I Heart Guitar: Boss RE-20 Space Echo

When you’re talking about a digital piece of gear that replicates a classic of the past, the true test is in how successfully it convinces those who are used to the old-school analog version.

When it comes to the Roland RE-20 Space Echo, Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf is convinced: “Roland has a digital Space Echo, which sounds like it would be ridiculous, but they did it,” he said back in 2009. “They actually made it sound really, really awesome.”

Contributed by I Heart Guitar

Released in 1973, the Roland RE-201 Space Echo is one of the most revered effects ever: it’s an analog delay and reverb unit which records incoming audio to a loop of magnetic tape. This tape passes over several playback heads before it gets erased by the next package of audio. It’s known for its wide range of settings, including the ability to adjust tape speed, repeat pattern (via an 11-position rotary switch), and it’s able to process one instruments and two mics.

You can further sculpt the effected sound with bass and treble EQ controls, and there are even dedicated dry and effected output jacks.

It’s a great-sounding unit, but there are of course a few drawbacks. For starters, because it uses a loose jumble of magnetic tape which simply sits inside the unit, you’ll eventually have to replace the tape loop. And of course it’s long out of production, so if anything goes wrong with your vintage Space Echo you’re in for a pretty stressful search for parts. Even so, the Space Echo is used and revered by players like Brian Setzer – who uses it for snapback rockabilly sounds – and Radiohead, who exploit its more spacey, experimental tones.

To satisfy the demand for Space Echo tones but with modern convenience, Roland offers the BOSS RE-20 Space Echo, a digital recreation of the venerable old green box. BOSS has long held off from simply jumping on the retro bandwagon, choosing instead to focus on new designs rather than revisit old ones. When they dip back into their history for a piece of gear you know that there’s a sonic reason for it as well as a practical one: the sound may have survived the decades but the mechanics might not have. So with the RE-20, BOSS have gone to extreme lengths to incorporate everything that’s great about the original, but with enhancements that make it more flexible for modern use. And like any good modern recreation of a piece of old gear, it replicates the more unpredictable nature of the vintage design, modelling the tape flutter and magnetic sound head saturation.

There’s more control too, with a tap input pedal for setting your tempo (and a cool visual indicator that sort of looks like a cross between a smiley face and a cylon, letting you know where your tempo is at).

There’s an expression pedal input for controlling parameters such as Repeat Rate, Intensity and more, and there are 12 modes including four ‘Repeat’ settings, one ‘Reverb Only’ mode and seven ‘Reverb/Echo’ settings. Each progressive setting gives you a slightly more extreme variation of each effect, and you’ll find that it’s great for everything from gentle Devin Townsend-like atmospherics underneath a clean tone, to utterly outlandish experimental freak-outs. The reverb has a particularly haunting texture, that mysterious ’beamed into the future from the distant past’ vibe that seems to characterise a lot of late 60s/early 70s psychedelia. And the echo textures are always warm and funky, never cold and clinical.

This isn’t necessarily the delay pedal to use when you want to get super-clear, hi-fidelity recreations of your original note. Rather it’s the one you want to reach for when the song requires something distinctive and characterful, whether it’s for a subtle background shimmer or an utterly in-your-face trip into outer space.

Here’s a video of me flipping through the various modes of the Space Echo in various musical contexts. Hope ya dig it!

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Created by Roland V-Drums specialist Simon Ayton, these patches were designed using the internal factory sounds and many of the techniques covered in the TD-50 guide. Enjoy exploring the possibilities!