Ambient Looping & Boss RC20XL Review

I get a fair amount of questions on looping, so I figured I’d give a bit of a tutorial post on it. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Boss (you know, those pedals that sound good but aren’t cool because we don’t know the first name of the builder) put on a looping contest this summer. I entered, and on my third entry, I forgot to push record on my computer. Because I am so awesome. I could’ve re-recorded, but it was the last day to enter, and I was already late for something, so I was left with an ambient looping video with camera mic sound only. So I figured I may as well turn it into a tutorial and a review. The other two videos will be my actual entries, and will probably be available on Bandcamp in the near future as part of a new project. And those ones I’m going to break down into their base elements, and what I am doing to create them.

And for fair warning, there are a lot of my songs in this post. That may not be your cup of tea, and that’s completely understandable. So you may want to just skip down to a post where I post a video of U2…again. haha And there are a lot of you out there who are much better at this than I am. So you may also want to skip down to an overdrive shootout post or tone is the best thing on universe post or something. This post is moreso for the questions I get on looping.

Boss RC20XL

The Good

–16 minutes of loop time (really nice)
–dual inputs, going to one output
–input gain level
–undo last overdub feature
–ability to save loops
–very decent-sounding

The Bad

–the 16 minutes are actual memory time; so they decrease as you save loops into the given 11 slots
–mine was a little ‘glitchy’ when pushing the overdub switch. Could very well be because I got mine used and it’s extremely beat-up. But I realized I had to be very careful when overdubbing. If I’d had more time before the contest deadline, I probably would’ve re-recorded the first video too, because of it.

The Meh

–a ton of features…that you’ll never use. Tempo guide, tempo shift, a phase inverter jack on the back…maybe I just need to explore it more, but I’m glad the looper itself works well, because the feature set seems fairly gimmicky.
–it’s compression on loops takes time to get used to
–it’s ‘loop point’ when you finish recording your base loop also takes some time to get used to.

The Verdict

I had one of these a couple years ago, and sold it because I didn’t like it. This time, I was offered one in a trade, and wanted to give it a second chance because of the looping contest. And the first few hours with it did not impress me. But then after I got over the initial learning curve that I’ve found every looper to have, I surprisingly started to really like it. It seemed to maintain the warmth of your tone very well, provided you learn how to set the input gain levels properly (i.e. lower than you think). And it was very nice to store loops about which I wasn’t sure if they were good enough to be songs yet, and then be able to come back to them in a few minutes with fresh ears. It’s also nice to have a dedicated looper. Originally, I was going to use the DD7 for this so that I could have a looper and a delay, but as I ended up not really having a use for the delay and it’s modulate setting was not at all as good as it was described on gear forums (imagine that!), this RC20 might be just the thing.

The Video of the RC20XL (As well as one of my contest entries so that it can get more views and Boss can see how immensely cool and popular I am and pick me. Hey, I’m nothing if not honest. Well, maybe also sarcastically self-abasing. ;) )

In this video, I’m using both the instrument input and the mic input simultaneously. And it works very well, give a very decent sound, and no buzzing. Out of the RC20, I run into the Strymon Blue Sky verb (mmmmm), then into a tube-pre, and then the computer.

And no, I’m not trying to be Thom Yorke. Or Imogen Heap. Or Phil Keaggy. …… Yes. Yes, I am.

Ambient Looping

As you saw in the last video, a very good way to ambient loop subtly is to make sure a good portion of your overdubs cross the phrase line. You can hear that in the vocals. A lot of looping videos you see are blocks of sound that repeat; I’ve even done a few like that. And what I’ve noticed is that they get monotonous. Yep, even mine. There’s one in particular that is a six minute youtube vid; and when I put it on the album, I chopped it down to like 2 and a half minutes. hehe Because it was annoying the daylights out of me. So, by the very nature of looping, you’re dubbing over a repeating phrase (or a couple if you get the RC50 or comparable loopers); but with crossing the phrase line with the overdubs, you can take the loop out of ‘loop’ territory, and into ‘song’ territory. The goal is to get the ear and the brain to almost forget the base loop, and feel as if the song is actually moving into new thematic elements, or choruses and bridges if you will; not unlike a song like ‘With or Without You’ that simply repeats the base four chord theme, but still moves through the elements of an entire song.

