thoughts on looping with the RC-202

The following is derived from various posts I made over at Electronauts forum.

Get Looping !

I bought the RC-202 this week, and here are my impressions from the first week of poking around. Seeking a complement to the deep-and-complex Octatrack, I sold my Pigtronix Infinity (which I was using with my hands, tabletop) to purchase/explore this 202 for quick-and-dirty loop/one-shot work, without ALWAYS having to plan ahead, set up machines, and and menu-dive with the OT’s “looper-ing” with Pickup- or Flex-machine tracks.

Specifically, I was interested in loops whose length was defined directly (press record, press play), without having to do any prep-work around at UI or step-sequencer. Here are some of my key first impressions of the RC202, in and outside of that particular interest.

Overview +s and -s…

While the Boss RC202 may seem like a pared-down version of their RC505 (which came out) , the RC202’s arrival came after an update to the RC505 V2.0 firmware, but it is not simply a 505 with only 2 tracks; the 202’s feature-set and User Interface fall ahead or behind of the (v 2.0) 505 in various ways.
Let’s look at hardware and software features in detail, with an interest in the growth-potential of this looper as an investment.

  • The table-top controls are well scaled with a great feel. The buttons for Play, stop, Track and Effect/Memory are big and responsive (highly preferable to hand-pushing stomp-switches on the Infinity).
  • Like the 505, the 202 allow for extended remote control beyond it’s panel. The 202 can assign up 2 foot-switches (or one Expression pedal) and 4 MIDI CCs for external control. For more details, see Remote Control below…
  • The User Interfacing has some advantages and disadvantages over the RC505: While the 202 loses the per-track volume fader and text-filled LCD screen, the 202 has very clever color-coding of Track Buttons and Memory (1~8) buttons to serve as a (glaring) reminder of context and action, instead of menu diving, which proves to be faster, and doesn’t require you keep the screen in front of you.
  • Each of the 64-Loops (2 tracks each) is organized into the 8 Memory Banks of 8 Loops. I found the RC202’s color-button scheme easier to use than the 505; the buttons not only (colorfully) show you which slots have loops stored, but also jump seamlessly, AND let you copy/save the present-playing loops into multiple OTHER slots at once, all without stoppage. This lets you permute freely and intuitively. Just be careful not to tax the processor with effects or Undo’s while Saving, or the 3-digit LCD will say “EGO” (…”Error 90″ for “CPU overload”). Thankfully, no amount of EGO-overload made the loops stop dead.
  • The 202 was not able to do sample-accurate loop sync as MIDI slave… it was un-usably losing sync within a few bars, and trying to thin out MIDI reception (Omni turned off, Auto-modes off) did not help. Perhaps it’s from unstable clock from the 20-year old Sirius groove-synth used to test…
  • The 202 fared MUCH better with sync as MIDI Master. I’m happy to use 202 as clock master, given the dedicated Tap button blinks red on the bar and green on the beats (again, better than having to look into a screen).
  • The 202 Unit has direct (and color coded) buttons for each Loop’s Reverse playback direction, Loop / OneShot state, and one layer of Undo / Redo. This makes it easy to change how loops are used once they’re recorded. Same goes for toggling the Record mode into Replace, so you can insert/delete loops as you go. Embrace the destructive editing ! By Contrast, the 505 requires you to dive into the Edit menu of a loop to use the Data Wheel to set Reverse, One-Shot, etc.
  • There is no Start Mode parameter: If both are stopped, you can start one Track at any time. Once one in playing, the 2nd Track has already started to stays aligned, so pushing Play does not (re)start that 2nd track, but un-mutes it. Thus, the 202’s Tracks do not have the the ability to be (re)start at arbitrary alignments from each other. It would be nice to have some Start Mode options beyond this.
  • the unit’s Rhythm Guide is very handy, as it not only gives an audible tempo to cue up, but also determines if and how loop operations will be quantized. The Guide’s sounds are fine, but there are not enough Time Signature options. Specifically, while does have 2/4 thru 4/4 and 5/8 thru 15/8 (just like the RC505, and the foot-pedal RC50)… it would be REALLY nice to have one-Beat-per-Bar options like 1/4 and 1/8, or even stuff down to the 16th note, because of how these Bar-Length settings of the guide affect Loop Quantization… Such arbitrary granularity would allow the 202 to keep up with the OT, or even the 10+ year old Gibson EDP looper.

