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Reel-to-DAW: Making Phasey Polyrhythmic Tape Loops

Mar 16, 2021

Ever treated your DAW like a reel-to-reel tape deck? With a little experimentation, you can create tape loops that fall in and out of phase for eccentric polyrhythms and melodic counterpoints!

By DJ Pangburn

Reel-to-DAW: Making Phasey Polyrhythmic Tape Loops

In recent years, a number of musicians have begun playing with tape loops again, whether with a cassette deck or a reel-to-reel player. Most people, however, won’t have access to this hardware. Reel-to-reel tape is expensive, and a good, functioning deck might take some time to find. With cassettes, you've got to have the time, patience, and skill to mechanically disassemble a deck and tape in order to DIY-hack them into loopers. Musicians will have to do this several times over to create phase loops or loops that fall in and out of phase.

In this piece, we will show how you can replicate this fun and creative process digitally – creating short phase loops in a DAW. Like their hardware counterparts, these digital tape loops can go in and out of phase, creating interesting polyrhythms and melodic counterpoints in the process.

1. Write and Record a Melody

Early on in his career, experimental musician Steve Reich often used “phase loops” with vocal samples to create odd vocal juxtapositions over extended time periods. In what was a type of proto-sampling, Reich played multiple recordings of the same vocal on reel-to-reel decks. Because of slight differences in each loop’s splices points and the peculiarities of the machines themselves, they didn’t allow them to play perfectly in time. Reich’s loops fell out of phase and then briefly back in phase, before once again falling out of sync.

While these vocal phase loops were and still are great, Reich’s technique is just as interesting with melodies as he and others demonstrated in the second half of the 20th century. Composer Terry Riley—a Reich contemporary and influential figure in the San Francisco Tape Music Center scene of the 1960s—started exploring melodic loops in 1963 with Music for the Gift, in which he looped trumpet Chet Baker’s trumpet playing so that the various loops lagged in time.

For our tape loop, we wrote a simple two-bar melody using Waves’ Flow Motion FM synthesizer. It’s the type of melody one might hear in an ambient techno track or an electronic pop tune.

Flow Motion FM synthesizer

Flow Motion FM synthesizer

2. Duplicate the Melody

After recording the two-bar melody on Audio Track 1, we duplicated it by copying and pasting it over and over on the audio track. We repeated this pasting process until the loop’s total running time sat around three minutes long. Let’s call this “Loop 1.”

Tape Loop 1

Tape Loop 1

For “Loop 2,” we created a new audio track and pasted the original loop into it. To make Loop 2 slightly longer, and thereby forcing it to go out of phase with Loop 1, we turned off the Warp function on the Sample menu in Ableton Live’s Clip View.

Doing this allows us to detune Loop 2’s melody (-10 cents), which slightly lengthens the loop. And as we did with Loop 1, we duplicated Loop 2 many times until it sat around the 3:00 mark. Now, when played together, loops 1 and 2 start in phase but pretty quickly go out of phase.

To emphasize the two loops, we panned Loop 1 to the left channel and Loop 2 to the right, which you can hear in the recording below. While this is for demonstration purposes, it’s also a neat effect in and of itself for phase loops.

At first, this phase looping creates something like a simple tape echo. In fact, to our ears, it resembles the delay heard on magnetic tape delay units like the Roland Space Echo, of which Radiohead are big fans, and the Maestro Echoplex EP-3, famously used by Portishead’s Adrian Utley.

Tape Loops 1 + 2

Tape Loops 1 + 2

Over time, loops 1 and 2 fall more and more out of phase until their melodies begin to overlap at odd intervals. Some parts of the recording work really well, while other sections sound maybe a bit odd. But we’re experimenting and having fun, so the results don’t have to be perfect!

Perhaps we could use the entire two-track tape loop as a recording in itself. But another idea, which we won’t explore here, is to sample certain parts of this phase loop performance, then use it in a DAW for certain parts of a song. In this type of approach, we could arrange these sections in a more precise fashion or load specific loop sections into a hardware sampler like an Akai MPC or Elektron Octatrack for some creative mangling.

3. Add a Third Loop

For fun, we decided to add a third loop to the mix. Following the technique we explained above, Loop 3—on Audio Track 3—is detuned by -40 cents, making it slightly longer than Loop 2. After detuning, we duplicated the loop until the track ran for approximately three minutes.

To further highlight the different loops, Loop 1 is in stereo, while Loop 2 is panned hard left and Loop 3 panned hard right.

As you can hear, the phase looping across the three loops is working. Interestingly, when the loops combine and fall out of sync, the loops’ phasing creates additional reverb (as Reich’s “Come Out” does), which compliments the reverb we used in Flow Motion’s FM synth patch.

C1 Compressor

Tape Loops 1 + 2 + 3

Although these unexpectedly long reverb tails are great, the overall mix still seems to be missing something.

4. Add Effects

To bring some sonic flavor to the three loops, we decided to use some effects. Using a filter or EQ to cut out higher frequencies on Loop 1, for instance, will allow loops 1 and 2 to really stand out.

For Loop 1, we used Waves’ MetaFilter to do just that. We cut out some of the higher frequencies and gave it a bit more resonance. Next, we added a bit of Drive and smoothed out some filter changes with the Smooth knob. This gives the overall track some bass frequencies that it needed to be more well-rounded.

Some Final Thoughts

The technique we describe above involved essentially time-stretching loops 2 and 3 (on audio tracks 2 and 3, respectively) by slightly detuning them in Ableton Live’s Clip View. Once again, this put them out of phase with Loop 1.

This technique can be done in other DAWs, like Logic and Fruity Loops. In Logic, for instance, you can use the Flex Time to stretch loops to either lengthen or shrink the audio, much like we did in Ableton Live’s Clip View.

What we described above is one way of doing it. There may be other ways of creating loops that digitally replicate the phase loops of magnetic tape on multiple reel-to-reels or cassette decks, but the method above works as needed.

Try the technique with everything from vocals to guitars and beats. Experiment and see what happens!

Want more on experimental processing? Get 3 Vocal Processing Styles for Electronic Music here!

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