What music gear manufacturers don't get about looping.

My looping rig, featuring the looperlative LP1Looping is no longer a gimmick. It’s official. If it’s your gimmick, find a new one. It’s way too mainstream to be a cover for crap music any more.

It’s all happened fairly recently – back when I started doing solo gigs (late 90s) it was a fantastic gimmick. Fortunately I never relied on it being such, or I’d be screwed now, but it had a certain freak factor that was appealing to certain audiences.

Now everyone and her dog are looping, so it doesn’t work as a gimmick. Which is fantastic news. Really, really great news. It stops crap tuneless musicians from doing mindlessly repetitive gigs just because they’ve bought an esoteric bit of kit and can impress a few gear-geeks with it. One nil to the audience; oh, and learn some tunes, crappy-looping-dude.

However, what hasn’t changed since looping went mainstream is the conversation about it. Both from the vast majority of the musicians using it and from the manufacturers, the basic statements about what it is and what it does – and what it gives you – are the same as they were years ago;

  • that it’s about recording a bit of audio that goes round and round and round until you stop it at the end of the song.
  • That the longer the loop time you have, the better the box you’re playing with.

So the digitech jamman gives you up to 6.5 HOURS of loop time, but still has most of what few functions it has applied in such a way that they only work in ‘step-time’ – ie, you have to stop the loop, or at least interrupt your performance to the point where you look like a bit of a twat on stage in order to be able to do them. (Ironically, the original Lexicon JamMan, with its 32 seconds of loop time, was an infinitely better looper than the Digitech…)

Here’s a list of things that the gear manufacturers seem to think people want –

  • internal metronomes that play through your amp
  • quantise functions
  • massive amounts of loop time
  • amp simulation
  • the ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers
  • only two buttons to work with
  • removeable media

And what’s weird is, if you’re the owner of one of the lower end loop boxes, who bought it after seeing an ad for it, you probably agree with the stuff on that list. Even though what they amount to is a glorified mini-disc recorder with foot controls, and a practice tool that stops you learning how to actually play your instrument.

Lemme explain –

Internal metronomes – What use is an internal metronome? For one, it plays through the outputs, so if you hear it your audience hears it. That’s crap, no-one wants to listen to a click track. Secondly it suggests that looping works best when it’s in time. It doesn’t. Thirdly, it suggests that even if you want it to be in time, you need a click. You don’t, you need to practice.

Quantise functions – Why quantise? No idea. All it does it mean that you don’t learn to loop in time, and most importantly you don’t know what’s going to come out when you loop it. You don’t know because you’re not in control of how it works. Something else is. It’s the death of anything spontaneous about looping, and looping without the option to be spontaneous is like gigging with a backing track. ie, largely, shit. It also requires you to have a metronome on, see point above.

Massive amounts of loop time – Surely that’s a good thing? Well, yes and no. It’s not in an of itself a bad thing. It’s using it that’s a bad thing. REALLY long loops are very, very hard to make interesting, especially if you’re playing solo. I’ve heard a few people do it, I’ve heard very few (one or two) do it well. None of them were using RC-20s or JamMen. The advertising says long loop time is great for saving lots of loops. But saving loops is a curates egg. It’s great if you want to be able export them and remix particular things. It’s crap if you start using pre-recorded stuff because you think you’ve got the perfect take and don’t want to risk getting it wrong. Because of this last point, pre-recorded loops are, by and large, the death of creative aspiration. (the qualifications in my statements about pre-recorded stuff are because there are a handful of artists doing REALLY interesting stuff with prerecorded material. They are however, overwhelmingly the exception rather than the rule).

Amp simulation – Again, not a bad thing, just not the kind of thing you can do with any level of sophistication at the push of a button on a £200 loop box. Amp Sim = roll off the high end, boost the midrange. get an amp or a proper amp sim, or learn to live without it.

The ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers – OK, this really is a biggie. The way the undo works on the RC-20 is that you hold down the footswitch for 2 seconds and then it deletes the last layer. Possibly the most unmusical interface ever in an effects pedal. Totally useless bollocks, based on the assumption that removing layers is about getting rid of mistakes when step-time building a loop, not about arranging a piece by putting layers in and taken them out. We’re back to the mini-disc concept of looping. It’s rubbish, it’s annoying, and it needs to change.

Only two buttons to work with – I kinda understand the need to make the RC-20 meet the floot-print of the other Boss pedals like it. It’s just that they crippled the user by doing it, and end up with shit functions like the one mentioned above. You can’t do proper interactive loopage with two buttons. It doesn’t work. The JamMan allows you to plug in another pedal, but infuriatingly it controls a load of step time functions for recalling prerecorded loops!!! ARRRGHHH! Why not have reverse? Why not have ‘next loop record’? You utter morons!

Removeable media – Again, a curates egg, like loop time. Nothing wrong with it, just not something that is ever going to be particularly good if you can’t also record an entire performance into it, and export each layer separately. That would be a great use of removeable media. But nobody does it.

So what’s missing? Conceptually, the notion that loops are static is really, really restrictive. Unless you just write very simple, beautiful repetitive songs, looping needs to be interactive, because it’s the interactivity stops the audience from ‘learning’ the loop. As soon as the audience knows exactly what’s going on with the loop, it becomes a backing track. That’s why on tracks like Grace and Gratitude and Behind Every Word the timing is so stretchy. It’s really difficult to get a handle on predicting exactly where the loop is going to come back round, and means I can build rhythmic tension and ambiguity into the melody. It also, crucially, keeps me listening on a much more intense level, because I haven’t learned the loop shape exactly first time round, I’m interacting with it the way I would another musician.

So how does one interact with a loop? Well, the simplest way to do it is to stop and start the loop. Record something, play over it, then stop it and play something else, then start it again. Hurrah! interaction, human decision making, audience interest. Any of these boxes can do that.

The second level is overdubs. You don’t have to do all your layering at the start! A simple ‘AAAAA’ form tune can be made way more interesting by starting simple and adding bits as you go along – again, have a listen to Grace and Gratitude – on the album version there are three layers, which come in progressively through the piece, and then a load of post-processing of the loop (all live) which I’ll get to later…

However, with overdubs, it’s also nice to be able to take them away again. The Akai Headrush does this in a really cool musical way – the undo removes everything except the initial loop, and it does it the moment you hit the pedal. It’s great, it’s musical, and I could get more mileage of of the 11 seconds I get with the Headrush than the 4 years of loop time in any of the others… would be nice to have a little more than 11 seconds though. :o)

Third level is fade-outs, which can happen in three ways – manual volume control, pre-programmed fadeout or feedback control. The Line 6 DL4 allowed for a manual fade out, thanks to the expression pedal socket – you could set it so that as you fade the loop out, the delays over the top got louder and the feedback on them increased, which is a fantastically musical option (have a listen to any of the looping Theo Travis has been doing of late to hear that effect…) – Pre-programmed fades are a pain in the arse, because again, you’re relinquishing control, and losing your own touch on the detail. and IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DETAIL.

If you ever get a chance to go to a classical masterclass with a world-reknowned master musician, do it. Doesn’t matter what instrument. What matters is what it is the sets them apart. In my mid-20s, I thought I was the bollocks, thought I was a really shit-hot bassist. Then one night on tour, I watched a televised cello masterclass. The dude giving it had the student play through the piece – I can’t remember what the piece was – anyway, she was fantastic, and my first thought was ‘what the hell is he going to say to critique that??’ Then he started to pull it apart. He was pretty gentle in his words, but he deconstructed almost every element of what she did. And when he demonstrated passages, it was like taking off sunglasses when you’ve forgotten that you had them on, and realising it’s not as dark in-doors as you thought… It was a whole other level up, BUT, that level was probably less than 2% of what was going on. The woman playing the piece was great, at least 98% proper great. But that 2% counts. The control, the detail, the focus, the hours and hours of practice. And pre-set fade-outs aren’t in that 2%.

