On November 9-11, 2018, Ableton held their Loop 2018 conference in Hollywood, CA. Thom Monahan and I both went to check it out. Here’s some of what we experienced, starting with Thom.
It’s hard to imagine a music software company with a closer, more empathic connection to its users than Ableton. While musicians’ and sound makers’ individual choice of DAW has a base value as a means of personal empowerment, Ableton’s Live was developed as a performance instrument made for musicians. Its sheer “jam factor” has always forged a deeper rapport than “DAW as tape machine” or a “plug-in instrument rack.”
Set in multiple venues in the studio-rich heart of Hollywood over three days, Ableton’s Loop gathering featured an impressive lineup of events, talks, workshops, and participants, with just over a thousand attendees from all walks of life and locations. It’s easy to imagine that Loop would be purely about Ableton Live, and developing technique through feature mastery, but Loop is more about creating a community and space for personal connection plus contextualizing the pursuit of sound creation and musical expression, than a seminar of key commands and workflow.
The opening remarks by Dennis DeSantis, author of the ever useful and sagely book Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers https://tapeop.com/reviews/gear/107/making-music-74-creative-strategies-for-electronic-music-producers/, and arguably the heart and soul of Loop, focused not so much on what the events could teach the participants, but what the participants could teach each other, because, as he said, “You’re not going to get into everything you want.”
Given the number of events, the limited capacities, and the logistical hurly-burly of getting from one location to another on the multi-venue “Loop Campus,” it was immediately apparent that it would be tough to get into much of anything if one hadn’t prepared ahead. But proving itself a truism, and a feature more than a bug, it was easy to fall into conversation with anyone carrying one of the provided Loop tote bags. An online community, drawn out of their studios to meet in real life, everyone carved their own line through three days of talks, studio sessions (the most difficult to get into), and artist performances, creating a larger scene of hangs in parallel to Loop itself. Luckily, most events were live-streamed, and will be posted by Ableton in the coming months – joining their already impressive collection of videos of previous Loop events online.
Most days I stuck around The Montalbán theater for panel discussions and performances, making conversation with musicians, television and film composers, dabblers, weekend warriors, and professional sound designers. Nearby The Montalbán, and focusing more on the hardware side of the Conference, the Ivar Theater featured a maker space, where modular builders Ricky Graham from Delta Sound Labs and sound artist Naomi Mitchell had teamed up to take suggestions for new modules from Loop participants, and then attempt to build these devices on the spot. They were running a hybridized system of Pure Data patches interfacing with analog modules bumping through a compact quad sound system. Breadboards and soldering irons littered tables, and people of all ages (and familiarity with electronics) got hands-on with an ever-growing Frankenstein system. It was glorious chaos at points. Volume jumps and loud bursts – with occasional apologies – seemed not to bother groups of knob freaks moving in and out through the drone clouds.
By the time I showed up on day two, Ricky from Delta had an electrified mono string guitar box driven by CV controlled inductors grinding away in the background and continually hovering on the edge of feedback. Surrounding white boards were filling with ideas, and a casual meeting and conversation could take a left turn at any moment into something extremely ludicrous, technical, and frequently a bit of both. Imagine a Throbbing Gristle Day Spa meets Continuing Ed Electronics class; the system was now spilling off the edges, being pawed into new forms at once totally horrific and wonderful.
Once you made your way around the corner to the multitude of couches filled with Loopers in tight packs, jawing away, a simple, “How’s your Loop?” introduced me to Vince Cimo and his DataLooper pedal controller. Prototype and laptop in his backpack, we went straight into a comprehensive, and impressive, demo. The Indiegogo campaign having just started up, the pedal is designed provide a hardware looper experience with any version of Live, as it doesn’t rely on Max for Live. Simple, intuitive, well thought through, the workflow can be surprisingly deep, with auto setting tempo, and easy handling of clip creation and control. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/datalooper-the-loop-pedal-built-for-ableton-live#/
The next three days were a constant flow of conceptual presentations and serendipitous meet ups with strangers and friends. As advised by Loop volunteers, I took a chance, and after waiting in line I was the last in the door for a fully packed session at EastWest Studios’ Studio One by educator/artists/sonic polymath Meara O’Reilly on the musical illusion of “hocketing.” This is an actually a very old auditory illusion of greater polyphony, where a single monophonic melody is shared between two alternating sources, usually voices. Melodies, when broken apart between sources with a certain amount of differentiation, can be experienced as moving in very different directions, depending on panning, ambience, and timbre. It was fascinating to hear and learn the deep history of hocketing, and experience modern examples. This presentation felt very much at the heart of Loop; a simple technique that affects deep perceptual experience through thoughtful application. A small change here and there, and the entire landscape changes.
