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SooperLooper mini review (also contains routing cotent!)

hi folks,

after a few false starts at getting a linux machine running with the 
Sooperlooper EDP-styled looping software over the past year or so, I 
have finally taken the time to get the job done.  As such, Sooperlooper 
now provides me with a standalone looping PC that runs four indendent 
loops, each capable of over 5 minutes looping time, replete with many of 
the EDP features we've grown to love and lust after, and few other natty 
extras thrown in the mix.  As such, I thought it helpful to jot down a 
few points that come to mind with regard to such a setup. 

I managed to get hold of a couple of old IBM desktop machines, each 
sporting a 'huge' P3 667mhz processor and 256mb ram.  I couldn't get 
reliable low-latency performance out of the onboard soundchips, so I 
installed an old Vibra128 card after reading of low-latency success with 
these cards.  They are a little noisy, but I will replace them 
eventually with a higher end linux friendly card utilising ADAT as the 
main transport.

Firstly, I can't reiterate enough how much easier it has become to 
install and setup a low-latency linux audio machine thanks to the 
efforts of groups such as Agnula and the Planet CCRMA facility 
maintained by Fernando Lopez-Lezcano at Stanford.  Just point the 
machine at the right mirror, or burn the install CD's, select the right 
packages, and at the otherside of the install process you have a well 
configured and low-latency linux audio machine.  The good news is that 
SooperLooper has been added to the CCRMA facility, and so doesn't have 
to be compiled, built, made, tweaked and/or forces you to hunt for 
dependencies in order to enjoy the software.  You still have to learn a 
little about Linux in the process, but anybody serious about computer 
oriented music should by now realise that there is minimum of technical 
knowledge required in order to maintain any computer oriented sound 
studio.  For all intents and purposes though, almost all of what you 
need to know to get going can be found at the Planet CCRMA website, 
found here: http://ccrma.stanford.edu/planetccrma/software/

After downloading the Fedora Core 1 discs , which seems to be the best 
solution at the moment for Planet CCRMA, I was able to get set up and 
configured in under a day (get the RPM enabled discs like CCRMA 
suggests, it makes system maintenance easier).   This seems to me 
roughly equivalent to installing and configuring a Windows based DAW, 
but I've done both more than a few times now though, so YMMV.  Agnula 
also has a low-latency single disc solution running under Debian Linux, 
but for me, Red Hat's OS always seems more accessable, and gives me the 
control over the base install which the Agnula/Demudi solution seems to 
hide.  There is also a bootable CD-Rom version of Agnula that lets you 
test out the environment on your PC without installing much, if that 
takes your fancy - no sooperlooper on it as yet but it can be installed 
if you allow the bootable cd to make a small drive space on your windows 

The linux audio system has developed a long, long way, and I have to 
say, with over many years experience with Window's cludgey multimedia 
environment (it took a third party software developer to actually bring 
a low-latency and professional audio driver solution to windows), it is 
easy to tell that a lot of thought has been put into making Linux audio 
feasible from both a technical and a users point of view.  Sounds 
strange I know, given the reputation linux has for being overly 
technical, and difficiult to decipher for beginners.  By far and away 
the greatest feature in making inroads to usability has to be the JACK 
system for interconnecting Audio apps and the physical Hardware I/O (and 
hence its drivers).  In this way, SooperLooper can be routed through 
JackRack, a virtual effects rack, and then to your inputs and outputs in 
whatever configuration your imagination desires using the virtual 
patchbays provided.  Given that Jack handles all of the interfacing with 
your driver and software, it is largely a system level virtual routing 
system.  With over two hundred plugins available out of the box and free 
in the native LADPSA plugin format , and the excellent work by some in 
bringing VST support to linux, you can begin to see the power that is 
lieing in the average PC for performance oriented musicians who don't 
want to pay for software lock-in.  (yes, there are the usual quality 
issues with regards to plugins, but that means the usual spectrum of 
so-so to very good)

Back to SooperLooper though.  At the moment I can run my $5 Soundblaster 
Vibra128 reliably at 5ms latency (I can go lower, but this takes a 
fairly large CPU hit).  For many, this is still too high a latency to 
really consider this machine a dedicated looper replacement, but for my 
naive musicality, there is a lot of fun to be had.  Keep in mind as well 
that there are cards that will enable stable lower latencies in the 2ms 
vicinity.  I won't go into a detailed feature set review, as most of the 
features are directly modelled on the EDP's feature set (mostly Loop III 
features).  There are some extra features though, like variable speed 
control from 0.25 to 4x, which allows for some excellent variation 
accross the multiple loops, and opens the door for very subtle phase 
shifts or automated pitch control of the loop by rate variation (yes, 
the rate control also varies the pitch - what were you expecting - 
professional time-stretching algorithms in free software!).  There is 
also a save and load function for each loop.  I should also mention that 
although I am only running four loops on my machine, this is mostly due 
to processor limitations at the moment.  Running these four loops with 
close to maximum memory is fine, but running all four at the minimum or 
maximum playback rate results in a high CPU usage, especially at the 
low-latency settings.  Sooperlooper does allow for as many loops as your 
machine can handle though, and each with an arbitrary number of 
channels, so it is highly expandable.  It has full midi control, as well 
as OSC and standard keyboard/mouse control, and is syncable to a 
partuclar loop, to the Jack central system timing (again routable from 
any hardware /software source), MIDI and i think a couple of other 
options.  The sync code is apparently in progress, so I didn't test it 
out (had enough fun with just a basic setup).  There is also a scratch 
feature that allows playback position to be jogged, though this feature 
is also in early stages

-number of loops, and channels per loop, dependent only on hardware 
limitations. can be used with multichannel soundcards...
-multiple loops are simultaneous, much more like the repeater than the 
EDP's serial looping approach
-many of the features of the EDP such as multiply, reverse, overdub, 
feedback control, insert, replace, delay mode, quantize...
-additional features such as redo, scratch mode and variable playback speed
-integration with a low-latency software environment allows for a highly 
flexible live or recording setup.
-will run on relatively miminal system requirements, making it ideal for 
a cheap standalone stereo looper. (my machine cost about us$150 to set up.
-open source software means the users aren't stranded if the developer 
goes bust, disappears, sells out...

-a learning curve is still present in the transition from windows to 
setting up a linux machine.  I would say set aside a weekend to get up 
and running, with additional research if you want to have confidence in 
knowing what's going on under the hood of your machine.
-requires PC hardware, which means problems of noise for desktop type 
machines (can be solved with a little thought, but still requires that 
DIY ethos, or the money and research to find a linux friendly laptop 
-smaller userbase means less easily accessable avenues for support.

all up though, I would say that Jesse Chappell, the writer of the 
software, has done a great job and created a unique spin on the original 
EDP feature set.  The EDP still can't be beaten for plug and play 
flexibility and accessability, but those who can't afford or even 
purchase one might like to consider sooperlooper as a viable 
alternative. It's multiple simulatenous loops and mutichannel support 
also position it as a challenger to the repeater's current crown of 
multi-looping king.

relevant links:

http://www.agnula.org/Members/sama/demudi_1_1_1_news/view (bootable CD 
good for checking out audio apps on linux).
and of course, the EDP pages at Looper's Delight as painstakingly 
maintained by Kim...


michael noble

PS:  those with a general interest in linux audio solutions but little 
or no interest in the technicalities might also check out this product, 
which bundles many Linux apps freely available elsewhere, together with 
dedicated support, in a commercial CD: