Echoplex, Space Echo & the History of Delay

 One of my favorite effects to use and listen to is tape-based delay. Nowadays it's much more common to send out to a digital delay hardware device or plug-in, and these tools certainly have their advantages such as ease of accurate time adjustment, repeatability and signal preservation. But there was a certain charm to the pitch shifting, wow and flutter and — I'll say it — warmth, that tape delay added to the mix (think Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland swirling effects, or just about any track from Pink Floyd).

A tape delay can range from a simple echo to a long delay, to crazy feedback effects. Thankfully modern innovators such as Portishead and Radiohead are keeping the faith and using tape delay to add character, chaos and creativity to their performances and recordings.


Tape Delay History

The use of tape delay as an effect is credited the legendary guitarist and inventor Les Paul, who more importantly, was the first person to adopt "sound on sound" multitrack recording. Tape echo originated from his desire to have discrete echoes in a recording; the track was How High the Moon, the year, 1950.

Tape delay was commonly achieved by sending audio signal to a tape deck to capture the sound of the delay time created by the distance of the record head to the playback head. Because the tape passes over the record head before the playback head, there is a delay-- which is a function of the tape speed multiplied by the distance between the two heads. This method was quickly adopted as an early effects alternative to expensive reverb chambers and plates. This short delay is still commonly known as slapback; (think Sun recordings like those from Johnny Cash and Elvis) very popular in early rock and roll, popular with John Lennon, and is still widely used today.

For the truly adventurous, longer delay times could be generated with this technique by using two tape machines; one for the play head, one for the record head. Move the machines farther apart for greater delay!

Maestro Echoplex

Not long after, dedicated tape echo machines began to appear, the Maestro Echoplex being most being the most famous. The Echoplex gave the user variable control over the distance of the record and play head with a crude but effective sliding lever control labeled Echo Delay which moved the play head up and down a steel track. This allowed for a fine control of echo timing, which of course allowed the echo to be timed to the tempo of the song.

The other critical control is the Echo Sustain/Repeats, which controls the number of repeats. As with all cool vintage gear, there's usually one or two things about it that allow you to do what's not intended and not proper, and the Echo Sustain is that bit of magic with the Echoplex. The beauty of this control is when its pushed into the infinite range, the repeats begin to feed back on themselves, allowing for otherworldly sci-fi effects. Used in conjunction with the Echo Delay, the user can play the Echoplex as and extension of the source signal, or even as its own instrument unto itself. Other controls included Echo Volume and Recording Volume.

The early Echoplexes were tube, but later solid-state units appeared and were simultaneously available for many years but eventually Maestro dropped the tube line. Many makes and models appeared for the long run of the Echoplex. Later units added features like EQ, which allowed for greater tonal control and playability. The trademarks were eventually picked up by Oberhiem (a Gibson company) and the name continued on for some time on through digital looping/sequencing devices that have found great favor in the looping community.

Roland RE-201

Roland Space Echo

The Roland Space Echo did not appear until the early 70's, but is equally known as a tape delay mainstay. Some feel the Roland units were better built and quieter; but the primary difference between the Echoplex and the Space Echo was that the Space Echo utilized multiple play heads staged along the tape path that were selectable through a rotary switch called the Mode Selector. In addition to the Mode Selector, the Space Echo also had a fine timing control called Repeat Rate.

For all intents and purposes, the remainder of the controls are the same as those found on the Echoplex, and the same range of sounds can be achieved; however, the Space Echo was also capable of "giving a soft echo sound with a sophisticated echo effect" (from the instruction panel on the inside cover) which appears to be multi-tap delay capability with the use of the multiple tape heads. Space Echoes added other useful sounds such as spring reverb, another one of my favorites for vintage vibe and atmosphere.

Roland's Space Echo lineup included the RE-201, RE-301, RE-501 and SRE-555, each subsequent unit adding more features like chorus and balanced inputs.

Depending on the model, tape delay machines like the Echoplex and Space Echo are not astronomically priced (yet), and could be just the ticket to add some life and character to your mixes.

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