So to feedback. Feedback is the single most undervalued parameter in a looper. I know because I was utterly clueless about it for years, to the point of suggesting that my set up with the jamman was fine and I didn’t need an Echoplex because feedback could be simulated by doing fadeouts with a volume pedal.

Bollocks it can. (never let it be said I’m unwilling to admit when I’m very slow indeed at getting my head round things…)

Feedback, put as simply as I can, is control over the progressive decrease in volume of the audio in a loop, by a certain percentage each time it comes around. So if you’re feedback is set at 70%, the second time round will be 30% quieter than the first, and so on, until it fades out.

What’s really important about feedback is that stuff you overdub while it’s fading is still coming in at 100% – if you fade it by volume, everything reduces at the same rate. If you use feedback, you can get the effect of layers receding into the distance. Have a listen to Ubuntu, Need You Now or No Such Thing As An Evil Face from Not Dancing For Chicken – that was me discovering the joys of feedback, and the subtle evolving textures work really well.

None of the cheap loopers have feedback, not even the RC-50 (the Roland website hilariously states “The Ultimate Looper Has Arrived” – but then forgets to link to the Looperlative…) A feedback control would change everything for one of those crappy loopers. Just a jack socket for an expression pedal. Please?

Next up on the interactivity list we have changing the form – with the current crop of low and mid-priced loopers, they’re set up to do A/A/A/A/A/etc. or to switch between prerecorded backing tracks. Would it have been so hard to set up the architecture so that if you used the track up button on the JamMan external footswitch and went to an empty slot, it started recording to that slot at the end of the current repeat of the one that you’re on? Apparently, it would be too hard, cos it doesn’t do it.

I’ve done a few tunes with multiple sections – Behind Every Word, FRHU, Despite My Worst Intentions – as you can see I tend to lean towards tracks that evolve rather than ABABABAB, which is why I’d vote for feedback control over switching between loops for recording, but both would be ideal.

Back to how this fits with interactivity, and your connection with the audience – multiple sections give us another way to be unpredictable. The audience doesn’t know when you’ll switch to the next loop, so they stay attentive (assuming the actual noises you’re looping are engaging in and of themselves – x-ref the stuff about gimmicks at the start).

It’s UTTERLY vital that your audience feels like anything could happen right up to the end of the song. Even if they know that you’re likely to play the song in it’s usual form, they need to feel like they’re part of something unique. The gig I did at The Spitz a few weeks back opening for Max Richter and Hauschka was a really interesting one for me, and hopefully for the audience, because I used each of the tunes as a springboard for a big improv. Grace and Gratitude was about 40% written content, same for Behind Every Word – both spiralled off, and everyone was rapt. I got a far better response that I thought I would have done on the gig, and life was marvellous, if only for a moment.

This is all before we’ve got into varispeeding, reversing, scrambling, replacing, selective overdubbing and generally fucking about with the loops in a way that the Looperlative, Repeater, Echoplex and the various software loopers can. We (we being the loopers who aren’t happy with glorified minidisc) owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kim Flint and Matthias Grob for the work they did on the Echoplex – everyone else working in this field right now is standing on the shoulders of giants… or at least standing on the shoulders of a Swiss hippie and a geek from the Bay Area.

Thanks to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Gibson corp, the EDP seems to be on hold at the moment – perhaps because of the fact that it miraculously manages to be that advanced on a late 80s Mac processor, which is both remarkable and very limiting in terms of development without a total hardware redesign. It’s also still mono and relatively low-fi.

The best of the hardware loopers (and I’m not a fan of trying this stuff on a computer – way too much to go wrong, i just don’t trust mac or windows enough to rely on them in a gig…) is definitely the Looperlative – the ethernet port for software upgrades means it’s properly upgradeable, the full stereo signal path and much higher sampling rate mean it’s useful for proper recording, and the fact that it’s basically one bloke doing it all means that while it all slows down if he’s out of action (Bob was ill for a while earlier this year), there’s no focus groups or board members or rubber stampers to get past to make it happen. Bob Amstadt is a truly remarkable bloke for bringing the Looperlative to fruition and I now can’t imagine gigging without it. There isn’t anything that I could even begin to replace it with.

