Digital Space Echo
When Roland made the most popular tape echo unit in the world they called it Space Echo - now they've revived it in digital form. Gordon Reid listens to echoes from the past.
Once the industry standard tape echo, Roland's Space Echo has returned in digital form - but does a 70s echo have a place in the late '80s?
WITH THE RELEASE of the RE3 Digital Space Echo it would seem that, on paper at least, Roland need their corporate heads testing. Bringing out an extremely limited echo-cum-effects unit in today's already crowded effects processor market place - especially at a price that exceeds many of the most feature-packed multi-effects systems currently available - hardly appears to be good business. The facilities offered by the Space Echo certainly do not compete with any of the powerful units now marketed by Yamaha and Alesis. Roland themselves out-specify the RE3 with their own DEP5. To understand why this strange state of affairs should exist let's go back in time...
ROLAND ONCE PRODUCED a series of tape echo machines called "Space Echoes" - three free-standing units, the RE201, RE301 and top-of-the-line RE501 and a rack-mount version of the RE501, the RE555. Of these the RE201 was the nearest thing the industry has ever seen to an industry standard effects box. Although only a glorified tape recorder with multiple tape heads (like the WEM Copycat) and a three-spring reverb, the RE201 had 12 modes of operation (four echo, seven reverb/echo and one reverb) and every studio and every pro band had at least one. There were variable controls for repeat rate, echo intensity, echo volume and reverb volume. There were also bass and treble controls which acted only on the processed signal. The RE201 was arguably the most successful effects unit ever produced. But with the advent of digital effects with no wow and flutter, reduced noise and maintenance, and increased bandwidth and fidelity, the Space Echo was doomed. The RE201 was eventually phased out in 1985 but demand for the RE-series continued and secondhand (tenth-hand?) units still change hands today for £200-300.
So Roland returned to the drawing board to produce a digital version of the Space Echo (warts and all). The result is the RE3 Digital Space Echo, which is claimed to have all the fundamental characteristics of the original. Indeed, so closely have Roland adhered to the original concept that not one additional facility (other than memories and MIDI of course) is available on the RE3 compared to its predecessors. Trying to recreate the sound of genuinely obsolete technology seems like a retrograde step (digital version of the Mellotron anyone?) but the RE3 has been in the stores for a little while now, so how does '80s technology carry 70s design philosophy?
THE RE3 IS a wholly digital signal processor combining a range of echo effects with a simple reverb generator and a simple chorus effect. The A/D and D/A converters are 16-bit but the sampling frequency is only 32kHz giving a treated signal frequency response of 20Hz-12kHz. (The untreated part of the signal is quoted as 10Hz-30kHz and is, for all purposes, unaffected.) Delay time is severely limited by today's standards at only 300ms, and the reverb has only one parameter, which Roland call Depth. This varies the reverb time between 0 and 5 seconds. The final effect is called Warmth and, although the name suggests some kind of EQ (tone) control, this actually adds an LFO-controlled pitch modulated component to the treated signal. Unlike genuine modular systems, the order in which the effects are applied to the signal is fixed. Input is mono only but the processed signal is output in stereo.
Physically the RE3 is yet another example of the charmless school of black 1U-high 19" rack-mount units. Construction is to Roland's usual high standard and the unit feels sturdy enough for sustained road use as well as studio installations. At the back of the RE3 you'll find the (mono) audio line-in socket and impedance matching switch. Only two options are available here, +4dB for studio use and -20dB for most stage equipment. Unfortunately, there is no input gain control and to obtain a satisfactory input level requires adjustment of the output control of the synth, auxiliary send or whatever. Nevertheless, although inconvenient, I encountered no matching problems during the course of this review. Next along the rear panel is a direct signal mute (switches between mixed signal and echo for stage use, and echo only for use with mixers) and the stereo audio outputs. As usual with Roland equipment, the left audio output doubles as mono if no jack is inserted into the right-hand socket. Also on the rear panel is a socket for an effect on/off pedal for stage use, and finally a standard MIDI In socket. Unfortunately there is no MIDI Thru - a sad omission. If you're still in the habit of chaining MIDI devices (who isn't?) the RE3 has to be last in the chain. (Many early pieces of MIDI gear also lack MIDI Thru and if there's already one of those at the end of the chain you'll have no choice but to buy a MIDI Thru box, adding another £30 or more to the price of using the RE3.) Another complaint concerns the mains lead, which is of the infuriating, permanently-connected variety. This is quite unnecessary, and a real pain.
