Digital delay pedals have had a funny old life. When they started appearing back in the ’80s, there didn’t seem any doubt: their bright, clean sound made the murky wobbles of the old analogue type sound like frog-farts in comparison, and they were much more controllable too. Like tape-based recording and vinyl record collections, analogue delay was surely bound for the bucket labelled ‘diehards only’.
But then guitarists began to realise something: that perfection is not so perfect after all. And that murky, wobbly frog-farts can actually sound pretty sensational in the right context. There were only two things that could save digital delay from looking like one huge mistake: its awesome flexibility and, ironically, its potential for being manipulated to sound like analogue.
The flexibility part gave us such delights as ping-pong stereo delays, ducking delays, reverse delays and a whole generation of looper pedals; the ‘faux analogue’ part is what we’re looking at – and more importantly, listening to – today. Have the digital boffins really nailed it? Let’s find out.
These are samples of the same few simple chords and runs played through seven delays: a Roland RE-301 (tape), a Watkins Copicat (tape), an Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy (analogue), a Mooer Ana Echo (analogue), a Lone Wolf Old School Delay (digital) and Line 6’s latest digital emulations of both tape and analogue delay.
Settings have been matched up as closely as possible, taking the fixed speed of the Copicat as a starting point; one of the newer pedals wasn’t able to repeat quite so slowly so you may notice it’s a little quicker than the others. The guitar is a Gibson SG, the amp a blackface Fender Princeton Reverb.
Naturally, the samples have been jumbled up – so the challenge is to see if you can work out which is which.
There’s nothing here that shows itself up as dramatically inferior – and nothing that’s really, really obviously digital. And to be fair, both the tape delays (in particular the Watkins) have powerful solid-state preamps that lend a lot of extra warmth not only to the repeats but to the guitar sound itself, which is beyond the remit of the average stompbox.
Line 6 are perhaps trying a little too hard with their emulations of analogue degradation and tape flutter – they end up sounding rather thin – but that can be corrected, to an extent, by playing with the settings. The Lone Wolf, meanwhile, sounds great but surprisingly generates more hiss than its analogue rivals. It’s the Mooer that’s slightly speedy even at minimum delay time.
Other not-quite-analogue stompers worth checking out include the TC Flashback, the T-Rex Reptile 2 and the mighty Strymon El Capistan. In fact there are hundreds – and the only thing to remember is that, if the makers don’t say whether a delay pedal is digital or not, that means it is.
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