Better than the Real Thing: 5 Incredible Tape Flangers

Like just about everything else related to electric guitars and audio recording, flanging was invented by Les Paul. In 1952, years before anyone else figured out how create such an effect, Paul conjured up flanging in his garage studio using a pair of disk recorders, with one of the machines playing back at a slightly slower speed than the other. In the decades that followed, other engineers devised methods for creating flange tones using multiple reel-to-reel tape recorders, and artists like The Beatles and the Small Faces would popularize it with hit songs that prominently featured that signature swooshing modulation sound.

In the '70s, Electro-Harmonix successfully created flanging effects with LFOs and solid-state circuitry, resulting in the invention of the compact flanger pedal, but flanging is an effect that will always be associated with the early part of the tape era. In the minds and ears of many players, the thick, lustrous swirl of real tape flanging is impossible to top, but unfortunately a compact, portable tape flanger unit, like a flanger version of the Echoplex, was never invented.

Luckily for flanger fanatics, there is another way. Modern effects designers have found ways to effectively and realistically mimic the sound of tape-based "through-zero" flanging in pedal form. This kind of flanging, with its unique, dramatic comb-filtering component, is distinct from more mundane LFO-based flanger circuits, and really delivers those delicious high-end harmonics and slightly unpredictable variations that make tape flanging such a pleasing, musical sound. Here are a few of our favorite pedals for real-deal tape flanging tones.

Catalinbread Zero Point

Catalinbread's Zero Point Flanger might be as close as you can get to real tape flange feel on a pedalboard. The Zero Point dispenses with the usual LFO-based circuitry and predictable controls of every other flanger pedal, instead going with a bypass switch to turn it on and off, and a simple momentary switch that simulates the act of pressing one's finger on the tape flange of an analog tape deck, thus altering its speed to create that glorious lag and comb-filtering that we all know and love. Turning the pedal on engages a pair of delay lines, resulting in a subtly modulated tone with a lovely aura of tape saturation and analog harmonic complexity. Kick in the momentary switch and one delay line begins to hang behind, creating that through-zero flanging sound that becomes ever more dramatic as it nears the zero point. The coolest thing about Catalinbread's Zero Point Flanger is its interactivity. The momentary switch makes it a truly real-time effect, lending it an expressiveness that no other flanger can match, and its tone is warm and a little dirty, just like the real thing.

Mr. Black Tunnelworm

The ever-inventive Mr. Black actually has a pair of through-zero flangers in its lineup: The Shepard's End "barber pole" infinite flanger, and the classic tape-flanging Tunnelworm. They are both extraordinary stompboxes, and do sweet tape tones with ease. A guitarist with a taste for tape flange could go with either one and be totally delighted and inspired, but I suppose if I was going to choose one it might be the Tunnelworm. Why? Well, in addition to the through-zero tones, the Tunnelworm is equally adept at classic, solid-state-style flanger sounds, Hendrix or SRV style rotating speaker tones, and warm, liquid chorus, among other things. If you need one flanger to rule them all, the Mr. Black Tunnelworm would be a spectacular choice.

Strymon Deco

The Deco is, to put it succinctly, a miracle. For any guitarist or studio rat who has ever daydreamed of the glorious sonic possibilities that could be had if only a couple quarter-inch tape decks could somehow be pressed into service as portable effects units, the Deco will make those dreams real. In the past, there were so many things one could do in a studio environment with a pair of tape machines that simply could not be adequately reproduced in a live scenario. The Deco solves this conundrum by squeezing what amounts to a pair of virtual tape decks into one brilliant, very portable stompbox. It does many things well, including slapback echo, tape saturation effects, and double-tracking, but we're here to talk about the through-zero tape flanging tones. The Deco can reproduce a huge spectrum of tape flanging effects, from subtle, static filtering sounds, to dramatic through zero sweeps, and its Auto-Flange feature is both very easy to manipulate in real time, and lends to a more interactive feel. Tape effects enthusiasts cannot live without a Strymon Deco.

Electro-Harmonix Flanger Hoax

EHX's Flanger Hoax bears one of the coolest pedal names ever, and it is a downright mad scientist lab of not only flanging, but many other modulated sounds as well. It can whip up anything from static filters to chorus, vibrato, trem-like undulations, a zillion phaser variations, and of course, through-zero flanging, among other things. The Flanger Hoax is a tweaker's dream that will keep any adventurous noise maker busy for a lifetime. Though the tape flange tones this pedal makes are massive and lush, I probably wouldn't purchase it just for this feature, as the Hoax is bloody massive and does not fit easily into a standard pedalboard setup. It also has a significant learning curve. In order to find the target tone and remember how to get back to it in the heat and chaos of a live show, one will need to put in some serious woodshed time with this beast. That said, though, the Flanger Hoax is certainly a one-of-a-kind effector with some seriously fat, delicious tape flanging tones lurking beneath its hood.

TC Electronic Vortex Flanger

Players who need a broad array of top-shelf flanging tones in one very small and easy-to-use stompbox would be hard pressed to do better than the TC Electronic Vortex. TC built its formidable reputation largely on the quality of its modulation sounds, so it's only right that the Vortex is such a flawless and thoughtfully designed pedal. It will do all those Eddie Van Halen sounds, the warbly, watery Andy Summers tones, and much, much more. Tape flanging devotees love it for its dedicated Tape mode, which is engaged by flipping the pedal's mini toggle switch to the downward position, and for its overall ease of use. Stereo input and output and TC's TonePrint technology add further layers of versatility to this already versatile pedal. Downloading new sounds for it is easy as pie, and the TC Electronic website is rich with tape flange TonePrints that are sure to inspire.

Genuine through-zero tape flanging tones have long been elusive for the guitarist wanting to recreate studio effects in a live situation. Traditional flanger circuits can often come close, but that distinctive through-zero comb filter sweep is mighty hard to replicate convincingly, and a portable tape-based option has, somewhat surprisingly, never appeared. Yearn no more, my friends! I am happy to report that tape flanging tones are here to stay, thanks to the golden era of guitar effects that we are lucky enough to love in, and they will fit nicely on your pedalboard. Go forth and flange.

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