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2017-03-22 12.29.39

The Vox VDL-1 looper has been a major part of my violin pedal set up for some time now. I bought it in August 2011 and have rarely done a violin gig without it. This is a review based on those 6 years of use and to explain why I think I need to get something else now.

As I wrote in 2012, there’s no such thing as a perfect looper. They all have their plus and minus points. Which one works for you depends on which plus points you need the most and which minus points annoy you least. I assembled this list of pluses and minuses for the Vox looper based on those 6 years of near constant use.

Good points

  • Two loops. They can be either synchronised to each other or not as you want. The mode is easy to set when you record the second loop and was one of the main reasons I looked into this looper over others available at the time.
  • Loop Effects. The VDL-1 has loads of effects that you can add to loops after they have been recorded. This is a great feature, you can pitch shift, add filter effects, stutters … oh all sort of things. You can also vary those effects with the footpedal while they are being applied to the loop. It’s such a cool feature. You can overdub effects over other effects too.
  • Live effects. You can also apply effects to the live signal that are independent of the loop signal – though they do get recorded onto the loop if you record it. I hardly ever used this as you can only have one live effect per preset.
  • Foot pedal for controlling the effects. Another great feature I think, it allows the loops to become something more than just a static background effect, they can make loops really ‘live’ and evolving.
  • Stop modes fade/delay and stop. In practice I only ever used the fade and stop options as the delay sounds cheesy. Again the fade option is a major feature for me as it allows me to change sections of the music gradually rather than suddenly.
  • Uses a standard 9V pedal power supply. It’s a minor point but useful when you have a lot of pedals and power bricks lying around!
  • The price. It’s only £199 new. It was that price when I bought it 6 years ago and seems to be the same now. It’s very good value.

Good points that I never used

  • Microphone input (with trim). It has an XLR socket on the back for a dynamic microphone. I never used it though.
  • Metronome/bpm option. Actually for me this was a bad feature as it’s quite easy to switch it on by mistake and I never needed it. When it was on, it forced loops to end on a whole beat – which was useless to me as the looper never knew what speed I was playing at so it just left empty space at the end of my carefully crafted loops!

Bad points

  • It has a gate built into it that you can’t bypass. When I first wrote my piece on loopers I thought it was the Vox being noisy. This isn’t true, it’s the BOSS RE-20 that hisses (it’s emulating a tape delay – rather too well). But the looper’s gate makes that noise come and go in a very conspicuous way when playing pizzicato. UPDATE: It does seem that the Vox was aggravating the RE-20 noise. Now I’m using the Pigtronix Inifinty looper it’s all gone quiet!
  • For arco playing it’s much less of a big deal to be honest, but once you know about it it starts to annoy.
  • No loop level control. Loops always play back at the level they were recorded at. You can assign the footpedal to control the loop level, but it counts as an effect so you can’t have any other effects applied to that loop unless you overdub the loop at a lower level and then change presets.
  • Changing presets causes a momentary dropout in the live channel. This one of my biggest gripes with this looper. If you want to change preset while playing … DON’T. You’ll get a glitch of about 1/8 of a second in your playing. The loops continue to play fine so I don’t know why it can’t keep the direct channel going too. It’s really irritating.
  • The effects are often of low quality. The pitch shifts and distortions are quite ropey if I’m honest. and the delays are quite basic sounding. They are nowhere near as good as the ones I have in dedicated effects pedals. For the price I suppose that’s to be expected, but it does make them less useful than you might like. Generally I mostly used the reverse, stutter and filter effects.
  • It’s complex to operate. There are quite a few operations where you have to press more than one switch at the same time … with your foot … without falling over … and playing a violin. With practice I learned to do this, but it does take practice.
  • It’s big. really big. Not heavy. Just big. There’s no way this would go on a pedalboard, unless it was a huge pedalboard with not much else on it. So you do have to carry it around separately. This also means it always has to be at either the beginning or end of the signal chain.
  • Low build quality. I think this has become a major problem for me now. The footpedal need regular tightening to stop it just flapping around and returning down to the ‘toe’ position all the time. The push switches fall off occasionally and when that happens the tiny springs disappear into the undergrowth of the carpet or blackness of wherever you’re playing. The internal boards come loose and the whole thing stops working until you kick it … then it works for a while and you need to kick it again. Then you need to take it to bits and just reseat everything because it’s been kicked around. Its not fun.

