No effects pedal has managed to pack in all the juicy sonic goodness and delicious mayhem of dual tape machines — until now!
In the five years since they launched, Strymon have turned out a steady stream of high-end digital modulation and delay pedals that have completely won over the normally analogue-obsessed hordes of guitar pedal cognoscenti. They’ve achieved this through a combination of ingenious design, great sounds and a commitment to thoroughly engineered hardware, featuring SHARC DSP chips, 32-bit floating-point processing and 24-bit/96kHz A-D/D-A converters, all sandwiched between high-quality analogue input and output stages.
Another reason for their success is the fact that Strymon pedals, such as the one on review here, the Deco tape simulator, both look and feel completely analogue. There are no menus and displays, just knobs and switches that behave like knobs and switches, even if they in fact conceal some pretty deep functionality.
The Deco is unlike any other guitar pedal I’ve encountered in that it sets out to capture the kind of fun that can be had with a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines, from fattening tape saturation to the flanging, double-tracking and tape echo effects developed and used by studio engineers in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. This pedal doesn’t just promise to put a range of studio-only effects (and complex ones to set up at that) conveniently at the feet of guitarists — Strymon have also built in a ‘studio mode’, allowing the Deco to interface with a synth or recording gear at the appropriate levels.
The Deco is split into two haves, with a bypass switch for each. On the left, there’s tape saturation, with controls for output level and saturation. Strymon have designed the Deco to recreate not just the compression and third-order harmonic saturation effects that happen when recording to tape, but also the frequency-dependent nature of tape compression. Thanks to the pre-emphasis and de-emphasis EQ used in reel-to-reel tape machines (which boosts highs and lows on the way in and cuts them again on playback, in order to reduce hiss and compensate for various physical and mechanical phenomena), high-frequency transient peaks are flattened first, giving the signal a musical warmth and fatness.
The other half is the double-tracker, with controls for lag time, blend and wobble. The concept here is that you’re in charge of a pair of parallel tape decks both carrying your guitar signal. The lag time control sets the delay between the first and second machine, ranging from 500ms at maximum, down through zero to -0.3ms (in other words, the first deck is now behind the second). The blend knob mixes between the two, thereby producing everything from comb-filtering flange effects to thickening chorus to slapback and tape echo, depending on the lag time.
The wobble control introduces some random variation into the playback speed of the second deck, while a three-way mini switch changes how the two decks are combined. In sum mode, the decks are in phase; in invert mode, the second deck is polarity-inverted; and in bounce mode, the right channel of the second deck is polarity-inverted and bounced to the left channel input, creating a ping-pong repeat if you’re using the pedal’s stereo outputs, or a double repeat when working in mono. Pressing and holding the right-hand footswitch engages the auto-flange feature, creating a smooth through-zero flange effect with the lag time varying automatically, as if there were an invisible tape op with his hands on the reels.
As if all this wasn’t enough, pressing down both of the footswitches together opens up a range of secondary parameters that can be set using the Deco’s knobs. There are high- and low-frequency trim controls, a boost/cut control for the double-tracker side (ranging from -3 to +3 dB) and a sweep speed control for the auto-flange. You can engage a wide stereo mode to send the two decks hard left and right, choose between hard-wired or buffered bypass modes, and switch between normal and studio input modes, the latter designed to play nicely with mixers, audio interfaces and line-level sources like synths. As for the expression pedal input, you can assign any knob to be controlled by an external expression pedal and set the maximum control value for the toe-down position. You can also plug one of Strymon’s mini Tap Favourite footswitches (£59.95$49) into the expression pedal input and use it to either tap in the desired lag time or save the pedal’s current settings for recall whenever you like.
Left and right stereo outputs are provided at the rear, alongside an expression pedal input and the main input jack. The Deco has a mono input as standard but will accept a stereo input via a TRS splitter cable if you change an internal jumper switch. Given the amount of digital processing going on, the pedal understandably won’t run on batteries, but a good-quality 9V DC mains adaptor is included in the box.
Plugging in the Deco, I’m immediately struck by the quality of the sound. Full, clear and incredibly quiet, in terms of fidelity it’s among the best stompboxes I’ve encountered, analogue or digital.
At moderate settings, the tape saturation effect provides compression that is, it has to be said, very subtle but certainly flattering. As promised, the high-frequency peaks are gently held in check and yield a fuller, smoother sound that retains your natural playing dynamics. In practice, it feels more like a very nice clean boost that you’d be happy to leave on all the time, very different to the sort of overt, squashy compression you might associate with a guitar stompbox. Turn it up and it will drive into distortion, adding dirt around the edges of the tone while retaining plenty of clarity and tonal transparency. At the farthest extreme, it gets pretty dirty (depending, of course, on the kind of level you’re feeding it) and, for better or worse, sounds convincingly like a solid-state machine being pushed beyond its limits! But whether you’re adding a little hair or a lot of fizz, the effect is very responsive to dynamics, from rolling back the guitar’s volume control to playing harder or softer.
