Audio looping with Free Software

By , July 13, 2011 8:24 am

I’m currently on a musical pilgrimage around the USA.  I brought my Digitech JamMan Delay unit with me, because I was attending Christian Howes‘ phenomenal Creative Strings Workshop in Columbus, Ohio, where I knew I would learn how to turn this gadget into a hugely useful practice tool.  (Incidentally, I was not disappointed, and will blog more when I get time about how awesome Chris’ various educational offerings are.  Until then, click the links!)  Unfortunately at some point after leaving Ohio, the JamMan stopped working.  I guess it didn’t like being surrounded by a bunch of smelly clothes and then getting thrown in the hold of a plane. (UPDATE Sept 22nd: actually it turns out that it was fine – the power adapter just needed the UK standard of 240 Volts, and the US standard of 110V wasn’t sufficient …)

So the other night I found myself desperate for a replacement.  I do have a Boss ME-70 with me which has a built-in phrase looper, but it only stores 38 seconds which is barely enough to get to the bridge of Cherokee.  Even worse, there is no way to undo/redo loop layers or store the whole thing after you power the unit off.

Then it occurred to me that I could potentially combine my laptop (a cheap Samsung N150 netbook) with a microphone, headphones (as a poor man’s substitute for an amp), and some software to achieve the same thing.  At this point, those of you with a Mac will exclaim “sure – use GarageBand!”  However, as shiny as Macs are, they are expensive and I also can’t stand Apple for philosophical reasons.  (I can’t stand Microsoft either, which is why I use Linux, but I digress.)  If you are interested in an alternative approach to looping with software, read on!

My netbook already has a built-in mic, which while surprisingly good for something so tiny, couldn’t ever hope to compete with a proper mic.  Plus it picks up noise every time you press a key or click a mouse.  Luckily however I recently bought an excellent little portable PCM / MP3 recording device when I was in New York: the Sony PCM-M10.  I’ve been using this to record all kinds of things on my travels – private lessons, groups classes/workshops, masterclasses, performances, jam sessions etc.  However one really cool feature is that if you press the red Record button, it goes into paused “ready to record” mode, at which point, any audio captured by its built-in stereo mics get passed straight through to the 3.5mm (1/8″) headphones / line out socket.  In other words, it will behave just like a pretty decent stereo mic!  So, one trip to Radioshack later, I had a male-to-male stereo cable for connecting the headphones socket to the microphone input on my laptop.

So at this point I could record fairly decent stereo audio directly using any simple recording software.  The next step was to see if I could find some good looping software… I tried out SooperLooper which looked very promising and is Free Software (free as in freedom, not just price), but I found the interface very confusing and poorly documented, despite only needing to do basic looping.  From 1996 until a few weeks ago, I was an IT professional, so if I struggled, it’s likely that less technically minded people would too.  Plus it only runs on Linux and MacOS X, which rules out anyone with Windows.  To be fair, I do believe that SooperLooper has a bright future – with a few tweaks and some comprehensive documentation, most of the difficulties could be eliminated.  But for now it isn’t quite right for what I need.

Then I looked very briefly at other Free Software loopers: Kluppe, and FreeWheeling, but neither had enough polish, and trying to progress as a musician is hard enough without the distractions of trying to help fix software bugs.

Finally I realised Audacity, the superb cross-platform sound editor, could do everything I wanted, and actually do it surprisingly well!  So, here’s a first stab at explaining how to emulate a loop pedal with Audacity.  (Later I may collaborate with Chris to produce an instruction video on this…)

