review

Boss RC-50 Loop Station

Review by Mark Starlin

Boss RC-50 Loop Station

Looping and the guitar go way back. Back in the 1940’s, in an era when recordings were done without overdubs, guitarist/inventor Les Paul was dazzling audiences with his “Les Paulverizer” device. Having recently invented one of the first solidbody guitars and multitrack recording, Les invented a device that allowed him to control a tape machine (details have always been secretive), stashed off stage, from his guitar. This device allowed him to create tape-based effects such as echo, double-speed repeats, and sound on sound recording (looping) in a live setting. At the time this was simply unimaginable and earned him the title “Wizard of Waukesha.”

As tape machines (and later tape echo effects units) became commercially available, other pioneering players such as Robert Fripp incorporated looping into their act. With the invention of digital delay pedals, looping is now more popular than ever, with masters like Phil Keaggy showing the way.

Big Guns

The Boss RC-50 is the flagship of the Boss looping pedal line, incorporating three looping devices into one unit. Designed with the serious looper in mind, the RC-50 features a large number of options for recording and controlling loops. In fact the RC-50 is suitable for any instrument, including the human voice. It even has a microphone input for singers or those using acoustic instruments. But since this is Better Guitar and I am a guitar player, I will focus this review on the RC-50’s use for guitarists.

Hardware Features

The RC-50 is a large unit measuring approximately 18.5" by 8" and weighing about 6.7 pounds. It has a 16 character, two line LCD, and a two character LED display for patch numbers. There are seven footswitches and a host of buttons and knobs to control setup and operation settings. It features 24bit, 44.1Khz AD/DA conversion with 256 MB of RAM for recording. This gives you approximately 24 minutes of stereo or 49 minutes of mono recording capability. There are 99 user assignable patches to store phrases in. The rear panel has a pair of instrument inputs that can be used for a single mono or stereo input, a microphone input with a phantom power switch, and an AUX input for CD or other audio devices. The output section has a pair or Main outs, a pair of Sub outs (to send to a PA or mixer, for example), and a 1/4" phones jack. There are a pair control/expression pedal jacks, a USB port, and MIDI out and in jacks. It includes an AC Adapter.

Boss RC-50 rear panel

Rear panel input and output is impressive.

Play Modes

There are two basic operation (Play) modes when using the RC-50, single play mode and multi play mode. Single play mode allows you to use the three phrases (looping devices) sequentially (switching from one to another.) Single play mode is good for recording separate song sections such as verse, chorus, and bridge, then switching between them to arrange a song. Multi play mode allows you to use all three phrases simultaneously, allowing you to switch parts in and out as the others play. Each mode has a large number of options for recording and playback that I will cover as I describe each mode in more detail.

Single Play Mode

In single play mode, only one of the three phases can be active at any time. Selecting a different phrase stops the phrase currently playing and starts the one selected. Each of the three phrases has an output level knob so you can mix them however you like relative to the other phrases and to your direct signal. If you are using a stereo output, you can pan the signal anywhere in the stereo field. You can also choose whether the phrase will loop, play one time only (one shot), or play in reverse. Your next decision is whether to use the Guide.

The Guide

The Guide is a metronome of sorts, except it uses rhythm patterns instead of a click. There are dozens of rhythm sounds in a number of styles. You get the most patterns when playing in 4/4 time, but you can select just about any time signature common in popular music (some only a prog player could love: 13/8 anyone?) The rhythm patterns sound good and are great for practice, but they are probably too simple for more than occassional live use. I did find them fun to jam along with and often just what was needed to spark a new loop idea. You don’t have to use the Guide. You can set its volume to zero and it turns off.

Tempo And Tempo Sync

Tempo is up next. You can set the tempo of a patch by tapping the Tempo pedal or using the LCD and parameter knob. If you don’t set a tempo, the RC-50 will calculate the tempo of a loop at the completion of the loop. This brings us to one of the many options on the RC-50: Tempo Sync. With tempo sync turned on all three phrases will play back at the patch tempo regardless of the tempo they were recorded at. This can be helpful if the tempo difference is small, but downright ugly if the tempo difference is large. I found it fine to leave tempo sync on when using the guide, but better to turn it off when not using the guide.

Recording A Loop

To record a loop, you first select a phrase. If it is the first time the phrase has been selected, it will be in record enabled mode, indicated by a flashing red light. You then tap the REC/PLAY/OVERDUB pedal to start recording. In single play mode you have three options to end the loop. Tap the REC/PLAY/OVERDUB button again and the loop will play back. Tap the STOP pedal and the loop will end and playback will not begin. Tap another phrase pedal, and if the new phase is empty, it will begin recording a new phrase. If the phrase already has recorded material it will begin playback. Once the initial recording is done on a phrase, the REC/PLAY/OVERDUB toggles between play and overdub modes.

Multi Play Mode

Now let’s look at Multi play mode. In multi play mode any or all of the three phrases can play back at the same time. This allows you create three parts (each with as many overdubs as you like) and turn them on and off when desired. It also enables another option called Loop Sync. Loop Sync is only available in Multi Play mode. With Loop sync turned on the loops you create always play back beginning at the same point they were recorded, relative to the longest loop. For example, if you start a second loop two measure into the first loop, it will always loop starting at measure two, leaving the first two measures silent. If loop sync is turned off, loops repeat as soon as they end. So in the example above, the second loop would just keep looping and eventually loop through the first two measures of the first loop when it comes around again. It sounds a little confusing at first, but once you start using it, you will see that each option has its uses.

Other Options

There are lots of other options on the RC-50 and I will touch on some of my favorites (and not so favorites) now. One of the most difficult parts of using loopers has always been learning to start and stop loops exactly on beat one. Loop Quantize is Boss’s attempt to make this process more forgiving. Loop Quantize time-stretches the length of a loop backwards or forward if you don’t hit the pedal exactly on the beat. Of course, this also slightly changes the pitch of the loop. If you are close to the beat it won’t be noticeable, but in my opinion, it is better to practice your tapping and avoid the quantizing altogether.

In single play mode, phrases change as soon as you select them. But there is a very cool option that lets you switch phrases only when the current loop ends. So while phrase one is playing you can select phrase two, at any time, and it won’t switch until phrase one is done playing. This allows you to concentrate on your current playing without worrying about changing phrases exactly at the end of the loop. You can also set loops to end automatically at the end of a phrase, or to fade out — both useful tools. 

Another nice option is Auto Record. When auto record is turned on, a phrase will start recording as soon as you begin playing. You can set the sensitivity of auto record to keep finger noise from setting it off. Auto record makes sure your loops always start exactly at beat one and never cut off part of the beginning.

USB And MIDI

An included USB port and cable allows you backup and restore patch data, and save individual phrases to your computer hard drive. You can also import prerecorded loops in WAV format from your hard drive onto the RC-50. A CD full of loops is included with the RC-50. It contains about two dozen full instrument backing tracks, 50 or so drum loops (some with bass), and some sound effects (cool for adding an airplane sound to the beginning of your Back In The USSR cover.)  I loaded several loops onto the RC-50 with no problem from my Mac. It is basically a drag and drop affair, once you rename the WAV files according to the RC-50’s naming conventions.  

MIDI allows you to tempo sync to other MIDI devices and send patch change messages. If you own a Boss GT-8 effect unit you could use the RC-50 to send patch changes to the GT-8 for the ultimate setup control when using both live.

External Pedals

Even though the RC-50 has seven pedals, some functions are not available via the main footswitches and require button pushing — not easy in a live situation. Using external Boss pedals, however, you can control functions such as toggling reverse on and off, starting and stopping the guide, starting all phrases at one time, switching overdub modes, and much more.

