When shopping for delay boxes, it seems that there are many more different options today than ever before. The vintage market is still booming, and prices of basic analog delay boxes reflect this trend with skyrocketing prices. But are the old analog delays worth the hype? Counter that trend with digital delays, the very cool must-have tools back in the ‘80s. Nowadays, digital delays in the used market can be found at true bargain prices. But what about this talk about them being sterile and lifeless?
With regards to making a purchase for a new delay unit in the market today, all types including analog, digital, tape, and modeled are available. Modeling has received a lot of attention in particular, mostly because of amp-modeling amplifiers, but now delay modeling units are available that boast the ability to produce all of the greatest classic and modern delay effects in one convenient and affordable package. Can they really do it or is this again just “marketing talk” from the companies themselves?
Finally, for the purist, there’s the famous tape delay. Tape delays are the “original” echo box, and the earliest models incorporate tubes and are quite collectible and expensive. In addition, parts are scarce and these old tape delays can be tempermental as well as noisy. A few companies have recognized this and have recreated replicas of these original tape delays, promising good quality as well as the ability to faithfully recreate the tape echo sound.
With all these options, the obvious question comes to mind: which delay type is best? Is it the vintage tape delay because it is the most costly in this group?
My personal philosophy is that there is no “best” from this group of four delay types. It really comes down to personal preference because each delay acts and sounds differently. Based on this thought, I thought it would be best to have a sort of “primer” to discuss how each of these different delays work and sound.
When someone mentions tape delay, what they’re generally referring to is the classic Maestro Echoplex series of tape delays or another similar delay of the same time period. The heyday of the tape delay was really during the late ’50s through the ’60s. The earliest models used preamp tube circuitry that certainly added to the warm of tone, but also helped them be a bit noisy as well.
Tape delays themselves however are fairly simple devices. Within their large housings lies a tape reel that is of a looping (a.k.a. or never-ending) variety. Along the path of the tape are various recording and playback heads, the numbers varying depending on the model. Delay times are adjustable by physically moving the heads forward and backward. By increasing the distance between the record and playback heads, the delay time would increase respectively.
So what’s the big deal about a tape delay? Well, there are a number of unique things regarding tape delays. Delay times can be widely adjusted and the reproduction of the echo from the delay itself tends to be quite good. Beyond this though, the tape delays inconsistencies in its mechanical design, namely the “wow” and “flutter” effects from the tape itself, actually create a musical effect. When “wow” and “flutter” is produced from the tape, the musical effect of the delay moves from various and rather subtle random phasing and flanging/choral type of effects. In this application, the tape delay is certainly the most organic-sounding of all delays and for those interested in listening to these types of effects “accidentally” mixed into their music, the tape delay does it best.
On the downside, like any tape deck, regular maintenance such as cleaning and demagnetizing of the heads is required. Also, the tapes themselves do wear out and need to be replaced from time to time. Tube models will also require servicing as well.
All said however, there are many musicians who will use nothing but a tape delay for its inherent qualities. A tape delay can complement music like no other delay type.
Shopping for a true tape delay brings up a few options. You can scour through Ebay or a music shop and search out a vintage unit and be prepared to pay a bit of a premium, especially if you’re in search of a tube-driven tape delay. If budget is more of a consideration, the solid-state tape delays that don’t use tubes will still provide the “wow” and “flutter” effects. Alternately, there are some new companies (such as Rock Hard Inc’s new “The Plex”) marketing reproductions of tape delays with all-new components that will certainly mean less worry about breakdowns or other issues.
Analog delays were introduced in the ‘70s as the need for a more practical, cost-effective, and easily transportable echo box was needed. They were quite successful and many new companies emerged with their own analog (or at the time simply called “solid-state”) delay designs including Electro-Harmonix, Boss, Ibanez and others.
Analog delays don’t really sound like tape delays however. The output of the delay was much more “lo-fi”, especially as delay times were increased. Delay times were a problem as well and in general, analog delays could only produce delays at about 250-300 ms tops. There were always exceptions to the rule and Electro-Harmonix was one of the makers of analog delays that could extend the time considerable however.
