The Golden Age of Delay

October 26, 2012

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.


  1. Adam Dallas says:

    After doing a paper on tape echo for my degree, it’s kind of scary to see just how accurately digital replications such as the Strymon dTape engine can replicate the tiny imperfections of a tape machine, the tape friction and crinkle, and the subtle fluctuations of the speed of the mechanical parts of the tape. Gives all us non-rich folks the chance to enjoy the warmth and warble of an old echoplex!

    Strymon’s Timeline gets my vote!

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 1:30 am
  2. Neil says:

    Whoa, Adam, what degree did you get? That sounds awesome! :)

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 2:16 am
  3. m says:

    The Mojo Hand Recoil is a digital delay, not analog.

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 3:04 am
  4. Kev says:

    Mojo Hand Recoil = perhaps a hibred sorts? 

    • Digital Chip with Analog Signal Path and Voicing

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 3:36 am
  5. Neil says:

    Well, technically, you could call any non-BBD chip a hybrid in that sense.

    In the end, delays are a strange beast, and if you like the sound, then go with it! I love the Line6 Echo Park. Yeah, I know, weird huh? :)

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 3:43 am
  6. Phineas says:

    The Strymon El Capistan and the Nocturne Atomic Brain preamp are pretty close
    to perfect together. I dont need my Roland Space echo anymore.

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 7:22 am
  7. jon says:

    Too bad every article overlooks the true HOLY GRAIL of all Bucket Brigade delays. 
    The Ibanez AD-230 (18 panasonic MN3004 chips!) and a amazing buffer. Makes the DMM sound like a cheap toy. ..... IMO

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 8:18 am
  8. Ed Brenton says:

    I have an original Maestro Echoplex… Was uber cool in it’s day but too many years of wear and tear have made it less than reliable.
    Love my Boss DD20 Giga-Delay though!


    posted on October 27, 2012 at 8:29 am
  9. sac guess solde says:

    Really fascinating post, highly useful and by professionals written.. Good Activity

    posted on October 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm
  10. studotwho says:

    I have been using the TC Electronic Nova (iB modified) for a few months and am really enjoying it.  I originally was considering getting the MXR Carbon Copy by decided that while the “analog” thing is good, and the CC is a reliable pedal and simple enough to operate, that the TC Nova beats it out in versatility.  It’s not digital, but it has improved analog buffers (in and out I believe).

    I note that PGS no longer have the TC Nova listed and they’re going for >$300 US on eBay, so you’ll do well to find one at a good price, but if you are after a really solid and clean sounding delay that lets you add some color to your delay trails then check it out.

    Whilst the controls for the TC Nova confused me for a while, I decided to try reading the manual, and that showed me how to set it up for what I need it to do.  The features built in to this (and certainly into other modern/digital pedals) such as buffered mode, preset/manual settings modes and tap-tempo, really let you create some wonderful overtones and ambiance.

    ...and just on the subject of ambiance, everyone should check out the Hardwire Supernatural Reverb pedal.  Running a delay into a reverb - especially one that sings along like the Supernatural does - can make some truly amazing textures.

    Just wanted to do a quick shout-out to PGS: Thanks ProGuitarShop for your ongoing work to make wonderful pedals available to your customers, and for building the free video archive on (almost) all your pedals.  Your videos are an excellent starting point for researching new effects, or learning how existing effects can be combined to create memorizing canvases.


    posted on October 28, 2012 at 1:10 pm
  11. Alex Rude says:

    Excellent article. Delay pedals for me are a must have for depth and color. I can’t remember when I haven’t had one on my pedal board and have used everything from the old Roland Space Echo (which I liked but geez what a pain in the butt to bring to gigs and rather unreliable) to an old DOD digital Delay pedal as well as the Ibanez Analog Delay. My current personal favorite delay pedal is the Eventide DelayFactor. There is nothing this pedal can’t do from all the warm analog and tape delay sounds to hyper clear digital delay sounds normally found only in the best studios. It’s pricey but has all the features and like I said, can do anything you can imagine and more that you have never thought of.

    posted on October 30, 2012 at 2:10 am
  12. SquidTurbo says:

    Great article. We’ve come a long way baby.

    posted on October 30, 2012 at 6:50 am
  13. gillyzoom says:

    I used to buy a really cheap digital delay’s in the 80’s called Digiplay they were made exclusively for Venue Music in Sydney.While they failed,miserably as pristine digital delays such as Boss they excelled at rockabilly slapback.They may have claimed to be digital on the box but they sounded more analog than anything.So maybe it’s a case of their shortcomings for their intended purpose being their strengths anyway at $40 bucks a pop they were great value.After that I used a Roland Space Echo RE-301 for a couple of years but got sick of the lug,so then I stated to use the pedal I have been using for about the last 20 years of my gigging. An original Ibanez AD9 that I bought used in 1984 for $125 bucks,I was so glad Ibanez decided to finally re-issue this pedal because in the mid 90’s.As it would have cost me a fortune to replace it with an original unit.Whilst I never intended for my AD9 to become a collectable pedal and I still don’t,I take care of it but it has plenty of road wear and tear on it. But it still works pretty much they way it always has,over the years it’s had the battery clip replaced also the on/off switch but that’s about it .I recently bought a Red Witch Violet Delay as my back-up,I like the rechargeable lithium battery it helps reduce my carbon footprint. I have owned several other delays over the years but I still always seem to come back yo the AD9 as my benchmark and while it is by no means the perfect delay it is about as close as I can get rather than having to lug a Roland Space Echo around for a rockabilly slapback delay.I know this comment was long winded but I just wanted to share my delay experiences with others since delay has been at the source of my tone for over 30 years of playing.I am also a battery only guy when it come to the AD9 the tone seems to change when you use a wall wart and being a minimum pedal guy I never use a pedal board so a wall wart lead just gets in the way.

    posted on October 30, 2012 at 11:54 am
  14. Lord Casio says:

    I think (and I fully accept that this is all subjective) that if you just want JUST a delay that “sounds like” an analog delay, there is no need for a truely analog delay. I personally buy analog delays (Memory Lane and Mooger Fooger MP104M) because, I like the idiosynchronicities when you run one analog unit into the next.

    I used to use a combo of few analog pedals into my preamp and a small set of digital multi-effects in my FX loop for years in the early 2000’s. It was great, but I missed the “happy accident” of running a random pedal into the next one and having the second pedal in the chain take on a new sound when “flustered” by it’s predecessor, like I had in the late 90’s.

    Now with modern analog pedals incorporating CV control and/or tap tempo AND (with some pedals like Mooger Fooger) MIDI control, you can have things that were once only conceivable from multi-effects processors, in a modular analog pedal based system.

    With a modern analog set up (and the right pedal management system: Ground Control, Rocktron, etc. and perhaps a brain unit like the MOOG MP-201 or a MIDI-to-CV unit) you can have a purely analog (no AD/DA conversion) system that maintains all the quirks of analog, with the control of digital/MIDI.

    But if you just want a trusted “analog sound” (delay or otherwise) what I am suggesting is ridiculous. If you want to use effects like synthesis or in an experimental way, then things like PGS’s recommended SUPA-PUSS or anything Diamond Lane (they will mod for external control) is what you might want to consider.

    I feel like people gravitate towards the word “analog” without really thinking about what it will actually achieve for them. I will say, if you want a pedal based system and you have more than one digital pedal, you might consider either a digital effects processor or replacing some of your digital pedals with analog. More than two digital pedals makes for a LOT of AD/DA conversion….which is never good.

    ...but that’s just my thoughts on it.

    posted on November 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm
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