Keeping in Sync

RC tabletop loopers can sync with other gear, either as Master (create a loop, RC calculates and sends Clock to your drum machine), or as Slave (RC manages some time-stretching of loops to follow Clock from other Masters). Understandably, the 202 fared better as master, as the 202’s Phrase Sync time-stretching got grainy and would would lose the down-beat/bar-line when making significant tempo changes.

The 202 unit will always Quantize your loops to/for tempo sync different ways, depending on how it’s set up.

  • There is no “Free” loop mode for out-of-sync ambient work (such as on the RC pedals).
  • The RC202 allows you quantize loop control to the beat, but the  there is no “Loop Length” option; where previous RCs could let you pre-determine the length in Bars (at tempo) or by the length of the first loop, the RC202 will ONLY record a second loop that is a power of 2 (…1/4, 1/2, 1x, 2x, 4x, etc) multiple of the first loop. It will either delay recording start of, or delay end-record/start-play of, your other loop so that it’s always in base-2 sync with the first-recorded loop. Thus, you cannot make short-loops into polyrhythms.

Most users making straight-forward 4/4 music will be readily satisfied, if not impressed with the 202’s usage, but  I tend to explore more ambient and poly-rhythmic territory. My in interest in any looper, drum machine, arpeggiator, or other groove gear includes if and how it can play across the bar line, such as in odd meters. One of my favorite things about the Gibson EDP was the option to sync loop operations (and thus loop-lengths) down to the MIDI beat, or 8th note, or finer, allowing for quick creation of loops of, say 5 8th-notes that would roll across the bar like so many trance arpeggios.

Comparing their user manuals, while 202 has only the bank-wise option to Quantize loop operations to internal- or external beats…the 505 has discrete per-Track options for loop Measures (including “Auto” and “Free”) and Loop Sync (if other tracks re-start to sync w/ first-recorded or by their own length), as well as the Bank-wise Quantize, and the additional LoopSyncLength (in # of Bars or “Auto”). Obviously, the 505 offers deeper, if more potentially-frustrating options for synchrony of loops between each other and/or other devices.

Beyond this set of the 202’s options (or lack thereof) being more restrictive than the 505 et al, there are a few desirable settings/combinations that are not available within the 202’s own configurable settings, specifically, the Quantization and Rhythm Guide. This is my biggest frustration so far, because of my specific interest in recording loops of arbitrary beat-lengths (such as 7 quarter-notes, or perhaps 5 eighth-notes, etc) determined directly by the timing of punching IN/OUT a new recording, with recording (and related operations) quantized to the Beat…

Quantization and the Clock (at present) interact thusly:

  • with the Rhythm Guide ON, you can only start Recording at the Bar (not on the beat) so you not only have to wait for your bar to come around, you have to decide ahead of time what time signature you’re working in. The Rhythm Guide ON will also hold the BPM as clock Master if Sync is set to Auto-detect master/slave.
  • with the Rhythm Guide OFF, your loop length is not quantized, but when 202 is MIDI Clock Master, it will automatically calculate a new BPM from the Guide’s Meter (Bar length) and broadcast this. Thus, the unit preemptively assumes/limits you to certain meters.

For me, the limits of the above 2 points could be solved if they simply expanded the Quantize options to include the time-signatures of 1/4, 1/8, and 1/16 time. This way, I wouldn’t have to wait for the (Guide’s) Bar to finish, as my Bar and Beat are the same period of time.

Quantize settings are stored on the System (global) level, where the Rhythm (and thus Bar/Meter) settings are stored at the Bank (of 8 phrases) level. There are some handy features to require a (1 Bar) count-in before recording and/or playback, stored on a per-bank level, so you can start different “songs” differently.

Thankfully, the 202 allows you to configure the headphones mix differently from the Main outs, so you can isolate the Rhythm Guide to the headphones only. You can also put the Input sound in headphones only, so it does not pass thru to outputs, which is the dry kill necessary when I use it in an aux loop.

Remote Control ?

