SPACE ECHO TALES
September 29, 2021 § Leave a comment
SPACE ECHO TALES – PART I: ALL IS WELL UNTIL IT ISN’T.
I’ve been sitting on these posts since June: I didn’t want to write them under the spell of the anger I felt towards the person in Barcelona who messed up my Space Echo instead of repairing it, nor under the spell of the “triumphalism” I did feel when I managed to not only undo the damage done by that “technician”, but actually solve the problem that had led me to consulting him in the first place. I wanted to see how the Space Echo would evolve over time, and now I have, so here goes, 3 posts with technical details, so that those of you who also own precious vintage gear can hopefully learn something from my experience, and about how to maintain a Space Echo 😊
December 2019: after several years of salivating at the thought of owning a real tape delay, I order a Roland RE201 Space Echo from Soundgas. My mind is blown from the first second of use.
May 2020-December 2020: I use the Echo for hundreds of hours while I compose, rehearse, then record The Tunnel and the Clearing, keeping the same tape in a kind of fetishist way, as the idea of it aging just works so well with what the album is about.
In spring, I finally decide to change the tape to a fresh Soundgas-approved tape. It is probably at that point that by my own lack of experience and knowledge, I bend the tension arm (pictured in the first pic) as I proceed to replace the tape (PS: it is possible that the arm was bent even further by the “technician” who subsequently handled the Echo, but I can’t be sure). Everything sounds fine for the first few days, but in early May, a couple of weeks before the only shows I had planned for the release at Chiquita Room in Barcelona, the Echo – to my horror and incredulity – starts developing a very noticeable “warped” sound whenever the splice of the tape passes through the tension arm.
We exchange many emails with Soundgas to try and see what the problem might be, and whether or not I can fix it from my end, because there is no time to send the Echo to England for a repair and have it back in time for the shows, not with newly-enforced Brexit, not with slow and rapacious Spanish customs…
SPACE ECHO TALES – PART II: DON’T TRUST STRANGERS.
Soundgas quickly identify the tension arm as being the likely culprit of the warped sound, and I am sent on a mission to find a very specific gauge to adjust it. I am not able to find it. By chance, a few weeks earlier, a fellow musician had recommended me a technician who had successfully repaired several RE501s for him, and after some hesitation, I decide to let go of my control freakism and to stop trying to solve everything by myself. I also really liked the idea of developing my own network of local technicians here in Barcelona.
I contact the person and explain the problem. “Sure, come here this afternoon and I’ll fix it for you”. Dream come true, right? The reality: 1) the first thing he said as I arrived was that this splice sound was “normal”. At that point I should have listened to my instinct and headed out the door. 2) full-on machismo (or whatever the hell that was) led to gems such as “I can hear better than you do” when I asked if we could please test the Echo with an instrument instead of commercial music being sent to the input…
MORAL OF THE STORY: LISTEN TO YOUR INSTINCT EVEN IF SOMEONE HAS BEEN RECOMMENDED TO YOU. The guy spent 2 minutes unscrewing the tension arm and then rescrewing it into place, not checking anything in particular. I tried to end the interaction as soon as possible since things were also escalating verbally (in 19 years of professional music-making, this would rank as one of the top 3 worst interactions I’ve ever had).
Once home I could have cried: the machine now sounded WAY WORSE, with barely any echo, and badly placed timing. I wrote a lengthy message to the technician.CORRECTION see comments for reply
I barely slept, then two days later reached a logical conclusion: if he had made the machine worse in the space of a few minutes just by messing with that area, the reverse would be true – I could at least get the machine to how it sounded *before* his intervention. Armed with a screwdriver and sweaty hands, I proceeded with tiny, cautious changes. And it worked: I still had the splice sound problem, but echoes were back to normal repeats and timing.
SPACE ECHO TALES – PART III: A QUESTION OF MILLIMETRES, AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOOD AND GREAT.
This proved to be a weird moral tale for me: I had wanted to exercise my trust muscle by handing the machine over to someone who – after all – had been recommended to me, and yet what that particular episode taught me was that trusting comes with a risk.
I had managed to undo the damage done by the Barcelona technician, but the splice sound was still happening, so Soundgas sent a video of one of their Echo specialists showing and explaining all the parameters regarding the tension arm itself and its placement. And you know what? All of the parameters on my machine were off. The first clearly visible problem (which had escaped the hawk eye of our specialist in Barcelona) was how bent the arm was, and that was easy to fix. But what really blew my mind was the millimetric work needed for the placement of the arm and the space this leaves for the tape to travel: as I proceeded to carefully adjust it while listening to the sound, I was floored by how the tiniest change influenced the sound for better or for worse.
I did manage to get rid of the splice warped sound. The price to pay for this was a chorusey quality – even sounding like a Leslie cabin on Hammond chords! I am still very proud that I managed to do this, although of course there is no way I could have done it without Soundgas’s guidance.
Parting words: I did send the Echo for a full revision with Soundgas on Monday (I waited this long only because I feared the Echo would sit in a hot warehouse in Madrid customs if I sent it during the summer with a still very young Brexit): the chorusey effect is weaker, but now there is a slightly muddy quality to the sound, which was definitely not there when I first got the Echo. This is what Soundgas is on about when they say that Space Echos should be serviced by people who actually know how great they can sound: could I use my Space Echo as it is right now for this new album I’m working on? Yes, and it would sound very good. But very good is not the same as great, and because I got a stellar Echo in the first place, I know the difference.