In Use

The RC-50 offers lots of possibilities and is a blast to use, but it is not the most intuitive pedal and requires proper setup to get the most out of it. I found it best to create some generic patches for single and multi play modes with items like no tempo sync or loop sync off selected. This makes it easier to experiment without the hassle of setting everything up. However, I did discover one nice feature that makes setting up easier. When you select a phrase and setup a parameter, if you immediately select another phrase, the same parameter remains ready to be edited in the new phrase. This makes it faster to set the same parameter in all three phrases.

Another cool feature is the UNDO/REDO pedal. Naturally this is great for the times when you goof up while recording a loop. Simply hit the UNDO/REDO pedal and start over. But I found it even more useful as a performance feature. I often like to play a guitar line and then harmonize along with it. Here is where the UNDO/REDO pedal comes in handy. First I record a backing phrase and then overdub a lead part on top of it. Next I play the harmony part live along with the overdubbed lead part. Once I done playing the harmony part, I tap the UNDO/REDO pedal and the original lead part disappears (but not the backing phrase) and the phrase is ready to overdub another lead part. This makes it easy to create a whole string of harmonized parts without a bunch of erasing. Awesome.

While the RC-50 can provide up to 49 minutes of mono recording time, plenty for most uses, if you use a lot of prerecorded material, you will probably run out of memory before you fill 99 patches. Even those who create all new material live each time they use the RC-50 will want to keep an eye on the available recording time displayed on the LCD. Old phrases can be erased by holding down the STOP pedal for 2 seconds, freeing up more recording time, but they must be done individually. I wish there was a way to erase a whole patch at once.

Overall, the RC-50 worked like a champ. But there is one glitch that must be mentioned. When you record an initial phrase for a patch, there is a slight delay before the phrase plays back. Most times this is less than a beat, but it is noticeable. On consecutive repeats the gap disappears and any phrases created after the initial one play back immediately. If you are using the guide or “playing through” the phrase this usually isn’t a big deal, but I find it hard to believe that a looper with this much horsepower doesn’t loop immediately the first time. My guess is the delay is caused by the RC-50 determining the tempo of the phrase and writing it to memory. I contacted Boss support and they verified that the playback delay is part of how the unit currently operates. Hopefully this will be fixed in a software update (the current software version is 1.0) soon. Boss assured me the software could be updated via USB but had no timetable for a fix. With that said, I still found the RC-50 great fun to use despite this annoyance.

[Update: Boss has released version 1.01 of the RC-50 operating system. It allows you to select between Rhythm Priority (factory default) and Audio Priority for loop playback. Selecting Audio Priority eliminates the slight delay often encountered on the first playback of a recorded loop. Of course, you then need to tap right on the beat to get a clean loop. Audio priority doesn't work if you are using the rhythm guide or MIDI sync.]

Wish List

While the RC-50 is a very powerful looper, there are few things that I think would make the RC-50 even better. First a software upgrade to eliminate the initial phrase playback delay. Second, it would be cool if you could do the old analog delay style looping where a loop gradually fades out as you add new loops on top. Third, a way to replace the guide sounds with your own WAV files.

Final Thoughts

I feel like I have just scratched the surface, but if I covered everything possible with the RC-50 the review would be impossibly long. The Boss RC-50 is a monster looper. It has options galore for the looper willing to take the time to learn its secrets. It is not intuitive to use (at first) and needs to be setup properly for best use. However, once I learned how it works, I found it inspiring and just plain fun to use. It currently has a slight delay before an initial phrase plays back, an annoyance that will hopefully be fixed soon in an update. It also has a somewhat unorganized manual, which makes learning the RC-50 more difficult than it should be. These two blemishes are all that prevent me from giving it my highest rating. If you are in the market for a serious looping device, the Boss RC-50 is worth consideration.

Reader Comments

Better Guitar encourages your input. Agree with this review? Think I’m crazy? If you have used a Boss RC-50 Loop Station, email me your comments and I’ll post them below. The more opinions we have available, the better our buying decisions will be.

Jim Astley

I read Tony Fay's bug issue with lots of interest. One solution would be to have the same loop recorded across 2 pedals. I'm pretty sure there's a "copy phrase" option you could load onto a Ctrl switch. Without having the RC in front of me, it's a bit hard to say for sure. But my thoughts were, to record the loop and then use an external switch to copy to say phrase 3. Then you could hit alternate pedals to trigger the one shot.

