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“Zero Head Gain” & Roland Tape Echoes

What do we mean when we say a Roland Space Echo has “Zero Head Gain” and why is that so special? Join us for a short delve into the world of tape echo servicing…

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To Tape Or Not To Tape?

Due to the nature of recording onto tape you run the risk of some signal being lost, which of course is part of the magic of tape, not to mention the hundreds of plugins that emulate it. However, that change in the level of signal can potentially create issues when you come to play the recording on the tape alongside the original source. Roland tape echoes use a recovery preamp in order to amplify the affected ‘wet’ signal from the playback heads. The RE-201 uses one preamp for all the heads, whereas the RE-501 and SRE-555 have individual head preamps, allowing a much greater headroom (the driving force behind the 501/555’s pristine, transparent sound).

However, the way that the heads are aligned is the same process for all tape echoes. There is an optimum tape path, which allows each head to send or receive data in the most efficient way. This is controlled by:

  • The alignment of the heads,
  • Ensuring the correct pressure: tape to head, pinchwheel to motor capstan,
  • Using bias adjustments to ensure that the record and erase functions follow the spec stated in the schematic.

Our Mission: To Go Beyond…

At Soundgas we do our very best to ensure these bases are covered for every echo. We follow the service manual and ensure the setup procedure is as good as, or often better than, Roland’s standard protocol. In addition our standard service even includes relapping/re-honing all heads to smooth out uneven wear, restoring them to as close to factory finish as possible and provide the cleanest tape path and contact.

The Roland service notes say that a tape echo head is “aligned” once the tape covers both magnets visible on the head (they were mass-produced in great numbers so the factory set up was designed to get them out as quickly/profitably as possible). This does work, however with more time and care it is usually possible to achieve a better position and alignment for much greater frequency response from the head, by using different frequency sine waves to increase accuracy.

Some Pain, No Gain

Once a technician is happy with all these points there is a part to the setup where you add or remove gain from the recovery preamp circuit. Having lots of gain will lead to hiss, hard to control/nasty sounding feedback oscillations; generally a less musical sound. So lower gain is better, if possible, but you also need to aim to have your wet signal received from each individual head around the same volume (amplitude) as the input signal.

Through our experience servicing more and more tape echoes we found that our servicing and precision setup was – on some machines – leading to the wet only and input signal sharing the same amplitude without the need to boost the signal received from the heads. This means that our echoes have greater head room, sounding cleaner and clearer whilst keeping everything we love about tape and analogue.

Patience is Rewarded (Sometimes)

Not every echo can reach this point of “beyond factory spec” performance. While the reasons are not always obvious for an individual machine, essentially it’s a mixture of variation in components both from factory and due to age, and other age-related factors acting on the tape path. This is part of the charm of this old equipment – yours doesn’t sound like every other one out there – and also what makes a machine with very low or zero head make-up gain special: you have no way of knowing how good a Space Echo will get until you get to that final stage of seeing how well the heads are performing. You do all the other things have to do to get the best out of the unit: dismantling, cleaning, recapping, testing components, re-honing heads, reassembly, new tape, head alignment and more testing, and only then do you find out what you are dealing with. Think of it as scratching off all the boxes on a lottery card, but you don’t know if you’ve won the big prize until you take off the last bit of silver (and it takes a day or more of work to reveal what you’ve won!).

Do I need a Zero Head Gain Space Echo?

So, do you need a “Zero Head Gain” Space Echo? Good question. They cost more, reflecting the work that goes into producing them, and their relative scarcity (made even more scarce by the fact that there’s no point in having amazing head performance if other parts of the machine are not also at their best). While they are undoubtedly “better” by the objective measure of where the head gain can be set, what really matters is: will you notice this benefit? And will your recordings reflect it? As you imagine there are a number of factors at play here. One is how important it is that you have the lowest noise floor is in your set up. Although, if you really want very low noise you probably need a 501, and if you want “no” noise then you should probably consider using a digital emulation or plugin… Plus it depends on how you intend to use your machine: will it be in the mix, sprinkling some tape echo and spring reverb magic? Or are you investing in this as much as another instrument or sound source as an effect? Will you be playing guitar direct into the echo and teasing out every nuance of the sound? Clearly the more you intend to be able to hear the Space Echo at work with pristine sources, the more you will notice the difference of having the lowest possible head gain. There’s more to say about this aspect, but the best buying advice we have for choosing the right tape echo for your needs is get in touch with us and discuss your requirements – we’re here to help 🙂

More Space Echo Resources

This article is one of many Roland Echo articles on our site. Find more below, or search for them all across the site.

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