WHAT WAS COOL ABOUT THE ECHOPLEX?
When we set out to develop a delay pedal that captured the essence of the mighty EP-3 we had to first understand what exactly it was that made the Echoplex special. Surely it was more than just EQing the repeats to make it sound “tape-y”.
1.) First off, the EP-3 is famous for making your guitar sound better. Even when the echo is turned off! The Echoplex was definitely not “true-bypass”. Your guitar signal went through it’s audio path whether the echo was on or not. The dry guitar signal went through a relatively simple path of discrete pre-amp and on to a passive mixer stage and then out. But guitarists loved its slight boost and subtle tone-shaping effect.
2.) The quality and decay of the repeats. The Echoplex was not necessarily “hi-fi”. As the echoes repeated, the signal got progressively degraded, losing low end and gaining a shiny, percussive top end with a bit of grit. The first repeat is strong and then it gets more and more diffused as it repeats. And it a well-tuned unit, you could dial in the repeats “Echo Sustain” so that it would float almost indefinitely, without going into self-oscillation.
3.) Self-oscillation! The Echoplex was more than just a delay box, it was an instrument unto itself. Almost all the famous Echoplex players used the delay slider and self-oscillating repeats as part of their musical vocabulary. In fact, you could play the Echoplex without even plugging in a guitar, just by turning the Echo Sustain up until it self-oscillated and then play it by manipulating the “Echo Delay” slider. This is where many other attempts at a “tape echo pedal” fall short. Not only does the unit not self-oscillate, but turning the delay time knob results in…. nothing. The sound stops till you park the delay time control. No space ships?! Fail!
4.) The sound of the tape head traveling across the tape as the Echo Delay slider was manipulated. If you have a lot of repeats going and move the Echo delay slider the echo sound “lags” a bit as the tape head settles into the new position. It’s definitely not a linear behavior like you’d hear in the delay time knobs on most pedals. But it added to the Echoplex mojo and was part of its distinct sound.
5.) Record Level. There’s a control on the EP-3 that sets how hard the tape gets hit. While this control was ostensibly used to optimize signal-to-noise ratio, set low it would give light and airy repeats and set high it would saturate the tape hard and give an awesome fat and grungy repeat tone.
6.) Wow and flutter! Almost any mechanically driven audio reproduction device is subject to these “problems” and the EP-3 was no different. Tight spots in the tape cartridge, uneven motor speed, bumpy capstan wheels, and other mechanical issues would cause the tape speed to vary resulting in random slight fluctuations in the pitch of the echoes. With shorter delay times it could create a kind of chorusy sound. With longer delay times it created an otherworldly warbling of the pitch and added thickness and dimension to the guitar tone. And the types of wow and flutter would vary from unit to unit, depending on its condition. In fact, it would vary from day to day in the same unit! We noticed that with our example of the EP-3 at the shop. One day it would be a slight warble, the next day it might be more dramatic. And it always seemed “random”. It certainly didn’t sound like a perfect sine wave LFO!
7.) Passive mixer and output stage. The EP-3 did not include any sort of output buffer after the dry and wet signals were combined through it’s simple passive mixer. This resulted is a relatively high output impedance which, while technically not “good”, resulted in the tone and response with the amp that made the Echoplex so musically dynamic.
8.) Delay time range. The Echoplex had a minimum delay time of about 80ms (it couldn’t get any shorter since the playback and record heads couldn’t get any closer together!) and a maximum delay time of about 800ms. This is pretty close to the perfect range to have in a guitar delay device for most applications. Plus, the famous sounds you’ve heard on records of EP-3 users, where the player would slide the Echo Delay slider from longest to shortest delay times and back during their spaceship sound excursions or theremin solos, to get the authentic sound you’d want to have that delay time range.
So, armed with this insight, we developed the Belle Epoch to incorporate all of these attributes into a compact pedal that delivers an amazing musical experience with none of the maintenance of the real deal!
The development of the Belle Epoch was a team effort at Catalinbread and we really wanted to come up with a pedal that incorporated all the key compelling attributes of the EP-3, as we noted in the introduction of this guide. We felt that a “tape echo” pedal was much more than just a standard digital delay with some “filtering” on the repeats. There are a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle traits of the Echoplex that need to be implemented in order to be authentic. The preamp, the self-oscillation character, the ability to play the pedal as an instrument unto itself, the ability to control the “record level” of the signal hitting “tape”, the wow and flutter, the way the repeats decay, the way the circuit interfaces with the amp and other pedals – all these things were important to get right.