Tape Echo / Digital tape delay emulation pedal
By Phil O'Keefe
The USA made El Capistan has more going for it than just a clever name. While it is a digital pedal (that utilizes a high-powered SHARC DSP chip for the processing), it is designed to provide a variety of analog sounding tape delay and echo effects in a small, maintenance-free package.
Figure 1: The El Capistan dTape (TM) Echo
ON THE FACE OF IT
The grey anodized aluminum case is light and rugged, and has a understated, yet elegant appearance. The white control labels are easy to read, and the knobs have a solid, wobble-free feel to them. A high-quality vibe is instantly apparent the moment you take hold of this pedal.
The El Capistan is designed to emulate three different tape machine "types", each with three different modes of operation. A three position toggle switch allows you to select the tape head configuration (machine type). The choices are:
Fixed Head: This simulates a delay with stationary record and playback heads; the delay time is adjusted by changing the simulated tape "speed" via the Time knob. You can think of this as being similar in concept to a reel to reel tape deck being used as a tape delay.
Multi-Head: This simulates multi-head tape delays like the Space Echo, where the tape speed is variable, and three differently spaced virtual playback heads provide two different delay times simultaneously.
Single Head: This simulates tape delays that have a fixed tape speed, but use a slider to adjust the physical distance between the record and playback heads. Adjusting the Time knob in this mode simulates moving the record head positioning slider on an Echoplex type tape delay.
A second toggle switch selects Modes A-C. The functions of these modes isn't indicated on the front panel, so you'll want to keep the Quick Start card handy until you memorize them. The three Modes vary the function of the delay, depending on which Tape Machine you have selected:
In Sound on Sound mode, the El Capistan acts somewhat like a "looper"; as with a traditional tape delay loop, and unlike most of the more modern looper pedals, the sound will degrade and evolve with each repeat. Unlike a "real" tape delay, you can adjust the length of the tape loop "on the fly", without having to splice tape. The El Capistan is always recording - when you enter Sound on Sound mode, whatever you played in the previous mode is still in memory. Hitting the Tap Tempo button in the SoS mode allows you to set the loop splice "in" point, and pressing it a second time sets the end of the loop. To clear, or "bulk erase" the loop, you depress it a third time. It's a little confusing at first, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly, and it's definitely a lot quicker and more flexible than configuring tape loops on a real tape deck or delay.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
In addition to the labeled functions, each knob has a secondary function. These are illustrated in the manual, but I wish they were also printed the same way on the front panel--in parentheses and with a second text color--for quick reference. Since they aren't, you'll need to memorize what each knob's additional function is. The secondary functions are accessed by holding down the Bypass and Tap Tempo footswitches simultaneously.
The functions that were chosen for the secondary controls make sense to me. For example, the Mix knob becomes a +/-3dB Boost / Cut control that allows you to fine-tune the output level of the pedal; a convenient feature to be sure, but not one that you're likely to need to access regularly. Other secondary controls include Tape Crinkle (new and pristine to old and highly damaged tape condition) andTape Bias, which affects delay levels, distortion, headroom and high frequency response. The Low End Contour control allows you to simulate anything from the full low-frequency response of a studio reel to reel being used as a tape delay, to the high-passed sound of a magnetic drum delay unit. The final "hidden" control mixes in a spring reverb emulation. While this isn't going to replace a fully featured reverb unit for those who need halls and plates, or tons of control over the sound of their reverb, it does help get you the additional "wash" of sound that classic standalone tape echoes with onboard spring reverbs (such as the Roland RE-201 Space Echo and the Fender Electronic Echo Chamber) could achieve.
Speaking of the manual, the documentation is quite good. The manual clearly explains the technology behind the dTape emulation, gives clear illustrations and explanations of the functions of each control, and Strymon even provides several sample setting suggestions for different styles and sounds ("Wow & Flutter", "Dub", "Bright Tape", "Dirty Slap", "Saturated Wash", etc.) and a handy Quick Start Guide card to help get you started. While printed versions were included with the review unit, I've heard reports that they aren't always included. If your pedal didn't include the documentation, or if you'd just like to have a look before you buy, you can download the PDF files directly from Strymon's website.
CONNECT AND EXPRESS YOURSELF
The El Capistan has a high impedance mono input and stereo output, and while you can run it in mono if you want; it really shines in stereo. Try stereo and you may never want to go back to mono. The pedal runs on 9V DC, via a standard "Boss type" center negative plug, and requires 250mA. It worked fine along with other pedals running on a shared daisy chain with my Visual Sound 1 Spot, as well as separately with the included power supply. Battery power is not an option with this pedal.
