Few things sound as fabulous as real old-fashioned tape delays with their gritty lo-fi repeats, pitch fluctuations and unique boost capabilities – but they’re big and can be noisy and fiddly to maintain. Can any modern box sound the same? Huw Price finds out.
From the Ray Butts-designed EchoSonic of Scotty Moore fame, to the Echoplexes, Echolettes and WEM Copicats of the ’60s, to Roland Space Echoes and beyond, some of the finest delay sounds in popular music relied upon low-tech tape technology. Tapeaholics, alas, tend to live a life of constant tweaking in their search that sound – but now the tide may finally be turning. Digital audio was once purported to be about clarity and cleanliness, but designers seem to have realised that musicians do not assess audio on the basis of dry technical standards of quality. Irony of ironies, the current thrust of DSP technology seems to be directed towards mimicking and recreating analogue quirks with an almost obsessive attention to detail. In fact, they’re getting so good at it that many diehard traditionalists are at last retiring their old tape echoes and going over to the digital side with specialist stompboxes. After all, if you can access the same tonal qualities and special features like tape warble, multiple heads and lo-fi sonics without needing to de-magnetise heads, clean the tape path or change tape loops, then why not? Best of all, your echo pedal can sit on a board rather than perching precariously on top of your amp, obstructing access to the controls. Web forums buzz with discussions about which pedals do tape delay best, so we thought a roundup article was the best way to find it out for ourselves.
Two features make the DeLayla stand out from all the other pedals in this roundup – it has a cable with a three-prong mains plug coming out of the enclosure, and the delay circuitry is apparently analogue rather than digital.
Don’t be fooled by the ’Tap’ footswitch, though, because it’s not a tap tempo feature; for that, you’ll need to step up to the larger and more expensive DeLayla XL. ‘Tap’ actually refers to the DeLayla’s ‘second tap’ feature that simulates a second playback head. An accompanying Tap control shifts the balance of the echo sound from the first to the second ‘head’. This works in conjunction with the echo level control. The delay time is set using a control knob too, and Repeat sets the number of echoes.
The DeLayla’s dry signal has a very slightly smooth and refined sound quality. Since the circuitry is analogue, ultra-long delay times were never really on the cards, so this pedal is really about shorter echoes – particularly slapback. It’s nice to hear a bit of grittiness getting into the sound as the echoes die away, and the DeLayla’s overall vibe is warm and full-bodied. It’s certainly reminiscent of tape echo, but there’s no pitch modulation to seal the deal. On the other hand there are no noise issues, and the DeLayla’s limitations are in some way its strength because it’s more of a set-and-forget kind of a pedal.
The tap function is interesting, adding an extra dose of ambience when required. It also shifts the rhythmic character from straight repeats to a triplet feel that proved to be a lot of fun and inspired us to play in different ways.
The onboard transformer and power supply rectification require a lot of components to be squeezed into this pedal so the enclosure is fairly large, and they’ve chosen to go upwards rather than outwards. We think it’s the right decision because it takes up no more space than usual on a pedalboard and the 6cm height means you can place it in the back row and still have good access to the footswitches.
Not content with trying to make the Reel Echo sound like a tape delay, the danelectro dudes have tried to make it look like one too. Measuring 24cm by 16cm, this is one for larger pedalboards or sparsely populated smaller ones. The sliding Speed Range control (0ms–1500ms) works just like an Echoplex – the original idea being that varying the distance between the record and playback head was a more effective way to set the delay time than using multiple fixed heads or varying the tape speed.
The metal knobs look like tape spool hubs, the switches feel substantial, and the two mini jewel lights look tremendous. Variable treble roll-off comes courtesy of a Lo-Fi control, and a Warble switch activates a hint of pitch modulation. There’s a Solid State/Tube switch that adds some midrange fatness while rolling off a small amount of treble, plus a second footswitch to activate the Sound On Sound feature. It’s far from intuitive; to get SOS working the Repeat knob must be turned fully up and Lo-Fi turned all the way down. Hit the Echo switch, record a note or chord, adjust the slider to the desired tempo then hit the SOS button and you can improvise over the top.
