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The Hunt for the Ultimate Looper

If you've read some of my other blog articles, you realize that I'm often obsessed with finding the ultimate of something.  Well, this time my target is loopers--lovely musical devices / software that allow you to create stimulating sound-on-sound performances.  Ever since seeing Joseph Arthur perform jaw-dropping live looping, I too wanted to explore this fascinating world of live looping performance.  This is my tale...

NOTE: I mention lots of gear makers not as any kind of endorsement or advertisement, but simply because as a reader I would appreciate knowing what worked and what didn't.  Perhaps it will aid in your research, and I appreciate any feedback you have.

Boss / Roland RC-50

This was my first "real" looper, and it served me very well. However, all technology matures, so the RC-50 has been superseded by the beastly RC-300 and the upcoming RC-505 (which I'm excited to try).  I do want to mention it, though, because the RC-50 was a groundbreaking device that shot Roland up to looper stardom.

Good
- Incredible loop quantization.
- Solid metal build quality.

Bad
- No effects.  Most top loopers these days offer on-board effects.

Ableton Live

Ableton Live is breathtaking.  It does things to sound that I never imagined possible.  It's science and music and sonic ecstasy rolled into a software package.  It took my live act beyond anything I envisioned.  I once even did an entire show with a YouRock MIDI guitar, and Ableton made it all possible.  It met all my looping needs without breaking a sweat, all while juggling multiple MIDI sound-scapes flawlessly.

Now on to my 1 complaint.  It's software running on a computer, so setting it up and using it on stage is not as streamlined as a hardware music device.  My setup included a Native Instruments USB audio interface to connect to the PA system, a compact Logidy USB floor pedal to control things with my feet while playing guitar, and a compact Akai USB control surface to control things with my hands because sometimes you really want knobs and pads.  It was a lot to carry and a lot to setup.  For short 30 minute sets it got ridiculous hauling that whole rig.  I wouldn't have cared for longer shows.

I did have an idea, though.  Native Instruments makes a USB audio interface called Guitar Rig Kontrol that combines the floor pedal and audio interface into 1 device.  I've been hesitant to get it because it is rather large and lacks phantom power, but there is rig simplification potential there.  I'd love to see more audio interfaces in the shape of floor pedals, but the Guitar Rig Kontrol was the only one I found that supports a microphone.  Apogee has their sleek-looking GiO, but no mic input on it--boooo!

Good
- It's waaaaay beyond a looper--it will do absolutely everything you need and more.
- Very reasonably priced considering most hardware loopers are more expensive and do a fraction of what Ableton can do.
- Popular with a massive following, so there are plenty of great tutorials available, including built-in ones.
- It's software, so it's more extensible, flexible, and customizable; and even offers a free trial.

Bad
- Not as pick-up-and-play friendly as a hardware looper.  You have to put some time into learning it.
- It's software, so it requires other gear and more stage setup.  You may need to add external pedals, control surfaces, an audio interface, etc. to get it working well on stage for you.

iPad Running Apps Like Loopy HD

My idea with the iPad was to simplify and lighten my Ableton Live rig.  I wanted something easier on my shoulders and faster to setup, and I thought the iPad was a great candidate.  There are so many cool music apps available and the prices are incredible especially compared to their hardware counterparts.

But I met a number of challenges when preparing for a live situation.  First I needed an iPad-friendly audio interface to connect to a PA system.  The Alesis iO Dock was a disaster.  Next I tried one by Tascam, but wasn't happy with the sound and build quality.  My current one is the relatively new Roland Duo Capture EX.  This one seems pretty good, but honestly I have yet to try it out on stage.  Now I see Apogee has several out, so apparently iOS audio interfaces are gaining traction.

Next I needed some kind of floor pedal since I sometimes loop while playing guitar.  I went with a wireless bluetooth one by AirTurn.  Although the pedals aren't as "clicky" as I'm used to, it does work well.

Now I have an iPad running numerous music apps connected to an audio interface and a (wireless) floor pedal.  It's certainly lighter to carry, but is it easier to setup and utilize in a live show?  I haven't yet jumped in the pool on this one because I just can't find the perfect combo of apps to create a live act I'm satisfied with.  Maybe I need to put more time and effort into it, but now I see why music equipment makers still release (and make money from) pricey hardware-based devices.

Good
- You can't beat the price.  This goes for most all worthwhile iPad apps these days.
- Updated often and laden with features.  You can find an app to do most anything.
- iPad touch interface makes very cool manipulation & control possible.
- Apps like Audiobus allow multiple music apps to interact with each other.