Things that other people have mentioned not liking that never or rarely bothered me

  • There’s a stupid bug where if you record a loop and don’t use it immediately (go to STOP rather than PLAY), it puts a small gap at the end of the loop, adding time to it so you lose sync. I only hit this once playing a piece written by someone else.
  • Only 90 seconds total recording time. I very rarely hit this though I’ve come near to it quite often. For others it’s been a deal-breaker though.
  • No way of saving loops. I always play live.

So I’ve been looking around at other loopers that might take its place. Current favourite is the Pigtronix Infinity – watch this space, I might review it in six year’s time 😉

 

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I was in my local friendly music shop asking about other things and, for one reason or another, ended up playing with the Roland BOSS SY-300 Guitar Synth pedal. The guy in the shop was enthusing about how well it tracked guitars – including slides and vibrato and my  next thought was “yeah yeah, but how well would it work on a violin?” In my experience tracking a violin pitch is very very hard. I’ve seen nothing that would do it reliably in either hardware or software, and it’s something I’ve been looking for for a long time now.

To cut a long story short .. IT WORKS! it even tracks the octave violin (which is tuned an octave below a normal violin so, on a 5 string instrument, makes it go down to the bottom C string of a cello). I stayed in the shop for a couple of hours playing with my violins on the device and was simply astonished about how well it worked. It is possible to confuse it, either with bad technique or pulling too hard on the low octave C string, but those are hardly major problems for normal use. And by bad technique I don’t mean tuning – if you play out of tune, the SY-300 will simply play the pitch you hit, I mean not placing your finger cleanly on the string which makes a dull grinding note on the violin anyway. If you slide all the way down a string – the SY-300 will follow you, if you use wide or narrow vibrato – the SY-300 will follow you. If you play loud to soft to loud in a single bow stroke – the SY-300 will follow you.

Amazing.

The guy in the shop thought it worked even better with violin that guitar because of the expressive effect of the bow on amplitude, and the ability to play long notes easily, it turns the SY-300 into a very expressive synth. It’s interesting to note that playing a synth via a violin (or guitar for that matter) doesn’t sound like playing a synth from a keyboard, it transfers the intrinsic ‘feel’ of the instrument onto the sounds made by the synthesizer – so in no way is it a replacement for a keyboard synth, it’s something totally different.

You need good synthesis knowledge to get the most out of the pedal, a lot of the factory presets are very guitar-orientated, made for a plucked instrument and often with lots of distortions added, so to get the best from a violin you need to get in there and make your own patches. As a violinist who also plays synthesizers this is easy enough for me, but people less familiar with subtractive synthesis might find it hard work to get what they want from it. This really is an expert’s device/

The architecture is slightly odd. It has 3 oscillators (with the standard virtual-analogue waveforms) each with its own filter, LFO and sequencer. Yes, the LFOs, filters and sequencers are per-oscillator! There are also 3 global LFOs (called Waves) that can be applied to the built in effects as well as the oscillator parameters. There are 4 effects slots which can be placed almost anywhere you like on one of two synth busses or the dry channel, and are of very good quality – as you would expect from a BOSS device. There is a good range of the usual effects, delays, reverbs, phasers, flangers & distortions – all with a good range of options. And also there are combined effects (delay+reverb for example) so you can make full use of those four slots. Most of the parameters of the effects can be controlled from the Wave LFOs. Although the way you configure those is rather clunky.

