Beautiful Tech: Roland RE 201 Space Echo

Following on from part 1: Bolex H16 and part 2: Nagra SN is part 3 – an ode to/rant about arguably one of the most musical pieces of outboard gear you could own: the Roland RE201 Space Echo.

RE201

RE201

The RE201 Space Echo is an outboard effects unit produced by Roland between 1973 and 1988 and is based on a tape echo and a three element spring reverb. Using a loop, sound is recorded on to 1/4″ tape and then replayed from any one, or combination of, three replay heads – the physical gap between the record & replay heads equating to the delay.

RE201

By using the Mode Selector control the user can choose between combinations of replay heads/echoes and the spring reverb:

RE201

RE201

Repeat Rate and Intensity are the other two controls that get a lot of use. While many delay plugins offer the ‘feature’ of automatically setting the delay time based on the host apps tempo, I personally believe the fact you must match the delay length to rhythm by ear with a Space Echo is a huge advantage – after all, delays often work best when they are not quite perfectly in time!

The Repeat Rate control is actually varying the speed of the tape playback, and if you take the lid off the top of the 201 you can literally see the shuffling tape loop accelerate & decelerate. The Intensity control varies how much feedback occurs and the combined use of these two controls can lead to some gloriously dubby delay swells.

RE201 Space Echo by timprebble

RE201

Replacement tape loops were sold by Roland as the RT-1L and there was an urban myth (?) that back in the day the New Zealand distributor of Roland products accidentally ordered 1,000 of these, rather than 100. When Roland ceased production of the various models of Space Echo slowly the worldwide supply of the RT-1Ls ran out until someone at head office discovered that the only place left in the world with any stock was in Auckland, NZ and demanded some of the stock be returned. I managed to buy ten before Roland NZ ran out of stock & still have a few unopened, such as this one:

RE201

There have been many famous users of Rolands entire Space Echo range in recent times, but the most deeply influential would have to be the original dub mixers such as King Tubby along with Scientist and Lee Scratch Perry and many others… There’s a track on an Augustus Pablo album called 555 Dub Street which surely must be named after the SRE555 – check the Space Echo on his beautiful melodica:

In this photo (by Adrian Boot/Retna) of Lee Scratch Perrys studio The Black Ark you can see his 201 front & centre of the mixing desk:

RE201

While I was researching this article I came across what could be the best news any Space Echo owner could ever hear: someone local who specializes in repair and maintenance of the entire range of Roland Space Echos, and also sells refurbished units – he currently has an RE-201 and an RE-150 for sale

EchoFix is based in Australia and I got in touch immediately as I need to have one of my 201s serviced, but I also invited him to do a little Q&A – see below… Also of note; he kindly hosts PDF copies of the user manuals and the service manuals for the entire range including the RE-101, RE-150, RE-201, RE-301, RE-501 and SRE-555!

RE201

TP: Hi Shane, thanks for sharing your knowledge & providing the services you do – when did you first start working with the Roland Space Echo models?

EF: I started specialising in repairing the Roland Space Echo 3 years ago after I purchased an RE-201 that was faulty. I had repaired them in the past, among other vintage analog gear, but this was when I really decided to focus on Space Echos.

TP: When did you start Echofix? Is your background technical, musical or both?

EF: I started advertising parts and repairs in mid 2011, before that it was just word of mouth, people would just find me. My background is both technical and musical. I am the singer/songwriter in the Australian band St Leonards which is my main gig. We are currently signed to BMG publishing. I repair Space Echos because I really enjoy it and it helps me reset and get my mind away from music etc. I am a closet nerd at heart :-)

TP: I’m about to ship you one of my 201s for maintenance, being based in Australia do you do work on many from outside your immediate Pacific neighbours?

EF: Yes, I receive Space Echos from all over the world. As there are not many people repairing them, I am pretty easy to track down by a simple google search.

TP: Are parts readily available?

EF: Most parts are no longer available but I have had certain parts manufactured to original spec like pinch rollers, bearings and even new plastic tape bay covers.

TP: I see you also sell replacement tape loops & advise against using old stock of the RT-1L, could you elaborate?

EF: After a while magnetic tape starts to deteriorate and the oxide on the tape surface starts to become sticky and smears across the tape heads. This is caused by the binder breaking down. This can also cause the tape to jam and can cause excessive wow and flutter which puts more strain on the drive motor. The more humid the environment is, the worse the tape will stick and shed as the tape absorbs the moisture from the air. As the original RT-1L tape is over 30 years old it suffers from the shedding.

