Review: Boss RC-505 Loop Station

If you've seen any solo guitarists
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Fig. 1. With lots of knobs and buttons, Roland’s flagship looper is ideal for anyone whose hands are free during a musical performance—particularly DJs, singers, and sound mixers.

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If you’ve seen any solo guitarists onstage lately, chances are good they were using audio looping hardware to create rhythmic, repetitive patterns of sound. And chances are even better their hardware was made by Roland, who’s been launching successive models of the Boss Loop Station since 2001.

Although most loopers sit on the floor like stompboxes, the RC-505 is a tabletop unit. It offers unlimited overdubs and can store as many as 99 5-track stereo recordings (called Phrases) of any length, as long as they total no more than three hours. It also has built-in effects and plenty of connections to the outside world. The RC-505’s tactile user interface delivers just about everything you’d want for hands-on operation.

Hybrid Hardware All the electronics are housed in a unit weighing 3 lbs. and made entirely of plastic. When I set the RC-505 up, I immediately noticed how firmly its feet gripped my desktop, making it unusually resistant to sliding. Six knobs, five faders, and 32 buttons of various shapes and sizes populate the surface (see Figure 1). Rather than the footswitches you’d find on most loopers, five large, circular buttons—one for each of the five tracks—trigger loop recording and playback. In addition, each track has Stop and Edit buttons and a level fader. Controls for the effects are in the two upper corners, and buttons for functions that aren’t track-specific surround the backlit display, a 16-character-by-2-line LCD that provides just enough information to see what’s going on at any angle.

Fig. 2. The RC-505’s back panel supplies almost as many I/O connections as Roland’s previous flagship looper, the RC-300.

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The RC-505 has four analog audio inputs (see Figure 2): two unbalanced 1/4" instrument jacks, a balanced XLR microphone jack, and an aux minijack for connecting an MP3 player. You can enable phantom power for the mic input from within a system menu. Alongside the inputs are two unbalanced 1/4" audio outputs and a 1/4" headphone jack. Digital connections include MIDI I/O and a USB port for sending audio and MIDI data to and from a computer. A 9V wall-wart supplies power. A single 1/4" jack on the rear panel accommodates an expression pedal, a single footswitch, or a dual footswitch. You can use two separate footswitches if you have a splitter cable with a TRS plug at one end and two TS plugs at the other.

Thrown for a Loop Pressing a track’s Record/Play button the first time initiates recording. Pressing it a second time loops the track and initiates overdubbing. A third press disarms recording and begins playback, which repeats until you stop it. The button is backlit to indicate its status—red for record, yellow for overdub, and green for playback—and a ring of LEDs encircling the button indicates the loop’s position in time. If you want to record on adjacent tracks, you can easily switch from one track to another without missing a beat. During playback, you can choose to not loop a track by enabling one-shot mode.

If you make a mistake, press the Undo/Redo button, select the track, and press the Undo/Redo button again to delete your last overdub. Repeat the procedure if you want to redo it. Better yet, a footswitch can accomplish undo or redo in one click.

As with any looper, capturing the first beat and ending the loop at exactly the right moment can be tricky. If you set the tempo manually using either a knob or tap tempo, you can enable a one-measure count-in to improve your accuracy. It’s also possible to quantize your button presses to the selected tempo. If you don’t set it manually, the RC-505 will calculate the tempo based on the loop length and the time signature. Normally, all subsequent tracks you record will play in sync with the first track, but you can disable synchronization if you prefer.

An onboard rhythm track can accompany your loops and help improve your recording accuracy. The RC-505 furnishes hundreds of preset rhythms—ranging from metronomic to complex grooves in a variety of musical styles—in 17 different time signatures, including 7/4, 11/8, and the ever-popular 15/8.

You can apply effects to your loops as you’re recording them (Input Effects) or during playback (Track Effects). Most of the 25 effects types can process either inputs or tracks, but four types—Beat Repeat, Beat Shift, Beat Scatter, and Vinyl Flick—are exclusively for track playback. The variety of effects is impressive, ranging from everyday distortion, chorus, and reverb to an envelope follower that makes your voice sound like a synthesizer and a vocoder that uses one track to modulate another.

With a USB connection, importing 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV files from your computer is a simple drag-and-drop operation, and so is backing up audio files from the RC-505. USB also lets you integrate the Loop Station into your computer-based studio setup. Once I’d installed Roland’s downloadable USB driver, I got my DAW to recognize the RC-505 as both a MIDI device and an audio interface. I could start and stop recording and playback, sync tempos, select phrases using MIDI Program Change messages, and control parameters with Control Change messages. The documentation doesn’t yet explain which MIDI CCs control which parameters, though, so I had to discover them myself.

Remote Control When you connect a footswitch or expression pedal, you can assign its function independently for each phrase. By default, an expression pedal controls input level, one footswitch controls undo and redo, and a second footswitch turns the rhythm track on and off—all very useful functions. You could also turn recording and playback on and off, switch effects types, control playback levels, and much more.

I wish the RC-505 had more footswitch jacks, because so many functions would be better served by footswitches when your hands are busy playing an instrument. Sure, you could place it on the floor and tap the five track buttons with your foot, but the buttons appear less rugged than real footswitches. Likewise, an expression pedal is helpful because the level faders feel too flimsy to operate with your feet. At the very least, I’d hope for a second jack for external foot controllers, which would keep me from having to squat down on the floor so often—something you see looping guitarists do all the time.

Looperific Because most other loopers are designed for guitarists, the RC-505 is bound to have widespread appeal. If you’ve ever spent any time looping, you can only imagine the fun of recording on five separate tracks, switching between them, and playing them in tandem. Unlimited overdubbing lets you quickly build up dense textures and complex musical arrangements. And with so much recording time, you have room to stretch out and experiment.

I think of the Loop Station as a cross between a studio processor and musical instrument. Like with a processor, you must get to know it thoroughly to maximize its capabilities, and like an instrument, you must spend some time practicing and developing your technique to get the most musical results. It isn’t cheap, but the RC-505 is certainly one of the deepest loopers around; this review only scratches the surface in explaining all the features available.

Even if you’ve never used a looper before, you’ll quickly catch on, thanks to the RC-505’s intuitive controls. Nonetheless, you may need time to get to know its deeper functions. And if you’re a veteran loopmeister, you’ll find lots to appreciate about the RC-505.

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STRENGTHS: Five syncable, independent stereo tracks. Unlimited overdubs. Loads of recording time. Versatile effects processing.

LIMITATIONS: May require taking your hands off your instrument to operate. 16-bit, 44.1kHz audio format only. A bit pricey.

$799 MSRP, $599 street