FIG. 1: The Boss RC-50 is a real-time audio looper housed in a floor processor with seven footswitches, plenty of hands-on controls, and 24 minutes of stereo recording time.
Numerous musical genres employ looping, and numerous hardware and software tools supply looping functionality. One of the latest hardware devices for looping is the Boss RC-50 Loop Station. It improves on the RC-20XL by adding impressive features such as three separate mono or stereo loops (called phrases) that can play sequentially or simultaneously. It also offers tap tempo and time-stretching functions, various phrase-playback options, USB connectivity, and 24-bit, 44.1 kHz audio sampling.
The RC-50 is a floor unit dominated by seven footswitches (see Fig. 1). Three switches select which phrase is active, and the other four control record, play, stop, undo, redo, and tap tempo functions. Above the footswitches is the control panel, and on its left side are a 2-character patch-number display and a 2 × 16-character LCD, which provides visual access to the RC-50's menu structure. Just to the right of the displays are manual controls that include a data wheel, menu-navigation arrows, and Name, Write, and Exit buttons. In the Play Mode section are two important buttons for selecting Single or Multi mode and Loop Sync (more about those later).
FIG. 2: On the RC-50''s rear panel are two ¼-inch inputs, an XLR input with phantom power, a stereo minijack input, two ¼-inch main outputs, a stereo headphone output, two ¼-inch sub outputs, two foot controller inputs, a USB port, MIDI In and Out, a power switch, and a wall-wart connection.
The control panel's right half hosts a row of level pots for controlling phrases, the Rhythm Guide track, inputs, and the master output. Below each phrase-level pot is a button and LEDs that indicate when reverse or a one-shot operation is active for the phrase. Below the input-level pots are buttons for Auto Record, Input Mode, and Overdub Mode. LED indicators show the status of the Loop Quantize feature and the selected overdub mode.
The rear panel hosts a pair of unbalanced ¼-inch inputs for instruments, an XLR mic input (with a phantom-power switch), and a stereo ⅛-inch minijack input labeled Aux for receiving a signal from an iPod or a CD player (see Fig. 2). The RC-50 also has a Center Cancel function available for the Aux jack (intended to remove a prerecorded song's lead vocal) and a Flat Amp Simulate function for the Aux and mic inputs. Flat Amp Simulate provides high- and low-frequency EQ boost for occasions when the RC-50 is playing through a guitar amp instead of a full-range sound system.
There are also two pairs of unbalanced ¼-inch outputs (main and sub — each input or phrase can be directed to either) and a ¼-inch stereo headphone output. Two ¼-inch TRS phone jacks accept as many as four foot controllers (one jack accepts two footswitches, and the other takes either an expression pedal and a footswitch or two footswitches). In addition, you get a USB port and MIDI In and Out ports.
The RC-50 is powered by an uncomfortably large wall-wart power supply. For some products, Roland has used the superior lump-in-the-line approach, which would have been welcome in the case of a transformer as sizable as the RC-50's.
Dancing in Circles
The RC-50 can hold a maximum 24 minutes of 24-bit, 44.1 kHz stereo audio, or a maximum 49 minutes of mono. An RC-50 patch contains all configuration settings, as well as audio content, for the three phrases. Up to 99 patches can be stored. Whether you consider the available recording time to be plentiful, merely adequate, or not enough will depend on how many patches you want to store and how long the phrases are.
You record a loop by stepping on a Phrase Select button to choose the loop location and then stepping on the Rec/Play/Overdub switch. Stepping on the switch a second time exits the operation as the unit continues to play. Hitting it one more time with the same phrase selected drops the unit into Overdub mode, in which you can either layer additional material on top of the existing phrase or replace it. To stop playback of a phrase, you must step on the Phrase Select switch and then the Stop switch.
This system results in a bit of a dance, with your foot darting between the Rec/Play/Overdub switch on the far left and the Phrase Select switches on the right. I would have preferred a system in which one control lets you choose between Record/Overdub and Play modes, and the Phrase Select switch engages the chosen function. Still, I got used to the RC-50's system.
Similarly, to stop playback of all phrases, you have to step on the Phrase 2 and Phrase 3 Select switches simultaneously. Again, it worked out most of the time, though I occasionally did it wrong in the heat of the moment. A work-around would be to plug in an external footswitch and assign it to All Start All Stop, but you should be able to assign a footswitch to All Start All Stop from the RC-50 itself; you already have enough footswitches to deal with.
Recording loops live is not the only available option for getting sound in and out of the RC-50. Its USB port lets you import or export loops as WAV files from your computer.
The RC-50 offers two basic operation modes: Single, in which phrases play sequentially, and Multi, in which they can play simultaneously. The unit has too many playback options to mention them all in this review. In Single mode, when phrases play sequentially, you can switch phrases immediately or at the end of the currently playing phrase. You can set each phrase to fade in when you start it or fade out when you stop it. In Multi mode, a function called Simul-Start allows several phrases to begin playback at the same time. Loop Sync forces all phrases to loop for as long as the longest phrase; with Loop Sync off, phrases loop independently.
