Could this modern tape delay prove to be even better than the real thing?
I remember a producer friend of mine complaining many years ago about how the secondhand cost of a Roland RE‑201 had risen to upwards of £250$300! Today, a specimen that’s been freshly serviced by a reputable tech could easily cost you 10 times that. Desirable as they may be, owning one isn’t all plain sailing. These are vintage devices, and there can be issues with reliability and stability. They need maintaining, then, and a proper service from one of the handful of reputable companies that offer them can be pretty expensive.
We have an original RE‑201 in my studio and it gets used a lot, for obvious reasons: try one, and you’ll certainly appreciate the sense of magic and fun these unique devices can bring to a recording, writing or mixing session. Admittedly, I should probably make the effort to clean the heads more often than I do, and it often doesn’t sound quite the same from one day to the next. That’s all part of the charm, I suppose. But it can be frustrating too, and while I’ve seen people using them in a live setting, there’s no way I’d take mine on tour if it was an integral part of a particular sound — at least, not unless I had a backup unit and serious flightcases! If only there were a newer, more reliable Space Echo available...
Step forward Australian company Echo Fix who, after more than a decade as one of the world’s most respected service companies and suppliers of new parts for vintage Space Echo and Echoplex machines, have decided that the world is ready for their own brand‑new tape echo machine, the EF‑X2. Their aim with this device is to combine all of the best aspects of the vintage Roland units with some useful extras. Crucially, they’ve also focused on the build quality, hoping to ensure that it will remain reliable for years to come. Bringing this product to market took three full years of development work, and it’s no mean feat for a small company. Indeed, I imagine it has only really become a viable proposition commercially because of the ever‑inflating prices commanded by original Space Echoes.
Physically, the EF‑X2 is about the same size as its older Japanese relatives and the sides are covered in the familiar‑looking black Tolex. There are good handles — you’d probably be too scared to use the ones on a vintage unit you’d just paid a couple of grand for but they inspire sufficient confidence here. The top lid is removable, allowing you to access and view the tape loop, which snakes around beneath a protective ‘window’ on its journey to/from the various read and write heads.
The front panel, on the other hand, makes no attempt to mimic yesteryear. In fact, it is unapologetically modern‑looking. You have the choice of a green, gold, blue or black front panel, and all of them look very tasteful to this reviewer. It still features all the controls you’d expect to find on a vintage device of this sort, but as a regular user of a vintage RE‑201 it often took me a moment to find the desired control. The most obvious visual difference control‑wise is the backlit Echo Mode selector, which allows you to select the different tape‑head playback options. But any difficulties of this sort are fleeting — it’s just a question of getting your bearings, as with any new gear, and will be moot for those who haven’t used the original; it’s an observation not a criticism! In fact, I approve of the decision to give the EF‑X2 its own distinct look rather than attempt to ‘pass it off’ as a vintage Roland unit.
The EF‑X2 is not just a delay; it has four separate core functions. There’s the tape echo itself, obviously, and a mechanical spring reverb. But additionally there’s a DSP‑based reverb/chorus effect and a versatile preamp stage.
The tape echo section is based around three main playback heads, and each can be used individually but they can also be used in combination, giving you access to seven different settings in all. A fourth head called Sound on Sound (no relation!) can be switched alongside them, and this provides a longer echo effect, taking the total up to 14 different head combination settings. These can be fine‑tuned or, if you prefer, taken right into orbit using the Speed and Feedback options, and you have basic bass and treble adjustment for the echo signal too.
The spring reverb tank is obviously useful, but the DSP effects section is an interesting addition. This offers a digital reverb and a digital chorus effect (an analogue chorus was included on the later Roland Space Echoes). Using switches on the top of the device, these effects can be applied individually or in combination, and you can control the volume and ‘decay’ of any combination of the reverb or chorus effects from the front panel too.
Space Echo users often like to exploit the potential of their device as a characterful preamp, sometimes without even dialling in the delay or reverb. The EF‑X2 has a pretty interesting preamp section, with two distinctly different stages. First up there’s a relatively clean‑sounding line‑level stage, with a slight focus on the midrange. The other, an instrument preamp based around an Echoplex EP‑3 FET amplifier, seems more colourful, with a slightly softer top end.
