Evolution of the Roland Space Echo

Space Echo. It’s a very evocative name for an effects unit. It conveys a feeling of depth and complexity, which is certainly how many players describe the sound of Roland’s legendary series of echo machines. The warm delay sound, distinctive reverb and subtle chorusing effect are all hallmarks of the unmistakable tone that thousands of guitar players and record producers have found so addictive over the years. Heard on countless recordings and live stages since the 1970s, the Roland Space Echo has the ability to act as the cornerstone of any gear setup, and is as imperative to some musicians as a guitar, drum kit or synthesizer is for others. Despite this, discussions about the “Roland Space Echo” can be confusing at times. Are people talking about the iconic Roland RE-201 Space Echo tape echo machine? Perhaps they mean the current production BOSS RE-20 Space Echo compact twin pedal? What about those Space Echo rack effects from the 1980s? Over the years, many products have worn the Space Echo moniker. Though they may have different form factors and markings, they all have the same DNA. To make sense of the whole story, here we present to you the history and evolution of the Roland Space Echo. Contributed by Matt Walsham for Roland Corporation Australia

Prehistory of the Space Echo – the Ace Tone Echo Chamber

The Space Echo story actually begins before the birth of Roland Corporation itself. In the late 1960s, Japanese engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi started a company creating drum machines to go with electronic organs. His company, Ace Tone, had landed some lucrative contracts with Hammond and there was money left over to put into research and development for a new line of effects boxes. Previous attempts at tape echo machines by other companies proved unreliable and prone to damage when transported. Kakehashi’s first tape echo design, the Ace Tone EC-1 Echo Chamber proved popular. Ace Tone refined and developed the design to become the Ace Tone EC-10 and finally the Ace Tone EC-20 machines. Housed in a sturdy wooden box, the Ace Tone machines used a single-loop tape cartridge design – common to tape echo machines of the day. The Ace Tone units were notable however, for the fact that they used multiple playback heads that were user-selectable via the Mode Selector control. This arrangement allowed the user to create multi-tap, syncopated delays, depending on the combination of playback heads used. This feature became a hallmark of the Space Echo series to come.

First Generation Roland Space Echo machines. RE-100 / RE-200 (1973)

By 1973, Ikutaro Kakehashi had ceased operating under the brand name Ace Tone and began producing new models of tape echo machines bearing the brand of his new company – Roland Corporation. The very first Space Echo machine produced was the Roland RE-100 Space Echo. Like the earlier Ace Tone machines, the Roland RE-100 featured multiple playback heads but also added BASS and TREBLE tone controls that allowed the user to shape the tone of the repeats. These features alone put the RE-100 ahead of the rest of the market. However, it was the more upmarket Roland RE-200 Space Echo that really started to turn heads, due to the addition of an internal spring reverb effect. This combination of delay AND reverb effects within one unit was completely unique at the time and even though the RE-200 was the more expensive option, it drew much more consumer attention than the RE-100. The first-generation Space Echoes were excellent machines. However, it was the second-generation of machines that would cement the Space Echo legend in the annals of musical history.

Roland RE-201 Space Echo (1974)

RE-201 With its sturdy black casing and familiar control layout, the Roland RE-201 Space Echo showed a clear lineage back to the RE-200 – but its newly designed silver, black and green fascia was the hint that something new had arrived. The RE-201 featured circuit upgrades to improve the overall tone of the machine, but the truly forward thinking feature was the completely redesigned tape transport mechanism. The RE-201 tape transport mechanism used only a single capstan for transport and left the ¼-inch tape freely “floating” within the tape chamber. This design improved not only the tonal fidelity of the delay repeats, but also provided much greater reliability than any machine before it and greatly reduced the wear and tear on the tape itself. These factors helped to ensure that the RE-201 was the only real choice for a tape delay that could stand up to the rigours of touring. The RE-201 became a best-seller for Roland. It remained in production until 1990, even during the production cycle of successive models! Today, it stands as being perhaps the most fondly-remembered chapter of the Space Echo legacy.

Roland RE-101 Space Echo (1974)

The Roland RE-101 came next, a lower-priced alternative to the more successful RE-201. With an identical echo circuit and tape mechanism to its bigger brother, the RE-101 was scaled back by omission of the 2-band EQ and the spring reverb effect.

Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo (1977)

RE-301 The RE-301 was interesting in that although it departed from the Space Echo nomenclature, it is quite visibly part of the same family. Although it looked almost identical to the RE-201, The RE-301 distinguished itself by adding two new features. The first was a lush, analog chorus effect that was able to be used concurrently or independently from the delay effect. Additionally, the RE-301 added a new “Sound on Sound” mode, allowing users to loop phrases and then record additional layers on top. This radical concept at the time contributed to the development of “looping”, a phenomenon that would become huge years later.

Roland RE-150 Space Echo (1979)

The Roland RE-150 marketed itself as another value-priced alternative to the RE-201 flagship. Although it looked very similar to the RE-101 and contained the same core circuitry and mechanisms, the RE-150 differed in that it contained only 2 playback heads (1 less than the RE-201), limiting the number of mode variations available to the user. Like the RE-101 it also lacked reverb. Interestingly, the RE-150 had the unique feature of offering two separate outputs – one for the Direct (Dry) signal only and one for the affected signal – a feature that found favour with many players.

Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo / Roland SRE-555 Chorus Echo (1982)

The RE-501/SRE-555 were essentially the exact same machine, but built into two different form factors; the RE-501 keeping the classic tolex-covered wooden box of the Space Echo machines before it, whilst the SRE-555 took the form of a large 19” rackmountable chassis. Cosmetically they departed from the classic green/silver colour scheme in favour of black/orange – to match Roland’s popular range of digital rackmounted processor units being produced at the time. A more modern LED display replaced the traditional VU meter. Functionally, the RE-501/SRE-555 contained all of the same features of the RE-301, but the new design reduced noise and also added a fourth playback head to provide the user with even more tonal variety. It was the most advanced (and quiet) Space Echo. The RE-501/SRE-555 proved to be the last tape-based design that Roland ever created. Consumers showed less and less interest in the antiquated technology of Tape Echo. Digital technology was quickly growing in popularity and Roland were keen to be at the forefront of this new revolution. The Space Echo name was not dead, but it would soon appear in a remarkably different form…

Roland RE-3 Digital Space Echo (1988)

The Roland RE-3 became the first digital device to receive the Space Echo name. Its 1U rackspace format is minute compared to its predecessors, though it claimed to offer many of the same features as its RE-201 grandfather, whilst adding cutting edge features such as being able to save and recall presets of the user’s favourite settings. The RE-3’s digital engine, was capable of producing a dual-tap delay effect up to 300ms and in keeping with Space Echo tradition, it also featured a (now digital) reverb circuit. It even featured a new control labelled “warmth” that used an LFO to modulate the pitch of the delay repeats – supposedly to emulate the “wow and flutter” effect of a traditional tape. Whilst most agreed that it didn’t sound much at all like a tape Space Echo, the RE-3 has found some favour in recent years with the retro crowd who enjoy the unique tones created by early digital equipment with low sample rates.

Roland RE-5 Digital Space Echo (1988)

A very rare unit indeed, the RE-5 Digital Space Echo is the “pro” version of the RE-3 with more controls, and more input/output options, housed in a 2U rackmount format. It was dropped from the product line-up almost as soon as it had appeared. The Space Echo legacy looked to be gone forever…

Return of a legend – BOSS RE-20 Space Echo (2007)

RE-20 By the time the 2000s had rolled around, there was a strong movement by musicians towards rediscovering the sounds of “vintage” equipment to create new music. Old Space Echo machines were in high demand, not just with guitar players but with music producers, notably in the dubstep genre. Roland tasked the team in their BOSS division to create a new generation of Space Echo units that would utilise the best available technology to accurately recreate every tone and nuance of the legendary RE-201 Space Echo within a compact (and affordable) form factor. Enter the BOSS RE-20. The BOSS RE-20 Space Echo provides many visual cues towards the classic RE-201, including the famous silver/green/black colour scheme and Space Echo fonts. The controls will be familiar to anyone who has used one of the previous Space Echo Units. Labelled the same as the originals and designed to function in precisely the same way – even down to the identical functionality of the MODE SELECTOR switch. The RE-20 updates the Space Echo lineage by offering modern features such as 3000ms delay time, tap-tempo, expression pedal control (assignable to various parameters), stereo in/out and a “Kill Dry” feature. Plugged in, the painstaking research and development to make the RE-20 perform just like a tape delay machine is evident. The RE-20 sits proudly alongside its ancestors as a classic tone machine. Its warm sound and lo-fi reverb hark back perfectly to the original Space Echo machines. Triple-tap syncopated delays are recreated exactly. The overall effect is incredibly lush and enveloping – a hallmark of the classic Space Echo units of the past. Within the BOSS RE-20 comes the assurance that the Space Echo legacy will endure for years to come!

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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!