Looping Pedal Roundup!

Once relegated to the realm of musical esoterica, looping has begun to be embraced by musicians of all types, which has drawn the attention of manufacturers hoping to help facilitate their loop dreams. The DigiTech JamMan, Electro-Harmonix 2880, Boomerang Boomerang+, and BackLine RiffBox all take very different approaches to the art of looping, and which would be best for you will be determined by your individual needs.

Issues such as sound quality and ease of use are factors when evaluating any looper, but beyond those are a variety of more specific considerations. For example, would you like to have a stereo looper, and, if so, why? If it’s because you plan to use it in a true stereo signal chain—say, patched between a stereo effects unit and two amps or mixer inputs, or in an amp’s true stereo effects loop—you’ll need a pedal with stereo inputs as well as outputs, such as either the RiffBox or the 2880.

Do you want to be able to store your loops as audio files, rather than having them disappear into oblivion each time you begin a new loop? Both the JamMan and the 2880 record loops to CompactFlash media, and allow you to archive them to a computer via USB.

Do you need MIDI capabilities? The RiffBox and the 2880 can both send MIDI clocks, but only the 2880 can receive them (including Song Position Pointers), allowing it to slave to a sequencer or drum machine, rather than just the other way around. On the other hand, many of the RiffBox’s key parameters respond to MIDI Continuous Controller messages, whereas the 2880’s do not, making the RiffBox a better choice for use with a MIDI floor controller with one or more expression pedals. And speaking of floor controllers, if you prefer to have dedicated onboard footswitches to trigger essential functions, or would like to play “backwards” solos live, the Boomerang+ can accommodate you.

Other features to look for on contemporary loopers include the ability to play loops in reverse (the 2880 and Boomerang+ excel at this), change their pitch and/or speed (all four pedals handle this in various ways), and undo the previous layer or layers if you make a mistake while overdubbing (only the JamMan does this easily).

Finally, nearly all loopers are now digital phrase-sampling devices, which record and repeat a static segment of audio. This means that not all current loopers are capable of the very cool, “vintage-looping” technique (see “Higher Education: Looping” in the April ’06 issue of GP) of layering a sound back on itself, with the older parts gradually fading out as new parts are added. However, the JamMan, 2880, Boomerang+, and RiffBox can accomplish it as quickly as you can say “Frippertronics.”

The pedals were tested with various guitars and amplifiers, in the effects loops of several amplifiers, and also patched into the effects bus of a DAW. Noise levels were also clinically evaluated in a studio environment.

BackLine Engineering RiffBox

With its stock, off-the-shelf enclosure, minimalist controls, and two-character numerical display, the RiffBox ($599 retail/$419 street) would look right at home in a ’70s electronic music studio. And that’s in keeping with its character. Although you can create loops in the conventional way by pressing either the built-in footswitch or an optional external one, the RiffBox employs “intelligent looping” technology to automate many functions.

Basically, the RiffBox senses when notes, chords, or other musical “events” take place, and responds according to one of 76 operating modes. It can, say, automatically begin looping after you play a single event, and then close the loop upon sensing the next event following the press of a footswitch. More complex modes allow you to close the loop after a predetermined number of events occur, automate fades and layering, and so on. There are also modes for simple delays, doubling, and other effects.

In order to automate loop length, the RiffBox must be able to identify exactly how many events have occurred, so that it can close the loop at the correct time. To that end, the user specifies a threshold events have to pass over before being counted. And there’s the rub: Set the threshold too low, and sounds such as string noise may be interpreted as an event. Set it too high, and all but the most distinct notes or chords pass unrecognized. Playing individual notes or chords faster than 115 bpm, or with other than a clean tone, may also result in errors. After carefully optimizing the RiffBox’s detection circuitry, I was able to create basic loops at slow-to-moderate tempos without encountering problems. But the faster I played, the more errors occurred.

Once you’ve selected a mode and begun looping, options for editing on the fly are extremely limited unless you have a MIDI controller. Some key functions—such as reverse and half-speed playback, and changing loop length—can only be accomplished via MIDI. The RiffBox offers fairly extensive MIDI implementation, including sending MIDI clocks, saving and restoring preset data via SysEx dumps, and sending/receiving Program Change messages.

Curiously, the RiffBox has a low-impedance input, which will suck the highs out of your tone if you plug directly into it. Feeding its input from an active effects pedal—or, better yet, a direct box—improves the sound quality dramatically. Impedance issues notwithstanding, the RiffBox’s 16-bit/48kHz audio quality is exceptionally clear and clean whether operating in mono or stereo. [Backline reports that future versions will have a high-impedance input].

Given that RiffBox has 76 operating modes and only a two-character display, trying to remember which mode does what without consulting the 63-page manual is daunting. You can create up to 100 user presets, which is some help, but using them can still get confusing, as they cannot be named.

