Tape loop

Tape loops are loops of prerecorded magnetic tape used to create repetitive, rhythmic musical patterns or dense layers of sound. Contemporary composers such as Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen used tape loops to create phase patterns and rhythms. In the early 1970s, musicians Brian Eno and Robert Fripp created Frippertronics, a system for creating tape loops during a live performance. In the mid-1980s, digital sampling overtook much tape loop use. In the 1990s and 2000s, digital looping pedals became more affordable. One man bands use looping pedals to record a groove or riff, and then they solo over the riff as it repeats.


A measure of recorded magnetic tape is cut and spliced end-to-end, creating a circle or loop which can be played continuously, usually on a reel to reel machine. Tape loop effects are sometimes combined with a technique wherein the playback speed of the loop is increased or decreased over time, somewhat similar to a glissando which slurs the pitch of a note up or down as used in music.

Simultaneous playing of tape loops to create phase patterns and rhythms was developed and initially used by musique concrète and tape music composers, and was most extensively utilized by Steve Reich for his "phasing" pieces such as "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain", and by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The length of the loop, of course, controlled the length of the repeated sound, combined with the desired content of the composer. On a standard reel-to-reel, one could loop, at most, a few seconds of music or sound. Some composers were satisfied with this approach, but there were other methods to allow for longer loops. For example, one could place two reel-to-reel machines side by side and string the tape between them, using one machine for playback and the other simply as a pulley for the length of tape.

Alternatively, one tape machine could be a playback machine while the second machine was a recording machine, creating not only a tape loop, but an extremely long echo. By using this or other methods, some composers could create very long loops which allowed for lengthier fragments of sound. When recording his landmark 1978 ambient album Music for Airports, Brian Eno reported that for a particular song, "One of the tape loops was seventy-nine feet long and the other eighty-three feet." (Prendergrast, 123)


Beginning in the late 1950s the BBC Radiophonic Workshop began using tape loops to add special effects to some BBC programming.Pop musicians, most notably The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Fifty Foot Hose, Can, and Pink Floyd, have used tape loops on their albums.

One of the more novel uses of tape loops were heavily utilized by French electronic pop composer Jean Jacques Perrey (sometimes working with American composer Gershon Kingsley) on a series of mid-60s albums on the Vanguard label. Their loops often had tight, multiple splices in them to create their frantic rhythmic loop effects, to which they added conventional instruments and synthesizers playing generally familiar instrumental up-tempo tunes. Their composition, "Baroque Hoedown", from their 1967 album, "Kaleidoscopic Vibrations" was adopted by Disney for their "Starlight Parade" event at Disneyland and Disneyworld, and was used by filmmaker Mike Jittlov for the "Mouse Mania" animated short film he made for Disney's Mickey Mouse 50th anniversary TV special in 1978.

In the early 1970s, musicians Brian Eno and Robert Fripp created Frippertronics, a system for creating tape loops during a live performance. A few years later, Mission of Burma began using loops on their albums, and also began feeding snippets of vocals and guitar recorded moments earlier back into their live mix, thereby introducing live loop effects to punk rock. Experimental noise musician NON aka Boyd Rice played loops of speeches, radio broadcasts and conversations just under the threshold of comprehensibility in his live shows, starting in 1977. Since then, he's created loops to evoke a hypnotic, trance state in his audiences.

Digital Loops

Digital sampling -- which can generally provide similar results with less effort -- overtook much tape loop use, beginning in the mid 1980s. To create a loop digitally requires nothing more than highlighting a section of already-recorded music or sound and clicking on a 'repeat' or 'duplicate' icon as many times as you want the loop to repeat. Some musicians and composers, however, continue to use analog tape loops for various reasons.

Loop Pedals

One direction of the evolution of the tape loop is the looping pedal - a digital sampler built into an easy-to-use footswitch-operated pedal of the kind most often used by guitarists to create looping layers of melody or texture during a live performance. A noteworthy example of this melodic layering effect is Ian Williams' dense, complex layers of guitar on Don Caballero's American Don (free MP3s available here and here) as well as currently using two loop pedals to create starkly different effects with his current band Battles. Another example is Joe Driscoll who layers both guitar riffs and oral percussion (beatboxing). Some popular digital looping pedals (which can be used on any instrument, but are primarily used by guitarists) are the Line 6 DL4 (used by, among others, Jazz guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield), the Boomerang Phrase Sampler (used by Phish's Trey Anastasio, and Primus' Les Claypool), the Akai E2 Headrush (best known for its extensive use by Ian Williams and KT Tunstall), and the Boss Loop Station.

See also


  • Mark Prendergrast; The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance, the Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age; Bloomsbury, 2000; ISBN 1-58234-134-6

Record albums: Jean Jacques Perrey & Gershon Kingsley: The In Sound From Way Out (Vanguard Records, 1966, VSD 79222), Kaledoscopic Vibrations (Vanguard Records, 1967, VSD 79264), Moog Indigo (Vanguard Records, 1970, VSD 6549)

External links

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