it on a desktop.


Every looper offers at least one track. Record something to that one track and then you can add countless overdubs over the top. These days, the sound of the first loop you record sounds just as good as the fiftieth overdub (unless you have a unit with a decay pot, like the Boomerang). Since the loop duration is set by the first loop, every overdub has the same length as well. So, while you can stack an unlimited number of layers on one another, you can’t separate them or mute one of them before kicking it back in. All you can do is stop and start playback and (usually) delete the last overdub you laid down. But, if you have a looper with two tracks (or more), you can do stuff like build a layered percussion beat on track 1, then layer guitar parts on track two. This way, you can stop and start the percussion and guitar loops separately, effectively muting the tracks and bringing them back in at just the right moment to add dynamics to a song or performance. However, you still can’t separate the shaker you recorded first from the tambourine you recorded later, nor can you separate the guitar solo you layered over that chord progression since they all sit on one track. Another advantage of multi-track loopers is that the loop on one track can be longer or shorter than the loop on another, which is handy. Say you want to record a couple of bars of a drum beat and set it to loop before recording an eight-bar chord progression on another track. With this kind of setup, you can basically play complete songs complete with verses and choruses.


There are plenty of different loopers available these days. The cheapest are the most simple, so set you up with a single loop track. From there, you can get as extensive as you want to: there are models with one stereo track, two tracks, three tracks, or with top-shelf models like the RC-505 (featured later on), you get no less than five stereo tracks. The biggest names in the looping business right now are Boss/Roland and Digitech/Jamman, who offer a massive array of different loopers, from the simple to the complex. Then there are other names like Boomerang, Line 6, Echoplex and TC Electronics who offer a more limited but no less worthy range.


A looper can be set up alongside anything that makes sound, so it can be used to play absolutely any style. In principle, you can record entire songs on a looper since the internal memories of current models usually have space for at least five minutes of recording time – even the ultra-simple Ditto from TC Electronics. If you play an instrument, then a pedal-style model will be the most handy, but for beatboxers, singers and beat-mixers that want more hands-on control, it’s a better idea to get something that you don’t have to bend down over to fiddle with the settings.


Departing from tape, loopers are now small audio-based computers complete with CPU, RAM, an operating system and a built-in audio interface. As such, you can also get looping software for your computer. For example, if you’re a Windows user, you can download Möbius for free! The programme also works as a VST plugin. For Mac and Linux you can get the really advanced – and free to download – SooperLooper, which is run under JACK. Both programmes can be controlled via keyboard shortcuts or a MIDI controller. Basically, the software allows you to loop on location from the comfort of your laptop. Of course, looping with software can be a little bit of faff in terms of setup time, but in terms of functionality, you’re basically looking at the same thing as a looper pedal.

Artists at Work

Jarle Bernhoft is one of many examples of singers that work with live loops. He uses an RC-300 to build funk-infused songs live and on the spot. Incidentally, his recorded work is also worth checking out. Naturally, there are a lot of instrumentalists who use loops. The real die-hard loopers are found on the dance and beatbox circuit, including names like Dub FX and Beardyman. From there, you can trawl the internet and put together an illustrious line-up of loop-based performers.

A Little Advice

If you want to find out if looping is something for you, then it’s worth downloading some of the free software we mentioned above to try it out on your computer. If you definitely want to take the plunge, then we recommend going for user-friendliness first, so a hardware-based looper will always give you that. Especially if you want to play gigs with it. If you just want a single-track looper, then you won’t have to pay out too much cash and you’ll have plenty to choose from. If you want a model set up for beatboxers, DJs, vocalists, mixing or production work that you can build complete compositions with, then the only unit that can do it all has to be the RC-505: the ultimate looping toy.

The Roland RC-505

With five stereo tracks, the Boss RC-505 is the most extensive looper in the world right now, and rather than being housed in your standard pedal unit, this is a tabletop model. Since you essentially ‘play’ it with your hands, this model is less focussed on instrumentalists, and more focussed on beatboxers, vocalists, and beat mixers that have both hands free to hit buttons and tweak knobs. Before the RC-505, plenty of artists were happy to get along with the RC-300, but the bank of footswitches proved less user-friendly when played by hand, hence the development of the 505. Besides improved ‘playing comfort’, the RC-505 offers a lot more. For example, the RC-300 came with a thick user manual that required a degree in astrophysics to get through. The looper itself was also not all that intuitive in use. The RC-505 clears all of this up. You can easily pick one up and start working with it and, as soon as you feel like you’re missing a few functions, a quick look in the manual will tell you exactly where to find them. Every setting can be adjusted on the fly, from tweaking the mix of the tracks to triggering or turning off effects and adjusting track parameters – all of it works in real-time. The RC-505 also supports MIDI, can be synchronised with MIDI clock (so it can communicate with DAW software) and can even function as a MIDI/audio interface for your computer! And, because of the MIDI implementation, you can also hook up an external footswitch. There are plenty of other impressive features on offer. A range of effects like reverb, phaser, chorus, panning, octaver (for bass lines) and more can be applied to the input. You can then record the input effect and change it, while playing or singing. You can also apply a long list of effects to the recorded tracks – per track. Then you have the option of adding compression and reverb (at the same time) to the master. In terms of settings, the RC-505 gets even more extensive. The unit can be fully customised and you can even save a bank of settings per song, or as a default for the entire device. A massive library of drum beats has also been built-in, and plenty of connection options are provided, including an XLR port complete with phantom power, a stereo/mono instrument input and a mini-jack port for hooking up gear like a tablet, smartphone or other external audio sources.

Help Picking Out Your Looper

If you need help finding your new looper, see our Loop Station Buyer’s Guide.

See also…

» Loopers
» Vocal Effects
» Guitar Effects
» Microphones
» MIDI Foot Controllers

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