Bad
- It's not easy to get an iPad to work well on stage.  You at least need an iPad-friendly audio interface to connect to a PA system.
- It's software running on a general purpose device, so it's not as streamlined to use as a hardware looper.
- No one iPad app will fulfill all your needs (like Ableton Live does).  Multiple apps are likely required, complicating the rig.

TC Helicon Voicelive Play GTX

The Voicelive Play GTX is actually an FX processor that offers some looping features, so I didn't expect a full-blown looper.  It has very limited looping memory, and can only do 1 stereo loop at a time.  You can squeeze 2 out of it using the undo/redo feature, but then you have to be careful about overdubbing and making your "undo" undo-able.  However, I do love how it's super compact and serves its purpose well especially for shows where I just want to plug in quickly and start playing.

Good
- TC Helicon's effects and build quality are unparalleled.
- About as compact as you can get.
- Balanced connections (and lots of them) for clean polished audio.
- Intuitive usage interface.
- Voice and guitar effects allow your creativity to run wild.

Bad
- It's an FX pedal with the looper as a side-feature, so don't expect to loop through entire songs.
- Very limited loop memory.

TC Helicon Voicelive Touch

This looper was a ton of fun to use, and I got some highly creative sounds out of it.  Unfortunately, my timing kinda sucked because the Touch 2 came out not long after I got it.  Fortunately, I got a great deal on it used, so I sold it off for near what I paid and moved on to the VLT2.

Good
- I love the compact form factor and how it clips onto the mic stand.
- Can be expanded with a foot pedal for the best of both worlds (hands and feet).
- TC Helicon's audio, FX, and build quality are fantastic.

Bad
- The scrolling red display screen really sucks.  It's hard to tell what's going on or where I am.  It made learning the device very challenging.
- Sometimes I wish it had more physical knobs on it.  Most settings & levels have to be adjusted using the slider, which can get annoying.

TC Helicon Voicelive Touch 2

I do miss the massive looping memory and import/export features that Roland's loopers offer, but TC Helicon's effects are delicious sonic blueberry muffins.  Just last night I couldn't stop laughing at the insanely entertaining loops I got out of it.  The "Jabba" and "Boba Fett" effects are a blast!

Good
- I love the compact form factor and how it clips onto the mic stand.
- Can be expanded with a foot pedal for the best of both worlds (hands and feet).
- The upgraded back-lit screen and user interface is a huge improvement over the VLT1.  I can now tell what's going on and where I am.  Much better!
- TC Helicon's audio, FX, and build quality are fantastic.

Bad
- Sometimes I wish it had more physical knobs on it.  Most settings & levels have to be adjusted using the slider, which can get annoying.
- I can only save 9 favorites.  I wish I could "bookmark" more patches for quick recall.  I hope they'll address this in a future update.
- The foot pedal looping functionality is limited.  I hope they'll add more loop pedal settings in a future firmware update.

Boss / Roland RC-505

This one hasn't been released yet, so I'm basing my opinion strictly on the posted specs and product brochure.  Please take these observations with a grain of salt.  I can't wait to get my grubby hands on one!

Good
- Lots of knobs, faders, and lights mean it's probably intuitive to use.
- Separate input & output effects.
- Wide-spectrum MIDI support.
- Can be expanded with foot pedals for the best of both worlds (hands and feet).

Bad
- Physically large.
- The online demo video (by DubFX) is using a separate effects unit, so it's hard to tell how good the integrated effects are.

General Learnings

Software-based Loopers Vs. Hardware-based Loopers
- Software-based looping solutions in general offer lots of features, upgrades, customization, clear manipulation / editing (thanks to the big computer or tablet screen), but aren't as stage-friendly because you'll probably need additional hardware like pedals and control surfaces with cables running all over the place.  If you don't mind added complexity, then you'll enjoy the accompanying customizability.
- Software-based offers better cost performance, but are harder (or impossible) to sell off later (i.e. on an auction website).

- Hardware-based looping solutions are more expensive considering the feature set, but easier to sell off later.
- Hardware-based have integrated knobs, sliders, pads, pedals, connectors, etc., making them simpler to setup and more inviting to use on stage.  They're purpose-built, so they allow for lighter, minimalist rigs.

