Looper pedals can be an invaluable tool for guitarists, bassists and all musicians. These units are regularly used to develop musical ideas beyond a single instrument track; as a tool in live settings for “one-man-bands” and even multi-piece groups, and as a learning tool in the practice room (among many other uses).
What are looper pedals and how do they work? Looper pedals are stompbox-style effects units that record periods of audio at their input and loop them at their output. Looper pedals have controls to start/stop recording and often allow layering on top of the initial loop. The output is generally a mix of the loop and the direct (input) signal.
In this article, we’ll discuss looper pedals in greater detail, learning more about how they work and how to get the most out of them. I’ll share a few example of looper pedals throughout the article to help demonstrate key points.
Table Of Contents
- What Is Looping?
- What Is A Looper Pedal?
- How Do Looper Pedals Work?
- Controls Of Looper Pedals
- Tips On Using A Looper Pedal
- Where Should Looper Pedals Go In The Signal Chain?
- Related Questions
What Is Looping?
Looping is quite simply the process of recording a piece of audio and having it repeat over and over again.
Looping can be done in a multitude of ways, including:
- Running a loop of tape across a playhead
- Recording a loop into a digital delay or looper pedal and having it repeat
- Duplicating an audio or MIDI file in a digital audio workstation
- Using other software (including DJ software) to loop a section of audio
A popular example of a tape loop would be the sound effects loop at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Money” off their 183 record Dark Side Of The Moon.
As we’ll get into shortly, looper pedals can record audio and have it play back. Digital delay pedals were the precursers to looper pedals and can be used to loop, though they prove to be much more difficult to work with.
Looping is made easy with the perfect duplication of digital audio. Loops are regularly used in DAWs and in DJ software.
What Is A Looper Pedal?
A looper pedal is a stompbox-style unit designed to record and playback loops of the input signal. There pedals are most often designed for guitar and/or bass guitar but will work to loop other instruments as well.
Looper pedal, historically speaking, have evolved from digital delay pedals. So let’s talk delay for a second.
Digital delay pedals came about with the release of the Boss DD-2 in 1984. These digital delay pedals, though not as good as they are today, were a step toward cleaner repeating of the delayed signal and longer delay times (compared to the bucket-brigade device analog delays that came before them).
Digital delay pedals would sample input the signal digitally. An analog-to-digital converter (ADC) would convert the signal; the digital sampler would sample it, and the delayed signal would be converted back to analog via a digital-to-analog (DAC) converter before being mixed back in with the output.
This allowed for clean repeats with long delay times. A looper is designed to record for a long time (especially relative to a typical delay time). A looper is also designed to repeat the signal cleanly without any degradation of the signal as it continues to loop.
So it is possible, but difficult to “loop” with a delay pedal. It involves setting the delay time pre-loop and having the feedback control set perfectly for self-oscillation. However, the technology and ideas were beginning to develop to lead us to the first looper pedal.
In 1992, the Paradis LOOP Delay was brought to the market. It was the first unit with dedicated looping functions such as Record, Overdub, Multiply, Insert, and Replace. This extension of a digital delay allowed us to loop our audio with a pedal more easily and even encouraged it with its functionality.
To learn more about delay pedals, check out my article What Are Delay Pedals (Guitar Effects) & How Do They Work?
So what is a looper pedal?
A looper pedal is a digital recording device that will record an input loop and proceed to output the audio on repeat. Once the pedal is looping, we can overdub (play over) the loop through the pedal’s direct signal line. We can also typically choose to record overtop to add to the loop.
Different loopers will have different functionality and versatility.
All loopers will have record start/stop and play start/stop functions. Some allow for additional layer to be added and subtracted from the original loop. There are loopers that can run the loop in half-time or double-time or even reverse the loop. Other loopers can have prerecorded loops that can be engaged later.
How Do Looper Pedals Work?
I start by getting this out of the way: all loopers record audio digitally.
This means that if the pedal is to loop an input signal, it will require an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) before the recorder and a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) after the recorder.
