Guitar Delay Pedals: Which is Right for You?
No guitarist’s pedalboard is complete without a delay pedal.
Delay effects, like echo or reverb, have been around since the early days of rock & roll and continue to evolve today. While delay effects can be used by themselves, they are most often used along with other pedals in the guitar’s signal chain to create a fuller, more colorful sound. Luckily for us, a variety of delay pedals is available with a full range of effects in stompboxes, rack-mounted units and in many guitar amps. The layers and ambiance delay pedals add are almost magical and can help create your guitar’s perfect tone.
Understanding Echo and Reverb
To understand how delay pedals affect your sound, it’s important to first understand echo and reverb, in general terms.
Imagine you are standing outside with your guitar in front of a giant wall. When you strum your guitar, you hear the original sound from the guitar and also the echo of that sound after it’s bounced off the wall and back to you. Because the soundwaves of the echo had to travel further to reach you, you hear them at a slight delay from the original sound. For our discussion, echo and delay are essentially the same things: a repeat of a signal or sound.
Next, imagine you are on the stage of a giant concert hall. Now when you strum your guitar you won’t hear just one echo, but the combination of many echoes as the original sound bounces off not only one wall, but all the walls, the ceiling and everything else in the hall. On top of this, the sound will also reverberate as the various echoes mix and bounce repeatedly around the room before the sound completely decays. Reverberation adds a complex quality to the sound and is affected by the size of the room and other factors. Since sound waves travel extremely fast, our brains interpret all these echoes and reverberations as a single rich sound. This effect of playing in a large hall is the atmosphere many reverb effects seek to recreate.
Early Delay Effects
Analog Tape Delay
Delay effects first made their appearance in the studio. Tape machines were used to create a backing track slightly delayed from the original track. While tape machines helped created many popular songs of the past, they were unwieldy and limited to a space with studio recording equipment. The subtle organic sound created by an analog tape delay has proven difficult to replicate with modern digital pedals, but some do come close. Even though the use of tape delay is less common today, you can still find tape decks you can use for sale, if you’re feeling adventurous. A variety of how-to guides are already online to help get you started.
Pros: Unique sound.
Cons: Considerable setup. Not portable.
The second attempt at creating a reverb effect was the plate reverb. In a plate reverb, a speaker driver is attached to a tight metal plate creating vibrations in the metal much like soundwaves bouncing around a room. These vibrations in the metal plate interact with one another, creating a blend which decays over time. Finally, the vibrations are picked up by a transducer and fed back into the audio line. While plate reverbs were effective in creating a unique and appealing sound, much like tape machines, they were not very user-friendly for the average musician. Though rare, plate reverbs can still be found today, but most are not cheap if you’re looking to buy one.
Pros: Classic complex reverb sound.
Cons: Not easy to find at a reasonable price. Not portable.
The creation of the spring reverb was a big leap forward and brought the reverb to the average guitarist. Much of the surf sound genre of the 60’s and artists like Dick Dale were known for the smooth wavy sound of the spring reverb. Initially, most spring reverbs were built right into guitar amplifiers but also later became available in guitar pedals. In a spring reverb, a portion of the guitar’s audio signal is routed through a single spring or set of springs. This signal creates waves that travel through the springs to a transducer at the opposite end. The transducer then converts the motion from the springs into an electrical signal which is blended back in with the original dry signal. Some of the energy and motion remains in the springs which creates the classic reverberation sound before it decays and the springs become still.
Pros: Distinctive surfer sound. Difficult to accurately replicate with analog or digital pedals.
Cons: Can be expensive. More delicate than other options.
The Spring King from Danelectro is a great compact spring reverb option.
Modern Delay Effects
Analog Delay Pedals
Fast forward to the 1970’ when analog pedals were introduced, making delay pedals much more compact and less expensive. The creation of the bucket brigade device or BBD, an analog circuit contained within a small chip, changed the game forever. BBD chips run the guitar’s electrical signal through a series of capacitors which slow down or delay the signal. Before the signal leaves the BBD chip, the signal is also filtered to remove unwanted noise created during the process. This filtering alters the signal, making the delayed signal slightly softer and darker than the original. This wet signal is then blended back in with the original clean un-delayed signal to create the overall effect. Many guitarists swear by the “lo-fi” sound of a BBD analog pedal and refuse to move to the more modern digital units.
Pros: Classic analog sound. Compact & durable. Inexpensive models available.
Cons: Moderate customization available. Limited delay time compared to digital
The MXR Carbon Copy Delay M169 offers a wide variety of setting options.
If you’re looking for more customization options, the Dunlop Echo Puss Analog Delay is a great choice. It also includes an internal LFO circuit, like those found in modulation pedals, to add a liquid texture to the repeats.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the older mechanical reverbs is the modern-day digital delay effect. Digital delay effects use digital signal processing chips (DSP) and offer the most options for customizing your sound. Modern digital delay processors attempt to emulate classic reverb sounds, like the hall, plate or string reverbs, but they sometimes miss out on the natural sound qualities of the originals. However, digital delays offer you multiple options within one unit, so even if the sound isn’t exactly perfect, the variety of options may make up for it.
Another potential issue with digital delay units is a loss of signal quality during the conversion from analog to digital and back to analog. This issue is less pronounced in newer units utilizing 24-bits resolution or higher, which greatly improves conversion quality.
Pros: Wide range of customization options. Presets allow you to quickly change up sound. MIDI controls available for some units.
Cons: Some models have poor digital conversion. Tricky to replicate classic sounds.
- Want to replicate an old school effect, like a plate reverb or spring reverb? Your best option is a digital delay designed for that purpose. You can still get your hands on the originals and it’s a lot of fun to experiment, but expect to invest some time and money.
- If you’re looking for a reliable delay that will add extra color to your sound, analog delay is likely your best bet. Many guitar purists swear by the analog sound.
- Check out the knobs on the pedal to see what options you’ll have to adjust the signal output. The most common adjustments include delay time, repeats and blend. The delay time allows you to adjust the time between the original signal and the echo. The repeats (Regen on some pedals) knob allows you to adjust the number of echoes for each input. Lastly, the blend allows you to adjust the mix between the dry and wet, or unaltered and altered signals. Some pedals also offer the ability to adjust the length of the decay, which is a nice option.
- If you’re considering a digital delay, check out what preset options are included. Some smaller stompbox pedals will focus on a specific sound, but many larger digital units offer dozens, if not hundreds, of preset tone options.
- Many guitar amplifiers come with a reverb effect built into the amp. If you’re looking for an amp with spring reverb, make sure that’s what your getting, not a unit with analog or digital delay.
- When using your delay pedal, place it at the end of your guitar’s signal chain. If you place a delay effect in front of most pedals, like a distortion or chorus effect, your sound can easily get muddy and overly distorted.
- If you are using your amplifier’s distortion, place your delay pedal in your amp’s effects loop, so the delay effect will occur after the distortion has been applied to your signal.
- In general, less is more when it comes to delay effects. When used in excess, echo and reverb can have an overpowering effect. Experiment with the blend of the wet/dry signals to find the optimal tone and sound.
Regardless which delay option you choose, they are time-proven guitar pedals that can and will greatly enhance your guitar’s sound. You don’t have to limit yourself to just one. Different songs and situations may call for a completely different pedal. Try out different options and experiment with the settings until you find what you like.
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