A Field Guide to Vintage Tape Echo

Tape echo has been one of the most enduring sounds in the guitar and professional audio worlds since just after WWII, when magnetic tape became the dominant medium for capturing audio. One of the first effects created, it was purportedly discovered by Sun Studios head honcho Sam Phillips, who later made the sound famous by using it on his early recordings of Elvis Presley. Around the same time, pioneering electronic music composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen were also experimenting with tape delay and looping to create much less popular, but no less important, recorded works.

The first tape delay effects required the use of at least two reel-to-reel tape recorders connected by a single loop of magnetic tape, with the echoes being created by the distance between the heads of the machines. Getting the length and sound of the delays right required quite a bit of finagling, as one might imagine, but before too long dedicated tape echo machines became commercially available. This allowed guitarists and recording engineers to recreate the effect easily for live performances, a situation where stringing a bunch of tape recorders together for a little slapback would have been entirely impractical.

In the years since its invention, the warm yet defined tones of real-deal tape echo has become the standard by which all delay sounds are measured, especially among guitar people. The effect is integral to the hallowed guitar tones of the early rock 'n' roll era, and is as popular today as ever, though various analog and digital simulations are used more often than actual tape-based units. This is due mostly to the expense and rarity of these wonderful machines. Many vintage tape echo units are still available on the second-hand market, however, and some of the more common models are relatively affordable, frequently selling on eBay and elsewhere for no more than the price of a few boutique delay pedals. For guitarists interested in this somewhat esoteric corner of the effects world, we have compiled a rough guide to vintage tape echo units.

Ray Butts EchoSonic

Ray Butts EchoSonic

Unlike other portable, outboard tape echoes that would come later, the groundbreaking EchoSonic was a guitar amplifier. Invented by Ray Butts, a music store owner in Cairo, Illinois, the EchoSonic was a 25-watt, 6L6-powered, 1x12 combo that housed a small magnetic tape echo unit in the bottom of its cabinet. Chet Atkins received one of the first EchoSonics built by Butts, famously using it for a Grand Ole Opry performance and a number of studio recordings. These recordings garnered the attention of Elvis’s guitar slinger Scotty Moore, who immediately had Butts build him one of the amplifiers. Moore went on to make extensive use of the EchoSonic on stage and in the studio, and Butts eventually built several more higher-wattage sound reinforcement units for the larger venues that Elvis and Moore began to play. Though only 68 were ever made, the influence of the EchoSonic reached far and wide, and is directly responsible for many of the portable echo units that followed in its wake. As they are incredibly rare, finding an EchoSonic for sale would be next to impossible, and likely very expensive.

Maestro Echoplex

Everyone knows the Echoplex. It is the most recognizable and common of the vintage tape echoes, and its distinctive tones have graced countless recording since the moment it became commercially available in the early sixties. Designed by electronics tech Mike Battle in 1959 (possibly with the help of a guitarist named Don Dixon), the Echoplex was basically a copy of the EchoSonic's tape unit, but with a moving head that allowed the user to alter the delay time, and a self-contained tape cartridge to protect the somewhat delicate loop of tape from dust and damage. In addition to its fat, lush tape echoes, the Echoplex is highly regarded for the euphonic qualities of its tube-based circuitry, which can be used without the delay effect if desired.

The first Echoplexes, the EP-1 and EP-2, were tube-based, but by the early 1970's Maestro began selling the first solid-state version, the EP-3. The EP-4 was the final version and included several upgrades, including a new output buffer, LED metering, as well as treble and bass controls. As one might guess, the early tube-based Echoplexes are the most valuable of these, selling with some regularity for 1000 dollars or more in working condition, but the solid-state units like the EP-3 are excellent as well, and can be easily had for under 500 dollars. This puts them well within the price range of the working guitarist with a hankering for some serious tape echo tone.

Watkins / WEM Copicat

The Copicat is kind of a British equivalent of the Echoplex, having been invented at around the same time by Charlie Watkins, originally beginning as a tube (or "valve," as the Brits prefer) device, and having been converted to solid-state by the time the MkIII version hit in the '70's. There is evidence to suggest that the Copicat may have been produced before the Echoplex, making it the first portable, self-contained tape echo, but this is a contentious subject and the truth is likely lost to history. Either way, the Copicat saw considerable usage among players of the day, with Hank Marvin and The Shadows being responsible for much of its popularity. Both the valve and solid-state Copicats are elegant, lush-sounding machines, and can he found on eBay and elsewhere with some regularity. As with the Echoplex, valve-based models can go for up to 1000 dollars, while solid-state models in good condition can go for less than 400 or 500 bucks.

Ecco-Fonic

Ecco-Fonic

The Ecco-Fonic tape delay, invented by Ray Stolle and marketed by Fender as early as 1959, is another possible contender for first of the stand-alone tape echo units. Like the Echoplex, the delay time of the Ecco-Fonic could be adjusted, making it an attractive prospect to guitarists of the time. Hank Garland, Joe Maphis, and Del Casher were among its early users. Unfortunately, despite having a lot going for it, the Ecco-Fonic was rather poorly made, and required a regular maintenance regime of oiling, adjusting, and cleaning. Thus, these pioneering machines quickly fell out of favor, especially once the Echoplex became available, and few have survived to this day.

Dynachord Echocord

Dynachord Echocord

The Echocord S65 is a lesser-known European tube-powered tape echo, reportedly beginning its production run around 1959. These are fabulous sounding units, likely due to the fistful of ECC83 tubes that powered them. And like the Echoplex, the Echocord makes an incredible guitar preamp, in addition to its lovely, robust repeats. It has plenty of output to drive a tube amp into deliciously rich overdrive. The downsides of the Echocord are its weird five-pin din input and output jacks, which are highly inconvenient for the modern player, and its relative rarity and high price tag. These almost never sell for less than 800 to 1000 dollars in working order.

Roland Space Echo

Roland's Space Echo units are among the most sought-after tape echoes among both guitarists and audio engineers. Released in 1974 and conceived of as an improvement upon the Echoplex and Ecco-Fonic machines (both of which had become known for being somewhat high-maintenance), the Space Echo is an amazing sounding and very reliable machine. It used standard quarter-inch tape in a capstan-driven design, with a longer loop being used in a low-friction transport, all of which resulted in less wow and flutter, lower noise, and increased tape life compared to earlier units. It also featured a range of inputs and outputs, a rotary switch for dialing up different repeat patterns, and a variety of controls for speed, intensity, and equalization of the echoes. Several versions were produced, with later models such as the RE-301 also offering reverb, a looping function, and a gorgeous, mesmerizing chorus effect. Due to these extra features, the RE-301 is typically the most expensive to acquire on the vintage market, with well-maintained examples selling for upwards of 1200 dollars. On the other hand, the more basic models, like the RE-201, can often be had for under 400 bucks.

This is not a complete list of vintage tape echoes, as numerous smaller companies in North America and Europe made a variety of lesser-known, and much rarer, models over the years. These are the most influential, though, and/or the ones most likely to be found for sale on the vintage market. The Copicat, Echoplex, and Space Echo, in particular, are quite commonly available for sale, and often for prices comparable to some of the higher-end boutique pedals that simulate their tasty vintage tones.

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