The Reel Echo has a wide range of features and the sound more than holds its own. The issue is the noise level. It’s adequate if you’re dialling in a hint of slapback, in fact it’s excellent, but longer delay times and higher level settings for the repeats reveal the hiss a lot more. You’ll also notice the noise gradually building in intensity when using SOS. The noise is lower than most tape echo machines but higher than you might expect these days and perhaps betrays the fact that the Reel Echo is now showing its age. Even so, within its limitations it still does a fantastic job.
With its analogue dry signal path the Empress Tape Delay matches the DeLayla in the straight-ahead sonics department, but Empress have managed to squeeze around four times the degree of functionality into a box that’s half the size. This is where things get really serious for serious tape echo enthusiasts.
Starting with the delay time, it can be set in three ways. With the Delay Time toggle switch set to ‘tap’, the left footswitch acts as a regular tap tempo control. This works in conjunction with the ratio side of the delay time/ratio control. The control can be set so that the resultant delay time is a ratio of 1:1, 2:3, 1:2, 1:3 or 1:4 of the tempo you tap into it – so a 2:1 ratio means that the delay time will be twice as fast as the tempo tapped.
The Delay Time toggle switch can also be set to ‘slow’ or ‘fast’, which allows the delay time/ratio control to be used to set the delay time in the conventional way. The Mix and Feedback controls perform their usual functions, but the output control can also provide plenty of clean boost. The Tape Age switch on the left has three settings – new, vintage and old. ‘New’ provides clean full frequency echoes, while ‘old’ adds wow and flutter. Vintage has more rolled-off highs and extra compression.
The three-position Filter switch is labelled ‘hp’, ‘none’ and ‘lp’, and it can attenuate the low or high frequency content of the echoes. Lastly, the degree of modulation can be set to little, lots or none at all, and the tap footswitch and the toggle switches are all dual-function. When the Tape Delay is switched to ‘advanced configuration’ you can create and recall presets, select buffered output or true bypass, and choose smooth or pitch shifting delay time transitions.
Empress says they spent over two years ‘painstakingly recreating some of our favourite analogue tape machines’. It was time well spent; this pedal is a gem. If you’re familiar with the tape echo vibe, you’ll feel right at home.
Uniquely in this review, Roland actually has a manufacturing heritage with genuine tape echo machines – most notably the RE-201 and RE-301. In recent years they have become equally well-known for COSM digital modelling technology, and the new RE-20 is re-imagining of their iconic tape echo in stompbox form.
It also looks the part, because Roland has replicated the original green and black colour scheme on a brushed metal plate. It would have been daft to install an old-style Vu meter, but there’s a red peak level indicator set into an authentic metal surround along with an input volume control.
The echo controls are Repeat Rate, Intensity and Echo Volume plus Bass and Treble. The pedal even has the rotary mode selector switch with four repeat settings, seven reverb echo settings, and a reverb-only mode. The original version had a generally unloved spring reverb but it’s included here too.
The housing is Roland’s standard twin-pedal metal enclosure with a black crackle finish. The left switch activates the effect and the right switch is designated for tap tempo and ‘twist’ (echo oscillation). Inputs and outputs can be mono or stereo, and a little switch removes the dry signal from the output. An optional expression pedal can be used to control repeat rate, intensity echo level, and twist.
Due to a severe impedance mismatch plugging a guitar directly into an original Space Echo causes a severe loss of treble, so you need a buffered pedal in front. There’s no such problem here. We have an original on hand to compare, and this pedal sounds and feels a lot like its predecessor. However, Roland has been a bit conservative with the input level; we couldn’t get the pedal to overdrive and compress like the original; it certainly can’t be used to drive an amp, and you can’t get those chewy and fuzzy repeats. Roland did a sterling job with the cleaner side, then, but it’s a shame the RE-20 doesn’t do the boost thing and you can’t get that cool analogue overload. Even so, it’s practical and well thought-out and it will get you most of the way there.
