The History of Tape Echo

Without much hesitation, we can say that the delay or echo effect is one of the most crucial components of modern music. Although you might not notice it at first, it actually makes a lot of difference, no matter the instrument and no matter the musical style. Without it, things would just sound too "dry" and bland. Some prefer to use reverb, which is a somewhat similar yet distinct atmospheric effect. However, the delay still presents the most efficient way, especially if you're looking for a more contemporary sound.

But it's really strange how we take this effect for granted these days. While today everything is either digital or relies on the so-called "bucket brigade devices," it was really hard to achieve this effect back in the early times of rock 'n' roll. In fact, you could come up with a way to add reverb with larger room size, but the echo was still a fairly complicated effect. The solution came in a pretty unusual form – those crafty engineers came up with an idea to use the potential of magnetic tapes. The resulting devices were kind of bulky, but they provided this great effect, along with that magnetic tape "saturation" that's still pleasing to the ears of today's guitar players. With this said, we're going to take a closer look at tape delays and see how they developed over the years.

The Almighty Les Paul

It was actually Les Paul himself, the inventor of one of the most popular guitar models of all time, who exploited this method first. Using the methods of multi-track recording and his very ingenious nature, we got the chance to hear him add echo to his guitar. It's not certain which was the first actual studio recording with tape delay, but one of the earliest examples is his and Mary Ford's version of "How High the Moon" from the early 1950s. Les Paul also had his so-called "Les Paulverizer" device that allowed him to do a lot of fun stuff while performing live on the stage. His innovative nature goes way beyond just the design of solid-body electric guitars. However, these early devices were pretty rudimentary and didn't give any special features and parameters.


The next step in the evolution of the delay effect was with Maestro, a company that usually operated as a subsidiary of Gibson. In the early 1960s, they developed their Echoplex, which retroactively got its designated name EP-1. Both EP-1 and EP-2, which were developed in the early 1960s, had one parameter control. Labeled as "echo delay," it was mechanical in nature and it moved the play head along a steel track. This way, you'd get different delay times. Although it wasn't very flexible, rather like a fine-tuning feature, it was still pretty innovative for the times. These earliest models were also tube-driven devices, and the overall sound was really "thick." The only downside of these earliest devices was their impractical nature. We all know how difficult things can get with tape-based devices. They later perfected it with newer versions that implemented transistors instead of tubes in their circuit.

Space Echo

Roland is one of the longest-lasting successful companies in the music business. One of their earliest products was the Space Echo, designated as RE-201. Along with the early Echoplex devices, it's still fairly popular among vintage-loving collectors these days. Although based on the same principles, Roland's Space Echo came with significant improvements. Aside from the build quality and reliability, they had multiple play heads along the tape's path. This allowed the device to have more parameter controls, including different modes of operation, as well as the repeat rate. Although more reliable, they were still fairly complex compared to the Echoplex.

Short, But Sweet, Run

For better or for worse, tape delays didn't last for that long. The invention of transistors and their implementation in the music industry opened up new methods of achieving different effects. These bulky devices were quickly replaced by small compact pedals that implemented the so-called "bucked brigade devices," or in some rare instances charged-coupled devices.

Be that as it may, some guitar players still prefer this saturated thick tone of old tape-based delays. But since they're bulky and impractical, we finally got both analog and digital delays that are capable of convincingly replicating the sound of tape delays. Although not in full use, tape-based delay devices left their irreplaceable mark in the world of guitar, despite having a relatively short run. Even digital plugins for DAWs these days will have that emulated tape saturation and that constant but subtle change in pitch that vintage-loving guitar players adore.

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