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Gear Review: Boss RC-20XL Loop Station

Until recently, due to limited budget, I’ve been using the free software looping solution, Mobius. A couple of weeks ago I came across the Boss RC-20XL Phrase Recorder in my local music store. It is the relatively inexpensive (approx. $250) two-pedal ‘middle sibling’ of the Loop Station family; the smaller unit being the one-pedal RC-2 and the much larger unit being the 5-pedal RC-50.

After playing with it for just 15 minutes, I was surprised to discover that it possessed immediate musicality and was extremely intuitive to use. On paper, feature for feature, Mobius comes out on top as it is in essence, an Echoplex emulation – but for sheer simplicity of use, the RC-20XL is a winner.

So What’s Missing?

The main thing missing on the RC-20XL is multi-track functionality, i.e., being able to record one loop of a set length (say 8 bars) then switch tracks and record a separate synchronized loop of say 4 bars; both tracks being capable of being manipulated without interfering with the other (a function I’m used to with Mobius). Also absent is the ability to multiply or cut short loops. At first, this put me off, but a different tool requires a different approach. Once I’d changed my mind-set, I started to have fun.

The RC-20XL At a Glance

What we have here in the RC-20XL is a heavy and solid unit comprising two multi-function foot pedals for start/stop recording (other functions the pedals can control include overdub, pause, undo and tap-tempo).

So from the left, top row: Level knob, Guide Volume knob (choose from an range of preset guide drum tracks), Loop Quantize Indicator Light, Phrase Select knob (Select the phrase that will be saved or played), Loop Phrase Indicator lights (lit if a selected phrase contains recorded material and whether loop will play continually or once), Microphone Level knob, Peak Indicator Light, Instrument Level knob.

Then the bottom row: Reverse Button, Tap-Tempo Button (controls tempo and time signature), Write Button (save a recorded phrase into memory), Exit Button (halt a phrase save or delete operation), Auto Start Button (if lit recording will start automatically as you start to play) and finally the Mode Button (sets the recording method).

The rear panel provides an Instrument input jack, Microphone input jack (XLR would have been better), AUX In jack (connect to the headphone jack of an external audio source for phrase-sampling), Phrase-shift jack (move through pre-recorded phrases by plugging in a separate foot pedal), Reverse jack (switch between reverse/normal playback by plugging in a separate foot pedal), Output jack and finally the Power Adapter jack.

The unit can run on 6 x AA batteries if required, although I wouldn’t think they would last too long.

The RC-20XL In Use

The RC-20XL provides somewhat immediate satisfaction. Hit the left pedal to start recording; hit again to stop and your recorded phrase will play back. One of the most interesting features of this product is that it provides a massive 16 minutes of recording time – more than enough to be getting on with!

Hit the left button while your phrase is playing back and you are in overdub mode – dip in and out then with the left pedal as desired to build up layers of overdubs. Hitting the right pedal will stop playback, then hitting it again will continue playback (from the beginning of the phrase). This is very useful for pausing playback, playing a non-looped section of a song, then bringing the loop back in when done.

The reverse function is very cool. When the button (or foot pedal if connected) is pressed, playback is reversed. Now, if a whole layered phrase of overdubs has been recorded, hitting the reverse button will reverse the lot – interesting in of itself or for a gimmick. I found however by playing with this function, that if reverse is pressed before recording commences, then only your initial recorded phrase will play backwards – all other overdubs will be recorded normally. In turn, this itself can then be reversed so that the initial phrase then plays forwards and all overdubs play backwards!

The Tap Tempo and Loop Quantize are also very useful for creating accurate loop endings and cuts out some of the worry if your timing is very slightly off.

Additionally, the RC-20XL can be used as a practice aid or ‘phrase trainer’ for learning difficult or fast pieces. Record the phrase via the Aux In then time-stretch the phrase tempo (keeping pitch) to a slower rate. Very swish!

So far, I have only used this unit with solo bass. I have yet to experiment with looping vocals (or another mic’d instrument) via the Microphone Jack or sampling looped audio via the Aux In, but it seems the possibilities are endless. Use the RC-20XL as part of the effects chain and it performs like a dream. The unit is completely silent from what I can hear with no hiss or degradation of signal.

The Boss RC-20XL is a high-quality, affordable, intuitive and very capable looping solution. It is ‘entry-level’ when compared to the likes of EchoPlex, Looperlative or even the Jam-Man but certainly packs a punch in its price range when compared to similar units such as the Akai Headrush, especially in the area of recording time. I’ll still continue to use Mobius for it’s extended functionality, but with none of the complications of a software solution such as latency, audio routing and usb interfaces to worry about, the RC-20XL is a ‘plug and play’ winner.