We absolutely love the style of this pedal with its retro green hammertone finish and funky metal knobs. However, a quick peek inside suggests that the box is about twice as tall as it needs to be. We had expected to find a circuit board smothered in epoxy resin to foil the copyists, but all the components were there in plain sight, including a cool little LED/LDR combo used to create the warble effect.
This is another echo pedal focused on sonics rather than features. There’s no tap tempo and the main controls are restricted to Repeats, Mix and Time. As you’ve probably guessed, the warble feature mimics wow and flutter through the use of an oscillator. There are controls for Intensity and Rate, and a trim pot on the side sets the range of the warble intensity control.
Unusually, the Skreddy is also equipped with an effects loop along with a loop level trim pot. Various effects can be patched in here to alter the sound of the echoes (Skreddy recommend trying an MXR Phaser). The trim control remains active regardless of whether the loop is being used. This allows you to ‘de-intensify’ the Mix control so you can exploit its whole range more easily.
The Skreddy’s core tone has a hazy, analogue quality, a bit fuzzy around the edges and undeniably like the sound of a genuine tape echo. Some time does need to be spent fine-tuning the range trim to get the best out of the warble feature. It can get quite extreme in a fun sort of way, but used subtly its influence on the echoes is lush and pulsating, especially with longer (up to 550ms) delay times. It doesn’t do pristine echo, but controllable feedback is on the menu and there’s plenty of scope to explore psychedelic textures or to lose yourself in rhythmic repeats. There’s no boost or multiple head simulation, but the Skreddy is simple to operate and performs a range of slapback to cathedral echo effects with an analogue chewiness that few pedal delays can match.
This pedal, from the company also known as Damage Control, has been garnering some pretty ecstatic reviews, so we had been looking forward to trying it out for a while. It’s simple and straightforward to operate, yet only the Empress competes with the El Capistan’s range of features.
The Time, Mix and Repeats knobs are straightforward enough, but you also get tape age and wow & flutter controls. Unlike the switchable Empress equivalents, these are continuously variable. There’s tap tempo, of course, and an ingenious simulation of three virtual multiple heads. These have three settings – single, multi and fixed – that work with a three-way mode switch so you can to use the ‘heads’ individually or in all possible combinations.
There are also hidden features that simulate tape crinkle, tape bias, low-end contour, spring reverb and +/- 3dB level adjustment. There’s also a sound-on-sound mode with instant tape splice and bulk erase – like a tape-style looper. The single input can be mono or stereo and there are left/right outputs. The dry signal always remains analogue and digital processing works at 24-bit 96KHz. True bypass is standard but if you select ‘tails’ on switch off, a buffered analogue bypass is engaged.
This is the echo pedal that can really do it all – it feels almost exactly like playing through a real tape echo. One of the factors behind this may be the way that the pitch fluctuation of wow and flutter doesn’t seem to be linked to the delay time. Like all the others, the echoes increasingly become grittier and darker, but with the El Capistan they also take on a tonal colour that almost screams ‘tape colouration’.
However, the thing that really impressed us was the way that the El Capistan emulates the way that random things seem to happen with real tape echo machines. It’s small details like the way a string squeak or a random thunk ends up mangled and morphed into something completely different due to the nature of the circuit.
Danish pedal manufacturer T-Rex earned a lot of respect for its Replica delay pedal; and it garnered a stellar review in G&B March 2013. Still, quality comes at a price and many players opted for the cheaper T-Rex Reptile, which shared the same sound but had fewer features. The Reptile 2 is T-Rex’s updated version, now with Tap Tempo.
The Reptile always had two footswitches, but now the second footswitch handles tap tempo duties. Previously the ‘Flutter’ controls were Speed and Depth, but now they’re labelled Speed and Width, and a tone control has been added to roll off the high frequency content of the repeats.
