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

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

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