You can set any phrase to play back as a one-shot or in reverse using buttons on the front panel. Because pressing them is difficult when you're playing an instrument and the unit is on the floor, those functions are prime candidates for external footswitch control. You can also set each phrase's volume and panning, but with the same limitation — you'll need to use either your hands or external foot controllers.
Tempo is a crucial concept in the RC-50. Every phrase is recorded within the context of a tempo, but the phrases can have several different tempo relationships. The RC-50's tempo functions take advantage of its excellent real-time time-stretch processing (see Web Clip 1). Real-time processing allows the RC-50 to have a Tempo Sync function that forces all phrases to play back at the same tempo, regardless of each phrase's recorded tempo (if the tempos are too disparate, of course, audible artifacts are unavoidable). Each patch has a tempo stored with it, but you can set each phrase to either follow the current tempo or maintain its stored tempo.
Time-stretching also makes tap tempo possible. The RC-50 can derive its tempo from an incoming MIDI Clock, but without that, the initial tempo will be based on the phrase's length, which must be defined before recording.
The RC-50 furnishes a Rhythm Guide track, which is essentially a preprogrammed drum machine. It works fine for rehearsing but has several problems for performance. For one thing, the sounds are so-so (see Web Clip 2). And although a number of patterns are provided, the Rhythm Guide's complete lack of programmability makes it difficult to avoid monotonous repetition. In addition, though you can route the Rhythm Guide to the sub outputs instead of the main outputs (which can be useful as a reference for a drummer), you can't direct it to the headphone output only, which would be desirable for using it as a click track that the audience cannot hear. Another problem is that a new patch's default setting has the Rhythm Guide turned on, which I found somewhat annoying.
The RC-50 is aimed mostly at musicians who want to work in a one-man-band environment, whether for songwriting or for performing solo in a bandlike context. However, I am most interested in live looping, in which all the material is generated live and then manipulated in real time. Devices for this sort of activity range from the Boss RC-20XL and Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler to the high-powered (and more expensive) Looperlative LP-1. A hardware looper's cost has a lot to do with the number of loops you can record, the number you can play simultaneously, the total recording time, and the unit's manipulation capabilities. The RC-50 strikes a good sweet spot, thanks to its three simultaneous loops and processing functions such as reverse and tap tempo, and it sits squarely in the middle of the price continuum for loopers.
I had a lot of fun with the RC-50, though it definitely has a learning curve. No one should expect to get the best out of the RC-50 without reading the manual, which is good. I really appreciated the RC-50's sound quality, which is well beyond that of most looping devices, including the RC-20XL. With multiple loops, level matching became one of the most important parameter settings in my patches. Because I was creating all material on the fly, I used only a few patches.
For my purposes, the RC-50 does have a few shortcomings. One is that it lacks pitch processing; it is a common trick to step on a footpedal to get half-speed playback that affects both pitch and tempo. And though most looping is tempo oriented, the RC-50 defaults to having Tempo Sync turned on, which imposes its definition of the tempo. It is not difficult to disable Tempo Sync for each phrase (though global disable isn't available), but if you use the default, you must remember to do it every time you start creating a new patch. You could set up your own patch to use as a template and then copy that every time you want to create a new patch, which would allow you to save any settings you use regularly. However, that work-around effectively renders the RC-50's clear-patch function useless.
I also heard a very brief ducking of the sound whenever I kicked out of Record mode. Between that and the default Tempo Sync setting, it was extremely hard for me to get a smooth loop ending when using sounds that were continuous or had long decays (see Web Clip 3). The easy fix is to always leave at least a tiny bit of silence at the end of the phrase you want to loop, but that was quite an annoying compromise.
Considering the number of important real-time RC-50 functions that are available only using manual front-panel controls, external controllers are quite important. The RC-50's jacks are a good start, but the only MIDI Control Changes that the RC-50 can receive are CC 1, CC 80, and CC 81, strictly limiting the extent to which MIDI can supplement the other controls.
If Roland ever offers a software update, one nice feature would be the ability to designate one phrase to remain unaffected by patch changes. Such a scheme would allow that phrase to continue playing as you call up other material in different patches and then switch between the patches. Routing the Rhythm Guide to the headphones only would be another helpful addition.
Not to Repeat Myself …
Looping is a broad and esoteric musical area. Though the RC-50 is unquestionably a strong product, its level of excellence will vary with your approach. It is a very good tool for live looping, though not the best (but not the costliest, either). For rehearsing, songwriting, and one-man-band-type performances, it is especially robust. Nonetheless, its complexity makes it challenging to master. No matter what your looping style, however, the RC-50 Loop Station is a useful and versatile tool, especially for the price. And for many applications, it is simply the best choice for the job.
Larry the O is quite taken with live looping with live looping with live looping with live looping-ooping-ooping …
RC-50 Loop Station
|EASE OF USE
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Three simultaneous loops. Powerful tempo options. Many playback features. Excellent sound quality.
CONS: Difficult to loop long sounds smoothly. No half-speed playback. A few unfortunate default settings. Rhythm Guide cannot be directed to phones only.
Boss/Roland Corporation U.S.