WITH THE EXCEPTION OF LES PAUL’S double-headed disc-cutting apparatus, the earliest delays used in musical applications involved analog tape. At first, engineers employed the gap between the record and playback heads on three-head reel-to-reel recorders to create delay (adjusting the tape speed to change the delay time). Later, dedicated tape-echo machines such as the Klemt Echolette, Dynacord Echocord, WEM Copicat, and Market Electronics Echoplex, were developed for the same purpose. By the early ’70s, however, analog delay pedals had usurped most of the consumer delay market, followed by digital delay pedals a decade later. Yet while analog and digital delays were considerably smaller, lighter, and less hassle to maintain, they never really sounded like tape-echo machines, particularly those powered by tubes—and many would argue they didn’t sound nearly as good.
Since that time numerous attempts have been made to digitally model the sound and performance of classic tape-echo units and package them in a pedal—but Strymon has taken the pursuit to an entirely new level. In addition to the typical Mix, Time, and Repeat controls, the El Capistan ($299 direct) sports controls with names such as Wow & Flutter and Tape Age, along with a Tape Head switch that toggles between Fixed, Multiple, and Single head configurations, which covers the majority of types of tape-echo machines. Press and hold the pedal’s two footswitches simultaneously, and you access a second layer of controls that include Tape Bias, Tape Crinkle, Low End Contour, +/-3db Boost/ Cut, and—drum roll—Spring Reverb. There are even sound-on-sound, looping, tap tempo, and infinite repeat capabilities. All of this and more is made possible via a super-powerful SHARC processor, which when combined with the El Capistan’s 24-bit/96kHz A/D and D/A converters, true bypass switching, and completely analog dry signal path, results in outstanding performance and pristine audio quality.
Tape-echo machines can have either fixed or moveable record heads, single or multiple playback heads, and fixed or variable tape speeds. These factors, combined with the performance of various mechanical parts (such as the tape capstan from with the pedal partially derives its name), the cleanliness of the heads, and the physical condition of the tape itself, all contribute to how a given machine will sound—and the El Capistan’s ten knobs (remember that each knob does double duty) and two toggle switches were designed to give you control over them all.
The 3-position Tape Head and Mode switches provide nine possible combinations. In Fixed Head position you can choose from Short, Medium, and Long delay times (1/16th, dotted 8th, and 1/4 note tap-tempo times respectively), while Multi Head gives you combinations of three heads (1 and 2, 2 and 3, 1 and 3)—and in both cases the Time control determines the tape speed. In Single Head position, the Time control varies the position of the sliding record head (as on an Echoplex), and the Mode switch selects normal speed, double speed (for higher fidelity), and sound-on-sound operation. (Note: holding down the Bypass footswitch on power up activates Trails mode, in which the delay repeats continue after the pedal is bypassed. Trails mode also allows you to close a loop when recording sound on sound, so that you can play over the loop as with a dedicated looping delay.)
The El Capistan has a mono input and stereo outputs. I tested it in mono with a Rivera Venus 6 amplifier and in stereo in the effects loop of a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx Ultra using various presets from clean to slightly crunchy. The pedal sounded great in mono— after all, traditional tape-echo machines were all mono—but connecting it in stereo dramatically increased the depth and dimensionality of the sound. There’s also an EXP input for connecting an optional expression pedal that can be assigned to any parameter controlled by a knob and programmed to cover a specific range, or the optional Strymon Favorite footswitch ($49 direct), which lets you save a preset and toggle between it and the current settings.
Having control over so many parameters allows you to approximate the sound of nearly any classic tape-echo machine in any condition— as well as to create myriad original sounds—but to take full advantage of all that power requires familiarizing yourself with how the controls work individually and in combination. Fortunately, the user-friendly makes learning a breeze.
I prefer tape-echo machines to be well maintained and fitted with fresh tape, so I opted to dial out the Wow & Flutter, Tape Age, and Tape Crinkle, set the Low End Contour for extended bottom, and set the Tape Bias for optimal performance. That yielded relatively clean and stable repeats no matter which other settings I chose, especially at shorter delay lengths. From there, I experimented with degrading the audio quality in various ways, which produced sounds ranging from darker repeats that quickly deteriorated to wildly wavering and distorted sounds.
The Multi Tape Head configuration produced rhythmic delay patterns reminiscent of a Roland Space Echo or a Copicat with two playback heads engaged (you could engage at least three playback heads on both units), and the Fixed and Single Tape Head configurations performed more like an Echoplex, with the latter responding very realistically when the record head was moved by manipulating the Time control. In fact, the pedal responded realistically to all control changes—so much so that you could swear you were hearing an actual tape changing speeds. There was no weird digital zippering like you get with some devices, and turning the Time control with the Repeats control cranked produced classic “spaceship taking off/landing” effects guaranteed to inspire raised lighters at your next stadium gig.
That the El Capistan packs so many features into such a diminutive package is mostly a good thing, though there are some tradeoffs in terms of ease of use. For example, presumably the Secondary Function controls are only to be adjusted when the pedal isn’t in use, as you have to press both footswitches to access them, they aren’t labeled, and you have to remember where any knobs you adjust had been set for their primary functions if you want to put them back (the actual parameter settings remain unchanged, but will no longer correspond to the position of the adjusted knobs). Concentric knobs and double labeling in two colors might make this easier to get your head around and allow for easier real-time tweaking.
Nevertheless, the El Capistan’s unprecedented feature set, versatility, excellent sound quality, and capacity for hands-on real-time control put it in a class by itself, which is why it earns an Editors’ Pick Award.
STRYMON EL CAPISTAN DTAPE ECHO
KUDOS Unprecedented feature set. Excellent audio quality. Lots of real time control.
CONCERNS Somewhat awkward implementation of Secondary Functions.
CONTACT Strymon, (805) 496-5115; strymon.net