Catalinbread met rampant excitement at NAMM this year with its new Belle Epoch Pre preamp and Belle Epoch Deluxe echo pedals. These were developed by Howard Gee, the lead designer of Catalinbread Mechanisms of Music, as new takes on the classic Maestro Echoplex EP-3 tape echo.
Working as the company’s lead designer for over a decade, Howard has helped steer the brand through the process of breathing new life into some of the most recognizable circuits from the past.
His lifelong obsession with the EP-3 brought the original Belle Epoch to the masses in 2013. Featuring a hybrid analog/digital signal path, it garnered praise from renowned players like Eric Johnson for its authentic tonal signature and feel. Despite being adopted by musicians of all stripes as their benchmark tape style delay, Howard was still not done chasing that elusive sound.
I sat down with Howard to talk about how the sausage is made. It’s a conversation that took us through a discussion about designing circuitry without an engineering degree, the philosophy behind modernizing this classic effect, and where Catalinbread is headed after the untimely and tragic passing of its founder Nicholas Harris in March 2016.
What was the development process for these new Belle Epochs?
What I try to do with a lot of my designs is to get to the heart of the original circuits. This is mainly a purist endeavor, where I stick to the schematics as close as I can get with components that are still available.
With the original Belle Epoch, there was a small team of us that worked on it, but ultimately I made the decisions about the EQing, the voicing, and how hot the repeats are. Once I went through that a few times, I had enough confidence that I’m comfortable with those decisions.
It should be said that I’m not some guru engineer. I didn’t go to any school to learn this stuff. I went to the school of Google. I’m just a guitar player that’s willing to put in the work and research to learn and really apply that to something unique that adds something to the world, and at the very least makes me happy. [laughs]
What makes you want to build pedal versions of the Echoplex?
As far as motivation goes, I’m an Echoplex fan because it’s what I grew up with. As a young guitar player in the 1970s, a slightly older mentor of mine always had this big box on top of his amp. When I worked up the guts to ask him about it, he told me about his Echoplex and how he relied on it for that huge sound.
After I bought one and used it for years, I became all too familiar with the maintenance issues. I eventually traded my EP-3 in for a then new analog delay, thinking it was easier to haul and more reliable. Of course it didn’t give me that sound.
A few years ago, right after Eric Johnson got on board, he called me to thank me for coming up with the Belle Epoch and I joked with him that his tech won’t have any work to do without all the old EP-3s to work on. He laughed and said that as we spoke, his tech was working on the last of his vintage units that was in rotation.
So the natural question is after the original Belle Epoch was finished, what drove you to go and design another?
There’s a blog article that I wrote for our website before NAMM 2017 called A Tale of Two Epochs, which is my attempt at getting as much of the story out there as possible. With the development of the original Epoch, we were trying to hit a certain form factor, size, and price point.
With the Deluxe, I started from scratch and literally put up the EP-3 schematic on the breadboard. Everyone knows about the JFET preamp, but there’s more to it than that. There’s the Record preamp, and the Playback amplifier that is part of the delay line, which are all using discrete bipolar transistor rigs.
If you know circuits and look at these, you could recognize the topology and basically imagine turning them into fuzz pedals.
For example, the Record Level function was done digitally on the original Epoch, but in the Deluxe we’re following the schematic, meaning it’s a pre-gain control driving that Record head. The original EP-3 had a full sized pot on the inside for that to optimize the signal–to–noise ratio going to the tape head, but I moved it out front so you can really drive that preamp stage.
I decided if I tried to do everything exactly with the only digital component being the tape itself, I could get closer.
The original Belle Epoch is still a great pedal, and we’re going to continue to offer it since it sits at a different price point. But the new one is going to be next level in terms of having a much bigger sound, more things it can do with all the extra features.
Tell us more about the power supply in the Belle Epoch Deluxe and the Belle Epoch Pre. You’re running them at 22 volts, coming in from a standard 9 volt supply?
Yeah, that’s integral to the EP-3 circuit. The power supply and mixing circuit loads the input in a way that just can’t be ignored if you’re looking for that big, warm thing.
We’re just under 100 milliamp current draw with the Deluxe, so it will work with the majority of your standard 9 volt pedal power supplies. There’s even a zener diode in there, like the EP-3, clamping it down to 22 volts to give an accurate, even supply. That higher voltage allows so much headroom for all these circuits to breathe.
A lot of today’s engineers would approach a vintage circuit design with a subtractive mindset, deciding what parts could go all together, be replaced with something cheaper, and how much DSP they could get away with. For better or worse, you are leaving the entire EP-3 circuit intact. Where does that leave you in terms of producing these pedals today?
Well, I’d say there’s no worse. When you open up the Belle Epoch Deluxe and you see the bigger box, you’ll see Sprague Orange Drop capacitors, JFETs, and other discrete components that match as close as we can get. You’re right, we could have used a quad op amp or whatever for buffers and gain stages and gotten away a lot cheaper.
One could say that I don’t need to use these big expensive caps because regardless of type, the value is the value. But in my universe that’s wrong. They all behave and respond differently. It’s really like anything you do with this stuff. It’s gain staging and frequency staging.
There’s no easy way to do it, you have to put in the time, one part at a time. You have to trust your judgement, and know when you’re impaired by working on it nonstop and step back for a while before you dive in again.
