Musicians have long sought ways to achieve a richer, fuller sound to enhance both their live and recorded performances. The hunt for the “BIG SOUND” especially distinguished some early pioneers of rock and roll guitar in the late 1950’s.
Some, like Link Wray, recorded their amplifiers in reverberant stairwells. Others like Duane Eddy recorded with their amplifiers placed inside huge metal storage tanks.
These homemade efforts to achieve larger than life sounds were influential footnotes in a nearly 100 year old quest to create new sounds using a wide variety of techniques and technologies. The unique qualities of magnetic tape have been notably responsible for legendary effects that distinguished countless recordings and performances. Foremost among these is the use of magnetic tape recorders to produce delayed signals or echoes. While many other technologies were used to create delay effects, it is a widely held opinion that there is nothing quite like the sounds created using the delays resulting from the recording and playback of signals on magnetic tape..
This article will consider the long history of delay effects while a subsequent piece will specifically focus of the tape echo devices that shaped popular music in the 1970’s and which have enjoyed amazing popularity down to our day.
For many years recording studios have built specially treated rooms with highly reflective walls specifically to create echoes that they could add to recordings. While it was common to call these echo chambers, a more accurate description would be to call them reverberation chambers because they generally produce multiple echoes that are so closely spaced in time that they are heard as a diffuse whole, which is the classic definition of reverberation
In the 1950’s Les Paul built a series of eight cavernous trapezoidal echo chambers dug 30 feet below the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles. The sparse concrete chambers, each with their own unique characteristics, have speakers on one side and microphones on the other. Sound engineers working in the studios above can pipe audio into the reverb chambers and re-record the sound, adding as much as a five-second delay. Famous chambers, such as the ones at Capitol Studios have gifted thousands of classic recordings with a dense, natural reverberation.
Musicians and recording engineers have long sought ways to create these effects without the size and expense of building treated chambers and also to achieve more control over the echoes. And so they began to experiment with what we now call delay effects-an audio signal processing technique that records an input signal to a storage medium and then plays it back after a period of time. Beginning with recording to phonograph lacquer discs, and steel wire recorders, musicians quickly moved to using magnetic tape during the late 1940’s. The new media provided them with a major compositional tool – the tape loop.
Composers of electro-acoustic music were among the very first musicians to make use of tape loops,. Their work was mainly done in electro-acoustic laboratories, often connected with universities or government sponsored radio networks. In early 1940’s an Egyptian student, Halim El-Dabh began experimenting at Middle East Radio with acoustic reverb and electronic echo, first with wire recorders and soon afterwards with magnetic tape. By 1944 he was using magnetic tape to capture sounds which were then manipulated and looped into musical compositions that could be performed to audiences.
Four years later, Pierre Schaeffer used special phonograph discs with a closed groove to repeat segments of sounds in his musique concrète studio in Paris. Using several turntables and a disc cutting lathe, Schaeffer also experimented with creating new sounds by changing speeds and reversing the direction of playback. When magnetic tape technology became widely available in 1951, he upgraded these techniques with tape loops, where such segments could either be simply repeated, or could undergo electronic transformation during repetition.
Composer Otto Luening came to Columbia University in 1944 and he was joined by fellow composer Vladimir Ussachevsky in 1947. Leuning began to experiment with the possibilities of magnetic tape recording, collaborating with Ussachevsky to produce the first concert of “music for tape recorders” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952. Halim El-Dabh moved to the United States beginning an association with Ussachevsky in 1955. By 1959 all three composers were creating groundbreaking electronic music compositions at the Columbia- Princeton Electronic Music Center. Many of the electronic components that would become essential elements of modern synthesizers, samplers and electronic instruments were developed and perfected at this Center.
Spurred on by these pioneers and composers such as Pierre Henry, Edgard Varese, Hugh LeCaine and Karlheinz Stockhausen, electronic music using variable speed tape recorders, tape delays and tape loops was well established by the late 1950’s. The minimalist composer Terry Riley added recorded music, speech and sound samples to his live performances.
In the mid-1940’s Les Paul began experiments in his garage studio which culminated in the “New Sound” he introduced in 1948. He used the acetate disc setup to record parts at different speeds and with delay, resulting in his signature sound with echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. In 1949 he received his first Ampex tape recorder and over the next three years he laid the foundation for so much of what we consider to be the essential music technology which distinguished the next eight decades of performances and recordings.
By the late 1950’s the use of tape machines to produce echoes and delays was a common practice in commercial recording studios. Most notable was the “slapback echo” that appeared on Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly recordings in the mid-1950’s. The famous slapback echo that distinguished Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, was created in 1955 with a pair of Ampex 350 tape recorders. This short, single-repeat echo effect was often heard in '50s pop and rockabilly styles applied to electric guitar, drums and vocals. Slapback delay times are usually short, in the range of 40-120 milliseconds, with the delay effect mixed up quite loud against the dry signal.
Tape echo in studios was a simple proposition. A signal from the recorder being used to record the performance would be routed to a separate tape recorder that was set to monitor off its repro head. The slight amount of time that occurred between when the signal was presented for re-recording and when it came off the repro head provided a delayed signal that was sent back to be mixed into the main recording. The delay time could be adjusted by changing the speed of the tape machine used for the delay. The delayed signal may be played back multiple times (feedback) into the recording, to create the sound of a repeating, decaying echo. Other delay effects effects, such as chorus and flanging, could be created by subtly varying the speed of the machine while signals were passing through with very short delay times.
Creative recording engineers would also devise ways to make tape loops and create unique effects. In 1977 the production team at Criteria Studios in Miami used 30 foot long loop of a previously recorded drum track for the Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive.”
King Tubby, an early Jamaican Dub producer, had been using homemade delay units with handmade tape loops in the 1960’s. His use of delay effects inspired the next generation of Jamaican engineers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry to create a distinctive Dub sound (1973-1976) when vastly improved and affordable delay effects, such as the Roland Space Echo became widely available.
Those new sounds had an immense international impact as exemplified in the Hip-Hop music culture that was forged in New York city over the next 20 years. As Larry Crane wrote in Tape Op # 136 (Dub Music Special Issue): “The effect of this music on everything we do in the studio to this day is immeasurable….it sounded like the future when it first appeared, and its impact continues to change the future of music today.”
The Dub artists joined those early creators of electronic music and innovative producers of rock music such as George Martin, to introduce music that went far beyond any natural sounds, creating a fusion of inspiration and technology that continues to dominate so much contemporary music production.
All these efforts were basically studio productions that involved considerable space, complexity and expense. Performing musicians using electro-acoustic instruments had always sought simpler and more portable ways to add fullness of sounds to their live performances. The demand for easy-to-use, real-time echo and reverb effects spawned a number of innovations leading up to our current immense variety of pedal and rack mount signal processors.
Electronic musical instruments became a commercial reality when the Hammond electronic organs became popular in the mid-1930’s. Hammond, from the start, sought to create a fuller sound for these instruments using both rotating Leslie speakers and mechanical reverberation devices. By the 1940’s spring reverbs, originally develop by Bell labs, had become the most widely used device to add artificial reverberation to musical instrument amplification. A pair of metal springs in a tank would be fitted with transducers at either end. Audio signals would be converted to vibrations at one end and sent down the spring. The resulting vibrations simulated the reflections of sound waves in a room. The transducer at the return end of the tank sensed the reflected vibrations and converted them to an electrical signal.
Alan Young was hard at work on a compact reverberation unit. Their compact Type 4 reverb tank became an instant hit in 1960 as guitarists discovered it to be an effective addition to their amplifiers. One writer described its qualities as “an overall dark sound with unique rippling tails” This artificial attempt at reproducing a physical space offered bounce and grit which mixed well with room acoustics, and allowed an instrument to really pop out, yet still sit well, in both live and recorded performances. Fender began selling the Hammond reverb tanks in 1961 and incorporated them into amplifiers in 1963 beginning with the Vibroverb and quickly followed by the wildly popular Twin Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, Princeton Reverb and Super Reverb. Other companies including Ampeq, Kustom, Gibson, Marshall and Mesa Boogie quickly adopted Type 4 tanks. Vox wanted to avoid paying royalties to Hammond so they developed their own spring reverb variation in 1962.
By 1964 the success of the Type 4 was so great that Hammond spun off a separate company, Accutronics, to make the reverb tanks. They remained in US production until 2009 and both current import versions along with a host of similar spring reverb designs are still enjoying great popularity.
