Classic Gear: Mid-'60s Maestro Echoplex

The Echoplex wasn’t the first device to bring tape echo to popular music.
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The Echoplex wasn’t the first device to bring tape echo to popular music. Les Paul had scored major hits with studioproduced tape echo on his guitars and Mary Ford’s vocals in the late 1940s, and Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore had further popularized the sound in the early to mid ’50s, courtesy of Ray Butts’s EchoSonic amps. But Maestro’s efficient, relatively compact effect was the box that brought it to the masses, and many guitarists will tell you that echo has never sounded better.

The Echoplex is, essentially, a tape recorder with a head positioned to play back the input sound shortly after it is recorded. Although it came in the wake of Butts’ built-in tapeloop echo device—and follows some of the same basic principles—it is the result of a more intense engineering effort focused on the functionality of the effect.

In an effort to create an echo effect of his own in the mid ’50s, guitarist Don Dixon of Akron, Ohio, set out to build his own tape-delay machine, and then enlisted the help of talented Akron engineer Mike Battle when his abilities fell short of the mark. Over the next few years, Battle, with help from his brother John and constant input from Dixon, refined the design into what would be the first production Echoplex in 1959 (retrospectively named the EP-1). Among its key features—in addition to its independence from any amplifier and its portability—was a sliding playback head that enabled varying delays between the original note and the echo. Most U.S.-made efforts before it provided only a fixed delay. The creation proved hugely popular with local musicians, and soon this cottage-industry production effort was unable to keep up with the demand.

The Echoplex design was first manufactured for the masses by Market Electronics of Cleveland, Ohio, and sold under the Maestro brand. Maestro’s parent company at the time, the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, was also home to Gibson Guitars, and the two brands were sold together to Norlin in 1969. Prior to that, though, the most desirable incarnation of the Echoplex arrived in the form of the EP-2, still with a tube-powered preamp, but with an improved design and added features. Among other things, the EP-2 enabled sound-on-sound recording—a sort of early “looping” function that allowed long repeats, or the effect of playing on top of your own recorded lines. Soon, this was the echo unit to have, and countless major names were making it a big part of their sound. So prevalent was the Echoplex that a large proportion of the lush, warm, and richly textured echo effects you hear on classic guitar recordings from the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, are likely to have been made on one. Jimmy Page (post-1970), Jeff Beck, Neil Young, and many, many others were all devotees of Maestro’s popular EP-2.

In addition to the sound of the echo itself—which offered anything from short slap-back to longer delays to looping sound-on-sound effects—many players were hooked on the sweet, rich tone of the EP-2’s preamp. The preamp of this mid-to-late ’60s design used two 6EU7 tubes and one 6C4, which enhanced the guitar’s tone in a luscious, creamy way, and with just a little boost thrown in for good measure. This inspired players like Jimmy Page and the Police’s Andy Summers to leave it fired up in the signal chain—even when the echo effect was disengaged. Around 1969, in the middle of what was then perceived as a solid-state revolution, Mike Battle re-designed the Echoplex around a solid-state preamp, which Maestro released as the EP-3. Although plenty of players dig the sound of this revision, too, it marked an end to the most desirable Echoplex ever built. As well as its echo being recreated in a plethora of analog and digital pedals, and its preamp tone being emulated in Xotic’s diminutive EP-Booster and the MXR Echoplex Preamp, the full-blown EP-2 is paid homage by Fulltone’s Tube Tape Echo (TTE), which adds a few refinements to the classic circuit.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

• Tube preamp containing two 6EU7 and one 6C4 tubes
• Cartridge containing continual tape loop
• Sliding playback head to vary delay time
• Sound-on-sound
• Controls for Echo Repeats, Volume

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