The Roland RE-201 Space Echo is truly a Vintage (1973) piece of music technology with lots of appeal even today. It’s not a synth, but a Tape-Echo machine for creating true analog echo effects. The RE-201 is a simple system in which a small loop of tape records an incoming signal and immediately plays the recorded sound back over a couple playback heads before being erased over by new incoming audio. A real analog system with warm, gritty and almost noiseless operation, the Space Echo can provide warm, unpredictable and highly tweak-able echo effects.
There are twelve settings to adjust various tape loop speeds, number of repeats, levels, intensity, etc… It can even generate some of its own feedback loops for instant sci-fi effects. It features a built in spring reverb for even more classic analog effects. The RE-201 not only has Vintage appeal but is still widely used to get those dubby, slightly unpredictable, musically analog echo effects. It’s a definite must for the TripHop and dub genres. It has been used by Portishead, Underworld, Fatboy Slim, Dust Brothers, Jean Michel-Jarre, Mr. Oizo, Bob Marley, Vangelis, Sneaker Pimps, Future Sound of London, The Orb, KISS, Sublime, Luke Vibert, Radiohead, Lauryn Hill and Tomita.
The Roland RE-201 Space Echo Story
Back in the mid-seventies, the RE-201 Space Echo unleashed a sound that came straight from outer space. This is its story…
By Jim Bybee
Over the years, Roland has created a significant number of products that have gone on to become legendary. One of the earliest examples is the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, a combination tape echo and reverb introduced in 1974. While Roland didn’t invent the tape echo itself, they took a fragile and often unreliable technology and turned it into something robust and roadworthy and the RE-201 immediately became the touring and recording studio standard in portable tape echo.
Echoing through history
As anyone who sings or plays an instrument knows, the acoustic space you perform in has a huge impact on the sound. If you perform in a small, dry-sounding space—such as a heavily carpeted room—the sound is small and uninspiring. But if you take that same performance to a large space with hard surfaces, the sound becomes bigger, with the natural reverberation of the room making your performance feel more alive.
Since the dawn of sound amplification and recording, musicians and audio engineers sought a way to add the natural ambience of a large acoustic space to a sound in a controlled manner. This led first to natural echo chambers, where a sound was re-amplified into a large acoustic space and captured with a microphone. Later, electronic methods were developed to create artificial reverberation by amplifying sound waves through metal plates or springs. The spring reverb, first developed for use in home organs, continues to be a staple in guitar amplification.
Shortly after World War II, magnetic tape technology became the standard for audio recording. Audio engineers realised they could also use their reel-to-reel tape recorders to create an echo of a sound for a unique type of artificial ambience. The effect quickly became popular, particularly when a short echo was combined with reverb. This type of “slapback” echo was an essential sound component on early rock and roll recordings, and is still popular today.
The road to the Space Echo
Starting in the 1950s, various inventors came up with ways to create the popular tape echo sound in portable units that could be used by touring vocalists and instrumentalists. Basically, these devices were small, self-contained recorders incorporating a single short tape loop; while popular with musicians, they were quite fragile and didn’t stand up well to the rigours of the road.
In 1973, the fledgling Roland Corporation—now in its second year in business—added the very first “Space Echo” products to its lineup, the RE-100 and RE-200 tape-echo units. These were quickly superceded the following year with the RE-101 and the RE-201. In contrast with competitors’ echo units, both were affordable, built like tanks, and featured inputs for multiple types of sound sources. However, with its extended feature set, the RE-201 quickly became the Space Echo desired by musicians and audio engineers.
Inside the RE-201 Space Echo
The RE-201 was an engineering masterpiece. It featured a sophisticated tape-echo effect and a built-in spring reverb, with different sound variations selectable via 12 different operating modes.
Front-panel controls included repeat rate (echo length), intensity (number of echo repeats), and separate levels for echo and reverb. Bass and treble controls provided EQ for the effect sound. The front panel also offered inputs for multiple sound sources, including two mics and an instrument (all with independent level controls), and a line-level device such as a mixer.
Lifting the hinged lid on top of the RE-201 exposed the heart of the machine, its tape transport system. Featuring a record head, three separate playback heads, and a variable speed motor, the RE-201 was capable of producing a unique range of echo effects. The delay time was adjusted by altering the tape’s speed with the Repeat Rate knob, along with selecting one or more playback heads with the Mode Selector (multi-tap echo patterns were created when multiple heads were selected). Along with the built-in spring reverb and the ability to feed the delayed sound back into the record head for multiple echo repeats, this allowed for a combination of echo effects previously unavailable in any single portable device.
A unique feature of the RE-201’s tape transport was its free-floating design. The single tape loop spooled freely into a tape chamber, with a plastic cover over the top to protect the tape. Previous designs used short tape loops spun over reels, like a miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder. The RE’s loose-spool, low-tension design created less tape wear, and also allowed for a much longer tape length; this long tape length let you create echoes over three seconds in length.
The RE-201 was an instant hit, quickly becoming the tape echo of choice for musicians both on the road and in the studio. Its rich and organic sound was a source of inspiration and creativity, and it’s been heard on literally thousands of popular records since its introduction. It wasn’t always used for straight echo effects, either—by manipulating the tape speed and intensity while signal was present, you could coax a Space Echo into oscillation and pitch shift for some unreal sound effects.
On the heels of the RE-201’s popularity, enhanced RE-series models were released over the years. 1977’s RE-301 added Roland’s famous chorus effect, as well as sound-on-sound recording capability. 1980 saw the introduction of two additional units: the RE-501, which added XLR inputs to the RE-301’s feature set, and the SRE-555, which was basically an RE-501 in a rackmount chassis.