Many looper pedals have a fully analog direct out. A simple looper diagram could look like this:
So what exactly does the looper do? Well, the short answer is “it depends on the looper”.
All loopers will be able to record audio and play that audio back. The length of recording time varies from pedal to pedal.
All looper pedals, then, will have a control to start recording the loop; a control to stop recording the loop; a control to start/stop a loop, and a loop level/mix control.
Those are just the basics. Imagine what can be done to recorded audio in terms of manipulation with digital signal processing (DSP) and you’ll know how wild things can get with loopers.
So a guitar signal (or a signal from another instrument) is sent to the input of the looper. The direct signal is sent to the output. The pedal may have a buffer but the direct signal should sound unaffected.
We hit the record button and the looper begins to record the input signal. We hit the record button again (or the stop record button on some models) and the looper stops recording. At the stage, most loopers will automatically being looping the recorded audio, continuing to do so until we hit the stop button.
Most looper pedals will also allow us to overdub on top of the established loop. Some will even automatically go into overdub mode as soon as they start looping.
But that’s not all. Before we get into the extra possibilities with loopers, let’s look at the two general types of looper pedals:
Stompbox-style loopers are the smaller type of looper pedals. These are typically comparable to other compact stompbox guitar effects pedals and relatively simple.
They’ll typically have one or two footswitches and one or two knobs. As you can imagine, they’re rather limited but should be fully capable of the basics listed above, including:
- Loop stopping
- Volume control
These pedals are awesome for practicing alone and for learning theory.
TC Electronic Ditto
I personally use the ultra-compact TC Electronic Ditto Looper (link to check the price on Amazon) to write lead lines over chords; to practice my theory (chord-scale relationships and harmony), and to help develop musical ideas.
The Ditto processed 24-bit uncompressed high-quality audio and has a single knob to control the loop level.
Its single foot switch is capable of all the essentials:
- Record/play/overdub: via a single click
- Undo/redo overdub: press and hold
- Stop: via a double click
- Clear loop: press and hold once stopped
This little pedal is awesome in the practice room but is a little difficult to control with precision live especially when it comes time to stop and clear the loop (it will sometimes re-trigger the loop when I go to clear it).
The Boss RC-3 (link to check the price on Amazon) is called a Loop Station but it’s more of a compact stompbox unit.
Though compact, the RC-3 is mightily powerful with upwards of 3 hours of 44.1 kHz, 16-bit linear stereo .wav audio. It can store 99 pre-recorded loops in its memory and features a built-in drum loop machine with 10 rhythms and tap tempo.
It can also load loops from a computer via USB and take in other instruments via the aux input.
Like the Ditto, the RC-3 has a single stomp switch. Its controls are as follows:
- Record/play/overdub: via a single click
- Undo/redo overdub: press and hold while looping
- Stop: via a double click (or via an external controller)
- Clear loop: press and hold once stopped
TC Electronic and Boss are featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Loop stations are larger units for more advanced looping. They’re great for practice and for live performance especially in “one-man-band” scenarios.
They offer more control with overdubbing; engaging and disengaging overdubbed loops; having multiple recording loops to record over; additional effects, and much more.
Many loop stations can also sync up to clocks via MIDI to help with loop timing and effects (if the pedal offers effects).
If you’re looking to keep things simple, I’d suggest going with a stompbox-style looper. If you’re trying to expand upon your looping chops and need lots of versatility, then a larger loop station is likely for you.
Let’s have a look at the larger loop station version of the aforementioned Ditto and RC-3.
TC Electronic Ditto X4
The TC Electronic Ditto X4 (link to check the price on Amazon) is the much larger and more functional cousin of the Ditto.
This pedal featured stereo inputs and outputs along with a MIDI in and MIDI thru for compatibility with MIDI.
It also has USB connectivity to import and export loops between the pedal and a computer.
It has two loop tracks that respond the same as the aforementioned Ditto along with a master stop button to make stopping the loop(s) easy.
The decay knob control the amount of volume reduction that occurs each time an overdub is repeated, allowing overdubs to remain in the loop permanently (dialed all the way up) or gradually disappear from the loops.
