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Echoing Down The Hallways... The Conquest of Time and Space: Part 2

February 22, 2023

In a previous article we discussed the long history of delay effects noting that while many technologies have been used to create sound delay, it is a widely held opinion that there is nothing quite like the sounds created with tape based delays. In the 1970’s a new generation of these tape delay effects gave musicians and studios a powerful real-time tool which would shape the sound of popular music for decades to come.

Echoing Down The Hallways - Part 1 Image

The tape-based Echoplex developed in 1959-1962 was an instant hit. The tube and tape Echoplex EP-2 had a unique sound still widely admired today, emulated in a variety of modern analog and digital re-creations. The solid-state Echoplex EP-3 was used by many leading guitarists in the 1970's to create their signature sounds. But for all their success in bringing echo effects to live music stages, the early devices also earned quite a reputation for unreliability. Many owners complained that they were subject to frequent breakdowns and required near constant maintenance in order to keep them working properly. 

The shape of better things to come first appeared when Japanese designer Ikutaro Kakehashi released his Ace Tone compact Echo Chamber, featuring multiple selectable playback heads beginning in 1969. The timing of these product introductions was all-important as in 1968, "practically overnight" the Japanese electronics industry was re-born by the way of the widespread implementation of total process quality control systems.

Roland Space Echo RE-100

By the time Kakehashi launched Roland Corporation in 1972, the quality control revolution was in full swing and from day one Roland was a company that put quality engineering first, with products that exhibited reliability, affordability, simplicity of use, and whenever possible, miniaturization. All these qualities were evident in the first Roland Space Echo introduced in 1973, the RE-100.

Later that year, Roland added a spring reverb to the Space Echo and with the RE-200 the distinctive sound of the Space Echo was born.

The RE-201 Space Echo, introduced in 1974, looked similar on the outside but the interior revealed a major upgrade that added both higher fidelity and sturdy reliability to the basic design. With the RE-201, for the first time, echo machines were truly able to withstand the rigours of live performances and road use. The RE-201 Space Echo featured a unique and ingenious capstan-driven tape design where the tape runs freely in the tape chamber, unlike previous designs where short tape loops spun over reels. This loose spool, low tension design eliminated a number of moving parts, improving reliability, as well as placing significantly less wear and tear on the tape itself –  substantially increasing tape longevity. It also allowed for a much longer tape length; this long tape length allowed for echoes of over three seconds in length. 

 

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Roland RE-201

The name was great and the cosmetics perfectly relected a balance between clean layout, utility and design. The large selector knob for 12 operational modes had instant appeal (rotary mode selectors have since become familiar features on scores of pedal designs). With variable tape speeds, three playback heads, a three input mixer and a built in spring reverb, it was both easy to use and capable of a wide range of creative, and often astounding, echo effects. 

Its sound was lush and warm with distictive rhythmic echoes and the natural roll-off of the frequency extremes and tape saturation that gives magnetic tape such an appealing character.

Minor speed fluctuations during delay time adjustments gave an organic, chorusing quality to the repeats.The analog preamp had its own unique sound. The RE-201 could produce everything from clean, single delays to dense, rhythmic echoes and ambient washes. Over the course of a 14 year production run, the RE-201 established itself as one of the most legendary effect units in music history.

Front-panel controls included repeat rate (echo length), intensity (number of echo repeats), and separate levels for echo and reverb. Bass and treble controls provided EQ for the effect sound. The front panel also offered inputs for multiple sound sources, including two mics and an instrument (all with independent level controls), and a line-level device such as a mixer.. The delay time was adjusted by altering the tape’s speed with the Repeat Rate knob, along with selecting one or more playback heads with the Mode Selector (multi-tap echo patterns were created when multiple heads were selected). Along with the built-in spring reverb and the ability to feed the delayed sound back into the record head for multiple echo repeats, this allowed for a combination of echo effects previously unavailable in any single portable device.  

Instantly popular for conventional usage in live performances, the Space Echo soon became a force in recording studios where its unique sound and effects were put to more experimental uses.

It was a favorite of  popular artists such as Bob Marley, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. Studio engineers often chose it over far more expensive digital effects processors. It was also profoundly influential in the creation of entirely new genres of heavily electronic music. These significant contributions to the advancement of audio technology and music production were recognized when it was inducted into NAMM's TECnology Hall of Fame in 2016. 

