Even if it was possible to pack a high quality digital reverb into a floor pedal before 1987, the product would have been prohibitively expensive for the market it was aimed at. Costing a whacking £175 when introduced to the UK shops in late ’87, the Boss RV-2 Digital Reverb was the equivalent to something approaching a £400 spend today. A large sum of money – and that was after a considerable reduction in the cost price of digital chips too! Had the RV-2 been introduced a couple of years earlier, who knows what sort of eye-watering introductory retail price the item would have carried?
I guess that Roland/Boss sensed there’d be serious uptake on their Digital Reverb pedal, which would undoubtedly take the average guitarist’s reverb effects into an entirely new league. No guitar amp I was aware of could produce anything like the quality and range of reverb effects the RV-2 offered, and given the phenomenal success of the company’s existing DD-2 and DD-3 Digital Delay pedals, Roland must have been champing at the bit to get the RV-2 released.
Boss billed the RV-2 as suitable for guitar, bass and keyboards, but it was perfectly well suited to vocals too. Effectively a digital rack unit squeezed into a pedal, the RV-2 was ideal for home studio use – able as it was to treat pretty much all instruments and voices, individually, as they were dubbed onto a multitracker. The gated reverb mode was synonymous at the time with recorded snare drums, so the RV-2 was additionally cut out for drum sounds. This was an exceptionally versatile piece of gear which did have major value in its day. But would the guitar pedal format attract the attention of home recordists?…
Aside from the obvious Reverb Time and Effect Level controls, the RV-2 offered the user six modes on a rotary pot. The modes selected between five different reverb types, and a digital panning delay. The reverbs comprised: Room (Mode 1), Hall 1 (Mode 2), Hall 2 (Mode 3), Plate (Mode 4), and Gate – a classic ‘80s gated version of the plate reverb (Mode 6). The Delay filled the gap, finding itself allocated for some reason to Mode 5. With all these effect types fully adjustable, the possibilities were extensive. And for those who wanted the ultimate in ‘80s hi-fi, there was a Pre EQ knob, which allowed the top end to be rolled off the effects for a smoother, more retro sound, or maximised for very bright and glistening plate halos. Using both of the unit’s stereo outputs, it was possible to get a really nice impression of dimensional context.
I’d never been much of a reverb fan, but when I first heard this pedal, I was seriously impressed. The plate and gated plate were my favourite modes. Whilst the gate mode was presented by Boss as best suited to drum sounds, I found it ideal for guitar work – rhythm or lead. Set to a fairly short time, it provided plenty of spatial character without swamping the playing or making it sound ‘distant’. You kept the in-ya-face and up front aura, but added polish and a great ‘produced’ personality. I loved that. Probably wouldn’t use it now, but in the ‘80s it was very cool.
SO WHY DIDN’T THE BOSS RV-2 SELL TO EXPECTATIONS?
Hopefully I’ve made it clear by now that there was never a problem with the sound quality on the RV-2. In its day, it was simply stunning. But Boss pedals were widely regarded as the preserve of guitarists, and that immediately threw up three major drawbacks:
1) Most guitarists already had reverb built into their amps.
2) Guitar amps had ‘full range’ speakers which cut off the high frequencies above approximately 6KHz – meaning the superb fidelity of the RV-2’s effects could not be fully appreciated using a standard FX chain.
3) Guitarists at the time were notoriously technophobic, and the idea of them chaining the reverb between amp and desk in stereo (where it could perform much more spectacularly) instead of between guitar and amp, was probably too much of an ask.
Couple these three issues with the high retail price of the RV-2 (the price of a good budget guitar, basically), and with hindsight it’s pretty easy to see that Boss faced immediate problems. The DD-2 Digital Delay was in fact even more expensive than the RV-2 in its own mid ‘80s tenure, but that was a different proposition. Because of its massively increased delay times over the standard analogue and tape echo units, the DD-2 allowed guitarists to create completely new styles. The massive improvement in effect-clarity was very welcome, but it was really those amazingly long repeat times (which could make one guitarist sound like two guitarists) that rendered the DD-2 a must-have. Reverb, however, is reverb. Digital ‘verb was a great deal smoother and more refined than the spring reverb guitarists had on their amps, but it didn’t revolutionise their playing, or indeed the musical output of their band. That was the difference.
So yes, Boss had done remarkably well to pack such a great range of digital reverb effects into a pedal, and believe it or not that introductory price of £175 was very low in comparison to the cost of the previous year’s Alesis MidiVerb. The MidiVerb was a desktop digital reverb with limited adjustment capabilities, and, on introduction, a grounbreakingly affordable price of £395. I thought the RV-2 was a better product at a better price, but the RV-2 didn’t really captivate the core Boss user in the way the MidiVerb had captivated the project studio crowd. The RV-2 seemingly didn’t live up to Boss’s expectations, and it soon went out of production.
I was reading an old report recently about the original demonstrations of the Boss ME-5 guitar multi effects unit at the 1988 BMF (British Music Fair). Closely monitoring the reactions of guitarists, writer Jay Stapley said in Guitarist magazine (Oct 1988 edition) that many who tried out the product (a completely new concept at the time) ended up pressing buttons at random, then shaking their heads and walking off looking bemused. That’s what the RV-2 was up against in the 1980s. The typical guitarist had mastered some of the most amazingly complex fretboard wizardry, but when it came to anything digital or technological, there was no patience. Getting the best out of the RV-2 did take a level of technological inquisitiveness and perhaps inventiveness, but with the pedal amid a range whose primary target customer was a typical guitarist, it was, sadly, a little too far ahead of the market.
You can find lots more retrospectives on Boss pedals (incorporating lesser known info) on this site. The Boss articles are grouped together under PICKUPS, GUITAR AMPS, FX AND GADGETS on the Guitar Reviews and Retrospectives page.