I worked on it every day from early autumn until NAMM. After being sick for a few days after the show, I took a few weeks off and got right back to tuning it. The things I wasn’t sure about were bothering me again, so even though we showed it to people and heard how excited they were to get one, there was still work to do.
That’s why I have a job. I’m the pickiest guy around. No one is going to know the circuits better than you when you’ve been deep in them for so long, so that’s just what I do. It’s all just tuning. Not so much changing the schematic, or changing the code for the delay line, just swapping discrete components one at a time.
So you’ve got your dialed in recreation of the Echoplex, and you could have left it there. The Deluxe also features extra programs available through the DSP side of the design. What were you hoping to offer with them above and beyond your initial goals?
I’m pretty selfishly driven, so it’s always based on my hypothetical idea of what would I like to use in a band with this thing?
Then I take a step back and say since this is a digital delay line, I can do other things with it. I thought it would be a crime to not leverage that as a component, so I think to myself We have all this discrete circuitry of the Echoplex, and it’s widely considered the king of tape delays. So what’s the king of analog delays?
Lots of people would say the Deluxe Memory Man, AC cord version. So what if we take the modulation from that and apply it into the Echoplex realm? We included patches inspired by both the DMM Chorus and the DMM Vibrato. Also in there is a dark analog delay program.
People love the bucket brigade, bandpassed delays because they don’t step on your playing. An Echoplex dances around what you are playing into it, it becomes a part of the piece.
For the other programs, let me take a step back a bit. With the Echoplex, I identified three things that they were traditionally used for. The first is obviously as an echo unit. The second is used without the echo on for the preamp to widen and beef up your signal. The third is as a live performance instrument.
You think about Jimmy Page zzzzhoomp zzzzhooomp with the wizard hands and all that stuff, right on the front of the stage slamming that lever back and forth. It very much became part of the live performance visually and an instrument itself.
I considered a fader briefly, but I wanted to go in the direction of upping your live performance game, so I added an instant self–oscillation foot switch and an expression pedal input to keep your hands free.
There’s a rotary speaker patch, which you can control with the expression pedal. When you have that fast rotary speaker sound going it can work in place of a lead boost, since it sounds more intense with it swirling around at a fast LFO speed.
Staying in that spirit, there’s one more that allows you to control a sweeping filter on the repeats. I just thought it would be really cool if I could change the EQ of the repeats on the fly. It’s somewhat of a resonant wah type of sound, but it really takes off from the original Echoplex when you have that runaway regeneration going and it starts doing this continuously variable feedback thing.
I really set out to make a live performance instrument that you respond to as you play. This is one reason I didn’t add tap tempo feature. I’m not interested in something static that’s always the same. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s plenty of pedals out there that support people with that need. I’m trying to support the players with a different need for something they play off of and interact with.
We’re coming up on a year since Catalinbread founder Nicholas Harris’s passing in 2016, What is coming up next for the company? Are you continuing your reverence for classic circuits?
Nic’s passing was a huge loss for all of us. As the company has continued to grow over the years, we have built an excellent team that handles all kinds of tasks. Our plan is to move on strong and continue the work that was so important to Nic when he was with us. First up is getting these two pedals out in the street.
We’re aiming at the Spring 2017. I actually just got a call from Andy Summers, who played with the prototype at NAMM, asking when he can get one so I better get busy! Aside from that, Catalinbread has a niche of bringing back old sounds in a form that works for a new generation of players.
In the case of our Echorec delay, we brought something back that really didn’t exist anymore. We’ll still be doing a little of that, but also looking forward for new sounds. After I had the chance to meet Joe Perry, he told me he appreciated the fact that we brought some of the old sounds back in a way that worked reliably and properly.
Where do you see the future of the boutique pedal industry headed in terms of products, business models, and the potential for new ideas?
I think there’s a change coming for us guys that are using these higher end parts with a purpose of retaining these sounds. As the components become obsolete, we are going to have some decisions to make. I know a lot of people are moving toward DSP modeling and surface mount component construction.
There’s a lot of advantages to those options in terms of price and ease of build. We’ve embraced it where we need it, and there’s a lot of impressive stuff happening with plugins and all that, but when you go full DSP it’s kind of a virtual reality thing.
It’s not real. It’s just a really good facsimile. Really it comes down to… one day, I’ll make a Fuzz Face I like.
Good Luck. [Both of us laugh.]
I had a conversation with Jamie Stillman from Earthquaker Devices about this at NAMM. I don’t get a chance to talk with him much, which is a shame because he’s a brother doing the same things for our companies. We live pretty solitary lives because that’s what it takes to be a dev guy.
You’re in the lab working on these circuits. You don’t get anything done talking to people and hanging out. He said to me “Man, I finally came up with a Fuzz Face recipe I’m happy about!” and I said Dude! That’s amazing! I still haven’t come up with mine yet. He’s obviously been around, but the grail is still making that one Fuzz Face sound the way we know it can.
I certainly always felt that way, and it was so comforting to hear someone I respect a lot say the same thing out loud. It’s like that thing about no matter how great your playing gets, you still measure your worth on your 12 bar blues.
About the Author:
Jason Schwab has worked in the gear manufacturing industry for over a decade, after getting his first job building pedals for Nicholas Harris at Catalinbread when it was a basement operation. He currently works for Darkplace Manufacturing in Portland, Oregon.