Photos: Mike Cameron
I've owned and used many different tape echo devices since the 1960s and the ironic thing is that when the solid-state analogue delay line came along in the early '70s, we couldn't wait to ditch our noisy, unreliable Watkins Copicats, Meazzi Factotum PA systems and Melos tape-cassette echo boxes.
The new technology promised no more tape hiss, no more broken tapes and a better sound. Well, they were right about no more broken tapes, but those early CCD (Charge Coupled Device) analogue delays — Carlsbro Mantis, anyone? — didn't sound very good, and they were actually quite noisy. Play a guitar chord and what you got was 'twang-dunk-dunk-dunk!' As the technology improved, the sound quality got better and the noise got lower, but this new breed of analogue delay/echo boxes had a distinctive sonic character that was nothing like tape. What we'd thought of as shortcomings in our tape echo units, such as mild pitch-warbling and a gradual dulling of the repeat echoes, were actually very musical, and we missed them so much that tape echo units made a bit of a comeback, with much more sophisticated devices made by companies such as HH, Roland and Pearl, to name but a few. Of course, digital delay eventually deposed most of the analogue units and delivered the clarity they promised — but until manufacturers started tweaking them to sound more like tape, they actually sounded too clean!
Today tape seems to be in demand once again: used Space Echos are commanding high prices, and even the old Watkins Copicat is desirable once more. But if you want a new tape echo box that's been engineered for reliability, where do you go? This is a tough question to answer, because tape echo is now the domain of boutique manufacturers — which, of course, means that the price of authenticity can be high.
A newcomer on the tape echo scene comes from UK-based Blue Coconut, who commissioned Terry MacDonald (an ex-Watkins engineer with lots of experience of tape echo units) to design a new machine good enough for professional studio and live sound use. The design brief was to eliminate the problems that plagued early tape echo machines, while keeping the unique sound. UK-based distributors Unity Audio have exclusive distribution rights for the Echoverb, and the two companies have come together to form a joint venture, Blue Coconut Unity, with a view to developing and marketing further new products together (hence the presence of both company logos on the Echoverb).
The Evolution Of Tape Delay
Tape echo units have been around for over 40 years now, so they definitely have their place in recording history. Unfortunately, many of the affordable early devices suffered from sub-optimal mechanical design and a reliance on rubber pinch rollers or felt pressure pads, both of which affected speed stability and accelerated tape wear. Tube units also often ran hot, which caused the tape splices to fail prematurely — usually in the middle of a crucial guitar solo or vocal part.
HH, better known for PAs and solid-state guitar amps, tried to improve the reliability of their tape echo unit by using a long, zig-zag tape path, the idea being that a longer tape would take longer to wear out. However, mine developed a habit of wrapping the tape around the capstan, as the capstan, in effect, pushed the tape rather than pulled it! At the other end of the scale we had the very cheap Melos echo boxes that used a single playback head, a permanent magnet on a sprung arm for an erase head and an endless tape cassette. I got through two or three in the '70s: they were a bit noisy but they had character! The Roland RE201 Space Echo was a far more serious piece of engineering, and I used one for a long time. It had a proper erase head and well-designed tape path, though the 'no rollers, no pressure pads' approach of the Echoverb is perhaps more elegant.
Today there are many digital tape delay emulations, the UA Space Echo plug-in and the Roland RE20 pedal being the obvious examples, but there are also good models from Line 6, Eventide and TC Electronic. These get so close to the classic sound that few people would be able to tell the difference. But some can, and I feel there's still something about the way repeating echoes appear to recede that makes tape echoes particularly musical-sounding.
The Echoverb, with its robust metal chassis and high-quality parts throughout, feels much more like a serious studio tape machine than an effects box. The metal chassis sits in an elegant sculpted shell that will suit table-top use, but for studio applications the owner can buy an optional head guard, as well as a sliding rackmount tray with a built-in storage compartment for consumables such as tape loops, head cleaner and cotton buds. (The maintenance routine is much the same as for a tape recorder, with regular head cleaning the most important task.) As supplied, the unit comes with five tape loops, and you get five more free of charge when you register your purchase. The designers recommend that you use their tapes, because although you can splice up your own, some types of tape wear the heads more quickly than others.
For guitar players, there are front-panel inputs and outputs on unbalanced jacks with a hi/low-gain switch, an input gain control and an output level control. The front panel also features send and return jacks, and there's a footswitch jack that needs only a simple momentary-action footswitch (not included as standard) to bypass the effect. A small button to the right of the panel mutes the dry signal, and there's a further switch to turn the motor off when not in use. Power comes in at the rear, via a standard IEC socket and an adjacent power switch. Also on the rear panel are transformer-balanced XLRs for line-level connection to studio gear.
Although a DSP is employed to handle the head switching and other housekeeping functions, the signal path of the Echoverb uses only solid-state, low-noise analogue circuitry. The designer hasn't gone as far back as using tubes, as this would add even more to the manufacturing cost (although, having said that, US company Fulltone offer a stereo tube tape delay for little over half the price of the Echoverb).
Using simple on/off buttons on the front panel, the user can select any permutation of the six available playback heads (a luxury compared with most early tape echo units, which had only three or four). The spec also claims that a precision flywheel is used to minimise wow and flutter, and there are no rubber pinch rollers here to become distorted — which is what worsened the wow and flutter on many of those older designs (their owners would leave them in the back of the van for days, so the rubber rollers ended up developing a flat surface where they were left pressing on the capstan). Of course, a bit of wow and flutter was part of the sound we loved, but you could have too much of a good thing!