Which brings us to what is probably the single most annoying thing about what Roland and Digitech and to some degree Line6 have done to looping – they’ve turned it into a pedal/effect market when in fact it has the potential to be an instrument. The Echoplex is an instrument, the Looperlative is an instrument, the Repeater is an instrument. They take time to learn, they are subtle, complex, adaptable, interactive, require finesse and taste and get tired very quickly if seen as a gimmick. They reward hard work, practice, focus and conceptual consideration, and can be used to make unique, beautiful, complex engaging music in the same way that a piano can. I’m sure that someone will argue the semantics that because they don’t generate sound they are processors of sound, but my counter to that would be that unlike a processor, for most of the functions on a looper you have to actually do something to get a result – you can’t just plug it in and have it do things to your sound like, say, a chorus or delay pedal.

Because people see Looping as either an effect, or even worse, a toy, they see the Echoplex and Looperlative as expensive. I think £700 or there abouts for a Looperlative is the greatest bargain in the music world since the last time someone found a Strad in a junk shop. It all depends on whether you want to learn it as an instrument or keep ploughing the defunct and potentially embarrassing furrow that a bit of rudimentary looping is a clever gimmick that will get you gigs when your music won’t do it on its own.

BTW, none of this says that you can’t make great music with an RC-20, JamMan or Dl4 – all of them have parameters that can frame your fantastic looping ideas. What they don’t do is point you in the right direction, so you have to do the hard work yourself. Remember that great music is technology independent – the technology will inform it, and facilitate it coming through in a certain way, and even feed into your creative process, but it won’t make your music great, any more than buying a Moleskine will make you a great writer. That comes from practice, thought, process and having a story to tell. Which is a whole other post.

This looks interesting

The forthcoming POD X3 from Line 6 looks to be the first Line 6 product since the DL4 that’s got almost everything it should have… Mic preamp modeling in a guitar processor? sounds like lots o’ fun to me.

Now if only I could find a picture of the routing for it – the ones on the website don’t show the connections in and out… and I wish they’d do a 1U rack mount, but I guess in the tradition of the other Pod rackmounts, this’ll be 2U, which makes it too big to fly with – when is someone going to do a range of really powerful tiny processors for musicians who travel by train or plane? One of the best things about the Looperlative is that it’s a small 1U rack mount box that weighs very little and comes with a power supply that’s as light as phone charger.

Still the X3 will definitely be worth investigating…

[ further investigation found this site which suggests that the classic POD Bean-shaped version won’t have a MIDI connector, or the external FX loop, or the XLR outs… I hope those are just unconfirmed rumours, and Line6 get all the features into a tiny box – some of us have to fly to gigs occasionally! ]

The first interview I ever did for Bassist magazine…

Long time visitors to the website will know that I used to have a complete archive of everything I ever wrote for the late lamented Bassist Magazine. From the middle of 97 to about 2000, I was one of their main contributors, writing interviews, gear reviews and two columns – the gadget guru and bluffer’s guide to jazz.

Via archive.org I recently found stored versions of all the articles again, so I’ll start reproducing some of them here over the next few weeks. – we’ll start with the first interview I ever did for them, with ‘Ready’ Freddie Washington, who was in London playing at Wembley Stadium with Michael Jackson… this one is of particular note because my dictaphone didn’t work, and I had to write the whole interview from memory – I took it to Freddie at the gig to get him to check that I hadn’t misquoted him. He changed two things – both of which were direct quotes from his bio!

anyway, here it is – enjoy!