Boss / Roland Vs. TC Helicon
- Roland puts more knobs, switches, buttons, lights, etc. on their gear.  This makes their gear physically bigger, but often quicker and more intuitive to use.
- Roland's loopers offer a ton of looping memory.
- Roland's loopers allow for importing / saving / exporting loops via USB, so you can save loops as backing tracks, recall them as "programs," etc.
- Roland's gear is stronger in the looping realm, but weaker in the effects realm--especially vocal effects.
- Roland sometimes uses unbalanced connections.  I've never had buzz issues with their stuff, though.
- Roland's firmware updates are typically only for bug fixes.  Don't expect new features.

- TC Helicon offers improvements and more features with their product firmware updates.  They really listen to their customer feedback.
- TC Helicon offers lots of free patch downloads.
- TC Helicon puts higher-quality balanced connections on their gear.
- TC Helicon has better effects than Roland, especially cool vocal effects like hardtune.
- TC Helicon's stuff is usually more physically compact.
- TC Helicon's loopers suffer from limited looping memory.
- TC Helicon's loopers don't allow you to import / export / save loops or backing tracks.

I hope you enjoyed my musings.  Loop on, my friends!

UPDATE

I couldn't resist.  The Roland RC-505 came out, and it was just too tempting for a gadget-freak like me.  I have to hand it to Roland--they did a fantastic job on this looper.  It's so versatile and natural to use that it has graduated to the coveted position of "my looper of choice."  Having gotten my grubby hands on it, here is my updated review.

Good
- Incredibly intuitive and quick to learn.  I was looping shortly after turning it on.
- Lots of physical controls and lights make it easy to control and navigate.
- The effects are better than I expected.
- Plastic makes it light to carry.

Bad
- Plastic, so it doesn't have the really solid feel that other Roland gear has.
- Can only use 1 input effect and 1 output effect at a time.  No layering of multiple effects.  NOTE: This has been addressed--please see the update below.
- The effects level knob is cool, but I sometimes wish they used X-Y touch pads.  They might've had their reasons, like cost.
- TC Helicon's effects are more impressive.

Compared to TC Helicon Voice Live Touch 2
The RC-505 re-affirms my opinion that Roland focuses on the looper, while TC Helicon is all about the vocal effects.  In a perfect world I'd get a device made by the perfect collaboration of the 2 companies.  I know...I can always run both, but I don't really want to haul that much stuff to a venue.  I'm minimalist that way.

The Voice Live Touch 2 would be my choice for a show laden with on-the-fly loop improvisation without need for prerecorded loops or rapid level changes.  It's a nice compact unit loaded with incredible vocal effects, but lacking the intuitive physical controls of the RC-505 makes it harder to use quickly in a live situation.  For example, if I want to fade-out a loop I have to touch "Mix," scroll over to "Loops," and swipe my finger across the touch ribbon to fade out.

On the RC-505 this could be as simple as using the integrated volume faders.  You can even "program" a loop to fade out and save that preference if you wish.  With practice I'm sure I could get faster with the Touch 2, but comparatively the RC-505 doesn't have as steep a learning / practice curve.  The RC-505 is a bigger piece of gear, but those old-school controls make it really quick to use live.

Perhaps I sound like an old man saying this, but nothing beats knobs, buttons, and faders--especially in a live situation.  If I suddenly get feedback, I want to grab a knob and attenuate.  I don't want to navigate a menu under stress.  This is why computers running software still can't entirely replace a well-designed piece of outboard gear.  I digress.

To summarize, the RC-505 would be my choice if I want to perform songs that rely on prerecorded loops and/or prepare and save preferences, settings, etc. beforehand.  I have a solid idea for how the song is gonna proceed, so the RC-505 helps by saving my framework down for me.  The VLT2 would be my choice if I want to beatbox an entire song (something I'm personally not very good at) or improvise more.  I have a rough idea of how the song will go live, but maybe I'll deviate from that.  If you're a talented beatboxer / improviser, you may bond with the VLT2.

UPDATE - 2016/7/2

Boss released an awesome firmware update for the RC-505 that adds a bunch of key features.  Perhaps TC Helicon was eating into their business or perhaps they're finally listening to customer requests, but either way my RC-505 on the 2.0 firmware is a new beast.  Some of my personal favorite new features:
* I can now layer multiple effects!  It has a few limitations, but NICE!
* Some new effects were added.  THANKS!
* I can wipe a loop with a double button-press.  I don't have to hold it for a few seconds anymore.
* There are tons of new pedal control options, so I'm revisiting using a foot pedal with it.

