Recently, I had to put together my own live looping setup. I've tried out lot of approaches and ways how to do it, so maybe this article can be helpful for some other folks, who decided to go live from recording studio to stage.
Firstly....There are 2 main approaches how to make it: using Hardware or Software. Now I could give you paragraphs doing a point by point comparison, but it won't be helpful as much as you are not prepared to really feel the way you like to work.
So if you want something that JUST WORK. Something that you can open it up and make music right away. No special setup, tweaking or programming. Plug and Play. Not bunch of things to hook up.
Or simple you enjoy coding and programming. You like customising your stuff and you can do it all day long without headaches. You like to explore and expand limits of your loopstation setup. You own fast laptop and you take it everyway you go anyway.
So my looping journey began with Software looper. I love digital technology and I'm a big fan of possibilities and all that uniques ways of music creation that can be achieved with DAWs or other music programs. However, to put together your own ultimate looper using Software is not as easy as I thought at first sight. As you dig deeper, trying to expore, expand, and build your own unbeatable setup that is on your mind, soon or later you will start losing track of what's going on there.
So what you need for great software looper:
Ableton Live - this piece of program is unbeatable when it comes to live acts. It can do things to sound you never imagined that is possible. Science, music and sonic extasy rolled into one DAW. It can take you live act beyond anything you would visioned. However, this can be also main obstacle. You have so many options and possibilities there, that to setup a real good live looping solution can be nightmare and have its own learning curve.
Anyhow, Ableton Live is great, it is way beyond a looper, with Ableton you can do everything you are up to. It is very reasonable priced and got a massive fan base with lot of helpful tutorials and templates.
What I've realized later on after spending few weeks on it that it is not as pick-up-and-play friendly as any other hardware looper. With Ableton you will also need:
Good Audio Interface - I recommend Apogee Duet for its great sonic quality.
Footswitch pedal. This is the big deal. If you want to loop on the fly, footswitch controller is a must. A lot of folks are still using old Behringer FCB1010. Even if it is a great pedal, it is way too big to have it in your bag. Too heavy. And also there are some limitations, and it is definitely not easy to setup at all. I would stay away from it.
Anyhow, there is another great option and so far I think, that this is the best MIDI foot controller in 2015 on the market. Keith McMillen SoftStep 2 (please note this number - there is also his older brother which is a bit buggy).
With this little guy, you can do with Ableton whatever you like on the fly using just your feet. It is thin, lightweight, bus-powered foot pedal with 10 pressure directionally sensitive pads, that respond not only how hard you step on them, but also where you choose to put your pressure. Also music programs can send out MIDI messages back to Softstep, so you can change behaviour of corresponding LEDs, or setting labels so you know what you are doing within your DAW. And probably this is a big issue - it is so much programmable and customizable that if you want to get the most of it for your setup, instead of making music you gonna spend weeks just with configuration and coding - searching the internet how to make it the way you are up to. And usually you gonna find only some parts of information as everyone got a different needs and desires....Even if Softstep usually come with predefined preset library for popular music programs like Ableton, Logic, Guitar Rig, etc... they will not save you from diving into the world of MIDI implementation deeper and deeper.
So after getting Softstep, I jumped right away into setuping it the way I want. Ableton comes with Looper plugin - this plugin was designed to work just like hardware looping pedals. With Looper you can create a new master tempo based on the first loop you do. The mission here for me was to setup it right with Softstep. Spending few days on internet I've got a solution - with another supportive utility Bome MIDI Translator (excellent MIDI utility which can automates lot of actions in Ableton using your MIDI controller), I got very useful 4 channel looper - each channel was responding to my "foot operation" - so pressing PAD 1, I got red LED blinking with REC label on my Softstep, pressing PAD 1 twice, I got orange LED flashing with ODUB label, etc....
Anyhow, if you are thinking about ultimate looping solution it doesn't end here. Making Software Looper that works is just starting point. Now you want to tune your Ableton project, using different AUDIO/MIDI tracks, virtual instruments, effects and plugins and you wish to control everything within your new amazing foot controller. You also want to have visual feedback of any action in Ableton on Softstep, so you know exactly what you are doing during your live act: what effects you just turned on, what instruments you are playing, which tracks are looped, etc.... Soon or later you will discover limitation of supplied Softstep editor, so you start to dig into BOME MIDI Translator, or even Max for Live...And after a while you gonna realize: Yes. It is possible. Everything is possible. You can make it really huge there. Question is, if you are passionate enough to pimp up your software looper and if you have plenty of TIME to figuring out how to make this and that.
Of course, you can simplify some stuff by adding new gadget to your gear - like for example control surface AKAI APC40 mk2. This thing was made up for Ableton, so it works like a charm. With Ableton + Softstep + APC40 you are getting powerful but faithful beast that will serve any of your command with big smile.
So once again, if you are looking for unlimited function looper + if you have that budget and you don't mind programming and setting it up on the stage every time you have a gig (bear in mind that it is lot to carry and lot to setup) this can be your option number 1.
For your inspiration and motivation how it can looks like check out following videos.
Yes. This can be your looping future. As I don't own an iPad I haven't try it, however it looks very promising. Idea behind this is that iPad music applications are becoming more and more sophisticated every year (what a shame that Android is way behind iOS).
So if you want to simplify and lighten your Ableton Live Rig you should check out possibilities that can be achieved by iPad apps. Even if you still need a good and reliable Audio Interface for iPad (with Apogee you can't go wrong) + some foot controller (btw, Softstep is iPad friendly), the main advantage of this looping experience is that there are so many COOL and FRESH music apps out there and at very VERY cheap rates especially compared to hardware counterparts.
Just to mention one. Probably the most worthwhile iPad app these days. Seriously, for less then 10$ you are getting amazing looping app + supportive huge community + often and regular LOOPY updates. This app can do almost anything. Along with another great app - Audiobus (allows multiple music apps interact with each other) you are almost there.
This is where I ended up. After spending few weeks with setting up my ultimate Ableton Live loop template I realized that I want to make my live gigs really simple and LIVE. In other words I want to make it different to my music productions in recording studio. Software looping solutions aren't too much stage friendly and to have computer on stage is not my cup of tea. I like to have lot of knobs and sliders that are purpose built and that in fact I don't mind to use analog hardware and effects units that can help me to achieve the sound I'm looking for. So let's summarize the hardware looper options.
New revised version of RC-1 loop station (released in 2014). The biggest selling-point of RC-1 is its user-friendliness and simplicity. If you want something really simple, this is your choice. Good for all guitarist and other instrumentalist who want to layer tracks to support their final performance. It features cool loop indicator, so you exactly know what's going on with your loop. There is also undo/redo function and you can easily add additional footswitch for conform accessing it. However, there is only one memory for all loops with total time of 12 minutes. Good looper for anybody for messing up at home and to have fun with, but if you want to really get into looping, it seems best to look elsewhere.
Famous and popular looping station, but little bit out-dated (RC-50 has been superseded by RC-300). However, at the time of release it was breakthrough device with incredible loop quantization and build quality. You can find these guys at bargain price all over the internet. My main complain is that there are no on-board effects.