Loops can be stored on each either loop 1 or 2 for recall. Loops can be played one at a time in Serial mode, allowing distinct loops to be switched back and forth. Sync mode allows both to be played simultaneously.
The pedal featured 7 loop FX to further improve the sonic possibilities of the Ditto X4. These effects are:
- Reverse: reverses the loops
- Half: puts the loops in half-time and drops the pitch
- Once: stops the loops at the end of the phrase
- Tape Stop: stops the loops with the classic “slow-down” tape stop effect
- Fade: fades the loop(s) out
- Double: puts the loops in double-time and increases the pitch
- Hold: momentary stutter effect
If you’re looking for something more involved, the Ditto X4 could be the looper for you!
Boss RC-300 Loop Station
The Boss RC-300 (link to check the price on Amazon) is perhaps the most powerful loop station on the market. Like the aforementioned RC-3, it has up to 3 hours of record time that can be stored and recalled directly to/from its memory.
The USB port lets you save your loops externally, as well as import/export 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV files. A MIDI input, output and thru allows for easy syncing with MIDI sources and there’s connectivity for two additional expression pedals to go along with the RC-300’s built-in treadle. The pedal also features dozens of onboard rhythms to loop and play along to.
This pedal has three syncronized stereo loop tracks with record/play/overdub and stop footswitches. It also has an all start and all stop control.
16 on-board effects (in 5 different categories) are jammed into this pedal, optimized to affect each loop in real-time. These effects include:
- Guitar -> Bass
In addition to working amazingly well with guitar and bass, the RC-300’s XLR input (with phantom power) allows it to work equally as well with miked instruments including vocals. The aux input allows us to record practically any audio sound for looping.
Related article: What Is Phantom Power And How Does It Work With Microphones?
So with the RC-300, we get an excellet looper with a multi-effects unit and drum machine.
A Note On The ZVex Lo-Fi Loop Junky
In my research, I went looking for an analog looper pedal to see if they existed. I came across the ZVex Lo-Fi Loop Junky (link to check it out at Reverb).
This pedal isn’t exactly analog. It still records the loop to a digital chip. However, the design has gotten away without the use of any ADCs or DACs so the signal remains analog the entire time.
I’m not sure how this works, exactly. I grabbed this from the ZVex website:
“…it uses really bizarre technology that literally crams analog signals into static digital storage cells without a-to-d conversion. That’s right… THERE IS NO ANALOG TO DIGITAL CONVERSION.”
“It’s pure analog storage, just like the old bucket-brigade technology, for 20 seconds straight. It would take 25 800ms analog delay pedals to hold the loop that this thing can play.”
So I’m unsure of how the pedal works exactly but it’s the closest thing I could find to an analog loop pedal and figured I’d mention it here.
Note that this pedal’s loop is “lo-fi” and sounds degraded relative to the original. It doesn’t allow for multiple layers, overdubbing, or additional effects.
Controls Of Looper Pedals
Now that we’ve run through a few example, let’s have a look at the common controls of looper pedals:
- Loop Record Start
- Loop Record Stop
- Loop Stop
- Loop Start
- Loop Clear
- Add Layer
- Remove Layer
- Additional Effects
Note that, in many pedals, these controls are accessible via the same footswitch, only by different triggers (single or double tap, hold, etc.).
Loop Record Start
This starts recording a new loop when the previous loop has been cleared.
Loop Record Stop
This stop recording the loop and is, therefore, only accessible when the looper is recording.
This stops the loop without clearing it.
This restarts the loop that is stored in recent memory or the loop that has been loaded from memory.
This removes the loop from the looper channel, allowing us to start recording a new loop (rather than starting the stored loop anew).
This allows us to record overdubs on top of the established loop.
This allows up to undo an overdub or, in more advanced pedals, remove other loops from the main output.
There are plenty of additional effects that can be programmed into a looper pedal. Common ones include half-time, double-time and reverse.
Tips On Using A Looper Pedal
Once you’ve decided on a looper pedal you feel is right for your needs, it’s time to use it! Let’s run through a few tips to help you get the most out of your looper.