I know what he's saying about syncing to drummers. I do exactly the same thing. Not because the drummer is slack but because of the feel of the night, the tempo will NEVER be the same twice over. I usually pre-record the piece & re-trigger every bar to get the sample starting in sync. Yes it's a little out of sync by the end of the bar, but because the next bar starts bang on, it's not as noticeable to Joe Punter.

I've found the mix level of loops is critical to making this thing work well live. I now mic my amp into the RC50 & have a Y cord so the PA gets that mic also. I record my guitar from the mic ONLY. I then feed the output of the RC into an RCF powered PA type of box for band monitoring & use the loop through to the PA. The beauty of this is YOU control the mix of loops & the PA guy is happy because it's a clean DI'd output. I could rabbit on for hours about this great little (big ??) pedal, but that'll do for now. Cheers.

Dino

Hi mark, great review. I'm hoping this review was some time ago and some new tools have come about to make the functionality of the RC-50 easer to understand. There isn't a date stamp in the header. I was very hesitant to by another boss / Roland product after I purchased my VS 2480 years ago because the technical documentation was so poorly written. Well here we go again, the tech docs for the RC-50 are beyond sub standard just like all Roland products I have owned. Do you know of ant good training tools available on the web in any form? I'm hoping some cool DIY'r or pro took the time pay or free to put something together. If you know of anything please pass it on.

Mark Starlin reply

Thanks Dino. The review was done in November of 2006. The manual is not very good. It is poorly organized which makes it difficult to find answers. Spending time with the RC50 while keeping the manual open was the way I learned. However, I just looked on the Roland website and found some "Workshop Booklets" [pdf] that might be of some help. Click on the support tab to find the documents.

Tony Fay (Dublin, Ireland)

Hi Mark. Read your review of the RC-50. I wanted to let you know about an issue with it (actually a bug I uncovered that Roland have conceded exists.) I am wondering if you have come across it in your testing.

My issue is with using the unit in the one shot mode. Namely if I record live, say 4 bars of rhythm in One Shot mode with a view to playing it as lead guitar backing, I find that the unit will not play the phrase when I foot trigger it when bar one comes round again (to be precise it will play it once coinciding with ending the phrase recording phase but will not play it again when I subsequently hit the “rec/play/overdub” button again at the end of the four bars). It will play it however if you start it slightly before the four bars have played or indeed after the four bars have played out, but not at the very end of the four bars which is when one needs to start it. Note I am manually triggering the loop each time rather than having it loop around automatically i.e. running it in one shot mode. The reason being I have a better chance of getting my drummer to keep time if the loop is not running strictly on its own. To get round this problem I actually have to record “four bars and a bit” so that I can restart at the end of the four bars and thus the unit thinks I am re-starting the phrase before it has ended. This has the disadvantage that I can't use the recorded phrase immediately.

Roland/Boss give no indication when this will be fixed. They plead that they don't know when the Japanese parent company will respond to any requests (not that I believe they have put my request through in the first place.) My main beef with this is that I am trying to manually trigger loop play but it wont play. This is more than a bug in my opinion, this is a major functional flaw — i.e. you can't play a recorded loop when you want to! Apologies for the rambling nature of the description but the phenomenon is rather difficult to describe. I am writing to you only in that you may have a large readership and this may trigger (excuse the pun) some ideas among RC-50 users that might help me. Thanks for your time.

Mark Starlin reply

Hi Tony. It took me a minute to understand what you meant. But I think I got it. You want to manually trigger a loop over and over, while you solo, correct? I tried it and it worked fine for me the first few times. But then I let the phrase “run out” and it refused to play. I think if you hit it exactly at the moment the phrase ends, it won't play back. The first few times I was anticipating beat 1 and probably hitting the pedal a fraction of a second before the phrase ended and letting up on the pedal on beat 1, so it worked. Yes, this is definitely a bug. The manual says you can hold down the rec/play/overdub to continuously loop a One Shot phrase, but that didn't work for me either. I understand your frustration. Until Roland/Boss fixes this you will have to find another way to do what you are after (or return the unit.)