Many of the less expensive devices had an obvious springy sound, which earned them the derisive nickname “boing boxes”. Even the best units had a distinct clang which accompanied the initial vibration of the spring. While spring reverbs were quite satisfactory for use with instruments, they fell far short of the kind of quality reverberation required in recording studios. Recording studios sought their own compact alternative to echo chambers that would allow for higher quality electro-mechanical reverberation with greater control over the sound produced.
Plate reverb, invented by German engineers in the late 1950’s, created a much more appealing reverberation with their use of large steel plates. EMT Plate reverbs achieved near instant popularity- thousands were installed in recording studios in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. They are still highly sought after, widely imitated, and never quite duplicated. They allowed many smaller studios to add high quality reverberation without the complications of building echo chambers or running additional tape recorders for effects. Despite their considerable size (8 feet long, 4 feet tall, and 425 pounds) plate reverbs were still a much simpler and more predictable proposition than the alternatives. They also possessed their own unique sonic character– a smooth, bright sound that adds something very special to voices and instruments. That sound has been emulated in hundreds of electronic devices and software since the 1970’s. But given their considerable size and expense, EMT plates were of little use to musicians working outside of recording studios.
Attempts to create smaller and more economical plate reverbs and to upgrade the spring reverb for studio use enjoyed limited success but they still didn’t meet the musician’s need for compact and economical units that could provide an easy to use, real-time echo effect that could be adjusted to produce echoes of any interval or amplitude along with more controllable and lifelike reverberation and additional effects.
While tape echoes seemed like an obvious choice for creating quality delay effects, the versatility of this method was limited by the recorder’s tape speed choices and the distance between the record and playback heads. Repetitive effects could be generated by feedback where the delayed sound is delayed again but these repeats would quickly deteriorate in sonic quality. Vari-speed tape recorders had their own set of problems. Furthermore, tape running on standard recorders had to be constantly changed if the reels were small in size, and larger reels would defeat the goal of a simple and portable effects unit.
Very early on in the 1950’s, engineers began to devise ways to make the tape continuously loop on a machine so the tape would never “run “out.” The predecessor of modern tape echo units was a tape echo designed by Ray Butts who owned a small music store in Cairo, Illinois. A local guitarist who admired Les Paul's new sounds stimulated Butt's interest in creating an echo effect that could be played with "live" guitar. His first efforts in 1952 used wire recorders but by 1954 Butts had transitioned to using newly available 3M magnetic tape culminating in his portable "Echosonic", a guitar amplifier with built-in tape echo. The first one went to that local musician but the second Echosonic sale would prove to be a real game-changer.
Butts had moved to Nashville and looked up legendary guitarist Chet Atkins, who would purchase the amplifier and use it on many of his most famous recordings throughout the 1950's. In 1955 Elvis Presley's guitarist, Scotty Moore, started using an Echosonic and it appeared on most of Elvis' late Sun and early RCA singles and recordings by Carl Perkins.
His tape loop technology was the basis for the Echoplex machine, introduced in 1959. The Echoplex, as much as any other single device, can be credited with giving birth to the modern effects pedal industry and the expanded sonic palette of modern popular music.
Designed by electronics technician Mike Battle, assisted by guitarist Don Dixon, the Echoplex incorporated two major improvements over the Echosonic. It put the tape in a cartridge protecting it from dust, contamination and damage and facilitating easy replacement. The second innovation was the moving head, sliding along a bar, which allowed the operator to change the delay time by changing the distance between the record and playback heads. An initial run of 500 units was purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments in 1959. As popularity grew, distribution was taken over by Maestro, a leader in vacuum tube technology closely identified with Gibson. The upgraded Maestro Echoplex EP-2 (1962) became an instant classic. It also featured vacuum tube electronics that made a significant contribution to its sound with preamp circuitry that imparted warmth and a tactile boost to the signal .
With a sound best described as warm, thick and round, original EP-2's remain a highly sought after effects device commanding thousands of dollars on the aftermarket. Its successor, the solid state EP-3, enjoyed a long production run from 1970 to 1991. Offering echo and sound-on-sound, it became a favorite with scores of notable 1970’s guitarists (ironically the sound of solid state electronics never appealed to Echoplex designer Mike Battle and he sold his interest in the company shortly after its release).