I caught a short set by Texas band Khruangbin; first by themselves and then dubbed out by mix wizard, Scientist. Then I saw a presentation by NYC’s Photay, breaking down a new track layer by layer, and a panel with the inimitable Patrice Rushen, dropping serious wisdom about what to do when things don’t go as planned. Initially baffled by the campus setup, the sometimes difficult-to-follow schedule, and bummed that I would miss more than I could see, I was glad for the wisdom of DeSantis’ initial welcome speech: “Lots to learn, even more to teach. We’re here to think about preferred futures for music.” I never made it to any of the more intimate sessions in the control rooms of EastWest, but the hang with other sound seekers was great.
Loop is about the world and the community around Live, not about the DAW itself. People were excited and activated, full of a shared fan love for Live, and eager to talk about the love of pure, raw sonics. It’s more about sound, and its relation to the world, rather than the hardships of capturing and manipulating these sounds. A welcome break from gear talk, gear envy, and complaining about CPU minutia, key commands, and feature deficiency; I’m looking forward to the next one.
I had the pleasure of attending the last day of Ableton’s Loop 2018 conference on Sunday Nov 12, 2018, in Hollywood. This was the first time Loop was held in the USA, as it has previously been held in Berlin. I think it’s a safe bet to say that Ableton not only has one of the most devoted customer bases of any DAW, but that they’re also more in touch and more supportive of that customer base than any other major DAW company. It’s hard to imagine the other two big DAW companies – ones that begin with the letter “A” – putting on an event as exciting and energizing as Loop. It’s also interesting to note that if you didn’t already know that Ableton made Live, you might not even know that the Loop was staged by a company whose primary income is from a DAW. Marketing of any Ableton products, or even seminars on how to use them, was almost completely absent at Loop. Instead, the conference was entirely focused on people creating music and aimed at getting people to collaborate with other music makers. In contrast to many other “industry” events I’ve attended – ones that can leave me drained and a bit depressed at the raw consumerism of the music industry – I left my one day at Loop excited, energized, and feeling good about being part of the tribe of people on Earth who are music makers. Loop was incredibly diverse, both in terms of the music being made and being discussed and the people who attended and were involved. It felt more like being back in my years at a university, studying music and production, than being at a music industry event.
I think the key thing that Ableton has really gotten correct with Loop is curation. It’s an overused word these days, but when it’s done right it can be really amazing to be a part of. I’d seen several videos from previous year’s Loop events over the years, and always found the discussions interesting – turning me on to new music and new ideas about music – so I was excited to attend Loop in person. I had a remote recording gig in Big Sur on Friday and Saturday, so I had to miss out on the first two days, and was especially bummed that I’d missed the studio session and live performance with Juana Molina [Tape Op #119] on Friday, as I’m a big fan. But, after meeting Thom for breakfast, I was lucky enough to see Juana talk with Alejandro Cohen as part of Amoeba Music’s “What’s In My Bag” discussion, where Juana discussed and listened to a bunch of records she had picked up earlier at Amoeba Music’s Hollywood store, and how they had influenced her music. It was one of the most fascinating, fun, and inspiring discussion of music I’ve had the pleasure to sit in on. https://www.amoeba.com/whats-in-my-bag/#/grid/1
Next up I caught the Texas band Khruangbin talking about the process of writing and recording their music, and then they played a live set that was remixed live by dub expert Scientist. After that were a series of short, timed presentations from a variety of presenters on different topics. Two of these really represented the broad diversity of content at Loop. One was from composer Lea Bertucci http://lea-bertucci.com/ discussing a performance composition she did inside the platform underneath a bridge in Germany, involving multiple performers over multiple days with multiple microphones and speakers spread throughout the long, narrow and highly reverberant space, with audio that looped and built upon itself for a week. It was a really fascinating and academic approach, and Ms. Bertucci was an extremely well spoken and confident presenter, with a very professional power point presentation. Next up was Sudan Archives (aka Brittney Parks), also a very confident presenter, but in a very different way. She sat at the front of the stage, without a laptop, and only a cup of coffee as a presentation aid. She spoke about how inexpensive technology, like her iPhone and YouTube, had helped her learn about other musical cultures and made it possible for her to start making her own music. At one point she seemed slightly amazed herself, when she said, “and here I am on this stage talking to you.” https://sudanarchives.bandcamp.com/
And this was only what I was actually able to take in during one day. There were 113 separate discussions, presentations, performances, workshops, and studio session during the three days of Loop 2018, and almost all of them equally as intriguing and interesting as the sessions I saw. That night I caught an amazing performance by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, as the closing performance for Loop 2018, where she performed her 2017 album, The Kid, in its entirety. It really pushed the envelope of live music performance, as she worked with her modular synth rig along with dancers and some amazing visuals on a rear projection screen. It was an awesome way to end my day at Loop!
In the end, what I felt most affected by at Loop 2018 was the diversity and the unity that the event promoted. In his closing remarks, Dennis DeSantis paraphrased an earlier presenter who had commented on all the music makers at the event, many of whom work alone in their studios, “Each one of us alone is just a drop of water, but together we are an ocean.” In a weekend framed by mass shootings, wildfires, and political strife, Loop 2018 felt like more than just making music, it was about building community, something we could use more of these days.