Towards the bottom left of the front panel are switches for turning on/off various features, such as the tape transport motor (to preserve the life of your tape, if you’re using the device purely as a preamp or reverb). You can induce Radiohead‑style tape slow‑down/stop effects too, choose a ‘wet only’ option, or engage the Sound on Sound head. Lastly, there are a number of options for using the EF‑X2 with CV signals or expression pedals in a performance setting. In fact, a lot of thought has evidently gone into this side of things, and while I won’t dwell on it here, if you’re a guitar or keyboard player looking for a tape echo to use in a performance situation it’d be well worth checking out the videos on the Echo Fix website. Of course, as well as the control inputs, there are independent analogue audio inputs (with level controls) for line‑ and instrument‑level sources, as well as balanced line‑level input and output XLR connectors on the rear.
The first task I had lined up for the EF‑X2 was quite a subtle one — I wanted to see if it could improve on a simple slap echo effect that I’d set up for a vocal while mixing. My vintage RE‑201 is great, but it can be a bit too characterful for this kind of effect. Happily, I found that I could hook the EF‑X2 straight up to my studio’s patchbay via the balanced XLR inputs, and the cleanish line preamps meant it was better suited to this task. In fact, it sounded great used with the shortest delay setting, the feedback kept tight and with just a touch of spring reverb. The tape itself had a nice softening effect on some harsh sibilance, which was a pleasant bonus.
When it comes to guitars — and keyboards for that matter — there’s so much you can do with a well set‑up tape echo, and the EF‑X2 never disappointed. I’m not a guitar player myself, but even I would happily kill an hour sitting with a guitar plugged straight into this unit! During several tracking sessions, I enjoyed the sense of joy the box invoked in guitar‑playing clients, who generally loved it when I suggested we “give this a try” in place of some of their delay pedals. Both the line and Hi‑Z inputs can provide a great front end before you hit the effects, and there’s a lovely feeling of grit and character here if you want it — I almost always tended to prefer the more characterful option on guitar. As for the effects themselves, well: slap echoes, gorgeous spiralling repeats, and more rhythmic‑style effects... you get the picture. It’s all here if you want it.
The EF‑X2’s spring reverb saw a lot of use during the review period, and having a little control over the length of the decay was welcome. This is an excellent‑sounding spring reverb. The DSP effects were also surprisingly good, and it’s great to be able to use the decay setting control on either the spring or digital reverbs, as well as the chorus effect.
I’m not really sure how relevant it is to describe the differences between the EF‑X2 and my old RE‑201: while the new device clearly draws on the Roland heritage, it is very much its own thing; and my RE‑201 could probably benefit from a good service too! But for what it’s worth, while the EF‑X2 can be characterful, it can definitely retain a bit more of the fidelity of the source than my Space Echo; the latter always offers up more of a ‘dirty’ sound and doesn’t really do ‘clean’. Whether this applies to all Space Echoes, though, it’s hard to say. I’d be really interested to know if the difference would be so pronounced for a freshly serviced RE‑201, or in a comparison with one of the later models such as the RE‑501.
For me, the EX‑F2 ticks all the right boxes... and Echo Fix deserve applause for putting such a credible new option on the table.
A Space Echo (like tape echoes generally) is one of the most enjoyable and creative bits of kit you can have to play around with in a studio setting. The day I get bored of cranking up the delay feedback on one of these is probably the day I should quit and do something else! Yet as a professional engineer and commercial studio owner, I need to have equipment that can work reliably in every session, has flexibility, inspires my clients and can actually make a difference when it comes time to mix — I can’t afford to have thousands of pounds worth of niche equipment sitting unused while I wait for the occasional moments that they’ll be the perfect tool for the job.
For me, the EX‑F2 ticks all the right boxes. Like my RE‑201, it’s capable of all the dirty, crazy fun stuff, but it is also capable of providing a cleaner, subtler slapback effect too. Importantly, it will sound the same when I come back to the studio the next day and switch everything on. It is a seriously impressive‑sounding unit, and definitely something you should consider if you’ve been eyeing up a vintage unit — especially if you’re a guitar player, since that instrument input sounds so cool. Price‑wise, it’s not what you’d call an impulse purchase, but an EF‑X2 costs about the same as a professionally set‑up vintage Space Echo, which I think is pretty reasonable. All in all, it’s impressive, and Echo Fix deserve applause for putting such a credible new option on the table.
- A superb‑sounding tape echo.
- Excellent‑sounding spring reverb.
- Additional DSP effects also sound great.
- Connectivity options improved compared with vintage units.
- Well thought‑out design features throughout.
- Remote control options via CV or expression pedals.
- Relative to the price of a good vintage model — none.
Australian company Echo Fix have built on their years of experience repairing classic tape echoes by releasing their own model. It’s an impressive and flexible‑sounding unit that does everything you would want a tape echo to do — and more.
$2995 Australian dollars ($2065 USD when going to press).