If you’ve ever experienced the ‘Ready Freddie groove’, whether live or on one of the hundreds of albums he’s played on, then you’ll understand only too well why Freddie Washington has been a first call session player for nearly 20 years. With a CV that includes many of the biggest names in soul, funk, pop, blues, country and just about any other style that you’d care to mention, Freddie’s credits read like a greatest hits of the ’80s and ’90s. From Lionel Richie to B.B. King, Anita Baker to Whitney Houston, and George Benson to Kenny Rogers, Freddie’s laid down his trademark lines with all of them, spreading the Gospel of Groove whenever he picks up his bass.

Freddie’s latest gig is holding down the bass chair on Michael Jackson’s HIStory tour, and while in the UK, Freddie took time out to present clinics in London and Birmingham, sponsored by SWR and The Bass Centre, and it was before the London show that Bassist caught up with Freddie for a chat.

So, what exactly is the ‘Ready Freddie groove’, then?

“Well, I feel the pulse of the song in half time, which gives it a much more laid back feel. In the clinics I always point out that I have technique, but I’m not a technical player. I focus in on the groove and then work with that rather than against it. Every style of music has to have its groove, whether it’s soul, funk, fusion, pop or whatever, and that’s what I focus on – the groove.”

Freddie’s path to becoming a full fledged ambassador of the groove began when he was in the eighth grade at school, in his home town of Oakland, California.

“I started playing when I was 14, and took bass lessons at school. I played upright in the school big band and orchestra and that’s where I got my classical training and learned to read. When I was in the tenth grade, I attended the U.C. Berkley summer music program for some further training and was practising like mad, day and night.”

How did you make the jump from the summer school to taking up bass professionally?

“About the time that I was finishing school, Herbie Hancock was looking for a bassist to replace Paul Jackson, Herbie had auditioned a lot of players but wasn’t happy with any of them. So he asked James Levi, his drummer, if he could recommend anyone and James said ‘There’s this kid in Oakland I think you should hear.’ I’d known James for years, so I got the call and Herbie liked what he heard and hired me.”

The Hancock gig lasted for several years and Freddie cut three albums with the band before moving to LA to further his session career. That was in the early ’80s just as synth bass was moving onto the scene. Wasn’t it a little worrying for a ‘real’ bass player?

“Not really. I don’t think I ever felt threatened by synth bass, I just learned to work with it. A lot of the sessions had electric doubling the synth line and as my thing has always been the groove and I had worked hard on my timing when I was studying as a kid, I have never had a problem doubling synth lines and taking that programmed feel and making it groove. That’s also where playing 5-string is so necessary. Synth bass goes down to a low Bb so you need the low B to be able to compete. I first got a 5 string right after doing Anita Baker’s ‘Rapture’ and I’ve used it on most of the work I’ve done since.

“With Michael Jackson, It’s a real mix. Sometimes I’m doubling synth lines, sometimes playing synth bass and I even pull out my old Precision for the Motown set. When you’re doubling keyboard bass, you don’t have to just follow the synth line, you can work with it and develop it – that’s one of the things I like to demonstrate at the clinics.”

The Michael Jackson tour must be every session player’s dream. How did that come about?

“I was actually first up for the gig in the late ’80s, so it’s been a possibility for about 10 years. When the call came in this time, I was working with Kenny Loggins, so I think they had a little difficulty getting hold of me. When I eventually got to the phone I was told that Michael’s guitarist, David Williams, who’s been a friend for years, had recommended me, so I went up and met the musical director, and they offered me the gig and gave me the tapes to learn the set. I went home and talked it over with my family, because it’s a long time to be away, but my wife Annette is really supportive so I decided to do it.

“This is my first time out on the road since ’84, and that was only three months with Patrice Rushen, but I’m really enjoying it. I’ve always loved playing live and I see that as being where I get a lot of my new ideas from. If you spend all your time in the studio, you could get sort of stale, but when I’m out playing live, I get inspired and then take a load of fresh ideas into the studio with me.”

What about the clinics?