Other controls comprise Echo, which mixes the dry and echo signals, and Repeat, which sets the number of echoes. Time can be used instead of tap tempo and covers the delay range 10-1000ms. The Reptile 2 has an input level control located on the side of the box along with an LED overload indicator and an output level control.
The Reptile 2 is very simple to set up and use. With single coils we couldn’t get the overload light to flash at all, and the dry signal path through the pedal is pristine. We had hoped that the output level control would allow us to drive the front end of our test amp a little harder, but that only works when the Echo control is set fairly low.
As the Echo knob nears the halfway point the overall output of the Reptile 2 begins to fall. It’s tempting to suggest there’s some sort of phase cancellation going on, but the absence of comb filtering and swooshing suggests otherwise. The Level control, therefore, is a ‘volume compensator’ rather than an actual booster.
The Flutter feature is the Reptile 2’s trump card. The effect can be subtle or really swirly and sumptuous in a Gilmour sort of way. It’s not unlike a vibrato or even a chorus, but without the naff ’80s connotations. The Reptile 2 produces impressive slapback and simple echo effects, but it’s mono – so look elsewhere if you want complex multiple head-type repeats.
When bucket brigade devices and early digital delays swept all before them during the 1980s, the tape echo era seemed to be over. New technology promised less noise, cleaner sounds, higher fidelity, smaller size and far longer delay times. So why did so many guitarists persist with tape echo? It seems the quirks and idiosyncrasies that were regarded as technical shortcomings by non-guitar players were the very things that we liked about them. The lower fidelity of the repeats ensures that you can distinguish between the dry sound and the effect, which helps to retain clarity and definition. The inconsistent speed of the tape loop causes pitch fluctuations that sound like natural chorus – and few guitarists would object to ever-increasing grittiness and distortion as the echoes trail away.
So which of these pedals has that tape-style lo-fi grittiness in the repeats? All of them, to a greater or lesser extent – and only the DeLayla fails to provide a wow and flutter function.
What about multi-head features? Original tape echo devices allowed you to use multiple playback heads simultaneously to create complex echo patterns with cavernous ambience… then you could turn up the feedback control and send the unit into feedback meltdown for dub or psychedelia. In this group only the Strymon, Roland and DeLayla have this multi-head feature.
Then there’s the matter of boost. Valves or fat-sounding FETs were the devices that drove many of the old devices, allowing output levels to be cranked to push valve amps into distortion and colour the sound with the echo unit’s circuitry. It’s a procedure not dissimilar to the way many of us use clean boost pedals today.
Only the Empress is capable of giving your signal a decent clean boost, although the Strymon does have +/-3dB adjustment. Brian Setzer is one of the best well-known Roland tape echo enthusiasts and the boost he gets from his is every bit as important as the echo if you’re trying to nail that Stray Cats tone. So it’s surprising, and perhaps disappointing, that Roland chose to play it so safe with the RE-20. However, if you run the RE-20 in conjunction with a booster or subtle overdrive, we found that the results were fantastic. (Many rockabilly players of the Gretsch persuasion swear by the Nocturne Brain because it’s actually a Roland preamp in a pedal.)
If you’re less interested in tap tempo and multiple replay head simulations, the Skreddy Echo nails the feel and sound of playing through a genuine standalone tape echo unit. The Danelectro Reel Echo impresses for the same reasons, but it may be just a bit too noisy. The Carl Martin DeLayla and T-Rex Reptile 2 both have their charms, and the sonic quality is excellent. As much as we liked the DeLayla’s ‘second head’, the Reptile 2’s Flutter feature made it that bit more tape-like.
For the widest range of tape echo features and comprehensive controllability, nothing beats the utterly remarkable Strymon El Capistan, though the Empress Tape Delay and Roland RE-20 come fairly close. Ultimately all these pedals perform impressive tape echo impersonations – and when deciding which is best for you it’s worth considering the features you need and which ones you can live without.