The Origin of Delay

Whether it's clean or distorted tone, you can't just leave it "dry" all the time. There has to be at least some kind of saturation in there that will breathe life into guitar sound. These days, we have an abundance of different reverb and delay pedals, or even multi-effects units, which can help us achieve these effects. However, back in the old days, it was pretty hard to do any of these. But thanks to technological innovations and tireless work of music engineers, we now have these effects at our disposal, even at very affordable prices.

Delays are widespread in pretty much all the different genres and can be used for rhythm and lead sections, both on clean and distorted tones. But how did this effect come to be? We'll do some digging and find more info about the history of the delay.

The delay, or echo, is achieved by recording the original signal and then replaying it one or more times through a given period. It then blends these repeated tones along with the original audio signal. Of course, in order to make this kind of effect work, you'd need some sort of a storage medium. The history of the delay can be seen through the uses of different types of mediums. Let's find out more about them.

Origins – line delay

To fully explain the effect, we'll go back to the old days and the first "artificial" delay. To enhance the quality of their broadcasts, the early 20th-century radio stations used long telephone lines as a storage medium for delay/echo in their programs. It wasn't exactly practical, and it didn't provide more than just short delays with one repeat. You'd need very long lines to make this work, but it still did the trick for radio stations' use.


The invention of magnetic tapes as recording mediums opened up the way for studio engineers to implement it for delay effects. During the 1950s, tape machines were used for the so-called "slapback," a 150 to 200-millisecond delay with only one repeat, which we can hear in early rock songs.

Over time, these tape delay machines were made smaller and could be implemented for live shows as well. One of the examples would be Maestro Echoplex EP-3. By adding more tape playback heads, these delays could now have more repeats in the output. Some of the tape delays featured movable heads, which also allowed different delay times. Pretty innovative for the times.

Oil cans

Although not as big, oil can delays saw some use in the 1950s and the 1960s. These looked like slightly larger tuna cans but were filled with oil which was able to store the signal. There was a motor inside of these cans, which rotated a flywheel with a pickup attached to it. Oil can delays didn't really catch on, but they sure made some pretty unique sounds.

Bucket brigade devices (BBD)

The development of transistors was of essential performance for the guitar effects industry. Smaller storage mediums with more capacity meant that you could have very compact devices instead of those bulky tape and oil can boxes. The so-called "Bucket Brigade Devices" (or BBD) transferred the signal from one transistor to another. The same method is used even to this day in analog delay pedals.

After the signal enters the delay unit, it's split into two parts – one goes directly into the output while the other one goes through BBD chips. Before going out, these two signals are mixed at a desired ratio according to set parameters.

Throughout the mid- to late-1970s, we already got a few different compact delay pedals on the market, including Boss DM-1 and MXR Analog Delay. Repeated tones in these kinds of pedals usually have high-end frequency loss, but some of the vintage tone lovers still favor them due to the overall warm sound.

Digital delays and plugins

While BBD-based delays presented a significant breakthrough in the industry, more innovations came during the mid-1980s with the further development of digital technology. The whole thing was based on converting the original analog signal into digital information, passing it through a DSP (digital signal processor) chip and a storage medium, and then converting it back into analog and sending it through the pedal's output. Digital delays were not only more practical but allowed clearer and more consistent operation, as well as significantly longer delay times. The technology opened up the ways for the creation of looper pedals with extremely long delay times.

But with the further development of digital audio processing, you can now find digital delays that manage to replicate even the warmest tones of analog delays. Of course, the whole digital versus analog thing is a subject of ongoing debates these days, especially with the development of digital amp modelers.

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