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Roland RE-201 Space Echo

Roland RE-201 Space Echo

Of course we all know about Boss pedals, but before Boss emerged as a titan of the effects industry, its parent company Roland made a handful of pedals under its own name. The first entry of this entire column was one such amazing unit, the AP-7 Jet Phaser. Others of note include the Double Beat Fuzz Wah, the Bee Baa and a surprisingly amazing flanger. While Roland didn’t really get a foothold in the effects market, they were busy getting it done in another way with a multi-sequeled line of echo units. Though many models were produced, it’s almost universally acknowledged that one sits alone at the top. This is the Roland RE-201 Space Echo.

Unlike any other units in the Roland cadre of effects, the Space Echo series has pre-Roland roots, so let’s start at the beginning.

All the way back in 1960, Ikutaro Kakehashi started Ace Electronic Industries. While you may not have heard this particular name, you may have heard of some of its wares under the name Ace Tone, and more specifically the Fuzz Master series. One of Ace Tone’s more esoteric offerings was developed in the late ‘60s. This was the EC-1 Echo Chamber, a tape echo styled in the vein of the Maestro Echoplex and Watkins Copicat. Just a handful of years later, Kakehashi read the word “Roland” in a phone book and decided it would sound great when selling to distributors. In 1972, Roland ported the EC-1 Echo Chamber to its line and it came in as the RE-100. An added spring reverb tank turned an RE-100 into an RE-200.

Roland RE-201 Space Echo

Roland hit real paydirt when the RE-201 came out. Like the previous series, Roland released the RE-101 as a companion, but unlike the prior pair, the reverb circuit wasn’t the only thing missing. The RE-101 also lacked the powerful two-band Baxandall EQ circuit. The single-digit model number upgrade added serious reliability enhancements, including a noise floor reduction and an improved tape transfer system that minimized wow and flutter while increasing tape life. Combining these enhancements with the 101’s omissions helped the 201 quickly curry favor among the guitar community.

Unlike other tape echoes, the 201 includes a host of other features that hadn’t been realized on any other unit. There’s a VU meter, three different inputs, an output with selectable heat and more. All the accoutrements are placed on the front of the unit for ease of access. And for all that’s on the front, it is much more than a mechanical tape echo. Like so many other units, the Space Echo was equipped with one seriously badass preamp circuit, but this one was solid-state which means there was no finicky glass with which to faff about.

The preamp circuit is a one-transistor affair and runs at an oddball 17 volts. Despite all this, it certainly doesn’t want for any kind of clarity or cutting gain despite its simple architecture. There’s just one problem: input impedance. If you are going “direct in” with nothing beforehand, the sound is just a little weak. If you run a buffer before it, the sound is much richer and fuller. This is where Billy Zoom of the band X comes in.

Roland RE-201 Space Echo

Zoom’s repair shop in Orange, California also ran a side business fixing Space Echo units, and it was here that he offered a mod to fix the input impedance issue with a simple JFET buffer. With this in place, the Space Echo’s true potential is realized. Zoom himself posted a hand-drawn schematic of the mod on a Gretsch forum years ago, so if you’d like to sneak a peak at this mod, or are just mod-curious, it’s a good snapshot to check out.

Though the 201 is the most well-known and widely available of the Space Echo units, there were several others manufactured; some you may know and some you may not. While many guitar players are familiar with the RE-301, they are perhaps more familiar with the unit’s biggest endorsee, Brian Setzer. The 301 added an analog chorus effect and a sound-on-sound function for on-the-fly looping. The line culminated with the SRE-555, a rackmount version that included stereo outs and significant noise reduction systems.

Like the Watkins Copicat, the Space Echo lineage is a thorough one and every entry in the product line is worth seeking out. The RE-201’s price has crept up every single year despite Roland having sold a large volume of units. Many of them live under lock and key at recording studios across the world. And if you’ve heard an RE-201, can you really blame them?