Last week, we began our two part feature on the History of the Delay Effect (click here to view). We touched on its origins in the studio, its first steps onto the live stage as portable tape loop machines as well as the revolution brought on by advent of the delay pedal thanks to the legendary bucket brigade circuit. Today, we continue with the rest of the story including the push-back from tape echo purists, the birth of digital delay and the modern state of the effect.
Tape vs Transistor
It only took a few years after the birth of the transistor-equipped delay pedal that the effect came into widespread use. Thanks to its comparatively cheap price tag, the delay pedal became an instant fixture on pedalboards everywhere – but not every musician was ready to give up their expensive tape delay units just yet. Despite the lower price and much more portable-friendly size of stompboxes, a good number of players decided to stick with the bigger tape delay machines due to what they felt was their tonal superiority, especially the vacuum tube variety, claiming a thicker, warmer sound with more natural overtones.
The sentiment of tape delay superiority among some players remains very much alive to this day and you only have to look at the prices many of the vintage tape delay units are fetching to see just how valuable they are held despite being a much older and delicate technology. In fact, you can still find manufacturers today churning out modern true tape echo machines or even high-end units that aim to simulate the signature tone using modern techniques.
But despite tape echo’s generally perceived sound advantage among some players, the price and convenience that pedals offered was more than enough to replace tape as the dominant form of delay, especially for use on stage.
The Birth of Digital Delay
During the late 70s and early 80s, digital signal processing electronics finally became inexpensive enough to be used for effects. At first, these processors were only available on expensive rack-mount units. It wasn’t until the electronics grew smaller and the costs came down that they were finally implemented as foot pedals. The first of these digital delay pedals was the famous Boss DD-2, released in 1984, followed soon after by several others.
When these digital delay pedals first hit the scene, their exponentially grander capabilities – such as an unimaginable 16 seconds of delay – made both tape echo units and analog delay pedals look archaic by comparison. In fact, when digital delays were first released, it looked like they were going to completely replace their analog brothers.
Rack-mount delay units eventually turned into digital reverb units and then into digital multi-effects units equipped with more sophisticated effects than just pure delay, such as audio timescale-pitch modification effects.
As with most other flashy new technology, once the novelty of the seemingly endless limits of digital wore off, players began looking at the effect in more practical terms, like the fact that few of them actually needed a full second of delay, let alone 16. It also didn’t help that these early digital delay pedals had their fair share of sound quality problems as well. They tended to sound harsh and cold with poor decay resolution and were prone to digital distortion when pushed.
While these early models definitely had issues, their design and sound quality gradually improved to the point where today’s digital delays are dramatically better in terms of tone. Even then, there are many players out there today who swear by the warm, natural reproductions created by full analog delay. As far as which one is truly better, it’s a matter of personal preference. There are players on both sides that use their preferred delay design to create amazing sounds.
Beyond pedals, vintage tape loop machines and rack-mounted units, delay can also be found in the form of software, able to effectively emulate classic analog sounds or create completely new ones. The delay effect has certainly gone a long way since its birth in the studio as a tape loop trick and has cemented it's place in the history of music and in the sound of players everywhere.
Now that you know about the history of delay, check out our selection of Delay Effects Pedals - guaranteed at the best prices around!