By Phil O'Keefe |
Modern technology recreates some of the very first effects using a much smaller box
If you ask guitarists what some of the very first "effects" were, many may point to this stompbox or that, or even to early rack mount effects, but actually some of the very first effects were actually generated using multi-head reel to reel studio tape decks. Effects like flanging, chorusing, slapback echo and doubling were first created with the use of these electro-mechanical machines and then later were ported over to smaller all-electronic boxes, but some feel that the sound of these tape machines has never been properly reproduced by these later-day products. Strymon is a company who has excelled at utilizing modern DSP technology to create not only new and modern takes on classic effects, but they've also occasionally put their expertise into recreating vintage effects that are difficult to replicate. This is exactly what the Strymon Deco attempts to do - recreate the various effects that were first (and some say best) created utilizing a tape deck or two.
What You Need To Know
- Deco isn't just a tape deck simulator, it actually simulates two tape decks using a powerful SHARC DSP. Using two decks in various ways was the secret to most of the earliest and well-loved effects heard on records in the 1950s and 1960s. Deco is designed to simulate classic tape-based effects such as chorusing, doubling, flanging, slapback delay and echo, and it can also simultaneously provide tape saturation effects too.
- The Deco is housed in Strymon's smaller-sized aluminum enclosure and measures 4" W x 4.5" D x 1.75" H. The case is unpainted, and has a cool looking nickel plated finish with black silkscreened lettering.
- The input and output jacks are located at the top of the pedal, and so is the 2.1mm center-negative 9V power jack. Strymon thoughtfully provides a suitable power adapter that provides the necessary 250mA that this pedal draws. There is no provision made for powering the Deco with batteries.
- The input is very cleverly done on this pedal. The single 1/4" input jack is configured for mono from the factory, but it's actually a TRS jack that can be user-configured as a stereo input. A internal jumper allows you to choose which type of input you want. You also get separate left and right output jacks.
- The last rear panel 1/4" jack is for connecting an optional expression pedal, Strymon's optional Favorite switch, or a tap switch for adjusting Lag Time (the delay offset between the two virtual tape decks) on the fly. The expression pedal can be assigned to control any of the Deco's knobs, and the optional Favorite switch allows you to save and recall a single preset, regardless of how the knobs are set.
- Two footswitches are situated at the bottom of the pedal, one is the Doubletracker Bypass, the other is to turn the Saturation on and off. Each switch is accompanied by a LED that illuminates when the effect is active. The two can be used completely independently; the Doubletracker doesn't have to be active in order to use the Saturation. Switching is relay-based true-bypass, but there's an optional Analog Buffered Bypass mode too, so you're covered either way, no matter which you prefer.
- The Saturation side of the pedal has two main controls. As you'd expect the Saturation knob sets the amount of grit in the sound but it also provides dynamic tape compression as it's turned up, so not only does the sound get more distorted, but also more compressed. At lower settings it can provide subtle tape-like coloration, and at higher levels it can easily serve as a "distortion" type effect. The second control is labeled Volume, and it sets the level for the saturated signal.
- The other "side" of the Deco is more multifaceted. This virtual tape deck is controlled by the Lag Time and Wobble knobs, as well as a three-position toggle switch. Lag Time sets the delay offset between the "lag" deck and reference deck, allowing for a range of simulated doubletracking type effects. Low settings on this knob result in flanging, with chorus, slapback and echo effects appearing as you crank the knob further clockwise. Up to 500ms of delay time is available. The "zero" or point where the delay times of the two decks match is marked at about the 9 o'clock position. Setting the dial below that point actually makes the Lag deck's signal precede the Reference deck, which is a key requirement for accurately nailing tape-based effects like ADT (automatic double tracking - made famous by The Beatles) and true through-zero flanging.
- The Wobble knob controls the amount of random speed modulation that is applied to the lag deck. Unlike traditional chorus and flange pedals this isn't a predictable periodic LFO, but much more random and natural sounding modulation that more closely resembles the subtle variances in pitch and timing that occur when a part is played and recorded twice. At higher levels the effect can be extreme to the point of sounding unnatural and other-worldly.