For all their popularity, all early tape echo effects units had a drawback in that magnetic tape was not all that well suited for continuous operation. Recording quality wasn’t always great, depending upon the condition of the heads and the condition of the tape. Tape loops had to be replaced quite often to maintain audio fidelity.
So a few companies tried other methods that eliminated the use of tape. An Italian company, Binson, developed a unit that stored signals on a rotating magnetic drum which could stand up to several years of heavy usage without deterioration. The Binson Echorec caught on with a popular English guitarist in the mid-1960’s used in combination with his Vox AC-30 amplifier. Beginning in 1967, Pink Floyd’s original line-up made extensive use of the Echorec and it remained a major part of the early Pink Floyd sound, until they started to use the VCS3 synthesizer in 1972.
Another alternative system was the oil-can delay invented by Ray Lubow in the early 1960’s. He developed a new method of creating echoes and other delayed sounds that did not use bulky tape-recorder mechanisms.
Early units produced by the Lubow brothers’ Tel Ray Electronics (later branded as Morley) were sold under the name Ad-N-Echo and were also incorporated into amplifiers made by such leading manufacturers as Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker. Most popular in the mid-1960’s, oil can type effects units were produced by Tel Ray into the 1980’s. The sound produced was unique- resembling an echo, but in many ways more like a vibrato effect – a dark, murky and watery low-fi sound that continues to be widely sought after by way of modern pedal emulations and a steady demand for restored older units.
Solid-State electronics became widely used in the mid-1960’s and with them came the emergence of all types of effects for performing musicians and recording studios. In the 1970’s the few devices became many, birthing the pedal industry whose extraordinary growth has fueled artistic creativity for some 50 years.
Manufacturers of dedicated tape echo devices kept pace with new products such as the Echoplex EP-3 and EP-4 and Roland’s Space Echo series. They boasted expanded features and controls and improved proprietary tapes that were looped inside small cartridges. They became so popular because they were easy to use and portable. Besides being great delay/echo units they were also many musician’s first foray into using looping effects.
The presence of multiple taps (playback heads) made it possible to have delays at varying rhythmic intervals. This allowed musicians an additional means of expression over natural periodic echoes. Roland introduced the early RE-100 and RE-200 Space Echo units in 1973. They followed these in 1974 with the legendary RE-201 Space Echo with its much longer tape loop.
The 201 was perhaps the first unit of its type to be designed and manufactured with truly serious engineering with sophisticated controls and genuinely roadworthy construction. It also looked as cool as its name. Japanese engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi refined the tape delay to make it more reliable and robust, with reduced tape wear and noise, wow, and flutter, additional controls, and additional tape heads. Different effects could be created by enabling different combinations of playback heads. By adjusting the controls and tape speed, musicians could create pitch-shifting and oscillating effects. The 201 also incorporated a spring reverb tank creating even more possibilities for impressive effects combining echo repeats with reverb.
As much as many loved the sound of tape based echoes and effects, there were still downsides to their use outside the studio. The recording quality wasn’t always great, depending upon the condition of the heads and the condition of the tape. Even on a perfectly tuned machine the quality would change (degrade) with each repeat because this involved playing the first echo out, recording it again, playing it, recording that signal again, etc. The degradation happened fairly quickly.
So there was always a motivation to create compact effects devices that required virtually no maintenance. Solid state electronics provided the means to shrink the boxes into pedals that were compact, relatively inexpensive and full of new sounds and eventually a host of features. Early solid state components such as germanium transistors and bucket brigade delays have all been revived in recent years adding their unique sonic quirks and qualities to modern devices. But back in the 70’s they certainly had real limitations when it came to pristine sonic quality.
The brilliant audio engineer, equipment designer and inventor, Stephen St.Croix provided an affirmative answer with two extraordinary rack-mounted analog effects devices developed in the late 1970’s. The few remaining ones sell for thousands of dollars today and their sonic performance still approaches the current state of the art. A prototype Marshall Time Modulator was first demonstrated at an Audio Engineering Society convention in 1975. The Marshall Electronics booth was mobbed and audio press heralded a great new development even before the commercial version (Model 5002) was released in 1977.
