The Big Gundown: Boss RE-20 Twin Pedal vs Roland RE-201 Space Echo

The Boss RE-20 Twin Pedal is the digital cousin of the classic analog tape based Roland RE-201 Space Echo. The Boss pedal was released in 2007. Here's a small demonstration at NAMM 2007.

The Boss pedal is designed to be used on stage by guitarists, but the question of this shootout is about studio use: can the Boss pedal replace the original Space Echo in the dub studio? The answer can only be based on sound quality and ease of use, not on price or reliability. Obviously each 35 year old tape delay has a 'unique' condition.

That's why the Space Echo that's used in this test will also be compared to a Korg SE-500 Stage Echo of approximately the same age and condition. This will give an idea of what a typical tape delay from the late 70ties sounds like nowadays.

Also the sound of the Boss pedal is compared with an older high quality digital delay that can now be bought secondhand for almost the same price as a new Boss pedal: the Lexicon LXP-15II. This may give a better idea of how 'tape' the sound of the Boss pedal is.

1. The sound of tape delay

Below are samples of a synth sound going through the Space Echo and through the Stage Echo. Before recording both delays were cleaned, demagnetized and the old tape was replaced by a fresh piece of Maxell XLI 35-90B tape.

Space Echo dark synth
Stage Echo dark synth

Space Echo bright synth
Stage Echo bright synth

Space Echo 808 cymbal
Stage Echo 808 cymbal

Because the 'dark' synth sound doesn't have hi mid frequencies the difference between the two delays is almost unnoticeable. The second sound has more high frequencies and now you can hear a very subtle difference, almost like the difference between positive feedback and negative feedback, but less obvious. But of course the irregularities in tape transportation are what you really notice. This is what old tape delays do. Especially when a sloppy cut/tape splice of a homemade tape passes the heads ;-)

If you don't like that you should think again about using an old tape delay. Or at least you should get very serious about the tapes.

The 808 cymbal sound shows the response to high frequencies. Note that at the beginning of the sample the treble control is set to neutral, and halfway the treble is opened up all the way.

2. The sound of digital delay

Boss dark synth
Lexicon dark synth

Boss bright synth
Lexicon bright synth eq neutral
Lexicon bright synth eq 'vintage'

Boss 808 cymbal
Lexicon 808 cymbal

Note that at the beginning of the Lexicon 808 sample the treble control is set to 'vintage' and halfway the treble is set to neutral!

To me these samples show that the Boss definitely has it's own vintage tape-like character. You can't possibly get the same sound or even get close with the Lexicon using only on board eq.

3. Internal distortion and bypassing the internal feedback loop

Dub is also about abusing your delay, so let's see how that goes. First a hot signal causing distortion and then the sound of feedback coming in exclusively via the audio input, bypassing the internal feedback loop.

Space Echo distortion
Stage Echo distortion
Boss distortion
Lexicon distortion

Space Echo external feedback loop
Stage Echo external feedback loop
Boss external feedback loop
Lexicon external feedback loop

4. Conclusion

On stage the Boss RE-20 Twin Pedal is one of the best delays for clean warm sounds. Classier designs are much more expensive (the analog Moogerfooger is totally overpriced) but don't necessary have a more usable or 'vintage' sound, unless you want your delay to double as a distortion. Also many digital delays don't offer this level of simplicity. The tap pedal is pure genius and i also like the direct sound on/off switch on the back.

In the dub studio the story is a little different. Personally i don't like the compressed sounding distortion that the Boss produces when you really crank up the input level, and also the external feedback loop doesn't work for me. Having said that the Boss delay can still be quite useful in the dub studio, but don't expect miracles. If you are into 'artifacts' and experrymentation the RE-20 might disappoint you. If all you need is a bit of tape character for your computer setup you could also go for impulse responses. It's free and it sounds perfect. Check these: RE-201 Roland Space Echo impulse responses 25-200 BPM.

5. Buying a secondhand tape delay

Some general remarks about Roland vs Korg: the Space Echo sounds a bit tighter and cleaner than the Stage Echo, the Korg is dirtier. But to me the bottom line is that in a basic setup the Space Echo and the Stage Echo can sound more or less the same.

The big differences between the Stage Echo and the Space echo are ease of use and features. The SE-500 Stage Echo has cv control, an external switch for feedback off, controllable direct sound/wet signal, fast switching between heads, sound on sound and balanced in/out. The RE-201 Space Echo has (wacky) reverb and it has one typical echo-pattern that the Stage Echo can't do.

Keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to buy secondhand nowadays, because two companies have recently launched new tape delays. Check out the Sound-on-Sound review of the Blue Coconut Unity Echoverb or the website of the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. I even saw one more new tape based machine recently but i can't remember the brand name.

People always worry about tape replacement. It can be a tricky thing to replace them but if you've got patience, if you make a tape of approximately 3 meters (4 is too long) and slow down the speed all the way it's simply a matter of avoiding knots and keeping one hand near the power-button in case a knot suddenly tries to ruin your tape.

If you must have a Roland RE-201 Space Echo remember that these things are becoming a toy for rich people. I bought one for 175 euros 7 years ago but i wouldn't be surprised if certain people ask 4 or 5 times that price nowadays. In my opinion an RE-150 is just as useful. If you find one be sure to play a cd through it before you buy it. This trick reveals mechanical problems. And bring your own piece of tape just in case. Also buy a cheap little tape head demagnetizer.

Roland RE201/101 Space Echo Service Manual