The front panel is, however, a joy to behold - there are knobs on it. Seven to be precise, controlling all aspects of the unit's performance. Viewed from left to right these are: two microphone sockets with independent level controls, five parameter control knobs, an LED input level indicator, 10-character LED, four parameter access buttons (oh well, it couldn't last) and, of course, a mains on/off switch. The five echo control knobs are probably the simplest yet seen on a digital multi-effects device. They are: Echo Level and Echo Rate controls, Echo Intensity (which increases or decreases the number of repeats in the treated signal), Reverb Control (increasing the depth of reverb) and Warmth. The only independent control over Warmth is the depth of the sweep; the sweep rate is always proportional to the echo repeat rate.
On the right of the front panel the screen normally shows the current mode and memory selected (see below) but when a parameter knob is turned the screen changes for a few seconds to show the parameter name and currently selected value. The four button controls are used to change mode, change memory selected, write to memory, and control MIDI. Only two buttons have dual functions - the mode and memory buttons act as increment/decrement controls for MIDI control.
"Learning to use the system is very simple - unlike many of today's machines, you don't get the feeling that you'll never get the best from it."
IF THE ECHO, Reverb and Warmth controls were the only means of controlling the Space Echo it would be a severely limited unit. However, there are five modes of operation, each with a subtly different character. These roughly correspond to the 12 modes found on the RE201 and are described as: S.Echo1 (single echo with reverb), S.Echo2 (panning echo with reverb), and S.Echo3 (mixed echo effect), R.Echo1 (straight reverb) and R.Echo2 (bright reverb). All parameters are active in modes 1 and 2, no reverb is available in mode 3, and only Warmth and Reverb are used in modes 4 and 5.
Because of the restricted number of effect parameters, the range of sounds obtainable from the RE3 is quite limited and there is, therefore, no need for an exotic array of memories. Each of the five modes has five memories assigned to it, sensibly referred to as 1,1 through to 5,5. A specific memory can be selected by stepping through the modes and memories, modified by adjusting the parameter knobs, and then written to by using the Write button. If another memory is selected without using Write, then any modifications to the parameter knob positions are forgotten by the system. Good standard fare. MIDI program change numbers can be assigned individually to memories enabling remote control of the unit. As usual with Roland equipment, the factory memories can be quickly restored should you wish to do so. Learning to use the system is really very simple, and unlike many of today's mind-numbing machines, you don't get the feeling that you'll never quite get the best from the device because either (a) you haven't got enough time to experiment with it or (b) you don't have a degree in electronic engineering.
AND SO TO the heart of the RE3 - the sound itself. Clearly it's far from an all-singing, all-dancing effects unit yet it can hardly be regarded as a cheap alternative. Nevertheless, many otherwise cool-headed musicians and music companies are parting with significant amounts of cash to own these beasties.
In use you get the impression that Roland have not only developed the RE3 to replace the Space Echo series, but have specifically designed it for the same uses - predominantly acoustic sounds such as vocals and guitars. Not only is it simple to operate (essential for singers and guitarists) but its sound is instantly recognisable. Just about any acoustic sound source (as opposed to synthesised) benefits from being passed through the RE3. In stereo the machine really shines. Forget the lack of tone controls, the narrow bandwidth, and the simplicity of the system, the sound is everything - it simply reeks of class. Don't ask what the difference is between this and, say, an SPX90 or DEP5, just let your ears do the thinking. In fact, considering the apparent limitations of the unit, the range of subtle "space echo" effects is quite staggering, and it is this subtlety, combined with sound quality that is the strength of the RE3.
"You get the impression that Roland have not only developed the RES to replace the Space Echo series, but have specifically designed it for the same uses."
ITS DIFFICULT TO wholeheartedly recommend a unit that provides as few facilities as the RE3 Space Echo and the unit isn't without its niggles either - no line-in level control (which was present on the primitive RE201), fixed mains lead, and a poorly translated (but simple) manual. In operation the RE3 performed faultlessly, and presented no user difficulties whatsoever.
The unit is definitely at its best treating acoustic sounds. It seems to exaggerate the shortcomings of imitative synth patches and samples, although they sound impressive they also sound unnatural - exactly the aspect of such a sound you'd normally use reverb or echo to disguise.
The real problem in recommending the RE3 lies in its very limited scope. It's all very well for Roland to recreate the original Space Echo sound, with all its warmth and character, but perhaps they set their technological sights too low. Or, to put it another way, £600 is a lot to pay for such a limited device.
The RE3 deserves to be a success in the late '80s-early '90s, especially in more up-market environments. The bottom line is, if you're going to use an echo/reverb unit, try the RE3 first. If it does the job you want, then buy one - if it doesn't, look to today's line of ambitious multi-effects processors. But if you opt for the RE3, you'll never complain about the sound quality or the life it brings to your music.
Price £599 including VAT
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Review by Gordon Reid