The Black Magic Box
Boss Pro SE70 Super Effects Processor
Boss's original SE50 multi-effects processor practically flew off the retailers' shelves. Can they repeat the performance with the SE70? Derek Johnson finds out.
Once upon a time (early 1991, to be a bit more precise), Boss released the SE50 stereo effects processor; following rave reviews, musicians of all types fell upon the little unit and took it to their hearts (and studios). No wonder; it boasted lovely, smooth Roland reverbs, classic chorus and phase programs and lots more — including a usable vocoder — for the £390 which was its asking price. While some were surprised to see such a studio-orientated effects unit released under a name more familiar for guitar stomp boxes, the sheer quality and usability of the SE50 meant that it soon began turning up regularly in studio equipment lists and was (and is) often the unit to recommend to someone in search of quality effects for not too much money.
Since then, of course, the Boss name has turned up regularly, and in the case of the DS330 Dr Synth, even where you really wouldn't expect to find it. Boss products, though, have always had one or two things in common: accessibility, ease of use — and affordability. The Boss Pro SE70 under review here, while it could almost be seen as an SE50 MkII, could also be seen as something of a departure from 'the Boss way', with a retail price tag of £649 — not exactly cheap and cheerful. So how does Boss's new baby justify its price?
The SE70 looks very much the same as the SE50: the two line by 16 character display and the dual control stereo input knob are the same, but where the SE50 was awash with front-panel buttons, the new processor is streamlined, with six to the SE50's 10, and an additional increment knob and stereo headphones socket. Connections are simple; stereo ins and outs are on mono jacks (and processing is in true stereo), there are two flavours of MIDI socket (In and Out/Thru), and there is a jack each for expression pedal and footswitch (the expression pedal socket can also accommodate an effect mute footswitch, and the footswitch socket can handle one or two footswitches). Also at the rear is a switch for -20dB and +4dB operation. Power comes from an external 12V supply.
The SE70 holds 145 patches (as opposed to 128 on the SE50), although there are actually two user selectable banks of patches, one aimed at studio use, and one most emphatically geared towards guitarists. In both cases, only 100 patches are editable. The remaining, preset, patch locations in either bank contain one each of the processor's 45 basic algorithms (to the SE50's 28). Each algorithm contains a selection of effects in a preset order, chosen from a central store of 35. Some algorithms contain as few as two effects, though there are also algorithms that contain as many as 16 (max for the SE50 was eight). If that seems like overkill to you, I'd rather have too much than not enough. It's a simple enough matter, during editing, to switch off unwanted effects, removing them from the chain. MIDI control is also very much enhanced on the SE70: up to four parameters per patch can be assigned a MIDI controller, for real-time value changes. The SE70 also features a guitar tuner (for use with any instrument, although a string display is available for use with guitar and 4/5 string bass), and a useful metronome.
Programming the SE70 is fairly straightforward: two buttons labelled Parameter guide you through the editable parameters of a given patch, and the increment knob is used to alter values. One very neat feature of this knob is that by pressing and turning it, you advance values in tens, making quick parameter changes possible; pressing this in regular play mode bypasses the current effect. With some multi-effects algorithms having up to 16 effects and each effect having a fair few parameters, it can take a little patience to scroll through the available options; however, you can quickly skip to the first parameter of any effect by holding down the parameter button for the direction you wish to go, and then pressing the other parameter button.
Once you've adjusted a patch to your liking and given it a name, press, the Write button, select a patch location (1-100) and press write again. The extra facilities, such as the metronome and tuner, are accessed under the Utility menu button. The metronome is a nice feature, although it doesn't transmit MIDI clock and you can only work in 4/4. You are given quarter note beats, with options for 8th, 16th and/or triplet sub-divisions, with a tempo of 20 and 275bpm. Utility is also where you'll also find the program change map and the System Exclusive dumping facility.
