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Review of the Boss RE-20 Space Echo


by TweakHeadz lab

Boss RE-20 Space Echo Delay Pedal
One of the most beloved echo effects ever made, the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, has been reborn as the BOSS RE-20 Twin Pedal! Roland and BOSS have recreated every sonic detail and nuance of the original. Experience the legendary tape-echo sound of the RE-201, and get “lost in space” with this retro-modern marvel.



The Boss Re-20 is a digitally modeled re-creation of the original Roland Space Echo RE-201, which was an analog tape-based delay. The new Boss unit is based on Roland's COSM (Composite Object Sound Modeling), which they use in many effect processors and in their V-series.  The original Space Echo worked on the same principles as a reel to reel recorder with a record head, erase head and multiple playback heads.  After the signal was recorded, the playback heads would play the echoes, and the signal could be sent back to the record head a second time, which would make it regenerate and at extreme settings, create runaway feedback or "self-oscillation".  The original Space Echo came out long before digital sampling was possible in affordable studio gear. 


The Original RE 201 is a piece that never quite went out of style.  Even in the 1st era of digital reverbs and delays (mid eighties), you never saw a Space Echo sitting in the bargain bin at the pawn shops, unless it was totally broken.  The unit has always been revered by guitarists and studio types.  While I never owned Space Echo in my formative years, I did a number of experiments with reel to reel tape delays and analog spring reverbs.   As you can see from the picture, this was as much a mechanical device as it was an electronic device.  Being analog, and subject to mechanical and tape wear, the sound of the unit could change as the unit aged, and in some settings became gritty, over saturated (as tape does), full of tape dropouts and wow and flutter.  That is what gave the Space Echo its charm. 


Original Space Echo

The Roland RE 201, Courtesy of Wikipedia



Emulating the RE201 in a digital model is not like emulating a typical digital delay.  I was so curious I had to get one for the TweakLab, just to see how Roland did it.  Out of the box, I plugged in a pedal steel guitar and started playing a clean tone. I hit the left pedal to turn on the effect and the recognition was instant.  The sound immediately takes one back to the days when these kind of effects were all we had.  Heh, if you ever remember your days with analog delays and reverbs you probably also remember wishing it could do a clean "digital" sound and how long we would try to make these boxes sound "better".  I assure you, you are not going to get a squeaky clean sound out of the Re-20.  Want a really spacious lush convolution sound that sounds like a $10,000 reverb.  That kind of space echo is not here.  If you want the sound of a mono, funky, totally old school mid range spring-like reverb:  Here it is!  Like pure 70's armpit-smell at the local hippie food coop.  Clean multi tap delays?  Nope.  Delay suitable for doubling a vocal?  Nope.  Dirty, indistinct delays that change pitch if you touch the repeat knob?  You bet.  Self oscillation that will run amuck? Yes! Just turn down the echo volume (so you don't go deaf) and slam the intensity to 11. Now play with the repeat rate.  So cool!  Now overdrive it!



 Oh yeah, and that is where it gets real nasty.  The sound of analog clipping, regenerated, is one person's audio nightmare and another's beatific vision. The RE20 does this self-oscillation so well, when I turn down the repeat rate knob, its just like braking a reel to reel when in full feedback.  See the peak level light?  You are supposed to light that thing up, not avoid lighting it up.   This is just to say, don't buy the RE-20 if you are wanting clean sounding studio effects.  This box is as nasty as the sound of an early 1970's basement studio, so make sure you want that sound before you pay the price of admission.



Boss RE-20

click to enlarge


Perhaps the greatest motivation is that with this box you will sound retro; and it will be Retro with a capital R.  Guitarists will have fun with this pedal, but by no means is this restricted to the instrument level.  The nominal input level can take a signal from -20 dbu to +4 dbu.  I had no problem connecting guitar to amp or as a stereo effect connected through my patchbay to my MOTU 828mk2.  Thanks to the "direct" switch on the back, you can turn off the direct dry signal and use it on a mixer's send and return busses, or on a guitar amps send/return.  Mono or stereo, whatever combination of in/outs, it will work.  I put it on all sorts of tracks during my tests.  Each track, no matter what it was, screamed out "Space Echo". 



You can manually set the delay time by tapping on the pedal with your foot.  Even 2 taps are enough for the unit to pick up the tempo.  3 taps and you are definitely in the tempo park.  With the Mode selector's 12 settings, 1-4 are delays, 5-11 are reverb + echos and the last is reverb only.  You can set the RE-20 to its normal mode, where the max delay time is 3 seconds, or to "long mode" where you can get up to a 6 second delay.  You can also insert an expression pedal (Boss recommends the Roland EV-5) to control some of the parameters with your foot. 



Build quality is excellent, and designed for floor use.  But it would be fine sitting to the side of a mixing console where you could tweak the knobs in real time for pitch warped delays.  The signal quality was excellent.  No hum when connected to my audio interface, even when using 4 mono 12 foot TS cables.  I was very happy about that as it means I can use this as a studio processor.

You might wonder if you can tell the difference between the RE20 and a real RE 201.  I can't help there as I never had an RE201, but I can suggest that your listeners probably would never know the difference.  However, gear fanatics who have worked with real analog tape effects will probably clearly find the limits of the model.  A certain "tapeness texture" is missing that can't be easily put into words.  Much like the difference between a real analog synth and a digital model of the synth the model will fall short in terms of subtleties. Yet that does not detract from the usefulness of modeled synths in today's recordings. One thing for sure, in terms of a tape self-oscillation effect, you will have to go to a 3 head reel to reel to get it more authentic sounding.  I think the RE-20 is going to show up on lots of tracks.  I, for one, will enjoy adding this sound to my arsenal of tweakage.



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