Review: Strymon Volante Magnetic Echo Machine

If you’re looking for one pedal that effectively mimics mechanical echo units but is also highly tweakable, the Volante has you thoroughly covered.
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Strymon is no stranger to delay pedals. The company’s current lineup includes several effect units that recreate everything from tape echo (El Capistan) to tape saturation and double-tracking (Deco) to a vast range of echo and delay flavors (Timeline). Strymon’s latest offering in this realm is Volante, a feature-studded pedal that delivers three takes on the mechanical echo machines of the 1960s and ’70s. Volante’s emulations include magnetic drum echo, tape echo and studio-quality reel-to-reel echo, along with a vintage spring reverb emulation, a looper and a thorough set of sound-sculpting controls. There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s start off with a look at each style of echo on offer.

Strymon had the famed Binson Echorec in mind with its drum delay emulation, and not just with respect to tone — the yellow-green hue of the Volante’s aluminum enclosure hearkens back to the Echorec’s distinctive look. For years a mainstay of David Gilmour’s rig, the Echorec created its effect with a rotating steel drum that, together with its tube circuitry, multiple playback heads, and a complement of input and delay controls, produced warm, harmonically rich and saturated delays. Volante’s tape echo is based on classic multihead tape echo units, which are desired for their warmth, compression, rolled-off high end and nonlinear response that results in a more natural-sounding delay. As for the studio delay, it’s inspired by the reel-to-reel tape machines of the ’50s and ’60s, which were built for high-fidelity reproduction. Unlike commercial tape delay units, these machines produced pristine sound, with the greatest number of repeats and least degradation of tone. On the Volante, each of these delay effects can be selected from the Type toggle near the center top of the control panel. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to start tweaking.

The left-most section of the Volante’s control panel is dedicated to tone. The record level knob sets the level of the signal fed into the Volante’s record head, and turning this up increases gain to produce natural saturation, just like on an old tape delay. The low cut control adjusts the frequency of the repeats, from full-range at one end to extremely high-passed at the other. This section also contains two controls that are central to the Volante’s tonal accuracy and realism: mechanics and wear. The charm of vintage drum and tape delays comes largely from the sonic aberrations inherent in their mechanical natures. The mechanics control mimics these by allowing you to adjust just how much mechanical aspects — including friction, tape creasing, splices and other anomalies — affect the sound. Likewise, the wear control lets you introduce the lo-fi grit that results over time from wear on the media and heads.

The center of the panel is where you find controls for configuring the performance of the pedal’s virtual playback heads. The Volante has four heads, each of which can be selected from the top row of pushbuttons. The buttons light green to indicate that they’re on, and you can select as few or as many as you want to create some wild and inspiring rhythmic delay patterns. You can also set each head to half-level by pressing and holding its button.

Beneath each playback head is a feedback button that, when engaged, allows some of the playback signal to be sent back to the record head. In addition, turning the time knob while holding a feedback button lets you adjust the panning of its corresponding playback head within the Volante’s stereo output for ping-pong delays.

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There is additional playback functionality in the spacing control, which adjusts the distance between the engaged heads. The delay configurations include even (16th-, 8th-, dotted 8th– and 1/4-notes) and triplet (16th-, 8th-and 1/4-note triplets, plus 1/4 notes), as well as two settings dubbed golden and silver. Golden sets the distances between each head according to the golden ratio, producing the fastest density buildup when multiple heads are in use. Silver sets the distances to the silver ratio, causing repeats that bunch together around head 4. For even greater options, the spacing control is continuous, allowing you to morph between the configurations for infinite possibilities.

It should be explained here that the spacing control governs the distance between heads 1 through 3, while the time knob controls the delay time at head 4. The delays range from 200 ms to 2 seconds, but a three-position toggle lets you set the speed of the selected machine to normal, half or double. Selecting half will double the delay range (400 ms to 4 sec) and produce lower fidelity, while the double position will cut it in half (100 ms to 1 sec) while improving fidelity. However, as the manual reveals, you can get dramatically shorter delay times using playback head 1 and selecting triplet spacing.

At the right side of the pedal we find the output section, which includes an independent spring reverb and an echo level control to set the overall delay signal sent to the output. The reverb sounds great on its own and adds another level of versatility to what’s already a feature-packed pedal.

Below the controls are three foot switches that each offer additional performance functions. The tap switch can be used for tap tempo, to set the splice point in the loop and to enter Sound on Sound mode to record a loop. The on switch can be held to produce infinite repeats, and, in Sound on Sound mode, to reverse the loop.

And then there’s the Favorite foot switch. Remember those playback head and feedback buttons we talked about earlier? They also double as locations to save and recall eight presets. The Favorite foot switch lets you recall the active preset, while in Sound on Sound mode it can be tapped to pause or unpause the loop, or held down to produce ramp-up and ramp-down effects similar to a tape machine slowing to a stop or spinning up to speed.

Granted, there’s a lot to get your head around, and that’s before you factor in the Volante’s MIDI accessibility. The front of the pedal hosts MIDI In and Out jacks as well as a mini USB for MIDI control from your DAW. Here as well are stereo inputs and outputs, an instrument–line level selector, an input for controlling any of the knobs with an expression pedal, and the power connector for a 9-volt, center-negative adapter.

I’ve been a huge fan of tape echo units for years, and have used both Roland Space Echoes and consumer-grade reel-to-reel decks to conjure up everything from gritty slapback to long-sustaining, high-fidelity delay. The Volante delivers all the warm, organic tone of those mechanical devices without the hassle of cleaning and demagnetizing tape heads (or paying high repair bills). The record level knob let me create fat, saturated gainy tones, while the mechanics control was great for introducing speed fluctuations, tape “wow” and audio artifacts that added realism and sonic depth. The wear control was equally useful for generating everything from full, high-frequency delays to ghostly filtered echoes, especially in tandem with the low cut control. Playing with the four playback heads and spacing options, I discovered a seemingly limitless variety of delay patterns. The ability to choose which heads are in use makes the Volante a powerful rhythmic tool and a whole lot of fun to boot.

While I dug all three of the machines on tap, I was most excited by the drum echo. A good part of the Binson’s appeal is its way of warming up and slightly blurring the echoes so that they sit nicely with the original signal. The Volante gets this just right, as it does the evolving tonality of long-trailing echoes produced by these old-school machines.

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There are currently a number of pedals on the market that mimic the sounds of mechanical echo units, including drum and tape units. Many of them sound extremely good, but if you’re looking for one pedal that’s not only inclusive of those machines but also highly tweakable, the Volante has you thoroughly covered. It handily earns an Editors’ Pick award.

SPECIFICATIONS

Volante

CONTACT strymon.net
PRICE $399

CONTROLS Rec level, low cut, mechanics, wear, time, repeats, spacing, spring (reverb level) and echo level. Toggles: type (drum/tape/studio) and speed (half/normal/double). Buttons: playback heads (x4), feedback on/off (x4). Inst/line switch
FOOTSWITCHES On/reverse/hold, Favorite/(loop) pause, Tap/splice/hold (SOS)
I/Os Left in, right in, left out, right out, expression in, MIDI in/out, USB, 9-volt center-negative power input A/D & D/A 24-bit 96kHz
SWITCHING True bypass
DIMENSIONS 4.5" x 7" x 1.75"

KUDOS Authentic-sounding mechanical drum, tape and studio echo. Mechanics and wear controls recreate anomalies of drum and tape media. Deep editing feature set
CONCERNS None

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