Studio Electronics (Burbank,) who later obtained the rights to service Marshall Electronics from St.Croix’s estate, described the unit: “it does modulate and manipulate audio delay time, producing many unique and amazing effects. The input signal passes through two analog delay lines. The delay time is adjusted by manual control, a wide range LFO circuit, or (for most effects) a combination of the two. Dry and delayed signal are combined, with feedback added as desired. …. the sounds produced by the MTM are utterly amazing. Effects include positive, negative, and resonant flanges, cardboard tube echo, automatic double (and triple) tracking with pitch and delay dithering, circus vibrato, arpeggio, pitch quantizing, and many more.”
The Marshall Time Modulator soon made its mark on many hit records, most notably Stevie Wonder’s Grammy Award-Winning Album of the Year, “Songs In the Key of Life”, the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of Wonder's career, and one of the great albums in the history of recorded music. An improved Model 5402 was used to process James Earl Jones voice for Darth Vader in the original Star Wars.
As the 70’s closed, an equally remarkable product was being developed by St. Croix at the request of famed recording engineer Phil Ramone and New York’s A&R recording studios. After several years of interaction the Marshall AR-300 Tape Eliminator was introduced in early 1982, though few even knew of its existence until it was reviewed in the audio press three years later. It lived up to its name by nailing the sound of tape echo, with much better headroom, dynamic range, no tape hiss, and a tightly controlled high-frequency EQ shift in Vari-speed mode, eliminating a longstanding problem that had plagued studio tape machines.
Engineers could choose their favorite tape formulation and Marshall would customize the Eliminator to simulate that particular tape’s sonic qualities and saturation behavior. In short, even engineers who said “there’s nothing like tape” had to admit that this analog signal processor handled tape echo, doubling, slap and pre-delay for plates and chambers exceptionally with a warm audio quality that surpassed anything that digital signal processing in the mid-1980’s could achieve.
It would take many years, but eventually a host of high quality tape simulation devices such as the Strymon Deco and Volante would take up where Marshall had left off some 25 years earlier. Today tape simulation remains one of the most popular and varied categories among effects pedals.
One could find a considerable number of lesser quality analogue delay effects pedals available in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s such as the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man and the Roland DM-2, along with a number of higher quality rack-mount units like the Ibanez AD-230 and Korg SD-400. But as a rule, and unlike Marshall Electronics products, these devices all exhibited a number of audio deficiencies such as pronounced high frequency loss due to steep filtering and significant noise degradation with extended delay times.
Signal processing using the newer digital technology had been around since 1971 but these units were quite expensive in the mid-seventies. Their supposedly “perfect sound” was also plagued with a variety of audio anomalies. It was precisely those imperfections in early digital processors that made them so attractive to enthusiasts some thirty years later, Many have inspired designers to emulate those imperfections in new pedal designs
Continuing reductions in the cost of digital memory made compact and moderately priced digital effects processors feasible in the 1980’s. It was truly a digital decade. Classic units like the Lexicon PCM-42, Roland SDE-3000 and Korg SDD-3000 offered enough extended delay times to allow for the creation of background loops, rhythms and phrases.
In 1984 Roland put digital delays into a compact pedal, the DD-2. Simple rack mount delay units evolved into sophisticated digital reverbs such as the Lexicon PCM-60 and PCM-70. By the late 1980’s very compact effects processors and pedals were capable of generating hundreds and thousands of echoes creating truly lifelike reverberation and a staggering variety of effects.
The 1990’s brought us affordable multi-effects processors and the beginnings of a retro movement as musicians now firmly in the digital world began to look back longingly at the devices and sounds of yesteryear. Improved computer chip designs and dramatic memory cost reductions in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s set the stage for the explosion of boutique effects pedals that have distinguished the past two decades, creating an ever-expanding universe of sounds and effects at the fingertips or feet of musicians, enthusiasts and experimenters.
With the likely exception of Stephen St. Croix, few musicians or designers in the 1970’s could have envisioned the endless palette of sounds and effects available to 21st Century musicians. Considering their humble beginnings in the 1940’s, echo and delay effects have indeed had a remarkable journey. It is likely premature to pronounce that the limitations of time and space have been fully conquered, but for today’s musicians the barriers and obstacles of the past have been largely swept away.
A Few Footnotes:
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