It doesn’t seem too long ago that the Internet was alight with the concept of the TC Electronic Flashback. With 11 different patches (including a looper and TonePrint), interest from the gear aficionado community was certainly piqued. After a couple iterations, TC has arrived at the Alter Ego x4, one of the most ambitious delay projects to date, from any manufacturer.
While other pedal companies offer takes on “analog” and “tape” echo patches, most of them have no reference point to keep them honest. A “tape delay” is more of a series of ideas and relaxed definitions within the software’s binary brambles than a real unit. When speaking of a “patch” on a digital unit, what does the word “analog” mean, anyway? Typically, this just means “the repeats get mushy,” which to most of us, simply doesn’t cut the mustard. There’s a reason even recently-discontinued, modern analog delays cost hundreds of dollars. Digital models have next to no tangible backing. However, the Alter Ego x4 has returned to the gold standard of analog delays, in which each patch is engineered to sound like a real delay that exists. This is progress.
There are several models of delay on the Alter Ego x4, most of which are certified, album-tested classics. Two Echorec patches, two Memory Man patches, the RE-301 Space Echo, Boss DM-2 and many, many others are represented within the AEX4’s 16 modes. Then, there are some more obscure units: a Watkins Copicat, Electro-Harmonix Echoflanger and Tel-Ray Super Organ Tone to name a few.
There isn’t a whole lot to complain about as far as the sounds are concerned. The “Specho” (RE-301 Space Echo) patch is a definite winner, as is the “BDM2” (Boss DM-2) and the “Copykat” (Watkins Copicat) patches. Having played the real version of all three of these units, I was surprised at the accuracy of the emulation. And because the original Boss DM-2 tops out at 300 milliseconds delay time, having much more delay time on tap is quite a boon. Of course, because the unit contains no moving parts, it’s instantly more reliable than every mechanical delay it emulates, which is half of the patches (TonePrints excluded). I’ve found that the Space Echo and DM-2 sound dead-on, while Echorec 2, Copicat and the Tel-Ray patch sound very, very close. Then again, these patches are meant to sound like specific units—one of several in existence—and have inherited the quirks of each.
The controls are held to delay time and feedback, which is fine by me, because it allows me to spend more time playing the effect, rather than fumbling through a forest of knobs and switches. I appreciated the simplicity of the controls as I played it more, and I realized that almost all the units that are represented had little more control than what is offered by the AEX4. Any modulated settings such as “DMM V” and “E Rec 1” that I found to be a tad hairy had alternate settings: “DMM C” and “E Rec 2” respectively. The “2290 Mod” setting is a tad warbly but not unusably so. Luckily, a super-clean digital delay is easily dialed into a TonePrint slot, should the warble prove too much. Further adding to the controls is a switch inside the unit that switches operation from true- to buffered-bypass; however this requires a Torx driver, recondite enough to warrant a trip to the hardware store. It says quite a bit, though, that the biggest drawback of the unit is the type of screws holding it together.
It goes without saying that with a pedal of this magnitude, using all the settings may prove to be quite a task. And honestly, some settings are extremely esoteric; I doubt players have been waiting decades for someone to replicate the sound of an oil can delay, but it’s a very interesting option to have. Some users might take umbrage at some of the modulated settings on the unit. Personally, I really enjoy modulated delay but I acknowledge that the modulation may be a tad on the heavy side.
Furthermore, it was a pleasant surprise that the pedal accepted line-level signals so readily. Using my Moog Source and the Space Echo patch, I was able to channel my inner Adrian Utley, and with my Korg DW-8000, Nils Frahm came roaring to life from my amp with no distortion—clean as a whistle.
Most of the press on the AEX4 hails it as the ultimate delay, and it’s hard not to agree. It replaces a huge amount of expensive, sought-after equipment for a tenth of the cost of an actual Echorec. And thanks to the four TonePrint slots, obsolescence is never a concern, much like the sounds of the original delays themselves.
What we like: The dearth of options available at the turn of a knob. The delays sound different enough to where the patches share zero overlap. Manufacturers can get lazy in that way when there are so many options; thankfully that is not the case here.
Concerns: It’s a real bear to have to buy a weird tool to open the unit.
Build quality: The pedal seems durable enough. The Torx screws on the back ding the rating a tiny bit. The switches feel more fluid than those of the Flashback x4.
Value: It’s hard to imagine the pedal holding a better value, considering the rotary switch is maxed out at 16 positions.
Overall: The Alter Ego x4 might have set the new bar for features-to-cost ratio in the effects industry. Not only does the player get several high quality models, they are backed up by real solder-and-gears devices.