Bob Marley

The RE-201 hit the market just as a generation of recording engineers and producers in Jamaica were evolving a new genre of studio-based music and it quickly replaced a host of homemade effects as a key element in their new  sound. Dub, an electronic musical style that grew out of reggae, generally consisted of remixes that were significantly altered and manipulated versions of the original recordings featuring the removal of vocal parts, the heavy use of echo and reverb effects, an emphasis of the rhythm section and the occasional dubbing of vocal or instrumental snippets from the original version or other sources. 

Producers such as "King Tubby" Ruddock  and Lee "Scratch" Perry treated the mixing console as an instrument to create distinctly new sounds and they soon discovered new uses for the RE-201.

A much loved feature was the intensity knob that governed the repeat rate.

By manipulating the tape speed and intensity while signal was present, you could coax a Space Echo into runaway echoes, machine like sounds, oscillation and pitch shifts – a rich palette of unreal sound effects far beyond far beyond anything that most early users of tape echo could have imagined . 

Landmark recordings in 1973 marked the introduction of Dub as a distinct genre and by 1975 Perry had come into his own as a master creator using all sorts of sounds and space effects "not merely as added-on effects to enhance existing instrumentation but as spooky, moody, vibrantly processed instrumentation of their own.It’s this mesmerizing studio invention...that caused people like Keith Richards to call him “the Salvador Dalí” of music.

Variations on Perry’s sampling and dub techniques allowed hip-hop to flourish, reinvigorated and helped create entire new sub-genres of dance music, and influenced everything else from punk to post-punk to house and techno, along with experimental music of all kinds."

 

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With the RE-201 firmly established as a key element in the musicians and producers toolbox, Roland went on to add features that made it even more appealing. 1977’s RE-301 Chorus Echo addressed a feature beloved by Echoplex owners and added sound-on-sound /looping capability. A dedicated Chorus effect, level switches to facilitate interfacing, and dual front-panel outputs completed the upgrade. By the 1980's many Space Echoes had found homes in recording studios and Roland addressed that market in 1980-1982 with the RE-501 Chorus Echo which used noise reduction circuitry to make it even quieter and added a second mono input and an additional mono output via a pair of balanced line-level XLR connectors. The SRE-555 was a rack-mount version specifically for studios and it marked the last of the Space Echoes to feature real magnetic tape.

Roland SRE-555

By that time the era of digital processing was in full-bloom and beginning in 1983 Roland efforts with delay effects moved on to expensive rack-mount digital delays (SDE series) and the much less successful line of Digital Space Echoes. The company’s great success in the 1980’s was with the BOSS line of pedal based effects which began in 1977. Musicians who couldn’t afford a Space Echo flocked to BOSS delay machines in 1978-1980 and by 1981 BOSS could provide musicians with a bucket brigade delay in the classic small pedal format. 

The BOSS DM-2 and DM-3 quickly became analog delay pedal classics but within a few years digital technology dropped in price and the digital delays took over.

When the DM-3 was discontinued in 1988, all fully analog delays vanished from the BOSS line, not to reappear for 26 years with the revival of the DM-2 as the Waza Craft DM-2W.

Boss DM-2w

By the 1990’s digital technology had produced some truly outstanding delay and reverb pedals but a great retro movement began to take shape with musicians looking back longingly at the wonderful effects that had birthed so much great music in the 1960’s and 1970’s. 

By 2005, advances in CMOS technology integrated circuits enabled retro-oriented designers to use their immense processing power to create affordable pedals which could digitally model and accurately recreate the older analog devices. Roland had introduced its own proprietary modeling technology (Composite Object Sound Modeling) in VG series Guitar Systems in the late 1990’s.

In 2007 BOSS would use COSM to capture the 201 Space Echo sound in a twin format pedal that replicated all the RE-201’s controls and even recreated the pitch shifting effects that the original’s motors produced as they changed the speed of the tape loop. Aside from the obvious advantages of no need for tape replacement and other maintenance, the BOSS RE-20 added stereo operations, tap change capability and a twist control that simplified the creation of dub-style echo effects. For the next 15 years musicians could access so much of the magic of the 1970’s in a twin-size stomp box format.

Boss RE-20

But was the magic really all there? And why couldn’t it be squeezed into the more compact stomp box format that was a hallmark of BOSS pedals? The boutique revolution in pedals had led so many designers to realize that perfect recreations could be “too perfect” because so many characteristics of older devices stemmed from their imperfections and sonic anomalies. The best designers had begun to incorporate these unintended “flaws” into their models. 