Unfortunately, the RC-202 does not have full and direct MIDI control of all operations (such as “one midi message per button). Instead, under the CTRL menu, it (frustratingly) continues the RC series’ design of allowing you a few  CC’s (80-84), which you can assign to (here about 2 dozen) messages,

  • This does include most actions you’d want hand’s free, such as “rec/play”, “tap tempo”, or “next memory,” but ALL of these messages only respond to the HIGH (127) value of the CC, so you HAVE to set your MIDI controller to Momentary action. This may frustrate some people looking to include even Boss’s dedicated MIDI foot-controllers.
  • The list of available CTRL assignments does NOT include all the actions you can control from the front panel, such as changing loops between OneShot/Loop, Forward/Reverse, or OneShot/Repeat. Moreover, it would be nice to extend the existing foot-controllable messages more fully, and include things like “save this memory,” or even “save and copy into…(next Program Change).
  • Given the above two points on ConTRoL, Boss the RC202 is missing an opportunity to let the RC202 grow with it’s users (as they purchase better peripherals). I really DO NOT understand why Roland have started limiting MIDI control of their loopers to a key-hole of assignable (confusing) intermediaries via Control Change messages, rather than just giving us a proper, direct CC map (as standard MIDI gear has for 30+ years). WHY not just have all the 202’s explicit and implicit control behaviors mapped across some range within the MIDI Control Change message standard. I’m sure the 128 slots of the CC message standard would be enough, and it would eliminate the Toggle/Momentary problem, perhaps even allowing creative control that Boss didn’t originally intend when they were thinking inside their box.

By contrast, the 505 (v2) allows up to 16 (!) External controls to be mapped per Bank, with additional settings if the switch/message is “latching” or “momentary.” Thus, with clever programming, the 505 could accomplish more complex looper “macro” behavior beyond its initial feature set. For instance, the 505 could one MIDI message to momentarily switch into switch the track into “OverDub,” switch OverDubMode into “Replace” mode, AND engage Track FX (such as Beat Repeat) creating a “momentary stutter-replace” macro-behavior previously only possible on holy-grail loopers like the Gibson EchoPlex using Loop 4. …makes me yearn to upgrade from 202 to 505 already.

Consulting the  Parameter Guides for both 202 and 505, I was disappointed to find no mapping option for remote-control of Reverse, PlayMode (Loop, OneShot), half/doubles-speed, or LoopMultiply… commands which are arguably more common or useful among performance loopers.

Power Struggles:

Lastly, As of this posting, there were only two other snags that frustrated me (beyond Loop Size / Quantize and MIDI ConTRoL rants above).

  • While I could get the unit to store my Bank settings (Rhythm, FX, Loop Content), the unit only saves System settings (quantize, Clock Master, etc) if you power off using the unit’s switch (and power-down sequence)…so be carful with making edits if you have this switched on/off by a studio strip.
  • while the unit has a hardware Input Trim for the XLR mic setting, and the Main and Phones output are set by editing System menus (but not saved!), there is no hardware or software Trim for the Line Inputs, so it can confound your gain structure.
img_20161214_131349108
the Boss / Roland RC202 was fast to integrate into my pile of hardware, and is making friend with his groove-box neighbors. The “@14/D” emboss-tape label is an after-market mod, to remind me what MIDI channel it’s on when programming my Foot Controller.

Summary:

Overall, the RC202 shows some interesting advancements toward a more quick interface and expressive processing. I REALLY hope Roland address all of the above settings and freedom-of-loop-timing issues with a follow up software update.
This is a LOT of power in a small package with a (superficially) great interface, and I hope Boss embraces and nurtures this series with (more) firmware updates bring growth instead of obsolescence.

2 thoughts on “thoughts on looping with the RC-202

  1. polyrhythmic-looper says:

    Thanks for the great write-up. Do you know if the problems have since been addressed in updates? Like you I’d like to be able to create loops of different lengths. For example, a four bar phrase looped against a 5 bar phrase.

    the RC202 will ONLY record a second loop that is a power of 2 (…1/4, 1/2, 1x, 2x, 4x, etc) multiple of the first loop

    Sounds like a deal-breaker if it is still the case 😦

    1. thepatrickrichardson says:

      Hey Poly,
      As I understand, the RC202 comes WITH the latest update OS features of the RC-tabletop loopers. From my study, neither the 202 nor the 505 can capture loops down to the beat, and let them gearwheel as such. They seem a slave to the “measure”, where Time Signature only goes down to 2/4…
      I have yet to play with a 505 to see what can be done if you turn BeatSync off (which is NOT an option in 202).

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