live brainstorming with sooperlooper

One thing that’s always a challenge as a solo music-maker is being able to just goof around and try new ideas quickly. With just one keyboard and a single pair of hands, I can’t play a bunch of parts at the same time like the members of a band could. I’ve wondered if software could come to my rescue, and indeed I have used seq24 quite a bit now, but it’s really designed more for live arrangement of pre-written patterns rather than true live improvisation and performance. I think I’ve found a solution now, but I took quite a round-about path to find it.

The classic solution to this problem is a looper, which lets you capture chunks of your audio as you play and have them played back in a loop, so you can move on to playing something else over the top. For Linux, there are two popular loopers – SooperLooper and Freewheeling – and it was actually SooperLooper that I tried first, but it has a steep learning curve, and I just couldn’t get the hang of it.

Fast-forwarding to last week, I watched the tutorial videos for Freewheeling and decided to try it. It’s not nearly as flexible as SooperLooper, but it’s set up out-of-the-box as a performance tool, and it looked like it would suit me perfectly. Unfortunately, when I tried it myself, I was unable to run it for more than a minute or two before it crashed spectacularly. I’m not sure if it was because I was on a 64-bit system or not, but with activity on it seemingly stopped for now, it was clear that those crashes weren’t going to go away.

Perhaps it was just from watching a looper in action, but when I then tried SooperLooper again, it suddenly made a lot more sense, and I was able to record in some loops in realtime and have them all remain in sync. Taking inspiration from Freewheeling’s default setup, I then used QMidiRoute to split off the bottom octave of my keyboard, and fed these events to SooperLooper to switch between loops and trigger loop recording and overdubbing. I also assigned my keyboard’s knob controls to manage panning and gain on my loops.

The great thing with this setup is that it’s infinitely expandable. An obvious next step would be some kind of foot controller to trigger loop recording, so I can do that hands-free. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit! SooperLooper has individual JACK outputs for each track, so you could easily mix them in, say, Ardour, setting up a bunch of effects and then using a knob or grid controller to control your effects send levels in real-time.

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