BOSS responded in 2022 with a pair of units to replace the RE-20 based on all-new algorithms. In developing the RE-2 and its big brother, the RE-202, BOSS engineers reproduced all the complex, non-linear behaviors that contribute to the RE-201’s character. They carefully analyzed several vintage RE-201s, including a pristine original unit from the BOSS and Roland factory archive.

Everything that influences the sound was digitally modeled and recreated,  including the tape path, record/playback mechanism, motor variations, preamp coloration, spring reverb character and more.

Boss RE-2

The smaller of these new units, the RE-2, packed all the old and new performance into a pedal whose footprint is about 1/3rd the size of the RE-20’s. And it added a vital new feature -- Wow & Flutter control, which completes the simulation of real tape delay by letting you choose how old, grubby and wobbly you want your virtual tape to be (to allow for this control Boss did have to cut back to a single tone control instead of separate bass and treble).

The new pedal incorporated some of the essential upgrades to the original Space Echo experience - delay time doubled and tap tempo control is supported, and there’s a cool Twist function for creating evocative special effects as you perform.

For the dry sound, you can choose between the warm and fat RE-201 preamp tone or a clean signal with zero processing.

Full stereo I/O is available, and it’s possible to mute the dry signal for parallel effect setups and studio use. The RE-2 also supports expanded control via external foot switches or an expression pedal, including continuous pedal control of multiple panel functions at once. Reviews generally agreed that BOSS had successfully packed the essentials of the RE-201’s magic into a small pedaland at very accessible price point for working musicians.

 

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Its big brother, the RE-202 is still smaller than the twin pedal format and boasts a long list of enhancements to the original. With variable tape aging you can dial in everything from a brand-new Space Echo to the worn characteristics of a vintage piece. A Saturation control has been carefully calibrated based on the actual magnetic tape and preamp behaviors of the RE-201 A fourth virtual tape head unlocks five additional sound combinations. A selectable echo type changes the distance between the heads, something not possible with the original. Also included is a stereo version of the original spring reverb sound from the RE-201, along with hall, plate, room, and ambience types for additional versatility. Expressive Warp and Twist effects allow you to launch the sound into outer space with the press of a foot switch while performing. There are are four onboard memories for storing and recalling favorite sounds, and 123 more are accessible via MIDI program change.

Boss RE-202

So it would seem that the Space Echo story reached a happy conclusion with the RE-2 and RE-202. For those obsessed with the sound of tape and more experimentation, there are literally dozens of tape simulation pedals on the market. But some lovers of the RE-201 remained unconvinced, longing for a modern day, tape based unit that would duplicate the magic of using the original. Conventional wisdom was that the production cost was too high and the available market too small to allow for production of a new tape-based delay. 

Not so said the Australian company Echo Fix, who had been repairing tape echo devices and specifically Roland Space Echoes for over a decade. They put all that knowledge to work in designing a new machine that is not a replica of the classic Roland products even though, to make a bad pun, it echoes the Roland design assuring its appeal to Space Echo fanatics. It has the look, and a similar feature set and the delay mechanism follows the Roland model. But make no mistake this is a gorgeous, virtually bullet-proof, thoroughly modern unit that nails the classic tone with improved fidelity and a host of other improvements.

Most importantly, it does it with real tape, not tape simulation. To purists, that’s the real magic.

To make it as maintenance free as possible Echo Fix spent three years prototyping, rigorously testing, and accounting for every possible application. They made their own motors and developed custom balancing for them. They designed new tape heads and had them custom manufactured. They researched tape to develop a better sounding and longer lasting formulation.

Echo Fix EF-X2

The EF-X2 features both vintage and modern FET preamps, classic tape echo, a spring reverb and a DSP Chorus and Reverb. The EF-X3 went a step further with a 100% Analog signal path with BBD Chorus and analog Spring Reverb. It added Individual outputs for each playback head to offer flexibility never seen before in a tape echo, with the ability to achieve a classic Stereo Ping-Pong delay effect from a mono source by panning each playback head externally via a mixer or DAW.

To those wanting that tape-based magic with a host of modern features and without the maintenance hassles of a vintage unit, the Echo Fix units represent perhaps the ultimate delay Nirvana. It’s hard to imagine that the glorious heritage of the tape based Space Echo could be taken any further but this is audio, so we never say never.

 

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