TP: Whats your advice in terms of maintenance? How often should I clean the heads? How often should I replace the tape loop?

EF: You should clean your heads, tape path and tape bay quite often. I clean the heads every couple of days if I am using it frequently. Isopropyl alcohol and a cotton tip is the best, with a light pressure so you do not damage the heads. You also need to clean every surface that comes into contact with the tape. Replacing the felts every 2 or 3 tapes will do wonders in keeping your Space Echo clean and will even improve problems with wow and flutter.

TP: Do you have a favourite model?

EF: My favourite model is the RE-201. It has the tone control for the echo signal and they have a nice grainy sound to them. They are like guitars in a way, as each RE-201 sounds different to each other. This is from component value drift, head alignment etc. I like all of the different models though as they all have a unique sound.

TP: I’ve tried most of the attempts to emulate the Space Echo in software and none come even close – apart from the physicality in terms of intuitive use, am I imagining it or is there something magical about the spacing of the replay heads?

EF: I have the Universal Audio RE-201 Space Echo plugin myself which sounds amazing and it definitely has its uses, but you cannot go past the real deal. What I do like about the emulations though is the fact you can use as many as you like on multiple tracks and it allows you to revisit a mix and make changes etc. There is a time and place for both but I think all Space Echo fans would agree with me when i say that using authentic analog gear produces a truly unique sound.

TP: Are there any quirks or hidden features?

EF: Not really but I personally use the RE-201 to drive extra signal into a tube amp to get more gain like an overdrive pedal. It works really well and colours the sound in a nice way. To tell you the truth I run a Space Echo through nearly everything when I am recording with my band in the studio. If a track feels a little brittle and clinical, just run it through an RE-201 with very little echo and it instantly sounds better.

TP: Amen to that! Thanks again & much respect to Shane Fritsch & ECHO FIX for supporting such beautifully idiosyncratic machines! Do your Space Echo a favour & at least order a few sets of replacement tape loops

RE201

EBAY: Search for “Roland Space Echo”

RE201

FWIW I’ve been having a play with the RE-20 “space echo” stomp box that Roland released recently, and its kind of fun but it feels like about 10-15% of a real 201 and is totally missing some of the most important and characterful aspects of the real thing – I’ll write a little review of it at some stage…

NOTE: service manual PDF for RE101 and RE201 Space Echo HERE

27 Responses to Beautiful Tech: Roland RE 201 Space Echo

  1. Adrian says:

    Japanese band ‘Boris’ have recently released a cool shirt along these lines……

    http://shirtkiller.com/LiteCommerce/cart.php?target=product&product_id=16902&category_id=357

    …..not the 201, but still a cool shirt :)

  2. ab-arts says:

    did you try the strymon el capistan? it’s receiving much love in diverse forums.
    i only had the opportunity to try it for a short time, just as for the RE-20, and not both at the same time, so i don’t dare to judge how they compare. but both seemed to be okay, while not overwhelming. at least, the strymon looks and feels very good.
    i’ve a dynacord echocord super, where the distance between read & write head can be adjusted by a huge mechanical slider (which actually moves one of the heads).

  3. Pingback: Beautiful Tech: Roland RE 201 Space Echo – Variety Of Sound

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  5. Damage says:

    MUCH thanks to Shane at ECHOFIX
    He is most helpful….
    Digital Emulations don,t come near the real thing
    but I,d like an Eventide Space!!!

  6. Lawrence Waterman says:

    I own a Roland RE301 Space Echo and it has a humming noise on the 2-4-5-6 echo channels. This seems to be a common issue. Do you know what might be causing this?
    Thank you

    • tim says:

      Wouldn’t have a clue sorry, never had that problem with my 201s and 555 – might be better to email ECHO FIX and ask him

  7. Zane says:

    My 301 is suffering the exact same problem.

  8. steve says:

    I have an RE 555, and wonder if the unit can be mounted at an angle. Obviously will be a big pain in the ass when I want to change tapes, but I have a desk that has angled racks. bad idea? Thanks for your time/advise.

    • tim says:

      the tape is really the only moving part and is self contained and its patch is restricted to a set area so it should be ok… but before bolting it in there, maybe do a test with it on a table & slowly angle it while its running until its at the angle you plan to have it at, and see if theres any problems?

