Category Archives: live looping

RECORDING: Hardware samplers vs. laptops!

So, I’m always on the hunt for gear that makes my job as a musician/music producer and songwriter a lot easier/cheaper. Laptops are essential, these days. And/or hardware samplers… but, which is better?

For live use… a lot of people recommend using hardware samplers… because there’s basically like zero chance of a crash. Yes, but…

If you take care of your laptop, how often do you actually find it crashing or slowed down? Zero percent of the time? That’s kind of me, in a nutshell. If you know what you’re doing… it’s about as reliable (if not more than) a hardware sampler. I don’t have pop-up ads on my shit, and the audio playback is precise… because I tweak it, and I monitor my internet activity… and/or I don’t go on the web at all, on a music-making laptop.

Let’s say you’re in a duo (basically all bands I’m in are duos)… and, say you need backing tracks to fill out your sound. There’s only two people… playing two instruments and singing… so… you might need something to play a beat, or layered background/countermelody vocals, and/or keyboard parts, or basslines….¬†that’s where a laptop or hardware sampler come in. Most duos are often either two guitars/singing… or a guitar and a piano, and singing. Or, a mix of all (such as duos like Shovels & Rope). But most often, it’s either two guitars and singing, or guitar/singer, and pianist/singer.

Duo Examples:
First Aid Kit (guitar/vocals, and keyboards/vocals)
Angus and Julia Stone (guitar vocals, and guitar/vocals)
Wye Oak (bass/guitar/vocals, and drums/keys/computer)
Lemolo (keys/guitar/vocals, and drummer/backing track player)
Beach House (keys/vocals/drum machine, guitar/vocals)
Goodbye Heart (keys/vocals, guitar/drum machine/vocals)

Ok… so, here are your current choices for a hardware sampler:

Korg Electribe Sampler ($400 street)
Roland SPD-SX ($800 street)
Roland SP-404SX ($500 street)
used Akai MPC1000 ($varies)
used Akai MPC500 (often less than $300 used)
Akai MPX8 or MPX16 ($100 or $200)
Pioneer/Dave Smith Toreiz SP-16 ($1500 street)

Now, here’s the problem with hardware samplers: STORAGE (or lack thereof!)

Electribe? 270 seconds, in mono (that’s about 5 minutes.. and only 5 minutes of samples…. without having to load anything. Sure, you can use a 32GB SD card… but that’s only for loading samples into RAM… which, you only have 5 minutes of storage. Only 5 minutes.

Roland SPD-SX – Price is ridiculous. But, you get 4GB of storage. That’s 720 minutes, of mono samples. Yes, you read that right. 12 hours. Now we’re talking… but… this device is useless, unless you’re a drummer. What if you’re a vocalist who just wants to lightly push a button, on a small device on a stand (I’ve seen a lot of vocalists do this.. in professional bands)? Not everyone wants to hold a drumstick the entire set…

Roland SP-404SX – A little pricey…. 2GB of storage. 360 minutes, in mono. Six hours. Possibly more, with an SD card, but I think the RAM (the internal memory) is 2GB. Not bad… not bad at all. Haven’t messed with this, so I don’t know the full capability… but, it seems like a good value… I’ve seen pro bands use this live, such as the all-woman Brooklyn indie band Teen.

Akai MPCs-– not a lot of storage (the MPC1000 was the last unit sold new until 2009… until recently when Akai has announced new (and VERY pricey) hardware samplers……. . Upgrading the ram on one of these older units to 128MB (the maximum) allows about 24 and a half minutes of mono samples. Not bad. If it’s a stereo WAV file that’s 5 minutes long (about 50MB), you can store about 4 of them in an MPC with its RAM maxed out. But that’s only 4 songs. Your set is probably 8-10 songs. Sure, you can put together a sequence with smaller samples… but that’s a lot of work. But, the MPC is tried and true… and many people use them live… still. I find the workflow to be ridiculously slow and counter-intuitive (always have, with MPCs).

Akai MPX8 and MPX16. SLOW LOADING TIMES. Bug-ridden. Crappy menus. 60MB of total storage (yeah, that’s decent– enough to fit one 5-minute stereo WAV file as a backing track, but sadly… I think each pad on each of these units can only store like a 4MB sample, per pad)…. The MPX16 is decent… but, I read it’s bug-ridden.

Pioneer/Dave Smith Toraiz SP16. Find the need and fill it? Yeah. They have. But at what cost? 8GB of flash memory, and 256MB for audio sample memory… wait.. what? I’m a little confused about that. Also, each sample can only be 32 seconds or less, long… so, forget about stereo WAV backing tracks…. A beautiful device, for sure… but… $1500? Whoa.



I can get an 8GB Dell Precision laptop¬†(quad-core i7) for only $250 used on ebay (full HD display at 1920×1080 resolution)… swap out the HD for a solid-state hard drive (525GB Crucial SSD is only $150 new)… now we’re at $400. Upgrading the RAM to 16GB from 8 is a $50 investment. $450 total, now. Pick up a used Novation Launchpad or Behringer TC64 (just like a Launchpad) for about $50. Total cost: $550. Or, if you want to trigger the samples with your feet… a Behringer FCB1010 ($150 new) or a used Line6 FBV Shortboard MKII ($125 used).

