Web Exclusive! First Impressions of My 1959 Klemt Echolette Tape Echo

I recently purchased this extremely rare Klemt NG4 Echolette tube tape-echo. Built in Germany in 1959 or early 1960, and bearing serial number 6688, it is an example of one of the very first Klemt echo units manufactured.
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The NG4 differs significantly from the various Echolette “S” models manufactured throughout the ’60s, widely held to be the best tape-echo unit ever made. Later models have multiple tone controls, a slightly different tape control assembly, and an input level meter. They also locate the power cord receptacle on the rear of the unit rather than the front.

I purchased this NG4 on eBay from a party in Germany who shipped it to me in San Francisco loosely packed in a large single box with just a few chunks of Styrofoam and piles of “peanuts” to protect it. I had it professionally cleaned and numerous electronic parts (mostly capacitors) replaced, as well as replacing the tape loop with a new one from mytapeecho.com. The unit contained five original Telefunken tubes (three ECC81s, an ECC83, and an ECC86), the original power cable with a European connector (six voltages are selectable), and the original DIN jacks for audio in and out (two adapter cables were included). In other words, this baby is almost entirely stock!

There are three knobs on the front panel for mixing the levels of the three playback heads, buttons for changing the tape speed from fast to slow (which changes the delay time) and disengaging the tape drive, and large knobs for Reverb, Reverb Duration, and Tone. In addition to the two inputs and one output, there is a fourth DIN jack for “Foot Pedals,” but I have no idea what a foot pedal for this unit looks like or what it does. There are also small pots for input and output gain located on the inside, and six more pots on the side that I’m still experimenting with.

One of the things that Klemt Echolettes are best known for are the incredible distortion tones they produce when you plug a guitar directly into them and crank up the input level. Lots of players in the ’60s used Echolettes just for distortion (sometimes with the tape drive disengaged), and I could understand why when playing through this one. Used as a super-smooth tube overdrive and distortion generator, this Echolette did not disappoint—the sound was fat, warm, and crackling with energy. Dialing in delays of various lengths and configurations yielded effects from reverb-like slaps to spacy delays to three-head-echo freakouts.

When used as a studio outboard processor the NG4 sounded great in its own inimitable way. It won’t produce clean repeats, or long delay times, but man-o-man does it have vibe. And the echo trails are about as old school as you can get, with a very ’50s sci-fi movie soundtrack feel. The first thing I used it on was the long fade-out on a cover of “Telstar.” There was already a wash of reverb and echo tails that continued after the last note, but it decayed a little too quickly. Feeding the last few seconds of the song into the Echolette added the perfect spacey echo fade out to this 1962 classic. —Barry Cleveland