This next video shows that a little bit; by the end of it, you’re not really hearing the base loop anymore. It’s like taking a journey, but keeping the root subconsciously based. Also, I think every overdub in this crosses the phrase line. This song also uses the ambient technique of recording the base loop with something tempo’d, rather than just washy ambience. Then you can record the ambience in the overdubs, where the sustain doesn’t cut off abruptly, as that is an issure you run into with ambient looping: if you start with swells or something washy, you have to wait until they fully die out to finish the phrase, and that usually defeats the purpose. So by recording something tempo’d first, you can get around this, as the overdubs are infinite. This can also be done by recording a base loop of silence, and then overdubbing everything else, although silence doesn’t make for the best youtube videos. However, even with times phrases, if there’s any effects on them, they can cut off quickly in the first loop. So in this video, I have the looper after all the effects but the reverb. The reverb stays on at the end of the chain, and allows each loop the courtesy of some extra sound after it loops, helping things not to end so abruptly. And yes, I caress the guitar again.

Harmonically in that video, I tried to use full triad chords in the base loop, as I know I would be creating a lot of 7ths and 9ths in the subsequent loops; I didn’t want to get in the way of myself before I’d even started. 7ths and 9ths are your friends in ambient looping. A different technique is to use them first in the base loop, so that they mask the key center, and afford everything else the ability to be a little looser with the key center. But either way, the best way to ambient loop is to compose the song beforehand, at least loosely; this way, again, you’re taking your piece out of the ‘novelty looping’ category, and more into the ‘song that uses looping as a tool’ category.

That being said however, this next video is completely improvised and not planned out ahead. That is a viable option too, provided you’re keeping your theory close in your mind as you’re improvising. Every note, every sound, every silence…has a purpose. Well, that’s the goal at least. hehe This is the video on which I forgot to press record on the computer, and so decided to turn it into a tutorial. haha So, below this video, I list out each technique in detail. Again, you may be above all this. If so, I don’t want to appear condescending by listing out techniques you’re already aware of, so this may be a good one to skip.

For this video, I use a different technique to get the ambient swells not to cut off too early. And that is, I place the looper after the volume pedal, but before the delay and reverb effects. So, in essence, the looper is only recording non-sustainy chord swells. In fact, if you were to turn all the time-based effects off, it would sound really, really funny and uninspiring. But what that does for you is allow the loop to cut off the non-sustained recorded phrase, but the effects to then delay and verb the non-sustained loop. It works well to record a base loop of swells. However, you do then lose the ability to ever turn those effects off without changing the sound of the loop. So you up having to use a lot of hand dynamics and drive and boost effects which are set pre-looper.

Best thing about this video is my pause at about 3:40 when I look at the computer and realize that I forgot to press record, and then what I like to call ‘the angry hands’ at about 3:55 when it sinks in that this song is toast. haha But, anyway…

0:00 Swelling in with the volume knob first so that I can press the record button simultaneously. Then I move to the volume pedal just simply because volume pedals are less effort and sometimes more fluid for ambient swells. But this technique is very necessary to start a loop with a swell when not sitting in a chair or flying.
0:10 Basic one chord with lots of non-triad notes, to create a base of ambience that doesn’t really go anywhere; it’s simply for the overdubs to play off of.
0:35 Giving a couple notes not recorded. This can be cool because it adds color that won’t be repeated over and over again. Those are nice to throw in every once in a while, as it gives the ear of the listener a break.
0:45 Sliding around, making sure I hit 7ths.
0:55 Realizing that I really liked that riff that I decided not to loop, and looping it anyway. haha
1:03 The one time I afford myself the 4th of the relative major. That’s one of those notes that calls attention to itself, so you don’t want too many.
1:22 Drives on for the pseudo-ebow sound. Just vibrating a string until it starts to slightly feedback kinda. Gives for a more rootsy-sounding ebow; same overall affect, but calling less attention to itself as ‘Hey! I’m an ebow!’ which is hard not to do when using an ebow. hehe
1:55 Drives off, phase and fuzz on for…guitar caressing! It’s a very odd technique, I admit…but as the song progresses, listen for how those little guitar caressing sounds add interest in the dead parts underneath the subsequent overdubs.
2:25 Bending. Just a few per song. Those help to meld things and blur key center.
2:30 Fuzz on for some bassy cello stuff. Time to root the song and let the ear know what chords it’s been hearing all this time.
2:55 Random melodies. Having fun.
3:32 Large bend, just bordering on too much. Now we’ve given the song something big that it was leading up to. For me, that sound is like the emotional actualization. Every song has one somewhere.
3:40 Realizing I didn’t press record on the computer.
3:45 Getting a different angle with which to view the computer, as if that will help. Nope.
3:55 Yay! Angry hands!
4:25 Finding a good stopping point for the loop, as I know whatever sounds last will be faded for a while by all the delays and verbs set post-loop.

