A Loop-Oriented Laptop Guitar Rig

I haz a band.

My ol’ pals at Guitar Player magazine interviewed me for an instructional article on looping for next month’s issue. It was especially flattering to be invited, because the interviewer was Barry Cleveland, a fine guitarist and a leading figure in the looping community.

I put together this little video to demo the digital rig I use onstage with my duo band, Mental 99, and I’ve cross-posted it here. It covers software, hardware loopers, looping techniques, and the like. Have a listen.

Out of curiosity, how many folks out there dabble in digital guitar? Analog and digital have collided on this blog since the very first post, the now-notorious “Amps vs. Models” listening contest. (You can still take the test by clicking on the link, but the prizes have long since been awarded. One of hundreds of participants, only three players managed a perfect score. And had I not created the test, I would definitely not have made it to the winner’s circle.)

More specifically, is anyone interested in the process of creating digital tones? Back when this blog started, MainStage, my main performance software, was included as a secondary program with the $500 Logic Studio package. But now Apple sells it separately for a ridiculously cheap $29.99. (Of course, you need a Mac computer to run it.) I’ve worked a lot as a Logic/MainStage/GarageBand developer, and I love geeking out over the programs. Does anyone else? (Don’t worry — the soldering iron won’t stay cool for long. It’s just that there are vast constellations of sounds you just can’t access via analog.)

20 comments to A Loop-Oriented Laptop Guitar Rig

  • Great demo! One of the problems I have seen with live looping shows I have seen (and been part of) is either the mountain of gear (and setup time) that people need to create their loops, and the fact that most of the show is spent manipulating the loops (reversing or treating them by twiddling knobs or clicking the mouse). It is not really interesting to watch people turn knobs! You obviously have the technique and keep the playing varied enough to make a great demo, making the performance about making music, not loops – thanks for that! 

    • joe

      Hey Dave — thanks for your kind words!

      I TOTALLY share your reservations about live looping. Truth is, I didn’t really want to get into looping for those and other reasons (particularly the innate musical limitations of looping). But I really wanted to do a band with my old pal drummer Dawn Richardson, and figure out a way for two non-vocalists to do a cool performance project.

      One detail I didn’t mention in the tutorial: Our live setup sometimes includes a pair of Electro-Voice powered speakers, which are loud enough to double as monitors and mains in small venues — and it lets us do shows in places without proper PA systems, like art galleries and such. (They work great, but there are any number or rival products that’ll do the job. The point is, they’re loud enough for small gigs, and weigh less than 20 lbs. each.)

  • Hey Joe!

    Great stuff as always.  Do you explain the Boomerang in the GP article?  Some people may get lost on how you create independent sections rather than just a static loop.

    For people finding this here joe also goes into some rig detail in this Guitar-Muse interview:


    Also one other question Joe – Have you used your digital rig with larger acts as well.  I moved to NYC and sold my amp (since I didn’t want to cart it around on the subway).  I’m thinking about moving to a powered QSC 8 or 10″  to basically act as a monitor while I run the digital signal to FOH.  But wondering if you’ve had any other experiences like that since we last spoke.

    • joe

      First off, good luck in NYC, Scott!

      I’ve only done smaller stage shows with the laptop setup, though I’ve used it for some “big” recording sessions.

      The monitor method should work. My best advice would be to reconnoiter the venues you’re thinking of playing to get a sense of how good/reliable the front-of-house sound is. Also, even when you’re carrying your own monitor, the FOH sound is usually a big part of what you here. Which can be good or bad, depending. Example — I just played a club in SF with a really massive bass system. The good news: Wow, the fake bass tones were deep. The bad: The whole stage shook, making the guitar want to feed back, and making it difficult for the drummer to follow me at times.  

      • Thanks Joe!  re: the X-tra bass..I guess it’s a good thing you’re playing with such a good drummer!! ; )

        I don’t anticipate playing 2000 seat halls – just trying to find something small that will work.  Been thinking about the Lunch box amps lately for monitoring.  Not transparent but uber-portable.  And for standard guitar tuning – the smaller speaker seems to cut through a live mix well.