While the effects are too numerous to discuss in detail, a few are especially worthy of note, and the 'standard' effects are of the high quality we've grown to expect from the Roland/Boss stable. One of the reasons the SE50 was such great value was its vocoder, a device alone usually costing more alone than the SE50. The SE70 continues the tradition, and offers two enhanced variants: a 10-band vocoder, featuring distortion, and a 21-band program. Totally new effects include sampling, and up to two seconds can be captured and played (forwards or backwards) via MIDI. Related to the Sampler is the Repeat Play algorithm, which is also capable of up catching up to two seconds of signal, and playing it back instantly. The playback can be reversed, delayed by up to 20 seconds and repeated up to 20 times, or allowed to play on indefinitely — very much a tape-loop type of effect. The fidelity of this and the sampling options is excellent.
Also adding to the VFM quotient are the pitch-tracking guitar synths — you read that correctly. Just as the SE50 was a good deal if bought for the vocoder alone, Boss are probably feeling rather pleased with themselves at including both a bass and guitar synth in the SE70. Tracking is actually reasonably good, albeit monophonic, even when using a bass, providing you attack notes cleanly. These algorithms also include a synth/instrument mixer, EQ, comp/lim, overdrive, EQ, amp simulator, delay, chorus and reverb, which conspire to obscure any tracking delays that might occur.
And there's more: a 40-80Hz hum canceller and a vocal eliminator. This last 'effect' is one that is often asked about, and I'll say now that it is nothing to write home about: no effect going by this name actually removes 100% of a lead vocal. Rather, by using clever trickery, the SE70 analyses the signal and attenuates, rather than removes, the signal that appears at dead centre of the stereo image, which is where lead vocals are most often found. While useful as a weird effect in its own right, the result is not always useable for the purpose intended, with too much wanted musical information being attenuated in the process.
Ring Modulation is another welcome effect (it's part of the Keyboard Multi algorithm); here, the input signal is modulated by an internal variable frequency generator. This effect was used in classical electronic studios and vintage synths to create clangorous or bell-like sounds; basically, the frequencies of the input signal and modulating frequency are added and subtracted, with the sum and difference mixed together, and output, although the generally helpful algorithm guide doesn't really explain this at all. For example, if you play a note A with a frequency of 440Hz and modulate it with a frequency of 100Hz, you get a signal made up of a mix of 340Hz and 540Hz, which may or may not be harmonically related.
Amongst the standard effects, there are an array of reverbs, delays, flangers, and so on; reverb decays and delay times vary according to algorithm, but 20 seconds for reverb and 1200ms for delays is fairly typical, although many algorithms feature 600ms or 800ms of delay.
Using the SE70 is no easier or harder than using any other compact parameter-access editing system. The display is informative and readable from most angles, in most lighting conditions. The knob makes light work of parameter value changes, and editing patches or altering system parameters is helped by an easy to grasp hierarchy. The manuals are generally helpful; the larger Algorithm Guide contains explanations of the algorithms themselves, followed by an in-depth tutorial on effects and their usage. The 'owner's manual' proper provides a good overview of the hardware, connection suggestions, using MIDI control, and so on.
On the noise front, the SE70 does as well or better than the majority of current budget multi-effects: hiss is occasionally apparent, but never distractingly so. The SE70 effects, however, are definitely up to scratch: if you're a fan of the Roland/Boss sound, then you will be in your element. The reverb treatments presented here are natural, lush and musical (they suit everything from vocals to drum machines), chorusing is smooth and rich (great for adding depth and movement to guitar parts), and distortion features analogue circuitry that produces authentic results. For the vast majority of general effects needs, this is the ideal processor. Comprehensive multi-effects algorithms, along with the vocoder and ring modulator, make the SE70 a processor for creative types who take pleasure in bending sound into new shapes.
The multi-effects market has never been more competitive, and to be honest the SE70 is not such a unique (nor affordable) device as was the SE50 when it was launched — though it does have unique selling points, notably its off the wall effects: vocoder, ring modulator and pitch tracker. There are many, guitarists and studio owners alike, who appreciate the Roland sound, which is available here in spades, with plenty of extras to stretch your shrinking pound. If Roland would let me keep the SE70, I'd live happily ever after. But life's no fairy tale: I'll just have to start saving like the rest of you!
SE70 £649 inc VAT.
Roland UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!