Tape echoes are the stuff of legend—the bulky machines full of moving parts resided in studios and on stages across the globe, and guitarists of various stripes incorporated them into their rig to achieve a wide array of sounds. John Martyn used an Echoplex with his acoustic to get dramatic, rhythmic echoes; a haunting sound that inspired The Edge of U2. Jimmy Page used one for its famous preamp and the occasional wacky spaceship noise. Jonny Greenwood used a Roland RE-201 to create eerie soundscapes with Radiohead. Many more artists have used them to create their signature sounds, and every delay device from analog pedals to digital rack units were an evolution of the venerable echo units of times past. And while the sounds of these heavy, complicated devices have been expertly captured by so many incredible new digital pedals, there are still those who seek the holy grail of true tape echo tone. If you find yourself yearning for real, rich, saturated tape tones, you don’t have to go without. The modern effects masters at Fulltone and T-Rex have some offerings that will have you salivating, and you may just find yourself selling off part of your current rig to acquire them. Let’s take a look at some awesome modern day tape machines.
Fulltone Tube Tape Echo
This original modern tape echo is the granddaddy of them all. Inspired by the EP-2 Echoplex design, the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo (TTE) is an all-tube, all-tape, glorious sounding dream machine. The TTE has the ability to split its signal to two amps, with the option of three stereo modes, so you can get the most out of it on stage or in the studio. When Fulltone founder Mike Fuller set out to design the TTE, he wanted to improve upon the echo units of old, so he made changes to improve the quality of the tape and heads, as well as running the preamp at over 200 volts. You can sculpt your delay tone with controls for Guitar Volume, Record Level, Echo Volume, Echo Tone, and Echo Repeats. There are two speed settings, making it easy to dial in slapback or longer delays on the fly. The TTE can be turned on and off remotely with the Fulltone Echo Cancel footswitch, so you don’t have to walk over to the unit and switch it on and off. But really, if you’re playing through one of these, the odds of you turning it off are slim to none. Artists using the TTE include Buddy Miller, the Reverend Horton Heat, and Jack White, just to name a few.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Mike Fuller decided to perfect the EP-3 Echoplex design, and he has done so with the incredible Solid State Tape Echo—smaller than the TTE, but still very mighty. Like the EP-3, the SSTE has controls for the delay signal’s volume and repeats, as well as record level. Unlike the EP-3, the SSTE has a dedicated control for your instrument’s volume, and three toggle switches. The speed switch, like the one of the TTE, selects between low and high speeds. The preamp switch allows you to choose between Full or EP-3 modes, allowing you to boost all of your frequencies or get the classic EP-3 boost tone. The Echo Highs switch gives you even more versatility, as you can choose between Brilliant and Vintage for brighter or warmer repeats. If you’re all about the EP-3, this is the one for you.
I recently saw Built to Spill—one of my favorite bands—in an intimate setting, close enough for me to ogle their gear. Frontman Doug Martsch was using a SSTE and it sounded amazing. He had it sitting on a stool, and he adjusted the delay time by hand to get it close to the tempo of the song, and he also made a lot of wild, whirly spaceship noises. It was awesome.
When T-Rex teased the Replicator at NAMM, they blew up the freaking Internet—at least the portion of the web guitarists crawl around on. I flipped my lid when I realized that the true tape delay with tap tempo was not a joke and would in fact be made available to discerning guitarists. Engineered from the ground up by T-Rex with a proprietary tape cartridge, the Replicator is the best of old school and new school. Featuring the aforementioned tap tempo, as well as two tape heads and a selectable chorus feature to add more modulation to the delay repeats, it has everything you could possibly want in a delay pedal. Because it’s an actual tape delay, it is more unpredictable than a tape delay emulator, and so there are many more warps and wiggles than you’ll find on your favorite digital pedal. The control layout is also a little more complex. You can sculpt your echo sounds by using the Master Volume, Chorus, and Saturate knobs as well as the familiar Delay Level, Feedback, and Delay Time knobs. The tap tempo, tape head selector, and chorus functions each have their own footswitches, allowing you to get a variety of echo tones from classic to weird. The smallest of the echo units mentioned in this article, the Replicator, was designed to be able to fit on a pedalboard. It comes in its own nifty carrying case and T-Rex even provides you with an extra tape. If you run out, you can purchase replacements for around $25. This is a truly unique beast, and I highly recommend trying one if you can.
Anxiously Awaiting: T-Rex Echorec
If the Replicator wasn’t enough, the dashing Danes of T-Rex sent our heads spinning again when they revealed their upcoming Echorec at NAMM. T-Rex actually purchased the Binson brand name and has been developing a model inspired by the old Echorec, but without its limitations, as this one will be smaller and feature a delay time of up to 800 milliseconds. Hold onto your wallet, even though this one isn’t tape-based.
When I visited TrueTone music in Santa Monica, California, the Tube Tape Echo, Solid State Tape Echo, and Replicator were all set up so customers could check them out, and you’d better believe I made a beeline to the display. Each echo is different, and there is something to love about all of them. The TTE is incredibly warm and luscious sounding, which obviously has something to do with the tubes. It sounds great driving an amp, and is capable of getting around two seconds of delay time. The SSTE is the classic EP-3 Echoplex sound, so you get all the glory of the echoes as well as the famous onboard preamp. To my ears, it’s a little brighter than the TTE. The Replicator is a ton of fun to use, thanks in part to the tap tempo. It feels more unhinged than the Fulltone units, and the repeats feel a little more washy. I don’t know if it was intended to sound like a Roland RE-201 Space Echo, but it seems to bear more resemblance to that unit than an Echoplex. All three tape delays sound marvelous, and it really comes down to personal preference. Personally, I’ll take all three.
Delay pedals have come a long way, and they’re getting better all the time. With current offerings like the Echoplex Delay from Dunlop and the El Capistan from Strymon, we have many ways to capture the sound of tape in a small, convenient stompbox format. But there’s nothing like the reel thing, and if you’ve got a hankering for authentic, old-school wow and flutter, the only thing that will get you there is an actual tape echo. These days, they’re built more solid, are capable of greater feats than ever before, and are constructed more soundly than their ancient forefathers. They’re expensive, so you may have to tell your kid you can’t afford club soccer this year, but we all know he isn’t going pro anyway. Go ahead, you deserve it.