When the tape echo unit was first invented, it allowed musicians to approximate on stage what could previously only be done using large studio echo chambers. It didn't provide a perfect emulation, of course, and I've no doubt that musicians grumbled about it to start with, but they used it anyway, despite the risk of an embarrassing tape loop break in the middle of a crucial instrumental solo. Technically, the things were noisy, the repeat delays disintegrated into mud after a few trips around the feedback control, and you had to nurse them from one gig to the next, but oddly enough, they sounded really great when they were working properly.
In the '70s came the electronic echo box, based not on digital technology but on a then‑new type of analogue chip called a charge‑coupled device, or CCD. CCD delays worked by sampling the incoming signal in much the same way as digital circuitry does, but instead of representing it by numbers, they just sampled the instantaneous signal voltage and then passed that on to the charge‑coupled device. CCDs are also known as 'bucket‑brigade' delays, because the way they work can be represented by a long line of people with buckets. Imagine the sampled voltage is a quantity of water you want to pass to the end of the line. You pour it into the first bucket, then from the first to the second, the second to the third and so on. By the time it gets to the end of the line, some of the water may have been lost, so the quantity of water you get at the end of the line isn't exactly the same as you started out with. A CCD chip does this using electrical charge passed from stage to stage, and the more stages of delay, the more inaccuracy (noise) creeps into the reconstructed signal at the other end. Because of the limited number of delay stages you could link up without suffering too much signal degradation, the sample rates were often quite low, resulting in a very limited audio bandwidth and audible aliasing distortion at the longest delay times. That meant the manufacturers had to build in compander noise‑reduction chips to keep the noise to an acceptable level, but that lead to noise breathing, so although there was silence when you weren't playing, you could hear hiss mixed in with the delays as you played. Of course we all went out and bought these things, but soon realised they didn't capture the magic of a proper tape delay. However, there were no tapes to break, and the repeats became less clear, just as they did with tape!
Digital delay became affordable in the '80s, and eventually prices dropped to the point that even guitar pedal manufacturers abandoned CCD technology in favour of digital delays. This was it: clean delays with no loss of quality as the sound recirculated, very low noise and far longer delays than you could get with CCD technology. Great in theory, but it didn't sound right — not only was it not as warm as tape, it wasn't as warm as CCD technology either! Hence the '90s syndrome of listening to old records by the likes of the Shadows and the Ventures, then asking how on earth they got that amazing guitar sound.
The Amtech Age One
Amtech are a small Swedish company whose driving passion is to recreate the vintage tape echo sound using wholly electronic means. Interestingly though, they haven't used physical modelling, or digital delays with clever filtering, but have instead gone back to CCD technology and tried to bring it up to date. The result is a 1U rackmount box that purports to emulate the warm, unfocused sound of tape echo units such as those made by Watkins, Binson, Vox and those wonderful Miazzis that had tape echo built into their PA systems.
Configured as a mono‑in, mono‑out processor, with a choice of effect only or effect/dry mix outputs, the Age One has a high input impedance optimised, so I'm told, for use with Fender Strats, though it will of course work with any electric guitar. There are three sensitivity switch settings and an input level control along with a generous LED meter, but curiously, this only affects the delay level — the clean sound remains stoically unchanged. A suitably retro‑looking footswitch is included for bypassing the effect.
There are six switchable echo modes, the first three seeming to produce roughly evenly‑spaced echoes and the remaining three designed to simulate multi‑head tape echo boxes. The overall delay time can be varied up to a maximum of 450mS, and there's a delay tone control as well as adjustment over wet/dry mix and a feedback knob. There's no MIDI, no programmability and no multi‑effects, but there is a knob on the back panel called Flutter, which attempts to emulate the tape speed variations often associated with tape echo units that had spent too long between services. Rather than simply modulate the delay time rhythmically, this seems to have a random element to it, possibly produced by a noise‑fed sample‑and‑hold circuit fed into an integrator. Whatever the methodology, the result is reasonably authentic with just enough range to prevent you getting silly with it.
Back In Time
I tried the Age One with my trusty Strat (a red one at that), and pottered around with the unit for an hour or so trying to find out what it was best at and what it was worst at. Overall, the caricature of the old tape echo sound is actually very good, though at the longest delay times, you can just hear aliasing distortion creeping in, which is something tape echoes definitely didn't suffer from. There's also a noticeable amount of background noise, and though this isn't too serious for live work (and much less than most original tape units), it could be a problem in the studio where the guitar sound is very exposed. It's also possible to hear the compander working, so the noise effectively gets faded out when the delays have finally died away, but in context, this isn't really noticeable.
The flutter control adds nicely to the vintage illusion, but what works best for me is the way the repeats become progressively less distinct as they circulate. I'm not quite convinced that the feedback delays have the same decay law as on a tape echo (possibly due to tape saturation?), but it's very close.
The Age One is very nicely built, with hand‑loomed cabling and quality components, and it must also take quite a long time to set up as the CCD chips are surrounded by the usual array of preset potentiometers, as are the compander stages. Unfortunately, when you combine labour‑intensive assembly and expensive components with a niche market, the result is a high price, and at over £700, the Age One is certainly no impulse buy. I guess the main market for this product is probably Shadows tribute bands or Indie bands trying to recreate a '60s feel, and in that role, there's little else to recommend other than seeking out an original tape echo. I've owned a great number of CCD echo boxes and some came very close to sounding the way the Age One sounds, but having the multiple taps and the variable flutter adds to the authenticity. My own feeling is that it wouldn't be that difficult to emulate tape echo digitally if someone had a mind to sit down and do it properly — while many people love the old sound, few feel equally nostalgic about the background noise that comes with it! However, until they do, the Age One stands alone, waving the banner for guitar nostalgia.
I think it's fair to say that at the asking price, the Age One is destined to remain a bit of a niche product, though the idea of a 'just add water' '60s sound will certainly appeal to some sectors of the music market. Whatever the economics of units like this one, it's refreshing to see small companies still doing something out of the ordinary rather than us all having to use the same pre‑packaged, pre‑digested sounds and effects, and if you're a Hank Marvin fan, I'm sure you'll love everything about it.
- Convincing tape echo sound.
- Flutter control adds a very natural modulation effect.
- Easy to use
- Expensive for a single, non‑programmable effect.
The majority of musicians will be quite happy to live without this unit, but somewhere out there is a fanatical minority for whom nothing else will do!