Obviously, the best option would be for the drummer to learn to play to the loop (tough for many drummers unless they can really hear the loop well.) It seems drummers hate this thing! It's like playing to a click track. Let me ask you this. If you are always hitting the play button on beat 1, then wouldn't it be easier to just loop the phrase? I can't imagine trying to manually try to keep a loop in sync with a drummer (you're a glutton for punishment!)  Also, is the backing track really necessary for your solo? What other instruments are in the band? I have heard plenty of great solos over just bass and drums.

You could set the phrase to loop and use the Stop button to end the phrase and then the Play button to start it when you need it to begin. But this is even more pedal work. The other option would be to record 8 bars of the 4 bar phrase and then manually loop the first four. This should work without a problem. You would have a longer loop before you begin the solo, but it would still sound correct, maybe build a little anticipation, and it would give the drummer time to “find the beat?”

I only use my RC-50 solo, so I haven't had drummer issues. I only use One Shot for endings. I often play the end of a song as a sort of intro, so I have it already recorded when I need it at the end.

Tony Fay

Mark, you have it 100% correct. All the points you make are spot on. I would indeed love to just let it loop (in fact it might be better if I kick the drummer on “one” rather than the RC50. Preferably with steel toe boots!)

I think you are right about it however and it may be the best way to go. Just need to ensure that he has enough phrase feedback to be able to play along. We are looking at our PA set up to try and improve it (i.e. introduce monitors which we don't currently use.) I intend to move to having the phrase play only through the sub output and route this directly to the PA and to the monitors (rather than out of my amp as I find having both the rhythm and lead coming out of the one guitar amp makes it all a little cluttered and again difficult for the drummer to hear the rhythm part with my lead swamping over the top of it.)

Also your point about recording 8 bars is correct, that's actually what I do now. I record 4 bars and a little bit extra (this is enough to make it longer than the 4 bars and allows me to restart the loop early but on beat 1.) The only problem here of course is that I can't use the loop immediately. I have to wait till the second 4 bars have passed.

Finally your point about not bothering with backing loops in the first place is also correct. I play in a three piece (wedding band really) and sometimes it can be even better not to have rhythm backing as it lets the lead breath and punch through. This is especially true if you have a real hot drummer/bass combo. Mine are OK but not jaw dropping. In any case Mark I want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to try my issue variation out and I do appreciate all your inputs. Keep on playing and enjoying it. I wonder if like me, as one gets older you realise more and more just what a joy being able to make music really is. In fact I have given up my $100,000 a year job just to go full time in the music. My wage has plummeted but my contentment has soared (apart from things loopish that is!) Take care of your self.

stats

  • Better Guitar Great Gear Award
  • • 7 footswitches for operation control
  • • Realtime control of playback speed
  • • Play up to 3 stereo phrase tracks simultaneously, all synced to an internal or MIDI clock
  • • Long recording time (up to 49 min. mono)
  • • 99 patches (3 master loops per patch)
  • • Undo/Redo function for recording and overdubbing
  • • Center-cancellation feature, “flat” amplifier simulation feature
  • • Stereo input, dual stereo output, XLR phantom-powered mic input, stereo mini-jack
  • • Aux input (for recording from an MP3 players, etc.)
  • • USB port for data/audio backup, import/export of loops as WAV files
  • Positives
  • Solid construction; vast number of options for controlling loops; very good sound quality.
  • Negatives
  • The factory default setting (rhythm priority) can cause a slight delay in the first playback of recorded loops; poorly organized manual; learning curve.
  • Rating
  • Performance: 8
  • Sound Quality: 9
  • Construction: 10
  • Overall: 9
  • Ratings Key
  • 0 = Worthless
  • 10 = Excellent
  • Estimated Street Price
  • Discontinued

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