So that’s kind of a big way to say play a chord, turn your volume up, and put delays and shimmer after it. ;) But, hopefully, at least some small part of this post was helpful.

For the gear junkies, the ambient videos had the following chain (essentially…these are all in bypass loops, but I’m too lazy to type that out, and I’m only listing the pedals that were used):

First video. All used at various times. If I didn’t use an effect, I didn’t list. So don’t freak out…I still love my EH LPB-1, and it’s still on the board. ;)

Hartman Germanium Fuzz on lots of mids setting–>
Fryette Valvulator–>
Fulltone Fatboost–>
Fulltone Fatboost–>
Arion SPH-1 phase on slow watery setting–>
George Dennis volume–>
Strymon Brigadier on long swell setting–>
Strymon Timeline on tape setting (first video)–>
Arion SAD-1 delay on melding setting–>
DC Timeline on full mix long reverse–>
Boss RC20XL–>
Strymon Blue Sky (mod setting)–>
Matchless HC30 with G12H-30 mic’d

Second Video. Again, didn’t list the bypass loopers or any pedals not used, and not all of these were on all the time.

Hartman Germanium Fuzz on lots of mids setting–>
Fryette Valvulator–>
Fulltone Fatboost–>
Fulltone Fatboost–>
Arion SPH-1 phase on slow watery setting–>
George Dennis volume–>
Boss RC20XL–>
Strymon Brigadier on long swell setting–>
Arion SAD-1 delay on melding setting–>
DC Timeline on background multitap setting–>
Strymon Blue Sky (low mix shimmer setting)–>
Matchless HC30 with G12H-30 mic’d

And then lastly, it is also possible press record, swell quickly after, continue to swell, stop the recording, and then overdub very quickly to mask the loop point. A little more tricky and doesn’t always work…you have to hit the dubs and record points on the low part of the soundwave, if that makes any sense, and I for one am not great at doing that consistently. That’s what I do in this video, and I get it right, although I don’t think this was my first take. hehe ;) And actually, this is the first actual ambient song I ever recorded, so I thought it’d be fun to revisit it.

Again, I hope all that was of interest, and answered some of the questions on looping and ambient looping.


29 thoughts on “Ambient Looping & Boss RC20XL Review

  1. Yep! That was the old POG/RV3 tandem…not as smooth as the Blue Sky, but has a trippy 80′s synth thing going on that one day I’d love to get back and use alongside the Blue Sky.

  2. I use a RC20 weekly – seems a little limited on features compared to most loopers out there – but it’s very functional and I’ve learned the basics of it enough to make it useful for what I need it for. I use the “Guide” for the lack of drummer – I do wish it had more than the “four on the floor + hi hat on the 1″ for guide tracks.

    Karl, I enjoyed the first video you posted.

  3. Nice – love how the loops build slowly.

    I used my Memory Man WH for looping till it gave up the ghost. I now have a RC-3 and am really happy. I stores up to 5h!!! I also stole your idea and recorded + stored some 7 min ambient tracks for all keys on it. Don’t play much worship anymore but on that one conference it was really useful.