- Practice your rhythm
- Loop longer if need be
- Start the loop after a measure
- Use it to learn theory
- Read the manual
- Pre-record if need be (pedal-dependent)
- Sync up via MIDI
- Loop into other effects and experiment with effect parameters
Practice Your Rhythm
Looping can be difficult to get just right. Practice your rhythm to help keep the playing within the loop consistent in tempo. It’s also important to practice your foot rhythm to engage and disengage the recording at the right times.
Loop Longer If Need Be
If a musical progression or phrase is only a few seconds long, it seems logical to record it once and have it loop over and over.
However, by recording the measure twice or four times (or even more), we’ll have more time to overdub other parts over it. If we’re a bit sloppy on the record start/stop timing, having a longer record time can also help with conguity.
Note that overdubbing will take longer in this instance. Therefore, use this strategy only if you (and your audience) have time to develop longer loops!
Start The Loop After A Measure
Starting to loop a section after a measure can make it more seemless when the loop starts over due to carry-over. When we start playing as the loop record is engaged, it may cause the start of the loop to sound unnatural when the loop repeats itself.
Use It To Learn Theory
Looping is a great way to learn theory. I’ve used loopers to run practice sessions based on rhythm, harmony and chord-scale relationships.
Read The Manual
Chances are you’ll learn something from reading the product manual that will allow you to get more out of your looper pedal.
Pre-Record If Need Be (Pedal-Dependent)
Use pre-recorded loops if need be.
Sync Up Via MIDI
If your pedal has MIDI functionality, try using it to sync up to a clock. This can help to get perfect loop times that fit it perfectly with the rest of the music.
Loop Into Other Effects And Experiment With Effect Parameters
Oftentimes people will record effects into their looper. This makes sense. We often do not want to alter the sound of the loop once it’s recorded.
However, we can explore a great deal of sonic possibilities by recording our loop and then running out of the looper into other effects pedals. Having a loop on repeat will allow us to remove our hands from the guitar or bass and start tweaking parameters of effects down the line.
This is similar to how a lot of modular synthesis/Eurorack-type music is done. It’s really fun and creative to apply this style of approach to guitar and it’s made possible with looper pedals!
Where Should Looper Pedals Go In The Signal Chain?
Looper pedals are very versatile in the fact that they can go anywhere in the pedal chain.
When choosing the best placement for your looper, consider the sound of all the pedals before and all the pedals after. Know that, in with any combination of pedals, the looper will record the effected audio from all the pedals before it and none of the effects that come after it.
This leads to two trains of thought when it comes to putting a looper in the pedalboard:
- Do I want to record all the effects I need directly into the loop? or,
- Do I want the flexibility to add effects to a repeating loop?
The first scenario calls for the looper at the end of the pedal chain while the second scenario calls for the looper at the beginning of the signal chain. In these extremes, it can be difficult to make a firm commitment. Sometimes a placement in the middle is best.
If I’m practicing or writing over a loop, I often prefer to have the looper at the end in order to maintain a consistent tone in the loop as I practice.
However, I sometimes like to put the looper at the beginning and begin modulating effects after the fact (this is similar to how a lot of Eurorack-style music is done).
To learn more about ordering pedals in your rig/pedalboard, check out my article How To Order Guitar/Bass Pedals (Ultimate Signal Flow Guide).
What is a guitar amp effects loop? Many modern guitar amplifiers have what is known as an effects loop. Amps also have two gain stages: the pre-amp, which offers much of the amp’s tone (overdrive, distortion, EQ, etc.) and the power amp, which boosts the signal to drive the connected cabinet. The effects loop is a patch loop that begins just after the preamp and ends just before the power amp.
Are loop pedals worth it? Determining whether a looper pedal is worth it is completely subjective to you. When looking for a loop pedal, think of the applications in which you’ll be using it (learning theory, practice, live, studio) and what features you would need (multiple loops, audio manipulation, effects). Then decide on if it fits within your budget.
Related article: Are Guitar Effects Pedals Necessary Or Worth It?