There are a few downsides. While it has MIDI in & out sockets (including USB) it does not send or receive MIDI notes, only control change and program change. I would also have liked more waveforms than just the standard saw,triangle, sine, square and maybe some interaction between the waveforms (eg FM). Also the software editor doesn’t work on Mac OS/X Sierra. Even the driver (which is supposed to work) crashed my system … and WHY OH WHY do MIDI devices need drivers anyway when they should just be class-compliant?! sigh.

But generally I think it’s an amazing device and if you’re a violin player who’s also into synthesis I strongly recommend you have a look at it.

I made a video about it with more information and examples

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On the way up the the University of Leeds to see this concert, we passed a small but loud rock/pop festival in Millennium Square. It sounded like quite conventional youth music, and as the sound of the kick drum faded and we entered the University music department we thought what a contrast that was to the concert we were about to witness. It was, but not at all in the way we expected.

The pre-concert talk started off telling us about James Mooney’s project with the music of Hugh Davies, some of his life & work and a short video of one of his instruments …  the ‘Shozyg’. I have to say this did not make a good impression on me. The sounds were primitive, and not in a good way. That sort of “professional amateurism” is something I find very wearing. It’s something that infects a lot of these English Experimentalists and seems to be a political act on their part. Though unlike the punk movement of the 1970s little achievement is apparent, the music of these people still largely only exists (thankfully) in the universities and people who for some bizarre reason like it. I do sometimes think that people are attracted to this music simply because it’s ‘Alternative’ rather than actually any good.

The talk also contained some discussion of the other pieces in the programme. Two by Stockhausen (whom I like a lot), one by Christian Wolff (whom I have very little time for) and one by member of the ensemble for bowed, amplified cardboard box …  as bowing is intended to excite a resonance and cardboard is not a notably resonant material, I am sceptical but keep an open mind.

However it surprised me slightly when the cardboard-boxist (is that right?) played the box on the first Stockhausen piece and didn’t seem to have any other instruments available to him. The sound it made was as predictable as it was tedious. Just squeaking and scraping – the sort of noises that I’ve spent months training student violinists to stop making (but which can be used to good artistic effect when used sparingly and in context). The other members of the ensemble were doing a good job on the piece, especially the guy with the eurorack synth, but the box was beyond silly. A far more entertaining use would be to let cats jump in and out of the box … or just keep something in it.

The second piece was a fixed media acousmatic one by Hugh Davies himself. Mostly him making noises on a spring with magnetic pickups. This was a tedious, and very badly recorded piece with little subtlety and less discernible musical structure. A very poor offering from the headliner. Apparently Davies used to work for Stockhausen but there was not even the remotest hint of the master’s skill evident in either composition or production here.

The other Davies piece, in the second half, was performed live but wasn’t much better. There was at least, some structure involved this time, but attempting to make music from pure feedback is a losing battle – all that really happened was that is sounded like a lot of very depressed clangers. If you want to hear guitar amp feedback used musically then listen to almost any rock concert from the last 50 years. It’s not rocket science.

The cardboard box piece was as dreary, pointless and annoying as it could possibly have been. The only thing that livened it up was some particular technological incompetence that caused the ‘musician’ to stop, restart the software on the laptop, say ‘well, call that a movement’ and start again. Even when the laptop was ostensibly working the sounds it produced were awful, predictably boring and badly engineered. More “professional amateurism”.

The Christian Wolff pieces was … a Christian Wolff piece. Ridiculous and pointless noises made in the service of a pretentious score.

The final piece, another Stockhausen showed how things can be when they are done well, or would be if they didn’t have a cardboard box squeaking along for too much of the time.

All in all a very poor showing. I really don’t understand the fascination with these English experimentalists. They seemed intent on producing sub-standard music containing the sort of ridiculous noises that gives modern “classical” music a bad name.

Walking back to the bus stop we went past the rock festival again. Happy to he hearing music that, even if not to our taste, was well structured, competently performed and actually had some point and some direction. There was even some good use of guitar amplifier feedback. A lot of classical people like to look down on rock & pop music – tonight it should have been the other way round.

Not. Good. Enough.

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