Price paid: $ 199
Ease of Use — 8
The RC-3 is an ambitious accomplishment that offers tons of features in a diminutive platform. There's a bit of a learning curve to mastering such functionality via limited controls, but operating the RC-3 Loop Station eases up with focus and practice.
On the surface, it's a standard Boss compact stompbox with a single footpad pedal switch, a dual-level Output knob for Rhythm and Loop levels, five buttons, a double-digit LED display, stereo 1/4" input and output jacks, and a Stop/Memory Shift input jack for an external footswitch (not included). Red and green lights indicate record and play modes. Both together signifies Overdub mode. Up and Down buttons under the LED display incrementally select phrase or accompaniment rhythms. Just to their right, Rhythm On/Off and Tap Tempo do the obvious. The Write/Delete button above them performs those functions.
On the top panel there is an Aux In mini jack handy for MP3 connectivity, a USB jack to import and export audio files from a computer (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV files up to 1.7GB), and a DC In jack for a Boss PSA adaptor (not included). A 9-volt battery is easily accessible via a thumbscrew in the usual Boss spot under the footpad.
Of course, the footpad pedal switch is the focus as it controls all on-the-fly aspects of looping, unless you engage automatic recording. That cool feature starts recording the moment you begin playing your guitar, or as soon as you start a connected audio player. Count-in mode gives you one bar of rhythm before recording starts. Normal recording operation starts with a press of the pedal switch. Press it again to stop recording and start playback. At that point the RC-3 automatically enters overdub mode, so you can keep layering, or, press the pedal switch again to enter play mode. If at any point you want to undo an overdub, press and hold the pedal switch. When you're looped out, press the pedal switch twice to stop playback. Press and hold it to clear. Assigning all that functionality to one footswitch is the inherent drawback of looping on a compact pedal. Make an operational mistake, and things can get, well, loopy.
Boss offers a solution on the RC-3 via the Stop/Memory Shift input. I'd recommend performers purchase a Boss FS-5U external footswitch or a Boss FS-6 dual external footswitch to stop loops because double-clicking the onboard pedal switch while you're actively playing a rhythmic part can be challenging. I'd also put forth the proposition that the expanding the RC-3's functionality via an external footswitch is actually an advantage over larger loopers because you can snake an external footswitch around your performance area until you find just the right nook or cranny to position it for optimal operation, rather than being stuck with a twin or larger sized pedal on your board or in your space that isn't as flexible. I didn't have either of the recommended Boss footswitches onhand, but I did have a little footswitch around that worked for setting tap tempo and clearing loops. If I had the FS-6 or two FS-5Us, I would have been able to stop a loop via a single click on one pedal, and use the other to scroll up and down through the RC-3's 99 memory slots instead of having to bend over and do it by hand.
Sound — 10
The RC-3 sounds sweet. I played lots of loops stacked with significant but not silly numbers of overdubs, and to my ears I got accurate replications of whatever I fed the machine. I had a blast firing up a funky "Moves Like Jagger" style riff layered with multiple overdubs that sounded as a clean as a digital multi-track recording.
The RC-3's onboard Rhythm Guide offers ten "real drum" sounds ranging from a simple hi hat cymbal click track, to four-on-the-floor house beats and Latin percussion rhythms. I found the tones and grooves to be serviceable, although I don't think Questlove needs to worry about losing any work. It was nice to have independent control of the rhythm track's volume because I preferred it in the background. I appreciated being able to tap out the tempo of a loop ahead of time, and it was cool to adjust the tempo of a saved loop without affecting its pitch. The tone stayed solid as long as I kept within a reasonable range of original tempo. I was really knocked out about how the RC-3 automatically "understood" the loop tempos I fed it from a Godin Montreal Premiere and into a 1983 Fender Super Champ. It was awesome to play whatever I wanted first and then fool around with the rhythm track accompaniment.
Things got really interesting when I started experimenting with the RC-3's stereo capability. Obviously you can input a stereo signal via instrument or imported audio file and the RC-3 will shoot it out that way to a pair of guitar amps, or whatever combination of amp or PA speakers you prefer. But what I found extraordinary was the Loop Station's flexibility handling two mono signals independently. I chunked out a staccato guitar groove via Input A and Output A into the Champ, and then pumped out a deep foundation on a Squire 5-string bass through Input B and Output B into an MXR Bass D/I+ and a QSC K10 powered speaker. Each mono loop stayed on its own path, which was like having two independent loopers. Excited, I saved that and then placed a Boss TU-3 Stage Tuner at the end of each signal chain. Then I was able to mute either signal via the Stage Tuner, which essentially gave me independent on/off control of the two mono loop "mixes." Next I unplugged the bass and tried adding vocals through that chain. I sent the signal from a Sennheiser e835 Evolution Series microphone through an XLR cable and a 1/4" adaptor into Input B on the RC-3, and it sounded great. Finally, I turned on the rhythm sound and settled on the concrete Rock 1 beat. The rhythm emanated in stereo through both outputs. I had expanded my sound into a full-blown band!
Reliability & Durability — 9
The RC-3 never malfunctioned while I tested it. I ran it using a 9-volt battery. The RC-3's durability appeared to be on par with Boss' other digital stomboxes, but the RC-3 offers far more features than most, which would logically equate to more possible malfunctions. I'd treat it with a little more tender loving care than the average stompbox.
Overall Impression — 9
The looper is perhaps the most exhilarating stompbox innovation of modern times, and the RC-3 Loop Station represents a giant loop forward for the compact class. For loop enthusiasts, the crux of a purchase always comes down to how much a given pedal can do well at a given size and price. The RC-3 is outstanding under such scrutiny. Boss has been pushing phrase sampling boundaries for many years, and the venerable manufacturer keeps learning how to incorporate features formerly found in its larger looping pedals into a compact platform. The RC-3 is an incredibly powerful practice tool for all skill levels. Players wishing to integrate loops with their bands onstage or in the studio might want to look into larger loopers including Boss' twin-sized RC-30 Loop Station and the big daddy RC-300 Loop Station. Those looking to simply throw down a loop here or there might find even the little RC-3 to be more than they require. Everyone in the middle including solo performers should take a serious look and listen to the RC-3 Loop Station. What Boss has rocking in a compact pedal that sells for around a couple bills is pretty mindblowing.