The Best Tape Delay Originals and EmulationsBuying Guide

From old school analog boxes to modern boutique emulations.

For many guitarists, keyboardists, and audio engineers, there isn't a more coveted and crucial sound than the warbly warmth of an analog tape delay. Dating back to studio experiments of the late-'40s and '50s, when engineers lacking the luxury of a real echo chamber started experimenting with manipulating magnetic tape, the basic function of creating space by recording a signal and playing it back slightly later in time has since evolved into an industry of different delay units.

From the subtle slapback of '50s country and rockabilly and the spacey sounds of '70s prog to modern, pedal-fueled post-rock, tape-style delays have found a home in a wide range of musical styles, and today's musicians have no lack of options when looking to add this distinct flavor of echo to their setups.

Early tape delay units like the Maestro Echoplex, Watkins Copicat, and later, the Roland Space Echo used mechanical tape-based systems to produce delay , capturing the imagination of producers and guitarists alike in the '60s and '70s. While these original designs fell out of favor as the arrival of integrated circuits and digital technology offered new and less fragile options, a fanatical market has since sprung up devoted to recapturing the irreplaceable tone of tape echo.

In this guide, we'll lay out some of the best tape delays on the market, from original vintage options currently available on Reverb to the ever-growing list of modern emulations that produce tape-style sonics without the fragile tape-based inner workings. Scroll onward for our overview and picks to help you on your quest to find the ideal tape delay solution to whatever studio or live musical applications you face.

For a look at other varieties of delay, take a look at our main delay pedal buying guide

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Vintage Tape Echo Units

The Vintage Tape Echo Units You Need to Know

What to Consider When Shopping for a Vintage Tape Echo Unit

What's the difference between vintage tape delays and their modern pedal counterparts?

Genuine tape echos stand out from their pedal-sized equivalents most obviously in their usage of a reel of 1/4-inch tape to record incoming signal and play it back on a continuous loop. Modern tape-style pedals merely emulate this process and while the effect can be nearly the same in the production of a modulated or warped sound with the sensation of decay, vintage units inherently offer a deeper analog sound with additional sonic artifacts that the digital versions can't quite nail.

What makes these units so magical?

Like the appeal of vinyl records over MP3s much of the magnetism of genuine tape delays comes down to the captivating, blissful nature of analog tone. Moreover, old school tape echos typically filter the repeated tones to reduce noise, which combines with the various internal moving motors, spindles, and other moving parts to produce subtle and unpredictable variations that many musicians absolutely adore. There's also the matter of tape saturation that occurs when running a hot instrument single onto a tape, producing a distinct overdrive texture that lies at the root of the tape delay mythos.

Why are some editions or models more expensive than others?

Like any collectible property, the value of a tape delay unit is determined through availability and general popularity. Some models, like the early Echoplexes and Echorecs, are highly coveted for their feature set, tone, and association with famous musicians—all factors that can drive up the price. Additionally, since these units tend to break down over time, the decreasing availability of functioning units can drive up the market longer term.

What's all this reference to tape heads?

Within any tape device or tape delay, the heads are the pieces that interact with the tape directly either to write, read, or erase the audio content. Most tape delays have at least three heads to cover each of these functions. The space between the write (or record) and read (or playback) heads is what causes the delay. Some models—like the famous Roland RE-201—have additional read heads, which provide more sophisticated echo possibilities by reading the original signal at multiple time points. The number of heads is a differentiating factor for some prospective buyers considering a tape delay purchase.

What about maintenance and upkeep?

Like any piece of older audio gear, vintage tape delays are going to be more maintenance-intensive than modern, digital pedals. All of the moving parts and delicate tape that give these units their magic are also susceptible to wear out or malfunction and finding replacements isn't always easy. There is a community out there of tape delay buffs who have information on how to repair these units, and most general gear repair techs can do the basic work. That said, if you're buying a tape delay for real-life touring or studio use, you should be prepared to contend with these issues. For instance, it's a good idea to snag a digital emulator pedal as a back up if your vintage EP-3 breaks down on the road. Additionally, when browsing vintage tape delay units on Reverb, be sure to read the description thoroughly for insight into any conditional issues, and always feel comfortable reaching out to the seller for any clarification you might need.

The New Generation of Tape Echo

The Oft-Imitated Tape Delay Sound

For those who don't want to contend with the price tags and maintenance headaches of a genuine vintage artifact but still crave that classic tape delay tone, the modern pedal market has you covered. There are dozens of fantastic options out there spanning from direct emulations of classic models like the Catalinbread Echorec to more generalized tape delay emulation pedals. Take a look below at some of our favorites.

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Editorial content by Evan Weiss

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