The Golden Age of Delay
By Daniel Brooks
A good delay has the potential to alter your universe in ways that no other effect can offer. A simple repetition, or maybe a not-so-simple repetition of your every note in time with your playing can radically transform both your sound and your creative outlook, inspiring you with musical ideas previously unimagined. A few notable artists have greatly expanded the vocabulary of music with quite a few more-than-notable innovations that are only possible to achieve through the use of a delay effect, and there is no reason yet to believe in any limits to the creative possibilities the delay may still have to offer.
Watch our new video for the Diamond Quantum Leap to see
a few of the tricks a modern delay pedal is capable of
You may have noticed an impressive number and variety of delay effects that have recently made their way to the market. An abundance of collections in a box have appeared in the last few years, some within the last few weeks or even the next few weeks, each offering a wealth of accurate recreations of classic delay effects and taking full advantage of the huge leaps in technology to present fantastically inventive new features that will only expand the sonic landscape even further. Maybe now is a good time to look at this extraordinary effect and see what we can understand about it.
The original delay effects were analog masterpieces of invention. To achieve a real-time echo effect that was easy to replicate and control in a studio setting, engineers had to figure out a way to continuously record a signal and then play it back after a short time has passed, usually some fraction of a second to a second or so later. Magnetic tape made the recording part relatively easy, controlling the amount of time between the original signal and the repeats proved to be the challenge. Experiments with tape loops gave rise to the earliest commercially available tape echo units of the 1950s. They used one magnetic head to “write” the original signal onto the tape and multiple heads to read the recorded signal as the tape passed over them moments later and then pass a copy of that second signal on to the amp. Another copy would be sent back to the write head to create a feedback loop for multiple repeats. The delay between the original and the reproduced signals was adjusted by either physically moving the read heads or by varying the tape speed, depending on the model of tape delay unit used. It worked wonderfully, but magnetic tape delay had its limitations. The tape itself often proved to be somewhat fragile and would lose its audio quality as its magnetism degraded with continuous use. These original tape delay units remained popular, however, well into the 1970s.
As an alternative to magnetic tape, the Binson Echorec used a rotating magnetic drum with three fixed read heads that could be selected in various combinations to achieve an assortment of fixed delay times. The drum would last for decades with proper maintenance and would sometimes develop magnetic quirks as it aged to create its own idiosyncratic timbre and interesting warbling effects. Of course, part of the problem with both the tape delays and the Echorec was their reliance on moving parts to create their effect. Many units became unreliable and expensive to maintain as their parts wore out. As the technology developed in the late 1960s made it possible for solid state delay circuits to deliver the same effect more reliably, these big, mechanical delay units gave way to their much more compact and inexpensive counterparts. Nevertheless, the Echorec and many tape delay units like the Echoplex, the Roland Space Echo and the WEM Copicat are often sought out today by collectors who appreciate the quirks that make up their signature analog sound.
the new, analog Way Huge Supa Puss
The first of these solid state delays was the bucket brigade device. This analog device was essentially a series of capacitance circuits, each of which would store the electric charge from your guitar signal for one cycle of an internal clock and then pass it on to the next circuit. A 512 stage series was one of the more common configurations, with the frequency of the clock cycles varying from 5kHz to as much as 1.5 MHz, depending on the design. Since the clock frequency created an aliasing problem of interference patterns that audibly changed the signal, it was necessary to place a low pass filter at the output to eliminate the clock’s fingerprints. This made for increasingly darker repeats, which actually duplicates the pattern of degrading fidelity and amplitude found in nature, giving the bucket brigade device a natural, organic sound sought by many today. Like the mechanical delays they replaced, the earliest analog delays were somewhat inflexible with fixed and relatively short delay times. Their reign as the mainstream standard was short lived as far more sophisticated digital delays began to appear, but analog delay has continued to develop and is still available today in much more flexible new pedals such as the Way Huge Supa Puss, the MXR Carbon Copy and the Mojo Hand Recoil.
The first digital delays began to appear in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Digital Signal Processing (DSP) electronics became sophisticated and inexpensive enough for common use. Typically, a digital delay works by using an analog-to-digital converter to sample a guitar signal, essentially turning it into a binary code of one and zeroes. That code can then be processed, altered, stored, and retrieved at will, depending on the engineer and the guitarist’s choice of parameters, before being turned back into an audio signal by way of a digital-to-analog converter and sent to your amp. As with all things digital, the capacity, speed, sophistication and quality of DSP based effects have evolved exponentially, so that now we have a virtually unlimited palette that is only constrained by the conceptual capacity, speed, sophistication and quality of the designers and users. For a fraction of the price of a vintage Echorec, you can own a virtual delay museum with more features than you might ever use.
There are a few things to consider concerning a good delay effect. They tend to sound better when used in an effects loop than they do in the front end of an amp. Some pedals, like TC Electronics’ Alter Ego, The Flashback x4, The Way Huge Supa Puss or the Diamond Quantum Leap give you the option of selecting true bypass or buffered bypass. True bypass is not necessarily your best option. Delay pedals rarely create any noise or deterioration in tone and many of the new delays have a “Trails” feature that lets the last note decay naturally after you have stepped on the bypass footswitch. The trails feature is incompatible with true bypass, your sound will abruptly change when you turn off the effect. And finally, while there is something to be said about any effect that does only one thing to perfection, all of the new multi-effects delays we have played with here have blown us away with the extraordinary sound quality they deliver at every setting. You may intend to use your delay for a single purpose like rockabilly slapback or just adding a touch of layered depth to your sound, but the curious musician may find an occasional exploration of the vast array of features on any of these pedals leads to a whole new creative landscape. Seriously, plug into a reverse delay sometime and see how many hours pass.