        Yes – getting back to original question I either use a laptop with a MK II shortboard controller or a POD HD 500 – which has some neat features.  I prefer the laptop (have you tried the Scuffham Amps plug yet?  It’s a really great sounding and responsive AU! for the Dumble/Marshall tones) – but have also seen laptops fail on stage so there’s some comfort in having some thing that just sits on a stage with a dedicated function.

        The tones really depend on the gig – sometimes people want it to sound RAWK – sometimes they don’t want it to sound anything like a guitar and that’s where I think laptop has it all over a pedalboard…..

        Just my $.02…. 

  • el bjorch

    Yep. My “secret” weapon are comb filters and massive reverbs to add an aura of feedback to guitar tones (Being an armchair noisenik I cannot find a valid excuse to rent an empty oil tanker and 20 stacks in order to make those sounds LOL).
    BTW, thank you very much for your impulses, they are great. If you stretch them you can have a rusty tanker inna pc at your command!

    • joe

      Ooh, comb filters! Makes we want to revisit that GRM automated comb filter plug-in, which I was using a lot a decade ago. (Not for live — the modeling and processor speed weren’t up to it yet — but for mixing.) It’s a great sound for guitar, and very much under-exploited. 🙂

  • Jonathan

    Hi Joe, 

    Apple lists main stage 2 for $29.99 at the link provided in your blog. Still cheap though!

    Great blog, i look forward to it every week!

  • “More specifically, is anyone interested in the process of creating digital tones? ”

    I am! I do all my recording using models, either in my Roland VM-3100Pro digital mixer, or with plugins. The Roland sounds so good that I’d use it live if I were playing guitar in the band. But mostly I play bass in bands… 

    I don’t care how I get the tones, as long as I like them. 🙂

    Your demos have made me want to get a looper! 

  • JH

    Hmmm. Digital via pc/or mac is definitely convenient, and fun and has its place!
    Im a schmuck, cuz I sold my tom sholtz power soak.

    I like Analog distortion boxes, then into amp, then digital modulation, echo, reverb etc. thru effects loop.

  • Frank

    Great blog!  I’d love to see a tutorial on how you use Mainstage.   It obviously has a lot of potential.
    I have a POD HD500 which I love, but the loop time is pretty short.   Have your, or anyone out there, used the HD500 as a midi controler for Mainstage’s looper, Mobius or some other software looper on a laptop?

  • Ian Swanke


    Great posts, websites and faces. Glad to see you are doing well! As an 18 year old snot nose rocker I used to work at Miller Freeman and occasionally bugged you in your office.

    Your work is still inspiring!

    • joe

      Ian! Thanks for saying hi! Hey — weren’t you playing with Brian Jonestown Massacre at the time? I hope you’re a 30-something snot-nosed rocker these days! 😉

  • Kevin Morrison

    Joe, are all of these lovely amp Sims and rad effects provided by Mainstage builtins or from third party plugins?

    • joe

      I’m using the MainStage models 95% of the time. I helped develop them, and I know them so well that I can dial in stuff really quickly. But I’m also a fan of amp models from Universal Audio, Fractal, Line 6, and Bias.

  • Kevin Morrison

    I downloaded Mainstage..I like the cool and glitchy presets. I can definitely hear your signature in the weirder ones. So, in this example the pc is basically a tone generator? You call up the patches for the various tones, play the part and loop it live… There’s really no sequencing or multi-tracking happening on the PC front.

    • joe

      Hiya Kevin. Oh cool — I’m glad you dig MainStage. I swear, I spend half my life in that program. You can think of the Mac as all your pedals, the amp, and everything that happens downstream from the amp when recording in the studio. MainStage also has a nice looper, though at the time I recorded this, I couldn’t use my complex patches and the computer looping at the same time — it was just too much for the processor, and things would glitch out. But since the newest, more powerful Mac Pros came out, I’ve migrated all the looping to the computer. I’ll be posting a video of that within the next couple of weeks. 🙂

  • Kevin Morrison

    I can’t wait to see that..the concept of doing the whole thing in the box is fascinating to me. I know my older iMac doesn’t have the juice to run everything virtually but I still can’t wait to see what you cook up!

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