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    Exploring Time-Based Effects (Part 1)

    By Chris Loeffler |

    A Brief History of Time-Based Effects (Part 1)

    By Chris Loeffler


    The electrification and amplification of instruments in the 1930’s originally came about out of the need for instruments to be louder in pre-PA days, but an unintentional outcome of electrifying instruments was unique changes to tone and behavior of amplification that added  an entirely new world of possibilities. Initial shortcomings of electrified amplification, such as feedback and distortion, slowly became embraced by musicians as additional tools of expression. Given the steady evolution of sound technology, it was only a matter of time before gear designed specifically to alter the sound of an instrument would surface.


    Time-based effects are devices designed to create a (or many) delayed, parallel path(s) of the original instrument signal with the intention of building sonic space, replicating the natural reflections of a room, or simulating multiple instruments playing the same notes at roughly the same time. The pause in delay time can be as short as a few milliseconds (MS) to thicken a note to multiple seconds in duration between the initial note and the effected signal. Taken to the extreme, the concept of time-based effects blends into recording territory.


    While there are many hybrids and effects that live between types, time-based effects can be confidently lumped into Delay, Reverb, Chorus, Flanging, and Looping categories.


    Delays and Echo


    The Application of Delay Effects

    Delay effects create a repeat of the instrument signal that is heard some period of time after the original signal. The result is a second iteration of the original signal that mimics the effect of echoes in a canyon or even syncopated rhythms depending on how the delayed signal is mixed.  


    The Technology of Delay Effects

    The delay effect (also referred to as Echo or Repeat) typically features controls for delay time, number of repeats (sometimes labeled “Feedback”) and effect blend. Other common features in delay effects include the ability to brighten or darken the delayed signal, add modulation to the delayed signal, and tap-tempo control of the delay time.


    The earliest incarnations of delay came in the form of reel-to-reel magnetic tape or drum machines like the Roland Space Echo, Binson Echorec and Ray Ludbow’s unique Morely oilcan delay. Early delay technology was bulky and required regular maintenance due to the number of moving mechanical parts, but the natural, slightly saturated repeats sat better in the mix against the direct signal and created ambient sound and their preamp sections tended to sweeten the instrument’s signal even when the effect was bypassed. These original sonic limitations in the technology coincidentally (if accidentally) exemplified the organic nature of the effect players still seek today.


    As the delay effect made its way into smaller format stomp-boxes and early multi-effect devices, the creation of the delayed signal moved to solid-state technology that replaced bulky mechanical delays with discrete-time analog delay line ICs (integrated circuits). The ICs, often referred to as bucket-brigade devices (BBD), passed the analog signal (in the form of a charge) through multiple stages (512 being common in BBD classics like the Retcon SAD-1024 and Panasonic MN3005), creating slight delays in the output of the delay signal ranging from 15-600 milliseconds. Although the effect signal was never converted to digital, filters were implemented at both ends of the circuit to reduce noise and artifacts. These filters warmed the repeats up a bit and rolled off some of the high-end, resulting in a delay that never competed for space and presence with the direct signal. The nature of the circuitry meant that longer delay times introduced exponentially more noise and unpleasant artifacts, so most analog delay devices capped between 300 and 500 milliseconds of maximum delay time.


    As the 80’s saw an increase in the use of digital chips, digital delays were introduced and eliminated the limitation on potential delay time as noise floors were significantly lower in longer delay times. Many early delays created by digital technology suffered from stiff, lifeless repeats that clashed against the direct signal in ways many players described as “unmusical”, but the fidelity of the delays stayed truer to the original tone, opening the door for U2-style syncopated delay patterns. Later improvements in digital delays cleaned up the sound even further through improved sampling resolution, brought in tone controls to simulate the high-end roll off of analog effects, and added digital and MIDI controls to parameters previously limited to manual manipulation.


    The 2000’s brought in hardware and software technology advanced enough to introduce effect and amplifier modeling, where the instrument’s signal is digitally converted and run through software that emulates (through part-by-part recreations or advanced sampling) physical effect circuits. As such, the most iconic versions of the different delay technologies found themselves modeled and expanded upon with the control of every parameter only software can allow. The biggest boon to the modeling technology was the ability to offer enteirely different delay technology styles within a single enclosure.



    Examples of Delay Effects

    Classic Tape Delays- Roland Space Echo, Maestro EP-1 Tape Delay, Fulltone Tape Delay

    Classic Analog Delays- Boss DM-2, Ibanez AD-9, EHX Deluxe Memory Man

    Classic Digital Delays- Boss DD-2, Korg SDD-3000, Eventide H949

    Classic Delay Modelers- Line 6 DL-4, Strymon El Capistan/Timeline






    Please add comments for any additions. This is meant to be a living document and any and all community input is welcome!



    Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 


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    Chris, you really should have gone deeper into the history of delay, when they built long rooms with speakers and mics they could move to different positions, closer or further from the source. to alter the delay time, and multiple mics for additional repeats...hence the term 'echo chamber'.  Then some brilliant person decided they could loop tape through multiple heads...the rest you covered well.  Definitely Les Paul was one of the pioneers in this..but there are others as well...

    Also Strymon just put out some similar articles recently...http://www.strymon.net/2014/09/15/pete-celi-premier-guitar-history-doubletracking/


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