“This clinic tour is sponsored by SWR and we tried it out in New Zealand and Australia, where it went so well we decided to put them on in Europe as well. So far they’ve been really well received. This is my first clinic tour, but with the profile of Michael’s tour it seemed the right time to do it. I’ve been using SWR gear for over 10 years, both live and in the studio, so I approached them about sponsoring the clinics and they were all for it. I guess when I’m up there at the clinics with a room full of bassists, playing and talking about what I do, that’s really where it’s at for me. I always joke that I haven’t worked in 20 years, I’ve been having fun. I don’t think bass playing will ever be work for me. It gets me excited. I love to do it because it brings me joy. It’s overwhelming. It’s just a great part of my life. And doing the clinics is really the result of 20 years of having fun. I’m really grateful to everyone who comes out to the clinics and I like to stay around and talk afterwards.”

Indeed he does. Freddie was signing autographs and chatting to people for 45 minutes after the clinic at London’s Bass Centre, giving his time and full attention to everyone that came to say hello. The clinic itself was largely a question and answer session, with Freddie fielding questions on every area of his career, from the highly appreciative audience. Freddie also demonstrated a few tunes including Patrice Rushen’s huge hit Forget-Me-Nots, which he co-wrote and is currently being giving a fresh airing as the title track to the Will Smith film, Men In Black. The movie version features Smith’s reworked lyrics but still uses the original rhythm track, which showcases Freddie’s patented groove-tastic slap ‘n’ pop workout.

Freddie also demonstrated Smooth Criminal from the current Jacko show, slapping the sixteenth note line in unison with the synth with such precision that you’d have thought he was tracking himself with a MIDI pickup – if there had been a single effect in sight. If anyone was under any illusion that this man is a one-trick slap monster, that was put to rest with his unaccompanied demonstration of the ‘Ready Freddie Groove’ that had everyone tapping their feet and swaying despite the absence of a drummer.

So which drummers have best tuned into the ‘Ready Freddie groove’?

” That’s a hard one as I’ve played with so many great drummers. I think one of my favourites would have to be Steve Gadd. When we get together it’s like a machine. We play like one big unit, just locked into the groove. I also love to play with Ricky Lawson and Bernard Purdie. And Jeff Porcaro was one of the all-time great groove players.”

In the early years, was it ever intimidating going into the studio with these legendary drummers?

” I don’t think I ever felt intimidated by them. I mean, I knew they were great players but also that we were both there to do a job and I had the confidence to get in and do it. My attitude has always been to be totally into whatever it is that I’m playing at the time. If I’m doing a country session, I want to sound like I was born to play country. And if I’m playing blues, I want you to think that that’s all I know how to play. I just did a blues album with Bozz Scaggs, and blues is such a gut level thing that it’s all about feel. That’s why I love blues so much; it’s a total feel thing.”

After the HIStory tour, what next?

” When I get off this tour in September, I would like to do my own record. I have a studio at home and I’d like to start doing some more writing for the solo album. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, after having written for other people, like Forget-Me-Nots for Patrice, and Someone For Me which was on Whitney Houston’s first album.”

With Freddie having been on tour for so long, Bassist wondered whether or not the calls for session work dry up . At this point Annette, Freddie’s wife, interjects.

“Even when Freddie’s away, the ‘phone never stops ringing. Mostly they want to know when he’s going to be back so they can book him for then. Freddie gets booked because he can play whatever is asked of him but also because he’s good to have around, and that counts for a lot.”

“That’s right,” Freddie adds. “For any gig you need to have all the skills to do whatever’s asked of you. That’s why it’s important to learn to read and to play by ear, and also to develop your sound so that when you play, it’s you that they hear – that what’s inside of you comes out in what you play.”

Which players influenced your sound when you were starting?

