This article is part of The Month Of Delay at the Real World Worship blog. All throughout the month of March we will be looking at different aspects of the delay effect in worship music.
REEL TAPE DELAY
See what I did there? Real, actual, Reel to Reel tape delay is almost entirely a thing of the past or the realm of the studio. Famed vintage units like the Maestro Echoplex, Binson Echorec, and Roland Space Echo and Space Chorus used real magnetic tape to create a delay effect by repeating notes. The unit would take the guitar signal, record it and then play it back on another tape head, and then erase it on the final head to start the process over again. The physical distance between the tape heads affects the length of the delay (time). How many times the notes were sent back through in a feedback loop controlled the repeats.
Tape delay has been used by artists from Jimmy Paige to Radiohead to the Black Keys to Buddy Miller to Brian Setzer. It sounds great. For the most part, the only Tape units out there today are vintage units mostly 20-30 years or older selling for $100-1000’s if they’re in good shape. The notable exception is the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo which is essentially an improved modern take on the original Echoplex. They sell for around $1300 new which is cost prohibitive for most of us, but it’s used by artists like Buddy Miller and the Black Keys.
For most of us, unless we have an uncle who gives us a vintage tape delay, they are just out of our price range. That’s not to mention the technical requirements of maintaining such a piece of gear (see Fulltone’s reasons not to own a Tape Echo HERE.) I almost bought a Fulltone once on eBay. I decided that I had enough skill to maintain it and I understood what it was and I knew what I was getting into. As far as cost, you can sometimes find them in the $600-800 range which is the same as buying a guitar or amp. You might actually turn around and sell it at a profit at some point. I decided against it because I came to the conclusion that it would just be overkill for me. Even those who are musically savvy in my church wouldn’t really know the difference and I could better spend my gear money elsewhere. If I were a pro-level player I’d probably own a few of these things, but I’m not and most likely neither are you, so what’s left to us? Digital.
DIGITAL TAPE DELAY
Since a real Tape Delay isn’t a viable option for most of us we are left with digital emulation. While I generally prefer to go analog, Tape Delay falls under two of my reasons for going digital: when its cost prohibitive to go analog, and when it’s not physical possible (lack of functioning units). I love the tones I hear from Tape Delays on records like “Ok Computer” or Robert Plant’s “Band of Joy” or “Dark Side Of The Moon”. Tape delay works well for many of the “Why’s” of delay pedals in church music. It can fill in the space or create and atmosphere in a modern worship sound, and it can create some very vintage country/gospel sounding rhythmic delays for an older or retro worship sound. The problem is that mechanical effects like Tape Delay or Spring Reverb are easy to recreate, but not easy to recreate well. Often times the delay sounds like a cartoonish caricature of the real thing.
So, for the rest of the time when I refer to Tape Delay, I will be talking about digital Tape Delay emulation unless otherwise specified. Most tape delay pedals are just emulating a single head tape delay like the Echoplex or Tube Tape Echo. Some units give you options for fixed or multi head tape delay (like the Line 6 DL4 does.) while other pedals try to be a faithful recreation of a vintage unit like the Space Echo (Boss RE-20) or Binson Echorec (Catalinbread Echorec). But it’s important to understand that while you may have two pedals that both claim to be Tape Delay, like the Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay and the Boss RE-20, they are both attempting very different forms of the same effect.
THE BEST TAPE DELAY FOR WORSHIP
The best sounding Tape Delay that I’ve run across is the Disaster Transport from Earthquaker devices. When you turn the delay on, it sounds like a very well done analog/tape voiced digital delay. But when you start to mix in the modulation (chorus/vibrato) effect, it gets a very natural and warm tape delay sound that I haven’t heard matched yet in any other tape delay pedal.
Now, I said it’s the best sounding, but it’s not the best.
The Best Tape Delay For Worship Goes to: The Strymon El Capistan (see review HERE). The El Cap sounds great, and while I like the sound of the DT more, it only does single head delay sounds while the El Cap does Single, Fixed, Magnetic Drum and Multi-head Tape Delay, and does them all very well. You have more control and more options with this pedal than just about any delay (tape or otherwise) on the market. It also has tap tempo and momentary switch for self oscillation. When you plug in the Favorite Switch (sold separately) you can store a preset which means you now have two totally different delays at your fingertips. For $85 more (new) than the Disaster Transport, the El Capistan doesn’t sound quite as good, but it’s close and does 10 times more.
THE BEST OF THE REST
-TC Toneprints: While I never liked the Tape Delay on the Nova or (stock) on the Flashback, the Space Echo and Ep-3 tone prints on the Flashback, X4 and Alter Ego delays more than make up for it. Currently, I use my Alter Ego as my Tape Delay and while I may not like the stock settings, the Tone Prints get me where I need to go. Combined with the Alter Ego/Flashback’s dual delay I can actually fake a multi or fixed head sound.
-Boss RE-20: I love the RE-20. It’s a very faithful recreation of the legendary Roland RE-201 Space Echo. You get all the controls plus the “Twist” feature (momentary switch” for self oscillation. I was surprised how much I liked this pedal. The YouTube demos don’t do it justice. Get out there and try it for yourself. Note: I’m told the DD-20’s tape is very similar in sound if not based on the RE-20’s algorithm.
-Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay: This thing just sounds good. It doesn’t give you a lot of features, but makes up for it in sound. It’s voiced like a Tape Delay so it makes the list.
-Empress Tape Delay: It’s $50 cheaper than the El Cap and gives you most of the same features and sound.