The Maestro Echoplex gave birth to a revolution in tape delay, bringing about a mix of unparalleled control and sought-after sound at the time of its release. Below, we take a look at the early days of tape echo units, the birth of the Maestro Echoplex and the eventual end of the brand.
Birth Of The Echoplex
Before effects pedals and solid state chips, delay was created by using tape loops on reel-to-reel magnetic recording systems. By shortening or lengthening the loop of tape and adjusting the read and write heads, the timing of the delayed echo could be controlled. Sound engineers began making their own delay system for use in the studio as early as the late 1940s but it wasn’t until the creation of the EchoSonic, the first portable guitar amplifier with built-in tape echo, that delay was finally able to be brought to the live stage.
As the EchoSonic became more and more prevalent in the sound of 1950s rock, other manufacturers caught on and began producing individual tape echo machines that could be used in both studio and live stage settings. One of these units was the Echoplex, designed by Mike Battle and Don Dixon and first released in 1961, which worked by employing moving tape playback heads to control the length of the delay. While older units would have trouble with accuracy and resonance control of the repeats, the Echoplex was able to do so efficiently. Because of these features, the Echoplex went on to become one of the most sought after and recognizable delay units in music – despite starting off as an EchoSonic clone.
Building The Brand
In 1962, the patent for the Echoplex was bought by a company called Market Electronics in Cleveland, Ohio. Market Electronics built the units and kept the original designers of the Echoplex as consultants; they marketed the units through distributor Maestro, hence the name, Maestro Echoplex. In the 1950s, Maestro was a leader in vacuum tube technology. It had close ties with Gibson,and often manufactured amplifiers for Gibson. Later, Harris-Teller of Chicago took over production. The first tube Echoplex had no number designation but was retroactively designated the EP-1 after the unit received its first upgrade. The upgraded unit was designated the EP-2. These two units set the standard for the delay effect, with their "warm, round, thick echo. Two of Battle's improvements over earlier designs were key — the adjustable tape head, which allowed for variable delay, and a cartridge containing the tape, protecting it to retain sound quality.
By 1971, Norlin folded and the Market Electronics and their Maestro brand were forced to find a new distributor for their products. It was then when a new wholesale distributor from Chicago, Harris-Teller got his way into the production and supply chain. An Echoplex badge was then designed to omit the Maestro name. Harris later bought the Echoplex name and stock parts from Market Electronics in 1984. He used the same stock to reassemble EP-3, EP-4, and EP-2 tube to design the then, EP-6t. Soon after, Gibson bought the Echoplex brand and, with their digital looping skills and technology, produced the new models of Echoplex and sold them under the brand name “Oberheim” as the Echoplex digital pro. This effectively brought an end to the brand.
The Echoplex wasn't notable just for the delay, but also for the sound, described as warm, rich and full-bodied. In fact, the sound quality of the Echoplex is still held as a classic even today, highly desirable for a range of playing styles. While the original might not be sold today, there are a number of effects pedals and rack delay units that are built to recreate the classic tone of the original Echoplex -- a sign of the enduring legacy of the legendary unit.
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