A couple of years back, a 'looper' pedal was a distinctly left-field concept beloved by solo performers and practising musicians as a way of recording phrases, looping them, and adding parts on top.
With BOSS's RC-20 and the upgraded RC-20XL things went decidedly mainstream and DigiTech also entered the fray with an up-spec'd version: the JamMan. Even Line 6's DL4 also provided basic sound-on-sound looping too while Akai's Headrush has quite a following (including KT Tunstall, and you can't get more mainstream than that). Electro-Harmonix's 16 Second Delay is another option and the company's 2880 is a four-track digital multi-tracker-come-looper. But in 2006 BOSS announced the RC-50 Loop Station - the most sophisticated all-round looper/phrase sampler available. Part multi-tracker, looper and rhythm machine, its potential as a performance instrument is vast, matched only - initially at least - by its complexity.
In basic terms the RC-50 offers three loops (phrases) that can be recorded and stored into one of 99 patches. Each patch can be named and the phrases within can become song specific. Unlike, for example, the DigiTech JamMan's, removable media, the RC-50 has onboard memory that equates to 24 minutes of recording time (stereo) and 49 minutes in mono. This might seem slight but don't forget the RC-20XL only had 16 minutes of mono-only recording time and we're not talking about recording three-minute phrases (although that's perfectly possible). Most loops, by the nature of the concept, are much smaller in length - four or eight bars for example - which are then continuously repeated. Via the USB port you can export your patches/ phrases (as WAV files), edit them, organise them and reload at any point. This is essential for back-up, but also to free up the onboard memory.
The RC-50 is certainly not guitar-specific. We have aux (3.2mm stereo jack for CD etc.), mic (XLR with phantom power) and instrument (6.4mm jack) inputs each with their own level controls and global red LED peak indication. You can record from all three simultaneously but only to one phrase. A 'centre-cancel' function allows you to lose (typically) lead vocal and lead guitar from a prerecorded source, and the flat amp function adjusts the tone of the recorded audio to sound more accurate through your guitar amplifier.
But the RC-50 isn't just intended to send its output to your instrument amp. A very sensible feature, along with the main stereo outputs, is the inclusion of stereo sub outputs. You can configure, if needed, the main outs to your guitar amp or via the sub outs to the PA (or another guitar amp) and you can do this for each phrase within a patch or globally. And because you'll probably be spending a considerable time working with the RC-50 after-hours, a 6.4mm stereo phones jack is supplied.
The RC-50 is impressively presented with its all-metal construction, clear large red LED patch number indicator and smaller but highly visible LCD display: the fact that you can name patches is essential for live performance. The lower half of the unit houses seven footswitches (there's facility for four additional control switches too). The upper half of the unit is sensibly laid out and although the push-button quota is high, the rotary controls make it easier and quite fast to navigate. At this point, we have to say however that from a guitar player's viewpoint at least, the manual - though extremely comprehensive - is not written with your typical guitar-wielding luddite in mind.
The top side of the unit is where you'll find all the aforementioned connections and again it's reassuringly stageworthy with proper metal chassis jacks. Powering is from a supplied mains adaptor but the proximity of a strain-relief clip means even this feature has been thought through - this really isn't a cheaply made unit for home use alone.
The RC-50 offers two play modes: multi and single. In basic terms multi allows you to record each phrase to one of the three locations and like a multi-track play them back either individually or simultaneously. So phrase 1 could be a rhythm guitar, phase 2 a bass part and phrase 3 a lead fill - you can then happily solo, sing or dance over the top.
There is a fair bit of tap-dancing involved when looping live but, to be fair, that's part of the looper's skill. Loop sync (on or off) allows you to either play each loop continuously (off) or from where it actually originally started in relationship to the longest loop (on). In single mode, you can switch between your recorded phrases voicing one at a time - ideal for intro, main and end patterns, for example.
The rhythm guide of some 50-plus patterns is like a pre-programmed drum machine and the sounds are really very good. Admittedly, if you're a home recordist with a library of drum sounds and loops it's pretty basic, but to get you going it's more than adequate. You can't alter these stylistically varied patterns but you can alter the time signature, level and tempo (either from the tap tempo push button, footswitch or rotary patch/value control). This rhythm guide info is retained once you save simply save your patch and can be outputted, like each phrase, to the either or both of the main and sub outs - effectively giving you an 'extra' track.
Inexplicably, there's no click pattern, or separate monitor out, that could be sent to your drummer via headphones. So plug in you guitar, kick off the rhythm guide and lay down your first phrase. Unlike the prior Boss loopers and DigiTech JamMan you can instantly overlay 'sound-on-sound' recordings on the same phrase - or as you hit rec/ play/overdub, after a slight drop-out, the part comes back, still in tempo of course, then you hit the next phrase, arm the record and lay down a second part on 'track' two. Each phrase can be overdubbed - play the same chord part and you instantly create a natural chorusing - or you can add a harmony line. Believe us, in minutes you're stacking parts, kicking then in and out and that's just with a clean guitar straight into the RC-50. You'll be hooked.
There are numerous neat features; not least the reverse phrase function. For example, you can reverse a recorded chord pattern, work out a solo part over it, then restore the original pattern and reverse the overdub: instant and in-tune reverse parts. You can alter tempo after you've recorded a part and although the audio quality gets a little warbly, it can be useful, for example, to work on difficult parts that you're trying to play. With comprehensive MIDI specification the RC-50 can be hooked into a sophisticated set-up or trigger auxiliary sequencing devices.
Bottom line, the RC-50 absolutely encourages creativity. Yes, it takes a little while to get your head around the basic functions but we can't think of any guitarist (or musician in general) who wouldn't find a highly productive (or fun) use in practice, performance or songwriting