I would consider the Roland RE-201, also known as the Space Echo, to be a marvel of engineering and musical acumen alike. It’s a perfect example of what I would call a “holy grail piece of equipment;” a piece of equipment that is universally respected and its sound is often cited as the very definition of what it’s trying to achieve.
From where I’m sitting, some other “holy grails” include the Moog Sub Phatty (bass synth perfection), the Oberheim Matrix 6 (the best pad presets), and the Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier (the best clean tone in the game), just to name a few. But the Roland RE-201 might even top that list. Its tone, ease-of-use, and design are unparalleled when it comes to echo/delay effects and it continues to be an inspiration to effects producers to this day.
Roland developed the RE-201 in the early 1970s, and while this wasn’t the first tape echo, they made something much more durable and sonically satisfying than anything that had come before it. Starting in the 1950s, musicians started to use small devices that included a recorder and a single tape loop capable of simultaneously recording and playing sound. This would create a delay effect.
One of the first standalone units was the EchoSonic, an amplifier with a built-in tape loop for echo effects. It was built by Ray Butts, and it allowed guitar players to use slapback echo, which dominated 1950s rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing, on stage.
Although these tape echos where popular, they were incredibly fragile and prone to breaking down often. Roland sought to solve this problem with their RE-100 tape echo units. The solid construction and its user friendly interface quickly established the Roland RE-100 as industry standard. It was reliable, robust, and ready to be taken anywhere.
The Space Echo is a tape delay pedal with a spring reverb plate built into it. Roland had made other tape delay machines before the RE-201, but adding the reverb plate colored the sound in a unique way. The way it combined both effects was fairly unique at the time, and artistically done, but now that’s fairly common across different guitar pedals, plugins, and outboard delay boxes.
This is a huge component of the RE-201’s unique sound. This was probably the biggest innovation that the Space Echo brought to the table, however its longer tape loop was also revolutionary.
The short tape loop in the RE-100 still meant that you could only affect the delay so much. The RE-201 remedied this by using a longer tape loop that was spooled freely within a chamber with no reels. This loose spool approach resulted in less tape wear and fewer transient noises.
The front panel allowed for more customization than any other tape echo on the market. You could control the repeat rate, intensity, and it had separate levels for echo and reverb so users could make their own unique combinations to suit their sound.
It also had bass and treble controls that provided an EQ for the effect. You could also take inputs from multiple sources (mic, instrument) and a mixer, all easily accessible from the front panel. Roland had the foresight to design something that was meant to be played and interacted with. They didn’t just see this as a tape delay with a wet/dry knob, they saw the potential this had to help creative people articulate the music they heard in their head.
The in-depth tone controls also allowed the Space Echo to be manipulated and create some wild effects. If you turn up the intensity control as the echo fades out you’ll get this intense swelling effect that you can hear on many dub or reggae songs. If you change the tape speed or delay rate you’ll hear crazy pitch shifting and oscillating effects. Artists like Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and Bob Marley have all used the RE-201 to create absolutely stunning music.
Dub music producers like King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry played the Space Echo almost as if it were its own instrument. On Augustus Pablo’s song “555 Dub Street,” Lee Perry uses the Space Echo on the melodica and turns what most consider a harsh, uninviting instrument into something lush and layered.
It can be used across so many genres of music, shown below on Oskar Offermann’s track, “Find Yourself.” He uses the Space Echo on the vocals and it seems to also be used on a lot of the percussion.
Its influence can be heard across all sorts delay effects and pedals today. The combination of reverb and tone controls to the echo/delay is an almost universal feature now and yet the sound design always seems reminiscent of the RE-201. The earlier delay devices are often seen as collector’s items, but because of how difficult they are to use and how fragile they are it’s rare to see a working one in someone studio.
Portishead engineer Stu Matthews sums it up perfectly:
“You can’t really beat them for that warm, saturated sound that you can only get from analogue tape. I picked up a digital version recently, an RE-3, and it’s nice for what it does but it doesn’t have the magic of the real ones. I like the crunchiness when you overload the tape and the spring reverb is really good… We’re always picking up interesting old analogue gear, but we’ve never found a tape echo that’s better than the Space Echo yet, so yes, I guess it is something of an icon.”
Now here’s pianist and composer Nils Frahm jamming out on his Roland Chorus Echo 501 so you can see how someone alters the tape loop in real time to create live warbles. It’s fun to watch, and even more fun to play with!
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