Boss RC-20XL Phrase Recorder Review
By Jeff Obee
Back in the 1970s, Roland released the tape-based Space Echo delay, famously used by Jaco Pastorius for looping bass grooves. In the early 90s, Gibson and Lexicon released the Echoplex and Jamman, respectively. Slowly but surely, looping became ever more popular, with a community of looping devotees springing up all over the world- and a whole slew of looping products as well.
Boss is a sub-division of Roland, so both have been in the looping game for quite some time. The original RC-20 phrase recorder was released in 2001; the RC-20XL appeared in 2004. Although there are several new features, the main difference is that the XL has 16 minutes of sampling time onboard.
A lot is packed into a small chassis here. The rear of the unit has 1/4 inputs for your instrument and mic (no XLR input, unfortunately), a 1/4 mono output (no stereo), an aux mini jack for CD/MD/iPod input, 1/4 inputs for phrase shift and reverse, and an AC input (the cord is fairly long with a minimal wall wart, which is good). The phrase shift and reverse inputs are for optional pedals to control these features without bending over to the front panel; reverse is self-explanatory, and phrase shift allows you to move from track to track.
The top consists of two small pedals that perform the bulk of your looping. The right one stops recording, playback, and overdubbing; sets tap tempo; and completely deletes your last phrase if held down for two seconds. The left one enables recording; once a phrase is recorded it then allows you to switch between playback and overdub modes. If you hold this pedal down for two seconds it will either undo or restore the current phrase. Indicator lights between the pedals show you whats going on.
Also on top are 5 knobs and six buttons. The knobs are largely for setting input and output levels; one is for switching tracks (11 tracks in all, either one-shot or looped). The buttons are for reverse playback, tap tempo and time signature, saving tracks to memory, setting Auto Start (recording starts when it detects the first note- otherwise you get a bar of pre-roll), and to access the Stop Modes. The three Stop Modes allow you to either stop a loop immediately upon pressing the right pedal, fade a loop at the end, or stop a phrase after its played to the end.
Theres a Quantize feature that automatically sets the end of a phrase in time, which really helps lay down a solid groove. This can be disengaged. There is no headphone jack, MIDI capability, USB port, or flash card slot. Performance
The RC-20XL isnt the most intuitive piece of gear Ive used straight out of the box; all the features and controls packed into it will probably have you reading the manual at first, but I was soon off and running.
I first tested the unit on its own, then put my Zoom FX pedal in-line before the RC-20XL. The audio quality holds up quite well as you layer overdubs, which is always a good thing in a looper. One of the knobs controls the Guide volume, meaning the metronome for the tap tempo (there are eight Guide sounds to choose from). At the low end, the Guide volume didnt fade well to zero- there was a point at which the volume was either off or a bit too present for my tastes.
If you sit while you play, then bending down and reaching for certain controls isnt too big an issue. However, if you prefer to stand, its a pain. Youll probably shell out for the sold separately footswitches, since these control track switching and reverse playback. However, its really nice to have reverse- its indispensable when creating soundscapes.
Creating layers of grooves, chords, and incidental rhythm bits with the Rc-20XL alone is great fun. However, if youre just using the usual timbre of your instrument its easy for things to start blending too much. When I put the Zoom pedal into the mix, things started to sparkle. Playing chords with chorusing, incidental parts with wah-wah, and so forth helped everything stand out in the mix.
After playing with a bunch of groove material, I experimented with a soundscape. Auto Start and One-Shot (on any track) was helpful here as I randomly improvised sound effects and lines. I then tried a jazz tune (All The Things You Are), laying down the bass line first, then the chords, then soloing over the top. I have to say, this is a great way to hone your jazz chops. And speaking of honing chops, you can also slow the audio down to 75% speed and stay at the original pitch.Conclusion
The RC-20XL is great for practicing, setting up layers of groove oriented material, or creating fairly complex atmospheric pieces. It retails for $362.50, but the Sweetwater price is around $260, so its very reasonably priced for what it is. I would suggest getting the footswitches (if you dont have them already).
My wish list would include a headphone jack, MIDI clock for synching to other sound modules, an XLR input, USB capability, and some sort of memory card slot. But, theres just not room- the idea behind a product like this is to fill the gap between the small and simple stomp box R-20 loop pedal, and the large seven-pedal full-featured RC-50. Folks into looping are always crying out for more features, so inevitably Boss had to squeeze as much as they could into a small-ish sized chassis to make it attractive at this price point.
The main competition here is Digitechs JamMan, which has an XLR input, USB and a flash slot- but no headphone jack, MIDI or reverse playback. Theres always something. The bottom line is this: the RC-20XL has a lot of very useful features, sounds terrific, its portable and built like a tank, and
its a whole lot of serious fun.