    I will play by myself at the opening of a gallery soon, so I played around with my rc-3 and wrote some songs. This is one:

  4. do you come up with a melody first then the progression behind it or do you do it the other way around?

    oh, and have you ever arranged a well-known worship song for live looping? that would be cool :)

  5. Great information Karl! I have been looping for a while now but I am still relatively new to it and some of this information was really helpful. I really like recording silence before starting a song even if I’m starting with something timed because I think it helps make it flow like you said. Even thought I keep a delay pedal after my looper, I still don’t like the way it sounds when a loop ends. Recording the silence removes any break points and for me makes things sound like the flow much better. (Because they do!)

    I love the angry hands… That is priceless man. I don’t know how many times I’ve done the best take ever of an ambient piece to find that I haven’t pressed record. The best was when I didn’t realize my cat was in the room with my amp and he was scratching his back on the mic stand. When I listened back you could hear all kinds of weird noises… Not cool.

  6. Rhoy–both…just depends on the song. Of the ones here, the first two melody and base came at the same time…sort of out of each other. The improvised one was obviously base first, and then ‘Awake’ was melody first I think? Been awhile. haha

    And every once in a while, I’ll have a service where no one could show up but me. In those cases, I’ll usually plug my acoustic into a delay and a looper and do Not to Us, Blessed Be Your Name, and Rescue. In a full band, I’ll loop certain phrases for one measure, maybe two only…as they’ll start to tear from the click or the drummer over time. Ambient stuff’s a little easier tempo-wise to loop live, but you have to be careful that the song doesn’t have too many chords so that all the ambience will fit all the time. haha

    Josh–oh, interesting on looping silence even on timed stuff. I think because of the videos, I’ve just never really gotten into that. (I’ve learned that if people don’t hear anything within the first 3 seconds of a youtube vid, they’re out, haha!) But it does work well!

    And lol! Did you keep the one with your cat? People everywhere will be scrambling trying to figure out how you created those cool noises!!

    • I know Andy Othling used to do the recording silence thing when he looped with the DL4. I think he just did it if he was starting with swells but he just edited that part of the video out. You could record the silence then go start your camera… I don’t think anyone would think that disingenuous…

    • lol No, sorry. I didn’t keep the cat recording. There was a constant ruffling sound like rubbing your thumb on a mic and it was boomy… He was purring most of the time too… It probably would have made a funny blooper recording for soundcloud though.

  7. I’ve been using my M13 for my primary looping (I’m probably going to change for 2 M9′s, Minus The Bear style) but the nice thing about the M units is that you can have your effects pre or post-loop, so I usually do all the recording with them pre-loop, and if I’m going to end, I turn on a nice reverb or 5 and put them post-loop as I end it. Works well for what it is. Way better than that aweful, “Aaaaaaand we’re done now” stop to regular loopers.

    I’m in my new house now, so I’ll record some videos soon and join the ambient looping club. ;-) Of course, by then it won’t be cool any more… Everyone will have moved on… But whatever.


  8. Dave, for sure! That’s great input. The Timeline does that as well. With the RC20 or any dedicated looper, I’m of course stuck with physically moving its position in the chain.

    And I think you hit the nail on the head–looping will probably be on its way out by this time next year, and ambience is already on its way out I think. Which is specifically why I focused this post on taking your loop from ‘Hey look, I’m looping stuff!’ and ‘listen to these random ambient noises’, to…’an actual song that happens to use looping as a tool’. Hmm…there’s probably a post in there about trend music vs. good music and where the two intersect.

    Glad you’re all moved in! Is it feeling like where you need to be? :)

    • I’m kind of scared out of my mind, and I’ve been sick for 2 weeks, so it’s a little weird still… But I think it will be good. I’m just waiting for this first Sunday morning. It will all fall into place then, I think. :-)

  9. Naal–gotcha…I’ll be praying for ya this Sunday. :) And stoked that Angry Hands could be that for you. lol

    Alex–cool song…not heard that one before. I’m not a huge fan of Gungor, so maybe I need to change my style. ;) lol Just kidding! I actually very much enjoyed that from them.

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