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In music, tape loops are loops of magnetic tape used to create repetitive, rhythmic musical patterns or dense layers of sound. Contemporary composers such as Halim El-Dabh, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Pierre Schaeffer, and Karlheinz Stockhausen used tape loops to create phase patterns, rhythms, textures, and timbres.
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.
By accelerating the speed of a loop to a sufficient degree (e.g., 1,280 times faster), a sequence of events originally perceived as a rhythm becomes heard as a pitch, and variation of the rhythm in the original succession of events produces different timbres in the accelerated sound (Stockhausen "Concept", 42; Stockhausen "Vier Kriterien", 362–63).
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).
If, instead of simply playing back a recorded loop, something is done to progressively alter the recorded material between cycles, such as re-recording the sound as it passes the playback head or adding new material to the loop, then a process of change will occur in the content, quality, complexity, or perception—or some combination of them (Maconie Other Planets, 263).
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). The longest tape loop ever created was made by Barry Anderson for performances of Stockhausen's Solo (Maconie Avant Garde, 286).
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.
In the late 1940s, Pierre Schaeffer used special phonograph discs with a sillon fermé (closed groove) to repeat segments of sounds in his musique concrète studio in Paris. When magnetic tape technology became available, he replaced this technique with tape loops, where such segments could either be simply repeated, or could undergo electronic transformation during repetition (Kane, 16–17)
Several different configurations of tape loops were employed in the early years of the WDR Studio in Cologne. One such arrangement was used to build up multilayered textures by sequentially recording sounds with the erase head disconnected or with a customised arrangement of the heads. Gottfried Michael Koenig applied this method in 1954, in his Klangfiguren I (Morawska-Büngeler, 44).
In Canada, Hugh Le Caine produced "a particularly clear and memorable example of musique concrète" in 1955 titled Dripsody. It was built from the sound of a single drop of water, using a variable-speed tape recorder, tape loops, and just 25 splices (Ultan, 155).
At this same time in Cologne, Karlheinz Stockhausen produced a more ambitious work, Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56), which made extensive use of tape loops, particularly for its stratified impulse groups and choral swarms (Decroupet and Ungeheuer, 110, 118–19, 126).
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.
Terry Riley began employing tape loops at the end of 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).
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-1960s 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 1973, musicians Brian Eno and Robert Fripp used an idea similar to Riley's, to make the album No Pussyfooting; Robert Fripp later coined the term "Frippertronics" to describe this process. 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. 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 eight-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.
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 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.
- Sounds of New Music. LP recording 1 disc: 33⅓ rpm, monaural, 12 in. ([New York, N.Y.]: Folkways Records, 1957, FX 6160). Reissued on CD, as Sounds of New Music: Science Series. CD recording, 1 disc: digital, monaural, 4 3/4 in. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1990s, FX 6160).
- 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).
- Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer; "Through the Sensory Looking-Glass: The Aesthetic and Serial Foundations of Gesang der Jünglinge", translated by Jerome Kohl. Perspectives of New Music 36, no. 1 (Winter 1998), 97–142.
- Brian Kane; Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014; ISBN 9780199347858.
- Robin Maconie; Avant Garde: An American Odyssey from Gertrude Stein to Pierre Boulez. Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012; ISBN 978-0-8108-8312-3.
- Robin Maconie; Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2005; ISBN 0-8108-5356-6.
- Marietta Morawska-Büngeler; Schwingende Elektronen. Eine Dokumentation über das Studio für Elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks in Köln 1951–1986. Cologne-Rodenkirchen: P. J. Tonger, 1988. ISBN 3-920950-06-2.
- Mark Prendergrast; The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance, the Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age; New York: Bloomsbury, 2000; ISBN 1-58234-134-6.
- Karlheinz Stockhausen; "The Concept of Unity in Electronic Music", translated by Elaine Barkin. Perspectives of New Music 1, no. 1 (Fall 1962), 39-48.
- Karlheinz Stockhausen; "Vier Kriterien der Elektronischen Musik". In his Texte zur Musik 1970–1977, vol. 4, edited by Christoph von Blumröder, 360–401. DuMont Dokumente. Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 1978. ISBN 3-7701-1078-1.
- Lloyd Ultan; "Electronic Music". In Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology: Volume 34, Supplement 19: Artificial Intelligence in Education to An Undergraduate Course? Advising Expert System in Industrial Engineering, edited by Allen Kent and James G. Williams; administrative editors, Carolyn M. Hall and Rosalind Kent; executive editor, Jack Belzer, 149–78. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1996. ISBN 9780824722876.
- Bill Gibson; Sequencing Samples and Loops (Hal Leonard Recording Method Book 4); New York: Hal Leonard Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-42343-051-3.