A Launchpad comes with Ableton Live Lite 9, which is powerful as hell, and free. And you can trigger ANY samples you want… size is only limited by your hard drive. Ableton will work fine on a 4GB laptop, but even better on a 16GB one.

Or, you can go the route I’m figuring out— Reaper 5, with “Playtime” (a virtual instrument designed by a hardcore Reaper fanatic, which works exactly like Ableton’s “Session View”) OR…. Reaper 5 and “Regions” (each region triggered by MIDI notes or CCs). Backing tracks are a breeze, using Reaper 5 and creating Regions from whatever audio clip is on your timeline… plus, you can infinitely loop Regions, and move onto another… and it won’t play the one you clicked to or triggered, until the current one has stopped playing.

Why the fuck would anyone buy or use a hardware sampler for live use, when a laptop is commonplace live, these days… and… a laptop with a MIDI controller is just so much more cost-effective (and the storage and options are basically unlimited)…? I would feel completely comfortable using a laptop live, especially with a solid-state hard drive in it…. why the hell not? That’s fast as hell, and rock-solid stable.

I know I’m babbling about this (it’s 2:11am and I had a huge coffee about two hours ago)… I really need to make a YouTube video talking about the pros and cons, and showing how effortlessly a laptop and MIDI controller can be used to great effect, for live…

Since I make all of my music on a computer… creating backing tracks is simply a matter of simplifying an arrangement, and muting lead vocal tracks, and/or mixing things down to a simple 5-track setup, per song (bass, drums, keys, extra guitars, backing vocals)…. I don’t have to manually re-arrange something in a hardware sequencer… and sample, re-sample… load/chop/tweak… why? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Any duos out there? Any electronic musicians who perform live? What do you use? What do you hate? Pro-laptop? Anti-laptop? Talk to me. I have 60+ readers on this blog… talk to me. Let me know you’re out there. Let’s create some kind of community, here… I want to know what you think and what you’re using.








RECORDING: Live Looping

Man, just the phrase “live looping” can make my head spin. I’m currently working with my friend and roommate on a live show for his upcoming album, which is ambient post rock.. occasionally with drums and keyboard stuff… but most of it is him looping over himself with an insanely decked-out pedalboard.

As a multi-instrumentalist who took up drums first, he has me drumming on a few of his tunes but as soon as the arrangement changes on one of them, it’s ridiculously easy to get off-time, playing with him, playing over the live loops he makes. As loops get added to a loop, chaos ensues, musically…. and things can get noisier and noisier. And rhythmic loops (such as a melodic guitar riff) can easily get buried as loops are added. A lot of people might not know about this stuff, but trust me, it can get a little hectic and impossible to play along to, because there’s nothing to latch on to, rhythmically, as a loop progresses. But thankfully, there are cool solutions, for those out there who love to do live looping with their music.

First off, I’ll list some live-looping artists that I respect greatly and also am very inspired by:

KT Tunstall (covering the Jackson Five)


Imogen Heap (this is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. This entire song using ONLY her voice, and hands)

and my man, Ethan Tufts, aka State Shirt (hopefully I will be doing a collab with him on YouTube in the near future)

Oh, and I can’t forget Andy Othling, aka Lowercase Noises:


Now, you guys might be wondering… how the HELL do these people do this?

Well, there’s many ways…. KT Tunstall and Bernhoft, for instance, use a Boss RC looper pedal (Bernhoft I believe is using the RC-50, and KT uses something smaller). Then, Imogen Heap is using something they don’t even make anymore… I forget exactly what model she uses (and the brand)… wait, it’s called the Electrix Repeater (it’s a 4-track looping device, and she’s creating and/or muting the loops by pressing her thumb or finger on the buttons in the video). State Shirt is using a software looper called Mobius (which is like a Gibson Echoplex looper, on crack!). Lowercase Noises is doing his ambient looping with an expensive loop pedal called the Boomerang.

If you’re looking to do something much more simple, though (to start)… I highly recommend the Digitech Jamman Express XT. Check it out and YouTube, and check out the possibilities. Then, if you are a solo singer-songwriter, you could benefit from using a TC Helicon Voicelive Play GTX, with a Switch-3, for live looping, and being able to create vocal harmony on the fly, as you perform your song (with or without loops).

I currently use a Digitech Jamman Solo XT (when developing my own ideas), and I also use this same pedal, synched with my friend’s Jamman Express XT (his pedal is the master, mine is the slave). I also dabble with the Windows version of Mobius (by the way, it’s free to download and use).

The whole culture of live looping is much, much more involved than this blog could ever possibly explain. But once you check it out, you quickly become addicted to the technology and the possibilities, especially if you’re a multi-instrumentalist. So check this stuff out, and imagine the possibilities. The sky is truly the limit with live looping.

Maybe in the future, I’ll have a series of how to do live-looping (and I’ll make some videos, with my roommate and friend Luke Pigott, who I’m rehearsing with, for the past week or so). I think it would be really beneficial to the readers of this blog, especially those of you who are multi-instrumentalists like myself.

Stay inspired. Stay creative!!