All things considered, RiffBox’s temperamental event-sensing and lack of real-time control (unless used with a MIDI controller) make its automated functions more suitable to applications where performances are predetermined and precisely repeatable—such as using a sequencer or audio recorder as the source of musical events. When it comes to improvising, or even playing tried-and-true arrangements in the typically untidy conditions of live performance, there is simply too great a chance that Murphy’s Law will intervene. The RiffBox is capable of some unique and intriguing effects, but it seems more oriented to engineers than guitarists, who, after all, generally don’t mind pushing footswitches.

Kudos Ingenious automated looping functions. Exceptional audio quality. Stereo I/O. Extensive MIDI implementation.

Concerns Minimal real-time control. Some functions accessible only via MIDI.
Temperamental “event” sensing.

Contact BackLine Engineering, (805) 445-6588; www.backline-eng.com

Boomerang Boomerang+ Phrase Sampler

Designed specifically for live performance, the Boomerang+ ($599 retail/$429 street) is a no-frills device that provides lots of essential looping features in a self-contained, ergonomically efficient package. In addition to the standard Record and Play/Stop footswitches, you get dedicated footswitches for reversing the loop playback (Direction), layering (Stack), and switching between two separate loops, or playing a phrase a single time (A/B, Once). There’s also a convenient foot-roller for adjusting Output Level, and a Thru Mute switch for bypassing the non-processed sound.

The Boomerang also offers some less obvious features, such as the ability to play “backwards” solos in real-time, an Aux Out that only outputs the sound of the loop and not the dry input signal (useful for providing a headphone feed to a drummer), seven selectable decay rates (including zero decay and one-repeat slapback), and five “vari-speed” settings harmonically related to the original loop (down a 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, or octave). The Boomerang may also be used as a delay pedal.

While the Boomerang+ technically operates at differing sampling rates depending on which functions are engaged, it is basically a 16-bit/24kHz device, which is more than adequate for reproducing guitar tones. As long as you carefully adjust the Input Level switch and Trim control to match your instrument’s output level, you can create loops that are nearly as quiet and full sounding as those produced by loopers with twice the Boomerang’s sampling rate.

The Boomerang lets you record two independent loops, and you can switch the loops in various ways by programming the A/B/Once footswitch. In A/B mode, the switch transitions smoothly between the two loops. In A/B1 mode, pressing the switch while loop A is playing also transitions between loops, but loop B only plays once before automatically switching back to loop A. In Once mode, pressing the switch initiates a single playback of the loop, whether recording or when the unit is idle (and repeated pressing causes the loop to restart from the beginning, resulting in cool “turntable”-like effects). The only caveat is that Loop B is linked to loop A, and is erased along with it. You can alter or replace loop B to your heart’s content, but erase loop A, and B disappears, as well.

Given that the Boomerang was designed for use as a pedal patched between your instrument and an amp (or mixer), that was the way I tested it. It is worth noting, however, that the unit also performed well in both my amp’s effects loop, and through an effect send/receive bus on my DAW.

I found it extremely easy to get around on the Boomerang before even cracking the very succinct and clearly written manual. After investing 15 minutes reading it, I was totally familiar with the pedal’s “hidden” functions and programming. All of the pedal’s features worked flawlessly, including trickier moves such as switching between and editing multiple loops.

When it comes to a high-performance, all-in-one looper with multiple dedicated footswitches—particularly one that can create real-time backwards effects—the Boomerang+ is in a class by itself.

Kudos Dedicated footswitches for key functions. Real-time backwards effect. Harmonically related speed change effects. High-quality audio. Dual loops.

Concerns Close proximity of the Output level foot roller and Thru Mute footswitch can lead to inadvertent level changes.

Contact Boomerang, (800) 530-4699; www.boomerangmusic.com

DigiTech JamMan Looper/Phrase Sampler

Heir to both the original Lexicon JamMan and DigiTech’s PDS series of delay pedals, the JamMan ($449 retail/$299 street) dramatically updates them all by providing nearly unlimited recording time via CompactFlash memory, a USB port for archiving/loading audio as WAV files, a built-in rhythm/ metronome section, and CD-quality sound.

Taking a “more-is-better” approach, the JamMan packs a huge number of features into its relatively small enclosure. First, in addition to the instrument input, there’s a mini-phone Aux jack for importing audio tracks (which can be stored and accessed in the same way as loops), and an XLR microphone input with a dedicated level knob, for looping vocals or anything else that can be miked. The Aux input offers four recording modes, including Center Cancel (which removes many vocal parts) and Full Range Sim (which equalizes full-range audio for playback through a “less-than-full-range” guitar amp).

Next, the rhythm/metronome section gives you a choice of nine different sounds (click, wood blocks, cowbell, tambourine, kick/hi hat combos, etc.), played in any even or odd time signature (2-15 beats per measure), with the ability to tap in a new tempo when a loop is playing without changing its pitch. A new tempo can also be tapped in when the rhythm section is inactive—even when performing—with negligible zippering and other audio artifacts.