The limited delay times didn’t seem to matter though because again, having a portable and inexpensive echo box was certainly welcome to many musicians who didn’t want to lug around or maintain an Echoplex unit.
It’s interesting to note that today, analog delays are quite highly regarded and I feel it is because of the lo-fidelity characteristics of the echo. Truly when you consider what a “real” echo would produce, such as in a large cavern somewhere, the repeats won’t be perfect reproductions of the original signal. If I yelled “hello” in a cavern, and it repeated back several times perfectly, that would be a bit odd and certainly unnatural. The bouncing of the signal around in a cavern would truly distort the original signal a bit and each repeat would get degraded even more. In this same way, and again especially with longer delay times, an analog delay will work in this same fashion.
I personally enjoy my old analog echo delays and for all my basic delay work. They’re certainly my favorite to use and the degradation of the signal is also very cool.
Companies such as Ibanez and Electro-Harmonix are still producing variations of analog delays, though the original units produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s are commanding a premium right now. It is interesting to note that if you would have shopped for an analog delay, especially a used one, back in the late ‘80s you could have bought one for next to nothing. Analog delays during that time were considered passé and inferior to the great digital delays that had emerged. Now the opposite has occurred and digital delays are somewhat looked down upon!
I mentioned earlier that digital delays were must-have items in the ‘80s. All “serious” musicians worth their weight in music had to have one of these either in box or rack-mounted form. With delay times that long exceeded any analog unit, and echoes that didn’t degrade with every repeat, what was not to like?
In this respect and for an echo box, the digital delay is really unmatched for its dependability and amount of functions it could provide. Companies during the ‘80s were even marketing delays that could produce delay times of 2 seconds or more and musicians were interested in exploring the creative possibilities with this new-found flexibility.
These days, because of the digital delay’s supreme accuracy, they are thought of as less-musical and natural as either tape or analog delay units. But I don’t know if I buy into this belief. Musicality and creativity are really in the hands of the users and it’s really up to the user to create his or her music and much of this comes from imagination. I’ve certainly spent lots of time and hours with a digital delay and have discovered some great and wild effects that certainly couldn’t be produced with anything else. In this regard, digital delays are great tools.
Sonically, the repeats are virtually identical to the input signal when using a digital delay. Long, dreamy delay lines and repeats can certainly enhance many musical passages. Additionally, musicians explored the sound-on-sound type of delay effect when playing “over” a repeat with a different note, in effect creating new musical harmonies. Players that follow Van Halen’s work may recall the solo piece “Cathedral”, in which a half-second of delay time was used with volume swells to create an interesting piece of music.
Certainly when shopping for a digital delay, the used market as of this writing in mid 2001 certainly has them undervalued. The great Boss digital delay stomp boxes that cost well over $200 in the ‘80s can now be bought for nearly $50 and they work great. Interestingly enough as a counterpoint to this, Boss’ analog delays of the same era that sold used for about $50 during the ‘80s are now commanding prices upwards of $200. Brand new, a Boss DD-5 like that pictured above sells for around $150. Certainly in today’s market, when shopping for a basic all-around delay, digital models are the way to go.
I add this as a separate category, but in actuality, these are truly digital delays at heart that have programming within them that will replicate analog and tape delay models of the past as well as producing digital delays. Generally, they do a good job and are perhaps the way to go for those people interesting in exploring the flavors of analog, tape, and digital delays.
All said though, the effects will be close, but not as dramatic or as accurate as the true effect. For example, an analog delay model will show degradation of signal, but the digital model of it will still tend to emphasize the higher frequency “edge” which is inherent in digital music (you can hear this effect even when listening to a CD versus a cassette or vinyl record – while the CD has low noise and is considered the best quality, the sounds themselves do tend to be a bit sharper and focused in the higher ranges just a bit).
With this in mind, I think modeling is great and it’s nice to have this as an option. Modeling delay units are readily available at virtually all music stores today.
In the end, nothing from this group in particular can be said to be “better” than another. Each delay type produces its delays in a different fashion with different results. In my mind, variety is certainly the spice of life and in music, I personally enjoy working with each of these different types of delay units from time to time. Through the subtle differences between them, they’ve all helped inspire different passages or riffs of music in the past and I look forward to them working in this role with me in the future.