“When I was growing up, there was Motown, with all the James Jamerson lines, though no-one knew who he was back then, and there were all the James Brown bassists, as well as Larry Graham with Sly Stone and Graham Central Station. I used to play along with a lot of their records. Larry was a big influence. When he started doing all the popping it was like, whoah! I recently bought some of the Graham Central Station CD reissues in Japan and hearing them again now after more than twenty years, his playing still sounds amazing! Willie Weeks was another big influence, his playing with Donnie Hathaway was awesome. And Chuck Rainey, he could be so busy but under it all there was this huge groove holding it all together. I knew Paul Jackson, who was in Herbie Hancock’s band before me, when I was growing up. I had his old amp in my loft to practice through, and knowing him meant that there was no sense of being overawed by taking his place in Herbie’s band.

“All the great players have their own voice on the instrument. Here in Britain you have Pino Paladino, who I met while doing Michael McDonald’s ‘Blink of An Eye’ album. He’s a brilliant player and has his own sound, you immediately know it’s Pino on a track. I met Jaco Pastorius around ’79-’80, and he was really cool. He showed me a thing or two, and I really liked his style but I never tried to copy him. His sound was him and as I said, I’ve always had my own sound, from really early on as a player. If you compare my sound now with when I was with Herbie there will be some differences because the technology has changed but the essential sound is still the same because it’s in my hands.”

On stage Freddie is the consummate professional; offstage he’s friendly, approachable and obviously totally loves his job and is a delight to meet. For those who were at the clinic, it was a night to remember, and for those who weren’t, one to regret.

‘ Thanks to Nick and Martin at the Bass Centre for setting up the interview.

The HIStory Show.

The British leg of the Michael Jackson tour was four dates long, with one show in Sheffield and an astounding three nights at Wembley arena. Bassist went to the final Wembley show and witnessed Freddie demonstrating the kind of professionalism and versatility that he had talked about at the clinic. Being the HIStory tour, the set included material from every stage of Michael’s career, from I Want You Back up to Blood On The Dancefloor, including plenty of tunes from ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’. Freddie played his Ken Smith 5-string for the lion’s share of the material, but switched to a Precision for the Motown set and played synth bass on Thriller, Billy Jean and Blood On The Dancefloor, Freddie’s bass, along with Jonathan Moffett’s bass drum, shook the whole stadium especially on the bass-heavy Earth Song and slap-happy Smooth Criminal. It’s just a shame that the huge venue meant the band was barely visible at the back of the stage and even Michael was just a manic dot on the horizon. Most of the evening was spent watching the not-so-giant screens, which focused on Michael and the dancers, so clear views of Freddie were few and far between.

Though a tad tasteless at times (Michael refusing to move from in front of a tank? Do me a favour!) the whole show was spectacular, for those of us tall enough to see it. The vertically challenged members of the audience had to make do with seeing the top third of the video screens with brief glimpses of Michael when he swung over the crowd on a crane.

The invisible engine of music…

One of the great things about teaching bass is that questions, comments and observations from my students spark off trains of thought that get me reconsidering the nature of what we do as musicians, and obviously more specifically as bassists.

I was talking this morning with a student about the art of simple bass – the zen of bass – playing lines that on the surface are almost mind-numbingly simple, but thanks to the whole universe of intention that can exist in every note, can utterly define the song.

One of the examples we used was Nick Seymour of Crowded House. Neil Finn is a genius songwriter, truly one of the great songwriters of the last 20 years, IMHO. But what is it about Crowded House that stops them from sounding like a stadium emotional rock band? Largely, it comes down to two things – the production ideas of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, and the rhythm section of Nick Seymour on bass and the late and dearly missed Paul Hester – the production stuff adds tonnes of variety to the arrangements – guitar sounds popping up for two bars and then vanishing again, processed bits of voice and weirdness coming in and out. But the rhythm section do one really crucial thing that lots and lots of modern bands miss – they don’t play in the studio like they’re playing in an arena. One of the tragic things that happens to bands when they break into the arena-gig-world is that they start writing songs, and more importantly arranging songs, to fit in that environment. You only have to compare the first two Coldplay albums to hear the difference. The first Coldplay album is a gorgeous fragile intimate affair – sure, there’s plenty there that can be turned into flag-waving stadium bombast when required, but the record doesn’t sound remotely like that. The two albums that followed are both written for stadiums, and mastered for radio. They don’t make that distinction between tracks that sound great when played on your own at home and arrangements of those tracks that sound great in front of 40,000 people.

