Delay: What, How & History

Delay is my all time favourite effects! It's basically a repeat or echo of something you have played at a set interval. It started with a loop of magnetic tape and a few playback heads and grew with technology to analog delay, then digital delay and more!

Delay Types

There are a few ways that the delay signal can be created, each way has its own special quality that may be a preference in any given situation - and each has drawbacks too!

Tape Delay
Tape delay was developed in the mid to late 1950's, the most famous models being the Watkins Copicat, the Maestro Echoplex and a little later, Roland's legendary Space Echo. The sound is created by recording the guitar signal onto a loop of magnetic tape which is picked up by one or more play heads. The sound is very rich and wonderful, however, because it's tape the repeats get duller as they repeat and there is often 'wow and flutter' as the tape stretches and distorts.

My Watkins Copicat sounds amazing, it's al all-valve pre-amp and even without the delay effect it sounds great - but maintenance is a pain! I love the sound of them and am always on the lookout to buy an Echoplex and a Space Echo but just not found the right one at the right price yet!

Analog Delay
Analog delay creates the delayed signal by passing it through a Bucket-Brigade Device (BBD) chip which delays a portion of the signal at varying times which can then mixed back in with the main signal. The sound is rich and warm and often comes out sounding better than the signal coming in! I have more than a few analog delay units including Electro Harmonix's Memory Man, MXR's Carbon Copy, Boss DD-2 Delay and a Strymon El Capistan.

Digital Delay
Digital delay works by turning the analog guitar signal to digital by way of an A/D (Analog to Digital) converter and then pumping back the right O's and 1's at the right times to the D/A converter to create the desired effect. Being digital, the possibilities are much broader and it gave birth to many more bizarre effects and as technology improved the ability to replicate the warm analog sounds while keeping digital's endless possibilities! I have an use the Boss DD-7, Strymon Timeline, Eventide H9 (multi fx really I suppose).

History of Delay Effects

The history of Delay starts with the history of magnetic tape players. The first experiments in echo and looping effects utilised tape to generate repeated patterns was first done in the realm of early European avant-garde electronic music (from the 1940s onwards) by composers such as Pierre Schaeffer. However, in popular music, Les Paul takes much of the credit for delay effects, almost as a by-product of his pioneering studio work. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Paul’s influence on music in general, as a guitarist and guitar building innovator - however, his invention of multitrack recording via adding a recording head to a reel-to-reel tape machine in 1945 is possibly his greatest contribution to history. His 1948 recording ‘Lover’ shows off his groundbreaking use of a tape machine to fashion multiple layers of guitar via tracks recorded at half speed, double speed etc to build never-before-heard textures. It still sounds futuristic!  His hit version of ‘How High The Moon’ in 1951 was the first use of multi-tracked vocals - plus Les Paul’s awesome guitar playing. Multitrack tape manipulation opened the door for modern recording methods and also for subsequent experiments for creating echo and delay effects. 

The next breakthrough was for such technology to become available for live use, which came with Ray Butts’ Echosonic Combo in 1953. This amp included a tape echo unit which could create the fast ‘slapback’ echo effect which had been used by Les Paul and others but only in a studio. Butts had an early convert in Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore and the Echosonic became synonymous with Rockabilly styles.   

The Echoplex, designed by engineer Mike Battle in 1959 - improved upon the Echosonic’s tape echo in the first mass-market, portable, separate echo unit, allowing precise control of delay speeds. Later models added volume controls for the delay and dry signal. Initially tube based, solid-state Echoplex versions were later invented which became widely used by guitarists such as Brian May, Jimmy Page and even Les Paul. 

The Watkins Copicat (1958, according to its inventor; possibly 1960) - vies with the Echoplex as the best tape delay unit of the era. Its sound can be heard on such records as Johnny Kidd’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’ (1960) ( 

The next iconic echo unit was Roland’s Space Echo, first launched in 1973, but later perfected in 1974 by the RE-201, which included a spring reverb - the Space Echo had been intended to use tape echo as part of achieving a big, ‘spacey’ reverb, in contrast to the slapback type echo of e.g., the Echosonic. It presented guitarists (and other instrumentalists) with a huge range of potential sounds and effects and is still going today, albeit emulated digitally in Roland’s RE-20 pedal. 

All of the echo units mentioned so far are to a certain extent mechanical - using actual tape - and so were fraught with potential problems in terms of maintenance. New technology that emerged in the 1970s using Bucket-Brigade Device chips allowed for the advent of new solid-state analog pedals offering delay effects. The name ‘Bucket-Brigade’ refers to an analogy for how the circuitry works, passing the signal along a number of stages just like a human chain passing buckets along its line. The first pedal to use this tech is disputed, but certainly one of the original devices from the early 1970s was the Electro Harmonix Memory Man, which would become integral to the Edge’s early work with U2. The MXR Analog Delay and Boss DM-1 are other classic pedals of the era. 

The 1980s ushered in the era of Digital effects, either to emulate the delays of the previous decades or to create new sounds. These were to essentially supercede BBD units, either in rack-mounted units or pedals. Digital echo allowed for crystal clear, perfect replication of the initial signal, offering new possibilities for how delay might be used. Check out Nuno Bettencourt’s ‘Flight Of The Wounded Bumblebee’ - a very clever use of delay to achieve twice as many notes as he’s actually picking (it’s still crazy fast though!).

Early rack units include innovations by Ibanez, Eventide, Lexicon, TC Electronic and Korg, whose programmable Digital Delay (1982) would be embraced by The Edge. The first digital delay offered in a pedal was the Boss DD-2  in 1983.

As digital memory time increased, looping pedals offering very long playback took the delay concept to a whole new world; but that’s another story! 


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