EchoesIf you count the green 1970s Carlsbro thing that’s presently in storage in a city 100 miles away, I’m now up to eight footpedal delay units. Before the Carlsbro there was a Watkins Copicat. I love my echoes...

Recently, it seemed the right time to sort all those boxes out – to decide what each was capable of and best at, and decide how to use them. It wasnt long before it all got rather interesting.

Watkins CopicatAt the time that I had the Copicat (a transistor Mk.IV from the mid 1970s), I had a love-hate relationship with it. I loved what it did but the maintenance and unreliability that came with dragging a short loop of tape round a capstan (no pinch roller) and past a series of heads was frustrating. Even when I had the use of a Roland RE501 Space Echo, I resented the attention it demanded. Now, these and other tape echoes have become almost mythical and extremely highly prized. Their passing, and the arrival of DAWs, has more recently brought about a series on plug-in emulations – but that is for another day.

Apart from the ambience and rhythmic interest echo can bring to an instrument, I found an early love for the effects that could be achieved with tape itself. Having experimented with tape collages before falling foul of a ‘proper instrument’, I’d found the same kind of ‘taming a wild beast’ experience that Jimi Hendrix must have enjoyed with guitar feedback. Self-oscillation, the pitch shifts that accompany changes of tape speed, and the saturation and decay of the tape itself turn up some fantastic and largely unrepeatable (sic) sounds.

EchoPlexThinking back, hearing Carlos Santana’s EchoPlex histrionics at the opening of the 1974 Lotus live album undoubtedly played a formative part in my fascination with echo as a performance tool.

The audio character of magnetic tape, shortcomings in mechanical transport and tape heads, conspire with the artefacts brought on by tape degradation and overdue cleaning as part of a fantastically complex system of interacting factors. No surprise, then, that convincing solid-state ‘tape-style’ delays were a long time in the making.

To keep this in some kind of perspective, let’s remember that tape delays gave way to analogue delays (using ‘bucket brigade’ circuitry), before being joined by digital delays. Each technology has its own character, both in sound and operation – where analogue delays are quite ‘dark’ and more intrinsically limited in delay time than tape, DDLs became ‘pristine’ once the limited bit rate of the early units was exceeded, throwing back endless – and faithful – copies of your input signal.

As a kind of timeline (not the delay modeller from Strymon), Dave Gilmour used an Binson EchoRec from his earliest days with Pink Floyd up to the Wish You Were Here album in 1975. He then ‘went digital’ from Animals in 1977, first with an MXR Digital Delay pedal and then the TC 2290 rack unit. He experimented with other delays, including the T-Rex Replica, but those are the waypoints.

RE-210 Space EchoThat old green secondhand Carslbro echo marked my move from tape to analogue. After the Carlsbro, my echoes came from rackmount units for a while. First a Boss DE-200, a wonderful digital delay that offered fantastic control, and then a pair of TC Electronic D-Two digital delays, which were derived from the mighty TC 2290. All of these are still with me, still different in character, and still great to work with.

Putting aside the analogue and digital delay effects that I also wanted from my pedals, getting back those tape effects was seductive. Not only generic tape; I also wanted to get as close as possible to the character of an EchoPlex, Space Echo, Copicat (all tape) and EchoRec (a spinning disc rather than mag tape) as possible. Unexpectedly, I quickly realised that multiple tape heads played a bigger part in the picture than I had assumed.

TC Electronic’s Alter Ego ‘models’ all of the above tape units (with varying degrees of conviction) but only as single-head machines and with limited control. Those head buttons I’d been used to pressing on my Copicat were nowhere to be seen. Their equivalent can be found on Roland’s RE-20 recreation of the RE201 Space Echo, however. Similarly, Catalinbread’s take on the EchoRec recreates all of the original head selection options.

The Alter Ego (and Flashback x4) does have a switch for dotted eighth note effects – as with U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘One of These Days’ – which were achieved using multiple head repeats.

Echoes... past and present

That switch, and those found on certain other pedals, are a simple means of recreating an effect that originally required care and calculation to achieve with multi-head tape echoes. It also allows you to readjust the tempo while playing with a band, rather than the band trying to play in time to the tape repeats.

Diamond’s original Memory Lane pedal claims to have been the first analogue delay with tap tempo – the means by which the dotted eighth switch can operate. Tap your quarter notes, and the pedal calculates the delay offsets. Those are the same offsets provided by the physical spacing between the record head and subsequent playback heads on a tape echo.

Roland RE-20

Based on Roland’s RE101 Space Echo, the Multi-Head setting on the ‘near-classic’ Line 6 DL4 covers the multi-head base, allowing combinations of four  ‘tape heads’ to be selected. It also has a Stereo Delays setting that covers the musical interval approach using tap tempo. Eventide’s TimeFactor, meanwhile, is a genuine stereo/two-channel delay supporting a variety of delay ‘models’, including tape. Its delay time settings can be set in either of two modes – as a delay time (calibrated in milliseconds) or as a tempo (set in musical timing intervals). In its tempo mode, the time between intervals self adjusts to be correct for the tap tempo, while the delay mode is as indifferent to the tempo of your playing as an old tape echo.

Returning to tape, the emulations of tape failings and transport foibles found in the models offered by the likes of the TC Electronic and Line 6 pedals are largely dictated by the restrictions of the controls. More avid and controllable are the likes of the Catalinbread EchoRec and its sister Belle Epoch – an equally detailed model of the EP3 version EchoPlex, as well as the Roland RE-20. All are made more ‘playable’ when an external footpedal is used to control delay time and feedback/repeats.

Good generic (tape/analogue/swept etc) delay models are the province of Strymon’s TimeLine, as well as the TimeFactor, Flashback and oft-overlooked Digitech Hardwire DL-8. The closest I have presently come to that first flush of tape infatuation, however, is Strymon’s El Capistan. A glorious adventure into all of tape’s compromise and character, the El Cap will allow you to tap tempo but not cheat on your rhythm calculations, and also features a spring reverb as per the Roland RE-Series.

For the moment, my pedals are largely organised and their roles assigned. Is it job done, or is there room for yet another echo… a real tape echo perhaps? I have to admit that RE-20 is looking good. But then so is Catalinbread’s Bicycle Delay, and that’s a very different animal.

See also:
The Vibe Revival (Uni-Vibe)

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