One of the JamMan’s most significant features is Undo/Redo, which lets you remove the last layer of a loop, and then add it back if you change your mind—an option that can be used compositionally, as well as to correct mistakes. Another is Auto Record mode, which automatically initiates loop recording when you play your first note. Both of these features worked flawlessly. Conspicuously absent was a reverse mode, which has pretty much become an expected feature on loopers these days.

Operating the JamMan is very easy and intuitive. The Rec/Play/Overdub and Stop/Tempo footswitches are more-or-less self-explanatory—though the latter can be programmed to stop either immediately, or at the end of a loop cycle—and also serve as Undo/Redo and Clear switches when held for two seconds. Lots of buttons and knobs make real-time manipulation a breeze, and ten LEDs let you keep track of where you are. But if you want additional hands-off control, you can add the optional FS300 three-button footswitch ($49 retail/$39 street), which enables Auto Record, and sequentially navigates the 99 memory locations. Being able to name presets and have them appear on a display would have been a nice touch, though it wouldn’t fit on the front-panel.

The JamMan’s audio quality is excellent, and remains so even when you overdub a loop multiple times. It sounded great in front of an amp, and the Inst Level control provided enough headroom to level-match it to any effects loop. The microphone input worked well with a Shure SM57, though if you want to use a condenser that requires phantom power you’ll need to provide it some other way, as the XLR input is not powered.

The JamMan is an extraordinary device, with an abundance of features, offered at a very reasonable price. My only real huff is that it lacks reverse. Add that, and the Jam Man would be hard to beat.

Kudos Undo/Redo capability. Auto Record. Pristine audio. USB port. Excellent value.

Concerns Lacks reverse.

Contact DigiTech, (801) 566-8800; www.digitech.com

Electro-Harmonix 2880 Super Multi-Track Looper

Sporting seven sliders, nine knobs, and 11 pushbuttons, the 2880 ($699 retail/$499 street) is all about real-time performance. Basically a 4-track recorder with a stereo mixdown track, the 2880 provides several minutes of recording time per track using the included 128MB CompactFlash memory card (expandable to 372 minutes with a 2GB card), along with an extraordinary amount of on-the-fly editing options—particularly when used with the proprietary Foot Controller ($199 retail/$129 street).

E-H was on the forefront of digital looping when it released the 16-Second Digital Delay back in 1983 (reissued in 2004), and the 2880 expands upon that looper’s legacy without sacrificing any of the user-friendliness that made it a favorite of Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and many others.

Each of the 2880’s four mono tracks has a dedicated pan control and fader that adjusts either playback volume or regeneration, depending on which mode is selected. There’s also a fader and pan control for Dry Out, and an output level fader for the Mix Down track. When looping in stereo, tracks 1/2 and 3/4 are automatically grouped together.

To record a loop, you select a track with the Track Select button, press the Record button, and you’re rolling. Once you’ve recorded a loop, you can overdub onto it, reverse or otherwise manipulate it by pressing the appropriate button, or select another track to record on. You can also press Punch-in to rerecord a section of the loop, which is a feature usually found only on much more expensive units. The process can continue until you have filled up all four tracks (or two sets of stereo pairs). And, at any point, you have the option of mixing them to the stereo track by simply pressing the Mix Down button. The 2880’s audio quality remains excellent no matter how many tracks you record, or how many times they are overdubbed.

It is also possible to record quantized loops. After pressing the Quantize and Record buttons, you hear a four-beat count-in (at the tempo selected with the Tempo slider and the volume set with the Clix Level control) before the unit begins recording. You can leave quantize mode at any time—even while a loop is playing back—by pressing the Quantize button. The click track is a simple 4/4 count with an accent on the first beat. Once a loop is recorded, you can also vary its speed and pitch in real-time using the Tempo slider, which is another cool effect.

As mentioned in the introduction, the 2880 can act as either master or slave when syncing to a drum machine or sequencer via MIDI clocks, and if slaved to the latter it can chase the sequencer using Song Position Pointers. I used it to record time-locked loops onto a song in MOTU Digital Performer without any hassles. The 2880 also outputs MIDI Stop and Start commands, making it suitable for use as a master. The 2880’s USB port allows you to transfer the session files to and from a computer running Windows XP or Mac OS X or OS 9.2.

This is a unique device that lends itself beautifully to live looping—particularly when used with the optional footswitch, which I highly recommend—and it may be “the one” for those who love the 16-Second Digital Delay, but desire more firepower and modern features. I’d love to see it be able to archive, access, and load more than one set of loops at a time, but that minor quibble notwithstanding, the 2880 is truly a super looper.

Kudos Extraordinary real-time control. Multitrack recording capability. Stereo I/O. USB port. Receives and sends MIDI clocks. Excellent audio quality.

Concerns Only stores one set of loops at a time.

Contact Electro-Harmonix, (718) 937-8300; www.ehx.com