Guitar Delay Pedals: Analog, Digital, and Multi-mode - Know the Difference

Ever since the early 1950s, the wonderful tone of the electric guitar has been conquering the world. The instrument evolved, but you can still hear some of the same tonal characteristics even in the more modern styles of music. But what made it so great over the years is the fact that you can now do pretty much anything on this instrument, sonically-wise. And it's not just about the instrument itself, but about additional devices that make it so versatile and expressive.

One of the biggest issues from the earliest days was that the instrument tended to sound too "dry" in studio settings or on smaller shows. Luckily, the very innovative music engineers came up with some concepts that helped add reverb or echo to guitar players' tone. But it was only with the development of transistors and its implementation in the world of music that it was possible to make more compact and user-friendly devices.

The one thing that we're interested in here is the delay or echo effect. By adding delayed copies of the original signal in a specifically determined temporal distance from one another, you add more dimension to the guitar tone and make it more appealing. However, you've probably been bombarded with different terms like "analog delay," "tape delay," "digital delay," and others. Since this might feel a little confusing to some guitarists, we decided to look more into the matter and explain the difference between analog, digital, and the so-called multi-mode delays.

Analog

The very first examples of atmospheric effects included recording the guitar in a room that has natural reverb. Since this wasn't always possible, engineers came up with tape-based effects units. Using the magnetic tape as a medium, what one guitarist played was recorded and then replayed at the desired interval. Although very innovative for the times, these units were not exactly practical. Nonetheless, they still keep a pretty high value among the collectors. Additionally, the somewhat weird-sounding tape saturation is highly favorable among vintage tone lovers, and many digital devices also replicate this.

However, as we already mentioned, the big change came with the implementation of solid-state technologies. The so-called "bucket brigade devices," or BBD, provided a more compact and reliable alternative. It uses a series of capacitors, each storing the signal and sending it to the next one.

Analog delays have their advantages and disadvantages. What guitar players might favor more is the somewhat "darker" or "mellower" sound of the repeated signal. This occurs because the signal loses its quality as it moves down these series of capacitors. Although it sounds like a downside, this makes it sound unique. However, due to the very nature of BBDs, you can't store them for too long, and the delay times are limited to 600 milliseconds.

Although both BBD and tape delays are technically analog-based effects, the term "analog delay" these days refers to BBD-based pedals. And, of course, tape as a medium just wouldn't be possible for a compact device. But both BBD-based and tape-based devices use the signal as it is, thus making them both analog types of processing devices.

Digital

Digital technology found its way into the guitar world sometimes in the 1980s. It kept evolving over the years, and these days we have some great digital effects and digital modeling devices that can pretty much replicate tones even of analog effects and tube amplifiers. Although the actual tone quality is debatable and many still consider analog devices to be superior in this regard, digital effects units have proven to be more practical. This is also the case with digital delay pedals.

As opposed to analog processing units, digital devices take the original signal, convert it to digital information, process it as digital information, and then convert it back to an analog signal. Although this sounds like many steps, digital pedals are capable of doing this in very short periods without any noticeable latency. And by using quality converters, there's no loss in quality.

Digital delays usually have crystal clear repeated tones, making them sound more "modern" compared to analog delays. However, with the advancement of digital processing, you're now able to change the EQ of repeated tones or even make them slightly vary in pitch, making them resemble tape-based delays. The digital vs. analog discussion is still ongoing and many are still favoring analog pedals over digital ones.

Multi-mode

Multi-mode delays are digital-based pedals that add a different twist to this effect. They're usually more complex, they come with more switches and controls. In short, they don't just repeat the signal in given intervals, but rather add rhythmic diversity to it. They'll also add a new dimension to it by reversing the repeated signal. In most of the cases, they're usually significantly more expensive than regular delay pedals.

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