  1. Download and install Audacity – it’s Free Software (as I said above, Free refers to freedom not just price, which is much cooler than freeware) and it works on Linux, Windows, and MacOS X.
  2. Ensure your computer can record audio via some kind of microphone (ideally a decent external one as explained above, but a built-in mic will do) or line in.
  3. (Obviously) ensure your computer can play back audio to you.  When you add new layers onto the loop, you will be playing along with the existing layers.   If you’re using an acoustic instrument with mic, and want to avoid including sound from the existing layers getting mixed in with the new layer being recorded, one cheap trick is to use headphones instead of an amp/speakers.  This is what I do because I can’t lug an amp around on my travels.
  4. Start up Audacity, click the red Record button, and check that it’s correctly recording sound from your mic or line in.  You should see a waveform appear, then hit Stop, and Play to check it’s working.
  5. Click the cross in the newly recorded track to discard it.
  6. (Optional but recommended) Record a count-in track.  This could simply be you saying “a-one, a-two, a one-two-three-four”, or four clicks from the metronome app on your phone, or whatever.  Leave a few seconds of silence before clicking the Stop button to stop the recording.
  7. (Optional but recommended) Click “Audio Track” at the top left of the new waveform, click “Name…”, and enter something like “count in” as the new track name.  Optionally click the up arrow at the bottom left of the new waveform to shrink it vertically, if you want to save screen space.
  8. Click the Record button, then record your first loop layer after the count in, then stop recording soon after (it doesn’t matter exactly when).  Chris Howes recommends that if you are using the looper as a practice tool to improve your internal pulse and groove, your first layer should contain as many of the subdivisions of whatever meter you’re playing in.  So if you’re in 4/4, consider starting with a chopping or comping pattern which covers all the eighth or sixteenth notes.  Then the bass line can come later and lock in with these nicely.
  9. (Optional but recommended) Rename the track you just recorded, as in step 7.
  10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 to record additional layers (you can also skip this for now and do it later).
  11. Select the portion of audio across all tracks which corresponds to the loop you want, i.e. omitting the initial count-in and any trailing silence or noise.  To do this, drag the mouse from the left-most point within the second waveform (track) from the top (remember the top one was your count-in track) where the loop starts, and then drag to the right-most point where the loop ends in the bottom (i.e. most recently recorded) loop layer.  You should now see the desired loop region in all tracks but the count-in track turn a darker color.
  12. Now hold down Shift and click the Play button, and you should hear your loop.  If the start or end isn’t quite right, move the mouse over either boundary, and drag it left or right, then stop playback and start it again to check that you got the right loop region.
  13. When you’re happy, click Edit > Play Region > Lock to avoid accidentally changing the loop region.  (If you want to change it later, you’ll have to unlock it first, then repeat steps 12 and 13.)
  14. Carry on recording new layers at will.  Existing layers can be muted, changed in volume, panned left/right, deleted, and edited in a zillion other cunning ways, because Audacity is primarily a sound editor, not a looper.
  15. (Advanced usage – entirely optional) If you want to temporarily focus on practising a smaller portion of the loop, for example you can’t quite nail the Cherokee bridge or those pesky 9th and 10th measures of Countdown above 350bpm, then you can select those measures as in steps 11 and 12, but then click Tracks > Add Label At Selection, and enter a label for this portion.  You’ll see a new label track containing the new labelled region, which can then be used to quickly select this portion for playback.  You’ll probably have to first unlock the play region set in step 13, so instead you might want to have a label for the whole loop too.
  16. If you’re happy with the final result and want to keep it for another session, click File > Save Project from the menu or hit Control+S.

That’s it!  It may be a bit more involved than stomping on a couple of pedals, but it’s simpler than the steps above make it look, and it is a hell of a lot more flexible, doesn’t include the stress of having to stomp precisely when you start and finish playing, and doesn’t cost several hundred dollars either (yes, I’m writing this for an American audience, in case you hadn’t already noticed by the spelling and vocabulary above …)  The only downside is that you can’t do all the steps seamlessly for a live performance in the way a looper pedal lets you.

Hope that was useful.  Feel free to leave feedback in the comments!

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4 Responses to “Audio looping with Free Software”

  1. chris says:

    Adam- what an awesome tip !! thanks man!

  2. […] very thorough and takes you step by step in this awesome blog about How to Use Audacity for Free Instead of Spending Money and Lugging Around Fragile Loop Pedals: […]

  3. Carl Craven says:

    Nice description of your explorations. I am just guessing, but I bet you could automate this by programming so keyboard shortcuts or using a midi (instrument non specific) foot pedal board.

  4. Adam says:

    Exactly Carl – in fact I have already figured out a pretty sophisticated setup for Transcribe using the Behringer FCB1010 pedal board, which is awesome for transcriptions and learning off audio/video. I hope to find some time to blog about that too eventually!

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