  9. Ted Garrett says:

    I’ve recently purchased a RE201 made c1978, & I feel the repeat echo is not as clean as it could be in fact it sounds a little distorted. I’ve cleaned all the heads, & fitted a new tape loop but it still sounds ‘throaty’. Are tape heads still available for this unit? (original or compatible). I would be grateful for any help you can provide.

    Thank you,

    Ted Garrett.

  10. david larson says:

    i was very pleased with the info that i gleaned from your website, thanks alot. sincerely David Larson

  11. MANUEL VILLALON FERNANDEZ says:

    1500 € Vendo ECHO ROLAN RE 201 Echo Roland RE-201. Es realmente una pieza de época (1973), de tecnología de la música con un montón de apelación, incluso hoy en día. El RE-201 es un sistema sencillo en el que un pequeño lazo de cinta graba una señal de entrada e inmediatamente reproduce el sonido grabado más de un par de cabezas de reproducción antes de ser borrados por nueva audio entrante. Echo puede proporcionar, efectos de eco impredecibles y altamente tweakable cálidos.

  12. MANUEL VILLALON FERNANDEZ says:

    1500€ ECHO ROLAN RE 201 Echo Roland RE-201. Es realmente una pieza de época (1973), de tecnología de la música con un montón de apelación, incluso hoy en día. El RE-201 es un sistema sencillo en el que un pequeño lazo de cinta graba una señal de entrada e inmediatamente reproduce el sonido grabado más de un par de cabezas de reproducción antes de ser borrados por nueva audio entrante. Echo puede proporcionar, efectos de eco impredecibles y altamente tweakable cálidos.

  13. MANUEL VILLALON FERNANDEZ says:

    400€ Vendo ECHO ROLAN RE 201 Echo Roland RE-201. Es realmente una pieza de época (1973), de tecnología de la música con un montón de apelación, incluso hoy en día. El RE-201 es un sistema sencillo en el que un pequeño lazo de cinta graba una señal de entrada e inmediatamente reproduce el sonido grabado más de un par de cabezas de reproducción antes de ser borrados por nueva audio entrante. Echo puede proporcionar, efectos de eco impredecibles y altamente tweakable cálidos.

  14. Jim says:

    I have a Roland RE-201 I am looking to sell. Is there a resource to find the age of this unit by the serial number? The SN is 544353 so I believe it is from the late 70′s or early 80′s but I would like to be certain before I put in on the market.

    Thanks!

  15. Mark says:

    I’m having a problem with my echo level. My 201 has worked beautifully for the year that I’ve had it and now you can only hear one repeat very faintly when you turn the Echo Volume all the way up. The Repeat Rate affects the time but no regeneration with the Intensity knob. The Reverb works fine. I cleaned the heads and temporarily applied tension to the tape to affect head contact. I realize that I should replace the tape but this didn’t happen gradually. Any troubleshooting or advice would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance, guys.

    • tim says:

      Ask EchoFix!

      • Mark says:

        Thanks tim – I just tried that but they suggested a tension kit – it’s clear that tension isn’t the problem (tried applying some without results). Also tried a new tape loop – faint echo w/ no regeneration persists. Anyone else experience this or have some advice? Thanks

    • Marco says:

      Hey Mark. I had the same issue with my 201. You should clean your heads, tape path and tape bay. I clean the heads frequently with Isopropyl alcohol and a cotton tip.

      Cheers

  16. frank says:

    i tryed this roland 201 echo but to much trouble so i bought a roland re 20 space echo its great.also even better if you change it to long mode to which i have just found in the manual it for me

    • frank says:

      in this times, the very old machines are very time comsuming and take alot off care, for me the re 20 space echo is ideal for the 60 @70s music which i play sorry im old ha,ha.but no its a fab machine, you should realy try it thanks

      • tim says:

        i have owned an re20, didnt like it – i sold it & bought the Strymon El Capistan = much better emulation of tape echo imho!

  17. Robert says:

    Great Article!!!!! I recently purchased an old Roland RE-201 and love it!!!!! It can be finnicky but nothing beats it when you really want tape echo. I was happy to hear about EchoFix as I am sure I will need some replacement parts….soon. My VU meter light just died. I know everyone loves the “El Cap”. It really is quite amazing and probably one of the best for “tape emmulation” without dealing with actual tape. For a touring musician, the Roland just isn’t too practical BUT ……..nothing compares to the real deal. I have many great delay pedals and love all for different reasons, but the vintage Space Echo’s really are something special. It just gets me excited when it helps me create sounds that truely inspire and surprise me. Thanks again, Rob

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