And in those arrangements, the first things to vanish are the intricacies and interest in the rhythm section – compare what Adam Clayton was doing on Unforgettable Fire with just about anything he’s done since…

It’s what I think of as ‘Journey Syndrome’ – writing songs for stadiums. It’s the death of subtlety. The stadium rock bands of the 80s did it, in those innocent irony-free days. Before them, bands seemed to be able to make it work. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ doesn’t sound like a stadium record, the 70s Aerosmith records don’t sound like Stadium records – they were just great records that translated well into that environment, but still worked at home. Crucially, they weren’t squashed into a 5dB dynamic range like so much unlistenable modern rock. It’s so depressing that the hundreds of bands around now trying desperately to sound like Talking Heads have missed the genius of the Talking Heads sound: Space. As Candy Flip told us in the early 90s. You Need Space. Talking Heads were all about Space. So many recent bands that I really like in principle are messed up by writing for arenas and mastering for radio. Muse, The Killers, Kaiser Chiefs. All largely unlistenable on record, unless you’re playing them on the really shitty little stereo in the kitchen or on laptop speakers. Muse and the Killers both mess up my theory about dull rhythm sections, in that they both have really cool bassists, though I haven’t heard the second Killers album, so need to give it a spin and see if they’ve gone the way of Coldplay…

Some bands never got what the bassist was for in the first place – for all their desperation to sound like The Beatles, Oasis had one of the shittest bassists ever to strap on the instrument in poor ole Guigsy. He really couldn’t play. As in Alec John Such level uselessness. Missing the vital point that one of the things that was most remarkable about the Beatles was that in the later years, Paul and Ringo were the UK end of a transatlantic axis that changed the world of rhythm sections for ever – the US end being the Funk Brothers at Motown. McCartney’s bassy stuff was integral to the sound and genius of the Beatles. Imagine Guigsy playing Penny Lane, Paperback Writer, Rain, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer etc… Again, Oasis’ obsession with being the world’s biggest band extended to them arranging their stuff to be sung on the terraces – where it does indeed sound amazing – but meant that they were never going to be artistically a sensible comparison with the Beatles, even as Beatles copyists…

For one great example of how a rhythm section can make or break a song, have a listen to the Fleetwood Mac original of Dreams, and then the Corrs remake. Andrea Corr has a lovely voice, and does a pretty nice version, albeit a carbon copy of the phrasing and shape of the original. But the utterly soulless anodyne arrangement of their version that loses all of the tension, space and human feel that made the whole of the Rumours album so good. The Corrs version is pretty much music for people that really don’t care about music. It’s good, it’s just not good. Music by committee. This isn’t meant to turn into a rant about the Corrs – gawd bless their freakishly perfect gene pool – more a word of caution to those of you in bands not to get caught up writing music for arenas, not to get obsessed with making your album as loud as it can possibly be. If you have to, do a super-compressed version to send to radio, just don’t make the rest of us suffer through it.

Last week, I witnessed an absolute masterclass in how to play bass in a stadium – the Police reunion show at Twickenham. For all his musical sins of recent years, Sting, in the context of the Police, is still one of the most imaginative, interesting and instantly recognisable rock bassists around… bizarre given that he’s playing lines that he wrote almost 30 years ago, which still sound fresher than 90% of what’s around today. The Police’s sound always had loads of space in it, in between Stewart Copeland’s out of time but full of energy drumming (still drifting all over the place tempo-wise, but crammed with that punkish drive that made them so compelling first time round) and Andy Summers spacey delay-drenched guitar parts (until he attempted an ill-advised jazz workout on, I think, So Lonely – not to put too fine a point on it, it was a disaster). Still, Sting and Copeland put on a show of just how defining a rhythm section can be if the musicians put their mind to it. Proper magic. (click here for my photos of the gig.)