Over on the double-tracking side, the Deco covers a lot of different territory and it can take a little time to get to grips with how its controls interact. With so much going on, this is a pedal that rewards a bit of experimentation. Shorter lag times create convincing tape flanging that’s both very evocative and very different to the more synthetic effect produced by bucket-brigade-delay-based flanger pedals. Turning up the wobble control introduces some movement, from a gentle sweep to a lopsided swirl — but, again, no airplane-taking-off woosh or fast warbling here. Setting the wobble control to zero creates a static comb filter that can profitably be used to shape or scoop out heavily distorted signals. Increase the lag time and, just before you get to a discernible slap echo, the Deco creates a thickening chorus effect that’s particularly effective in stereo. Again, this realistically tape-like effect provides a more subtle, natural sound than that found in the average chorus stompbox. On the flipside, however, it’s also much more limited in depth and range of adjustment than your typical chorus pedal.
As with the flange and chorus sounds, the slapback and slightly longer echo available here is very tape-like in character. The repeat (singular, unless you’re in bounce mode, in which case each note repeats twice) is clean and clear, so those looking for multi-tap tape echo or the steep treble roll-off and trailing repeats of bucket-brigade delay need to look elsewhere. But if you dig short delays and rockabilly slapback, there are some lovely high-fidelity sounds available here.
Strymon’s decision to design the Deco around a control scheme that recreates the mechanics of these multiple tape deck effects has a couple of important consequences. The Deco can feel a little tricky to set and adjust compared to a conventional flange, chorus or delay with controls for rate, depth, level and so on. The flipside is that it lets you do things that none of these effects can. For example, by setting the lag time to zero or below and turning the blend knob hard right (so you’re listening to the second tape deck only), you can use the wobble control on its own to add pitch variation to an otherwise un-effected signal. At slap and echo lag times, turning the blend control past 12 o’clock to favour the second deck means that the repeat becomes louder than the original note.
The three-way mode switch adds further variation. Though the effect really depends on how the other controls are set, in general switching from sum to invert creates a hollower, more spacious sound with a more controlled low end, while bounce mode thickens the effect. While this is most notable with flange and chorus, inverting the phase at slap and echo lag times delivers an unusual and interesting effect, closer to what actually happens when sound waves reflect back off a hard surface and return out of phase to interact with the waves coming in behind them. The bounce mode, meanwhile, is very effective at creating a wide stereo signal from mono sources.
The Deco’s line-level studio mode works very well, provided you also remember to reset the concealed high and low trim controls to offer full bandwidth. The impression of excellent audio performance is borne out here and the Deco is more than capable of handling sound sources with a far wider frequency range than the electric guitar. If you’re working in a DAW environment, the Deco is at a disadvantage in that your average tape emulation, modulation and delay plug-ins will offer more detailed tweaking over a greater range, but the pedal nevertheless works well as a simple way to add warmth or distortion to drums and synths, flanging to keys or thickening chorus to strummed acoustic guitar. Ironically, the Deco’s ‘studio mode’ may be most useful in a live setting, used in-line with keyboards, drum machines and sound modules — the pedal’s portability and inherent reliability give it the edge over plug-ins here.
It’s worth stating again that there really isn’t another pedal out there like this. It sounds excellent and does exactly what it sets out to do, distilling studio-based tape effects into a compact pedal. Given the price, which is above average as guitar stompboxes go, albeit justified by the quality of the hardware, if you’re going to invest in a Deco I think you’ve got to really want the whole package. If you’re just interested in part of it — in the delay, chorus or flanging — there are cheaper pedals out there that are easier to set and offer a wider range of sounds in each category. But if you want specifically tape-based versions of all these effects — which, again, sound very convincing indeed — and you buy into the history of how they’re created and controlled, the Deco is at the top of a list of one.
The Deco really has no direct competitors in terms of the combination of effects and features it offers, and outside of Strymon’s own extensive range and Eventide’s Factor series of effects pedals, there are few manufacturers building digital pedals with this kind of audio quality or flexible line-level connectivity. There are options for those wishing to explore individual aspects of the Deco’s unique menu in greater detail, however. For tape-delay effects, check out Empress Audio’s Tape Delay and Strymon’s El Capistan. For tape flange, an intriguing new pedal from Catalinbread is due out any day now. The Zero Point manual tape flanger is a compact stompbox with only two features: a latching bypass footswitch and a second, momentary footswitch which slows down the second virtual tape deck to generate the flanging effect, letting you do with your foot what you would do with your thumb on an actual reel-to-reel machine. As potentially distracting as this sounds mid-solo, it’s certainly a highly original idea!