It is worth noting that the Echoverb is designed to produce mono delay, just like the tape delays of old. There's certainly scope for a stereo version, as this would allow for the creation of ping-pong delays by routing different heads to separate left and right outputs — and the extra circuitry shouldn't add significantly to the price of the unit, given that the main cost is in the tape heads and transport.
The most obvious controls for a tape echo unit are tape speed (the slower the speed, the longer the delay time), echo level and feedback or sustain, where some of the output is fed back to the input to increase the number and complexity of the repeats. All these are provided, along with a Tone button to create warmer, less toppy repeats, and a master output level control.
To control the echo pattern, there are six illuminated buttons that allow each head to be switched on or off, and these buttons are arranged in a line before the Tone and Echo bypass buttons. Each button has a dual-colour LED inside that changes from red to green when a head is active, and the current head setup is recalled on powering up the unit. Another neat touch is the circular VU meter, which has a blue backlight that turns red when the input level is too high.
The tape path comprises six replay heads with one record and one erase head. The tape passes round two guide rollers and is driven by a capstan, with no pinch rollers or pressure pads. One of the guide rollers is spring loaded, and that's what maintains the tape tension, so it is vital that replacement tape loops are of the correct length. Fitting a new tape is simply a matter of manually moving the sprung roller inwards, then dropping on a new tape, making sure that it is sitting properly on the rollers and that the splice is on the outside. The tape supplied is rather glossy on both sides, so the location of the splice is really the only way to tell whether the tape is inside out or not.
Pressing and holding tape-head button one for a couple of seconds switches the Echoverb into its alternative 'reverb' mode, which seems to set up a more complex feedback path resulting in a kind of pseudo reverb (though it is still a type of delay effect). Pressing and holding the Echo button gets you back to Echo mode. Each of the six playback heads is equally spaced, so you can create useful rhythmic delay patterns by turning on the appropriate heads. The motor speed sets the tempo, but even at the slowest motor speed the maximum delay time is still under one second. However there's plenty of speed variation range, which means you can go from a very short slapback delay to a Shadows or surf-style guitar effect.
My first test was to plug a guitar directly into the Echoverb, then plug the Echoverb into my guitar amp (with a fairly clean setting). The input gain was adjusted so that loud strums just avoided sending the VU backlight red and the echo was switched on. This worked OK but it seemed to be quite noisy, most likely due to the fact that guitar amplifiers include a lot of treble boost, and a simple tape system that doesn't have noise reduction (noise reduction would compromise the authenticity of the effect) usually struggles to give a signal-to-noise ratio of much over 55 to 60dB.
Pressing in the Tone button reduced the apparent noise somewhat, as well as warming up the delay sound, but I achieved far better results by connecting the unit to the guitar amp insert points using its front-panel in and out jacks. Used this way the noise was negligible compared with the usual guitar-related noise. I achieved similarly low-noise operation when connecting the unit to a mixer, either via an insert point or via the send/return loop (if you try the latter, remember that the dry signal should be muted on the Echoverb). For unbalanced insert loops that work at line level, the insert send and return jacks on the front of the Echoverb may be a better option, although with my guitar amp this put too much gain into the loop and added unnecessary noise. I was rather hoping that the insert jacks were there to let you put a processor, such as a chorus device, inside the tape-delay feedback loop, but that appears not to be the case. Had there been such an option, I would have tried adding very shallow chorus or vibrato to emulate wow and flutter.
Sonically, the Echoverb behaves much as a tape delay should, with the real character coming from the way repeating echoes die away. Successive repeats lose both top and bottom end and distort in a subtle way that evokes a sense of distance — something that is particularly pleasing on guitar. I could hear little or no evidence of wow and flutter, to the extent that I actually missed it a bit. The amount of feedback that you need to dial in via the Sustain knob to get the delay to run away into oscillation varies with the choice of playback heads you have engaged, and when runaway does occur you get the classic dub effect. You're also able to change the motor speed during use, for all those familiar pitch-distortion effects.
Switching to Reverb mode produces a very fluttery echo-plus-feedback effect that's reminiscent of standing between two closely spaced parallel walls and clapping your hands: it doesn't replace 'proper' reverb, but it is a useful effect in its own right. By default, Reverb comes on with just head number one engaged and with a predetermined motor speed and amount of feedback, but you can add other heads and tweak the speed control if you wish to change it.
The real question here is "is nostalgia what it used to be?" We now have some really good digital boxes and plug-ins that get pretty close to the tape echo sound (in particular, Roland's digital Space Echo pedal and the equivalent plug-in for the UAD1 card), and in many cases the audience would never know the difference. But for a player there are subtle aspects of real magnetic tape that can't be recreated any other way. I had a lot of fun playing around with the Echoverb, and its warm repeats and foggy sustain pretty much nailed the character of those old units. The sound seemed to get even better after letting the tape run for a couple of hours, and although I don't know what the tape-loop life might actually be, I didn't get close to wearing one out over the course of this review — and I deliberately left it running for hours on end to test this. There is some residual hum and noise, even when the input and output gains have been optimised, but it is certainly much better than it was on those early 'classic' units.
In fact, the only thing I really found frustrating about the Echoverb, other than the lack of a stereo option, was the scarcity of technical information in the manual. No mention is made of maximum input or output signal levels, there's no proper description of what the send and return sockets do, and no explanation of what is going on in reverb mode that is different from echo mode; not even a block diagram. This is a bit remiss for a professional product (which the Echoverb undoubtedly is). Other than that, this product delivers exactly what it promises, so the only thing you have to ask yourself is whether or not absolute authenticity is worth the cost, compared with digital emulations — and I've no doubt that it will be for some.
There are very few real tape delays sold new, and the only real competitor I can think of is the Fulltone Tube Echo — although you could, of course, look for a second-hand unit such as a Roland Space Echo.