Anatomy of a One-Man Band

Loop it!
Loop it and swoop it.

This week, I got to do something fun and different – my sister is getting her masters’ in counseling at the California Institute for Integral Studies (CIIS), which is a very groovy counseling/therapy institute located south of Market.  I heard through her that a group of CIIS students were looking for a musician to accompany them during a drama therapy performance, and, with no idea what exactly would be involved, or indeed even what Drama Therapy was, I said “what the hell” and decided to go for it.

I spoke with a group member, Jessica, on the phone and she explained what exactly they were doing, and what they’d need from me. The method they use is called “Playback Theatre” and in it a troupe of actors solicits stories from the lives of the folks in the audience and then plays those stories back to them.  It’s all improvised, and pretty abstract – men can play women, women can play men, scarves are involved…

My gig would involve improvising a soundtrack to the various scenes.  I’d been wanting to get my loop station together for some time, so I thought this would be a good excuse to go for it, so I ordered a couple of missing components and got to work getting ‘er set up and working.

After rehearsing with the actors, we did our performance today. It was really cool!  Listening to the stories while simultaneously thinking of what to play is a unique challenge – “Okay, she’s talking about the circus, what do I know that’ll work… and where do I start the loop… what key will this be in?”  It’s fast and really enjoyable to do, you gotta think on your feet! My only complaint was that we didn’t perform for longer, though I have a feeling that today will not be the last time I join an improv group onstage.

Incedental to that performance, I got my loop station complete and MUNI-transportable, and I worked out a couple of fun little ditties that I can recreate pretty consistently and cleanly.  I thought it’d be fun to post them here on Murfins. So, first I’ve written a breakdown of what I’m using and where, and then a posted few examples of some loops I did. The examples are far from perfect, since they were recorded live and on-the-fly, with no overdubbing or tweaking after-the-fact. That said, I’m pretty happy with them!

Without further ado:


Gear Breakdown

1. Tambourine (gotta have it!)
2. Flute
3. Avocado Shaker (which I dearly love)
4. Clarinet
5. Melodica (my new favorite instrument)
6. Microphone Stand (the hardest thing in the whole unit to transport)
7. Shure Beta-58, the mic to end all mics
8. Boss GigaDelay, Mic only
9. Boss NS-2, mutes the mic, supplies power to the pedals
10. Boss RC-20 looper, on loan from Dan Nervo. The heart of the beast.
11. Volume Pedal
12. Ovation Celebrity
13. Tuner
14. Crate Taxi 15-watt amp (rechargeable, portable, and LOUD)

To make a loop, I usually start with some sort of set pattern, and the challenge for me has been to speed up my transitions between instruments.  It’s quite fun to jam out with a looper, but in the interest of making something that’s actually enjoyable for people to watch and listen to, going in with a very specific gameplan (and instrument choreography) is very important.

A Few Examples
(Links go to downloadable MP3s.)

1. Dancing Pants

I really enjoy this first loop – the loop length is very short, and I think that might be why it works so well. I call it “Dancing Pants.” Got off to a good start, added things quickly, and got a pretty mean groove going by the end.  I’ve been in the habit of starting loops off with the guitar, and it’s nice to start it elsewhere (in this case, on the clarinet).

2. Forlorn Pants

Second loop is a down-tempo, so I guess I’ll call it “Forlorn Pants.”  The pants are forlorn, people. Pretty easy, with nice volume swells, though there are some pitch problems going on with the guitar that become evident later on – the big trick with this one is that it takes a little while to cycle around, so the whole thing moves quite a bit slower.  Using the delay on my flute to add ambient texture is really fun, and something I want to experiment with more.

3. Happy Pants

Third is a longer loop which is quite happy – it’s called, you guessed it, “Happy Pants.”  I’m a big fan of this little melody – I came up with it recently, and plan on working it into a larger show with a full band.  It’s very stroll-in-the-park-y.  Also, some rhythmic issues crop up, but whaddya gonna do?  Go with it, that’s what.  It’s still tough for me to get this groove settled without hearing the melody, for whatever reason.

4. Lemon’s Loop

Here’s an alliteration for ya: Last but not least is a little loop I made out of the Liz Lemon-y lick I noticed last week while re-watching last year’s 30 Rock episode “Greenzo.” It is one of the main reasons that I want to be Jeff Richmond, the guy who wrote it. I love it so much that I wanted to play it, so I did – it’s called “Lemon’s Loop.”  My apologies, Jeff Richmond, if you’re reading this.  And also, if you’re reading this, hi, Jeff! You are the man! I hope you like my blog!

…um, anyway. So, yeah, more timing issues come up in this one, there’s this effing late note that comes around every time, but once stuff gets going, it’s not that noticeable.  I’ve played this one better, but I’m happy with the clarinet solo, so, yeah!

To conclude – looping is really fun. I’d say these four examples show where I’m at after working on it for a couple of weeks. It’s an unforgiving medium – one fuckup sends you back to square one, you know?  I’m very interested in picking up an Electro Harmonix 2880 once I have some spare cash lying around – the idea of recording onto separate tracks (woodwinds on one, percussion on one, guitar on one) is immensely appealing.  But ’till then, the RC-20 does everything I need.

Oh yeah – and perhaps the coolest thing of all is how portable this setup is!  For all that’s going on, all of the sounds I’ve got access to, it is entirely battery-powered, collapses into three pieces, and fits onto MUNI like a breeze. Which means that it’s great for busking, and that’s the plan!

Everything from that first picture is here, if you can believe it.

2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a One-Man Band

  1. Dick Curtis

    I like your effort and the your tube is very creative.
    I am studying one man bands to decide what I want to do with looping. I also play guitars, woodwinds and keyboards. I play in the Felix Blues Band and the Lost and Found Orchestra. Once a month I do a solo gig with an open mic poetery reading group. Have you ever used Band in a box? Do you have some other loops where you play all your wind instruments?

    1. Thanks, Dick! I actually do use Band in a Box, but only for teaching – when a student is working on a tune that I don’t have an Aebersold play-a-long for, I make one in BIAB. I’m not a big fan of the program’s sound or groove, though – it’s pretty computer-y and repetitive. That said, it gets the job done in terms of allowing students to hear chord changes.

      I’ve found that too many looping woodwinds (or really, too many of any one texture) can get cluttered and lose definition. I also tend to use clarinet and sparse flute, since the saxophone has such an overtone-rich sound that it can drown out all of the other textures. Generally, I don’t find that loops work after four or five layers… there’s just too much going on, and not enough EQ control to keep the mids from bunching up.

      So, usually no more than one or two woodwinds on a loop.

      Also, dunno if you caught it, but we did a live version of that looping tune that really came out great, particularly when the band finally enters at the end. Fun stuff.

      Hope that was helpful!

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