Robert L's Analog Synths

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Robert L's Analog Synths

    Roland RE-201 Space Echo

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(The picture is gratefully taken from Vintage Synth.)

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Roland Tape Echoes RE-201, RE-301, RE-501, SRE-555 are today the most popular and most sought after analog tape units. Guitar players just adore them, other solo instrumentalists like them, and producers across the world still use them whenever they want to have the original, warm, tape echoing on their records. The huge revival of the interest in true analog instruments in the 1990s, and the fact that they are not produced any more, made this wonderful machines highly wanted collector's items.
   Roland RE-201 Space-Echo is probably the most popular in the series. Though not the first one made, it soon became the flagship of all the tape echo units available on the market, bringing the prestige in this field to Roland. If there were other products of better quality, than they were so much more expensive. And in the same range of prices, all other products were just not so attractive, versatile and easy to use. Put in a nice wooden box covered with black vinyl, easy to carry on gigs and sessions, with innovative solution
of extra long tape loops transport, this unit produced echoing of variable time delay (thanks to its brushless DC electro-motors), which was found only on more expensive units. Several combinations
of echo patterns are available, from the simple, delay-type, repeating, to the complex, multi-variant bouncing. It is excellent for experimenting, and if you carefully saturate the feed-back signal you will get the endless repeating with just a natural roll-off of high frequencies. Nice and well-placed controls enable easy echo/delay balance and dry/wet sound mixing. There is a number of foot-switches provided, too. A quality spring-reverb provides the old-fashioned reverberation with a kind of "metallic" sound, often found so useful for guitars. With a touch of this reverb, even other solo instruments, including vocals, will sound fresh, interesting, and spacey. The bass and treble tone controls will help you color the output sound as desired.
   RE-201 electronics is built completely from discrete electronic elements, transistors and diodes, with no chips (differential amplifiers) on its PCBs. Experts in audio electronics will tell you how such "old-fashioned" solutions were a bit more noisy, but also the warmer and finer sounding ones. This definitely adds to RE-201's nice, retro sound that is mostly impossible to copy by modern effect processors, no matter how sophisticated they are.

Roland RE-301 Chorus-Echo was the machine made after RE-201. Its title suggests that the chorus effect is added. It is a good, rich sounding, analog chorus. The basic concept of the RE-201 is preserved. The spring reverb is still there, few controls are modified and few added, while the simplicity of the RE-201's layout is preserved. Nice analog VU-meter for the level control is also the same, but electronics developed to more complicated design, leaving the discrete, transistor based solutions of the RE-201, behind it in the past.
Besides the chorus, an innovation is also another playback head called "Sound on Sound", placed all the way around the tape path -- just before the erase head. When turned on, you can listen what you have recorded tens of seconds later, the exact time depending on the length of the tape. Thus, by inserting a short tape loop instead of the standard one, you can enter the range of delays lasting around one second (unluckily the multiple repeating of the signal is not possible).

Roland RE-501 Chorus-Echo was the last in the series, meant mostly for the professional PA systems, musicians and recording production. Basically being an upgraded and renovated RE-301 with a lot of new features, the RE-501 was made with a simple noise reduction system, suppressing the inevitable tape noise to lower levels, making the echo sound cleaner comparing to its predecessors, especially during the quiet passages. The balanced input (unluckily not sensitive enough to plug the microphone directly in), and output is provided , so that this unit can freely be used with long cables as long as the line is properly balanced. So the guitarists on the stage should think of the D.I. boxes to feed this unit.
   The old style VU-meter is replaced by the new ones with diodes, and the Sound on Sound head is now replaced to somewhat more useful position, behind the last "normal"
 playback head. Also, the tape path is prolonged a bit comparing to RE-301, enabling longer delays, reaching now the so useful range of one second (with slower speeds). In short, this unit really comprises everything that was good on previous models, while improving on everything that could be improved. Like the professional type balanced inputs and outputs, less noise, more useful Sound on Sound feature, and all in all summing up to the probably most versatile combination of analog echo, chorus, and spring-reverb effect unit ever made.
   Roland SRE-555 Chorus-Echo has the machine of RE-501 put in a metal box with additional 19" rack-mount adapter. The body of the machine can be pulled out from the rack on the small wheels, to enable for the tape loop exchanging or cleaning of the heads.

Which one to buy? That's really a tough question for each true collector. Probably the right answer would be to try all the three models, and decide after that. Of course, this can be dangerous for your wallet, because you might end keeping all three of them! It is true that RE-501 is the most wanted and most highly priced. After the above specifications, it is no wonder why. But on the other hand, the guitarists being in love with that old-style sound, full of warmth and presence, claim that they don't give much for all the extra features of the RE-501, preferring still the good old "201", never minding that is more noisy.
   Want something in-between? It's not hard to guess that
you should consider the RE-301. Of course, if you'll be lucky to find any of them, and in a good enough shape.
   Few tips for buying. For the tape-based machines like these, it must be stressed that they should have nice heads, not corroded, worn down or scratched deeply. For the machines which were constantly in use, the condition of heads could be problematic, showing in the lack of high frequencies in the delay signal. The mechanism of tape transportation and electro-motors should be in a good shape, too, being the essential for the good functionality of the units. (Send your email.)

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