WATKINS COPICAT ECHO UNIT
Paul White is transported back in time by the sights, sounds and smells of the new digital Watkins Copicat echo unit.
Anyone who was around and gigging in the '60s will be intimately familiar with the Watkins Copicat, a tape-loop echo unit which was originally based on valve electronics, though later versions used transistor circuitry. It was affordable and sounded great, but like most things back then it was pretty noisy, and the tapes had a habit of snapping during your best solo or vocal. Today, every effects box includes digital delay, but some players still hanker after the distinctive sounds of the tape-based original. Charlie Watkins, the inventor of the Copicat, clearly saw the need for a modern counterpart that would offer a familiar user interface and sound, but eliminate the noise and unreliability by using modern DSP electronics.
Looks Are Deceiving
The box not only has a vintage look to it, but even smells like the original! That's no doubt due to the use of a leathercloth-covered wooden case rather than the more usual metal rackmount unit. Power comes from that scourge of the modern age, the wall-wart, but pretty much all the knobs and buttons of the original are preserved in their lo-tech glory. Aficionados will remember that the original Copicat had only three playback heads, whereas this new model has five virtual heads to provide more flexibility.
The front panel-controls comprise just six knobs and eight buttons. These are: Input Gain, Output level, Swell (echo level), Echo Tone, Sustain (feedback) and Varispeed. Buttons one to five are normally used to select the virtual tape head used for the effect -- in digital delay terms, they set the relative tap positions. If the delay time is altered, all the taps are adjusted proportionally. The three rightmost buttons have dedicated functions: Echo On/Off kills the echo while leaving the direct sound intact, though a footswitch plugged into the rear panel
WATKINS COPICAT £375
Easy to use, despite weird bank-selection procedure.
Largely successful vintage sound emulation.
Additional echo, modulation and reverb effects.
No easy way to change presets mid-song.
This unit will appeal mainly to guitar players and singers who want easy access to that '60s sound without the reliability or noise hassles.
Though the Copicat looks, at first, as basic as its vintage tape counterpart, it does in fact offer eight banks of five effect presets, though these are accessed in a rather unorthodox manner which flies in the face of its 'back to basics' philosophy. Banks one to five are called up by holding down the correspondingly numbered Head button, then pushing the Echo On/Off button. Banks six to eight are called up by pressing Head buttons one to three then pushing the Send button. Performing any of these actions causes the unit to start up in the desired bank. As this requires the processor to load in new algorithms, trying to change banks quickly during a song, when performing live, would be fiddly and frustratingly slow.
On top of the original Copicat echo effects in banks one and two, there are also Space Echo and Binson-style effects in banks three and four, reverb in bank five, and a selection of modulation-based effects such as chorus and flanging in bank six. Bank seven offers alternative, more subtle reverb settings, while bank eight holds some trick echoes with varying tap levels plus tremolo. Once a bank has been called up, the desired effect within that bank is chosen using the numbered Echo Head buttons, though in the echo emulation banks, the buttons are simply used to turn individual playback 'heads' on and off. As each button has a status LED, it's easy to see the status of the 'heads' and, once loaded, the parameters of any echo or effect can be tweaked using the rotary controls. Operating the new Copicat isn't a problem as long as you remember how to call up the banks. It's probably best not to even consider the new Copicat's presets as patches as you'd find them on an ordinary digital effects unit, as there's no way to store user variations on these presets. Instead, imagine that starting up with a particular preset gives your machine a certain personality which you can then adjust manually in the 'old' way using the knobs.
Blast From The Past
Having used numerous valve and solid-state Copicats (albeit a long time ago), I had an idea what I wanted to hear from this unit. The noise of the tape Copicats is gone, as is the annoying clunk when a dodgy splice goes over the heads, but the tone control goes a long way to approximating the warmer, less distinct sound of old-fashioned echo boxes. It doesn't sound as if there's been any attempt to model tape saturation or to introduce wow and flutter, but even so, you can get pretty close to that classic Shadows/Surf/Rockabilly sound, which I suspect was the intention. If you want something that behaves like a normal manual Copicat, you'll spend most of your time in the first or second banks. Bank two has the authentic head spacings while bank one makes use of the additional two heads and seems to have a different style of filtering when the tone knob is used. In bank two, the tone control thins and dulls the echoes as they die away to imitate the sound of the old tape loop units.
Switching to the Space and Binson banks brings about a noticeable change of character, again with a nice vintage roundness to the sound. All parameters may be adjusted in real time, though some glitching is audible if you make adjustments to some parameters while audio is running through the unit. As most changes will be made while setting up, this shouldn't be a problem. The maximum delay time is 900mS, which is fine for all traditional echo effects.
The reverb banks turned out to be interesting because they too have a vintage sound that blends the characters of high-density tape echo, spring reverb and conventional digital reverb in a warm, nostalgic kind of way. It's the kind of sound you wouldn't get from a modern reverb unit, and it can sit nicely with guitar or vocals. Finally, the modulation effects are fairly predictable, but they have the kind of warmth normally associated with pedals rather than high-cost rack units, which I rather like.
I have no doubt that this box was inspired by the seemingly inexplicable phenomenon whereby pre-teen youngsters go out and learn entire Shadows albums by heart and then play them to each other at conventions! One or two companies have already produced specialised echo boxes to try to recreate that vintage sound, and now the man responsible for so many MI innovations has come up with an interpretation of his own classic. The lack of wow and flutter emulation or distortion modelling means the approximation is only first-order rather than being highly detailed, but you can still get close to the '60s guitar sound without too much messing around.
On the whole, I think the Copicat does what it sets out to do pretty well, but maybe it's come to market just a little late now that there are other inexpensive, easy-to-use units available. Whether you think such a basic machine is worth £375 is down to how much you value the Copicat user interface and sound. Certainly the head spacing of the old tape units gave them a unique character which this box goes a long way towards emulating. A standard delay box offering one or two taps plus feedback can't create this effect, and with this new version at least you know the tape won't break during that vital gig or studio take!