Tape loop

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In music, tape loops are loops of prerecorded magnetic tape used to create repetitive, rhythmic musical patterns or dense layers of sound. Contemporary composers such as Halim El-Dabh, Steve Reich, and Karlheinz Stockhausen used tape loops to create phase patterns and rhythms. Terry Riley originally employed the technique of tape looping in the 1950s; later producing such pieces as "Music For the Gift" (1963) and "Bird of Paradise" (1964) and culminating in his use of two tape recorders (collectively described by Riley as the "Time Lag Accumulator") in live solo performances to create long delays, during which he would play both saxophone and organ, as heard on the album Reed Streams (1966) and the piece "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band" (on the 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air). In 1973, musicians Brian Eno and Robert Fripp used an entirely similar idea to make the album No Pussyfooting; Robert Fripp later coining the term "Frippertronics" to describe this process pioneered by Terry Riley. 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.


In a tape loop, sound is recorded on a section of magnetic tape and this 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 phrase 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" (1966) and "It's Gonna Rain" (1965), and by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56) and Kontakte (1958–60). Stockhausen also used the technique for live performance in Solo (1965–66).

The length of the loop controls the length of the repeated sound, and combines with the desired content of the composer to create a single tape loop. On a standard reel-to-reel, one loop is, 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, placing two reel-to-reel machines side by side and stringing the tape between them, using one machine for playback and the other simply as a pulley for the length of tape allowed for longer loop times. By using this or other methods,[vague] 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).

Alternatively, one tape machine could perform as a playback machine, while the second machine acts as a recording machine, creating a loop of sound. This would not be a tape loop, strictly speaking, but an extremely long echo.


Beginning in the late 1950s the BBC Radiophonic Workshop began using tape loops to add special effects to some BBC programming. Rock musicians, most notably The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Daevid Allen (who learned directly from Terry Riley, and has created entire pieces from tape loops throughout his career), Soft Machine (who learned from Daevid Allen), Fifty Foot Hose, Can, and Pink Floyd, have used tape loops on their albums.

Steve Reich also used tape loops to compose, a technique which he called "phasing". He would put two tape loops together at slightly different speeds, so they would start quite together and then drift apart. Some pieces created by this method are "It's Gonna Rain" (1965) and "Come Out" (1966).

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 utilized the techniques pioneered by Terry Riley in the 60s. Pink Floyd´s "Money" is noted, for its unusual 7/4–4/4 time signature, and the tape loop of money-related sound effects that opens the song.In 1974 a new musical instrument called a Birotron was invented using tape loops from 8 track tapes. It offered the promise of the mainstream embracing tape loop music. 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.[citation needed]

In 1979, Roger Taylor added a drum loop on Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust", on John Deacon's insistence, but "under protest", because he did not like the drums to be produced in that way.

Digital loops[edit]

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.[citation needed]

Loop pedals[edit]

A recent evolution of the tape loop is the looping pedal—a digital sampler built into a foot switch-operated pedal of the kind most often used by guitarists to create looping layers of melody or texture during a live performance.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  • 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)

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