The expression pedal jack allows you to connect a standard expression pedal or Strymon's optional "Favorite" footswitch, which allows you to save a single preset. The expression pedal can be assigned to any of the pedal's knobs, which is an extremely nice feature. You can also set the maximum "toe down" range of adjustment depending on where you set that knob; again, making for a very well thought out and useful expression pedal implementation!
GREAT SOUND QUALITY - OR NOT
The choice is really up to you; the El Capistan can be clear and pristine, or grungy, warbled and fluttered. The care that went into programming the algorithms for this pedal is very obvious. The modulation of the "Wow & Flutter" is less periodic and more random than something like the chorus / vibrato effect on a EHx Deluxe Memory Man, but it wasn't intended to be a "chorus" effect. What it does do is a very convincing job of emulating the speed and alignment fluctuations of a well - or even a badly maintained tape deck, and the aperiodic pitch warbles that come with that. This sort of high-quality digital emulation requires a lot of processing power, and the onboard SHARC DSP chip is up to the task (figure 2.)
Figure 2: SHARC Guts: The El Capistan features a 266 MHz SIMD SHARC DSP; capable of up to 1596 MFLOPS, this is a very high-performance processor for a compact pedal.
Compared to the reel to reel machines I often use in the studio for tape delay effects, or something like the Skreddy Echo (another highly regarded digital tape delay pedal), which have a distinct "sound" to them, the El Capistan is more of a sonic chameleon. This can be a great thing if you need flexibility and variety of great sounds, but it comes at a price--you need to be willing to spend a bit of time with it in order to find "your" sound. It's not that it's difficult to dial up cool sounds, but with so many controls and options, don't expect to master this pedal and learn all of its sonic capabilities as quickly as you could with a three or four knob analog delay pedal.
So how well does it emulate a tape delay? Very well indeed. I did some direct comparisons between the El Capistan and my Otari MX5050 MkIIb analog reel to reel, and with some careful adjustments, I was able to get the pedal to sound remarkably close to the tape deck. While I suspect I would still be able to differentiate them in a double blind listening test, the differences were subtle enough that I doubt that someone who was less familiar with the Otari would be able to do so in person, and that they'd have a real hard time telling them apart when used in a song.
The El Capistan has some thoughtful additions you won't find in a lot of other delay pedals, and certainly not in the original tape echo units. For example, crank the Repeats knob up all the way, and you get the expected self-oscillation and infinite repeats… but unlike most delays, the maximum level of the self-oscillation is limited, making the effect far more useful and useable without any worries of blowing out your speakers - or your ears. You can also get instant infinite repeats by pressing and holding the Tap Tempo footswitch. Of course, not all delay pedals feature the ability to "tap tempo", but that's a feature I feel is wonderfully convenient, especially for on-stage use.
The bypass switching is user-selectable--you have a choice of a nice, quiet true bypass relay switching, or analog buffered bypass. If you opt for the buffered bypass, the delays will "trail" off gradually and naturally compared to the abrupt cutoff of the true bypass configuration.
While the basic controls and layout are easy enough to understand, due to the different functions of the three mode switch positions with each tape machine type, as well as the alternate control functions for all five knobs, this is definitely a "deep" pedal, and it will take time to memorize the controls and learn how to use all of its capabilities; but the effort pays off in terms of flexibility. You won't lack for adjustability with this pedal, and it really does allow you to dial up a staggering amount of different tape delay textures. The sound overall is exceptional, with high-quality 24 bit / 96 kHz converters, an all analog path and mix for the dry guitar signal (only the delays are digital), and a 115dB signal to noise ratio. There's no stair stepping when adjusting controls, no digital glitchiness. While the tape emulation may not be dead-on perfect when compared side-by-side with any particular unit, with some careful tweaking of the El Capistan's numerous controls, you can get really close - and when played without a side-by-side reference, the suspension of disbelief is only marred by the visual aspects of the pedal itself. You look at it and you KNOW you're using a non-tape based pedal, but that's not what the vibe of the sound is telling your ears. The El Capistan has earned a lot of rave users, and an enviable reputation, and I must concur - if you're looking for tape style delays with increased flexibility and reduced maintenance hassles, you should definitely check this pedal out. It's a real winner.
Delay Time Range: 50ms - 1.5 seconds, depending on the mode selected
Input impedance: 1 MegOhm
Maximum input level: +8dBu
Output impedance: 100 Ohm
Frequency response: 20Hz - 20kHz
DSP: 1596 MFLOPS SHARC processor
Signal to noise: 115dB typical
Dimensions: 4.5" deep X 4" wide X 1.75" tall