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  • Guest - Celso Neto

    Hello! That was one kf the best articles that I red about loopers! Congratzz! I've been looking for informations about the rc 505 midi synch with a DAW as slave. I've been reading a lot of bad reviews about time synch with boss loopers, but none of them really accurate. Wondering if you have more info about it. Would be relly helpfull. Thank you!!

  • Guest - MikeG

    Now T.C. Helicon has the Voicelive 3 Extreme! It seems like the best of all worlds. I'd like to see your review on this item. When you save up $700. lol. it's a little pricey, but looks like a monster. Add a midi drum machine, midi toys..., and this could be the ultimate one man band piece of equipment.

  • Guest - Lenny

    Guest - MikeG

    The VL3 Extreme is awesome for everything except as a stand-alone looper. The reason is that with the current firmware you can only play 2 loop tracks simultaneously - you have loop tracks A, B and C, but only 2 of them can play at a time, with track A being the base loop you can then "swap" between tracks B and C.

    This is quite limiting compared to the RC-505's 5 tracks and intuitive hands-on control of those, instead of menu-driven like the VL3X. Apart from that, the VL3X is a great vocal fx processor :) I use both !

    For comparison, the Voicelive Touch 2 has the capacity for up to 6 loop tracks, depending on the length of the base loop. However, consequently it's not possible to save or load loops like on the VL3X. But the VL Touch 2 also has some built-in loop FX, which the VL3X doesn't :)

  • Guest - Jeff Newton

    Same dilemma here, with a twist: I'm a Jazz saxophonist-pianist. I've been corresponding with TC-H's support forum and am very impressed with their build quality (reminds me of my fabulous Kawai digital piano) and customer support.

    I like the harmony functions of the TC-H line which the Roland RC 505 of course, doesn't offer. 24 bit sampling rate as well.

    My basic goal is to be able to play saxophone over piano which, of course, is not actually possible; hence the need for a looper.

    The Roland RC 505 does appeal to me in that I've not used a looper before and totally SUCK at menu-driven things in general, such as computer programs. I'm also no "spring chicken," and big knobs and sliders appeal to me. In fact, books with large print are beginning to seem appealing....

    Any thoughts on the looping differences between the Boss RC 505 and the TC-Helicon Voice Live 3 Extreme?

    Thanks!

  • Guest - Mondaiji

    Guest - Jeff Newton

    I've never tried the Voice Live 3 Extreme, but I love my RC-505. It's built like a mixer with each loop track given a fader, which has proven essential for live performance. TC Helicon's effects are much better, but all that menu stuff turned me off. I just couldn't use it fast enough live. Perhaps the VL3 is better, but looking through the manual told me that there are still too few physical controls.

  • Guest - Jeff Newton

    Guest - Mondaiji

    Thank you! I agree regarding the menu aspect of the TC-H. Do you use your Boss RC 505 while playing guitar? Apparently, the foot pedal version (RC 300, like the RC 50 predecessor) is better for guitarists so that they can use their hands for guitar playing. I play saxophone and piano, and don't think this will be too much of a problem, since saxophone sustains notes, like singing, leaving at least one hand free at times. And piano can also be played with one hand for a bit. How it will work in practice remains to be seen, but the foot pedal style RC 300 is eight pounds and huge, and I want to use the unit (at least sometimes) to busk, so weight and portability are important considerations. Thanks again - your information has been very helpful to me!

    from Detroit, MI, USA
  • Guest - adrian

    hi! have you tried mobius 2? to me, it's the best software looper. i wish there was pedal looper with more than two seperate ins and outs.

  • Guest - Andy

    Guest - adrian

    The Boss RC-505 has 2 mono inputs, one stereo input, and it also has two stereo outputs which can receive different mixes.
    Win!
    The only thing missing is the ability to bounce down loops onto tracks. Now that would be awesome...
    Guess we have to wait to see if Tim Exile will release a commercial version of his Performance Machine.

    from London, UK
  • Guest - mesmi

    thanks for this article of comparisons! i'm looking into how to tweak my live setup and loopers are a big thing for a solo artist like me. love the thorough but down to earth analyses of each piece of gear, as well as the companies! i totally wish that tc-helicon's vocal effects and roland's looping precision could join forces as well :/

  • Guest - Margot

    Brilliant read. Upgrading from a Boss RC-50 and thinking I want the 505... but TC Helicon VL2 is crazy enticing! Thanks for laying out the differences so clearly.

    Any chance you've gotten your hands on a TC VL3?

    from Washington, DC, USA
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