The History of Tape Delay


The term “echo“ was first mentioned in 1950 when electronic devices came into the recording studios. Back then, producers tried to recreate the acoustic properties of different sound spaces. These devices were referred to as “echo“ machines. Tape delay is one of the oldest effects originating from the above mentioned decade of the 20th century. It possesses distinct warmness and character like no other effect. The first known example of it can be traced back to the Les Paul`s “How high is the moon“ from 1951. Sam Phillips who used this sound on Elvis Presley early records highly contributed to its further popularization. From that time on tape delay, of an echo if you like, became a widely used and iconic effect.


Slapback Delay


Those first tape delay machines have consisted of a rig which contained two reel-to-reel tape machines. One of them has been used to record the audio, while others were in charge of playback. Engineers quickly discovered that a short time echo occurs in setup. Consequently, they coined the term “slapback“ delay. The dual-machine technique was effective but awkward. It was only a short step for others to create a similar effect by slightly modifying a single reel-to-reel tape machine.


Tape Echo


The Tape Echo machine worked using three magnetic heads (erase, record and playback). The tape moves from left to right, from the Supply Reel to the Takeup Reel. The erase head ensures that with each pass, the tape loop is at a blank state. The tape-recorded audio (at the Record head) then takes a few milliseconds to travel to the Playback Head. This causes a slight “delay” of audio of the tape signal from the original “real-time” audio, and when combined in parallel with the original input signal, produces that iconic echo effect.


Echoplex and Roland’s Space Echo Series

This technique became so popular that engineers began to devise ways to make the tape continuously loop on a machine so the tape would never “run out”. Manufacturers eventually stepped in with products to make it easier. The Echoplex and Roland’s Space Echo Series were some of the more popular devices. They had features and controls that were optimized for the intended purpose. Additionally, they used looped proprietary tapes in small cartridges.


Portable machines


These machines were tremendously popular because they were easy to use and portable. Besides being great delay/echo units they were also many musician’s first forays into looping effects. These machines were portable, self-contained tape machines, designed solely as “echo machines”. They each contained a single infinite loop of tape and added some controls that allowed the user to manipulate the echo and create some unique sound.


Early Tape machines unreliability 

Although these early portable Tape Echo machines had successfully brought the Echo effect onto live music stages worldwide, they were in fact notoriously unreliable. Any owner of an early machine would complain that they were subject to frequent breakdowns. Moreover, they required near constant maintenance in order to keep them working properly. It wasn’t until Roland developed the RE-201 Space Echo in 1982 that Tape Echo machines, for the first time, were able to withstand the rigours of the road.


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