- There is also a Blend knob that sets the relative levels of the two tape decks. When set to the noon position, both decks are at equal levels, with more of the lag deck signal as you turn the knob further right, and less of it (and more of the reference deck) as you turn it towards the left.
- The three-way toggle switch selects the blend type. You can Sum the signals from the two decks, Invert the phase of the lag deck relative to the reference deck, or Bounce. What's Bounce? It takes the signal from the right channel of the Lag Deck and phase-inverts it, then sends it to the input of the left channel for a ping-pong type stereo echo. When running the pedal in mono, it creates a double-repeat echo.
- In typical Strymon fashion all the knobs (except for the toggle switch) have secondary functions, such as High and Low Trim controls for subtle high and low frequency adjustments, a variable +/-3dB boost / cut level control for the Doubletracker effect, Auto-Flange Time adjustment control to set the Auto-Flange sweep time and a Wide Stereo mode for routing the Reference Deck's signal to the left output and the Lag Deck's signal out of the right output. In this mode the blend knob acts as a pan control and sets the relative levels of the two decks and their corresponding outputs.
- To activate the secondary knob functions you press and hold the two footswitches down simultaneously and then make the secondary knob adjustments. Once you release the two footswitches the normal knob behavior and control returns.
- What's auto-flange? In another neat and thoughtful touch Strymon programmed the pedal so that when you press and hold the Doubletracker Bypass footswitch, it engages an auto-flange feature that gives whatever is playing through the pedal that classic "jet plane" / through-zero flange sound. Once you remove your foot from the switch it smoothly transitions back to the settings you have dialed up.
- Want to use Deco with your DAW and studio recordings? It can handle line level signals of up to +8dBu, and a user-selectable "studio mode" adjusts the Saturation knob's range to better suit hotter line level signals.
- To really nail some of the more heavily-produced classic 1960s era album effects live you may find yourself wishing for two Decos; one for saturation and doubling or echo, and a second for effects like chorus or flanging. Adding a Favorite footswitch can help by allowing you to save a preset for instant recall, but you're still limited to only saturation plus one other effect at once.
- The doubling and echo capabilities are excellent, but will not be a suitable substitute for a dedicated delay pedal for most players.
- If you want to use the stereo input, you'll need to remember to pick up a dual 1/4" TS to 1/4" TRS cable or adapter.
- It can be easy to be tempted to over-do it with the tape saturation since it sounds so good when cranked up, but it can impart much more grit than most tape decks unless they're intentionally being heavily overdriven. If you're going for authenticity, go easy and keep the knob at noon or lower. As an effect of course, anything goes - and it's cool that Strymon gives you enough range on the Saturation control that you can do both gentle tape coloration or heavy distortion.
- There is no way to control the amount of tape compression and the saturation independently. While the two are directly related and correlated when generated by a tape deck, it would be nice to be able to adjust the amount of dirt and compression independently.
- While it can be used with line level signals, hotter line level signals can drive the Deco into distortion, even in Studio mode.
If you crave authentic sounding vintage tape-based effects, there's really nothing else out there that will give them to you quite like the Strymon Deco, at least not without resorting to using two big, bulky and temperamental tape decks. However, this pedal is not exactly inexpensive, and is somewhat speciality and niche in nature, and some players may prefer to use dedicated flanger, chorus, delay and overdrive pedals instead. While you could probably get one of each for not too much more than what the Deco costs if you stick to ultra-budget models, and although they may provide more simultaneous effects, don't mislead yourself into thinking that those pedals will nail what Deco does. They may be able to do some of what it can do, but there aren't many pedals on the market today - at any price point - that sound this convincing on hard to replicate tape-based effects like true through-zero flanging and ADT simulation. Toss in the cool tape saturation simulation and you have even more of the magic a good tape deck can impart, and all in a compact pedal that can easily fit on your pedalboard. While it may not be ideal for everyone, fans of hard to replicate vintage tape-based sounds will find this pedal to be indispensable.
Strymon Deco Tape Saturation and Doubletracker ($299.00 "street")
Strymon's product web page
Shop for Strymon Deco at Sweetwater
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.