Thursday, 1 April 2021

Strymon El Capistan

Today you're going to have a look at the Strymon El Capistan. There it is, up there. Sitting there all vulnerable like. It's a guitar pedal that digitally simulates tape delay.

What's tape delay? Imagine a loop of tape that goes round and round and round and round and round. And round and round and round. There's a record head at point A and a playback head at point B. Something something electronics. I really should draw a diagram. I'll draw a diagram.

That's how tape delay works. I mean, yes, there's some electrical trickery that erases the tape and makes the echoes gradually die off, but I'm not drawing another diagram. You get the basic concept. The record head records the sounds of a guitar or banjo - or whatever - onto the tape, and then the tape goes around and the playback head plays the sound back but there's a delay because it takes a split-second for the tape to loop around.

Tape delay was invented in the 1950s. Legend has it that Sam Phillips of Sun Records came up with the effect as a means of replicating the slap-back echo of a small concert hall. Tape remained one of the standard delay effects until the 1980s, when it was displaced by electronic bucket brigade delays and eventually sample playback pedals, although the effect lingered in the studio because tape had better sonic fidelity and much longer delay times than the early digital guitar pedals.

Nonetheless tape delay units were big and awkward and needed periodic maintenance, so they mostly died off. Mostly.

But not completely. It has a distinctive sound that arises as a result of limited tape bandwidth, small fluctuations in tape speed, damage to the tape etc. Do you remember those Pink Floyd records where Roger Waters shouts something, and it echoes and gradually fades out and gets muffled? Or those Police records where Andy Summers goes "ka-ching" and the note echoes away to nothingness? That's tape delay. It was all over dub reggae:

I. Am. Your singing telegram. Blam! I was a kid in the 1980s but I suspect the muffled, occasionally wobbly sound of tape delay was not beloved of Trevor Horn or Hugh Padgham etc, who instead had banks of digital outboard gear. I do however recall it coming back into fashion in the dub-techno-ambient scene of the early 1990s, although in the case of The Orb I suspect the effect was either simulated with samples or it came from an Alesis Quadraverb (or something):

Back then tape delay units were rare and expensive on the second-hand market, and nothing much has changed since then. The need to periodically calibrate them is a major bother. A few companies make modern-day tape delay units with actual tape, but I'm not that hardcore.

There are of course mountains of plugins, but I was drawn to the El Capistan. I have nothing against software - Strymon's pedals use DSPs, and are essentially software-in-a-box - but I like the idea of something that doesn't eat up CPU cycles and won't become obsolete when Apple changes something. A physical thing that I own. Not a licence that can be taken away. Plus knobs.

Strymon is a US-based company that makes digital guitar pedals. The company was originally called Damage Control, but that's an embarrassing name. The pedals are aimed at guitarists but they can be plugged into synthesisers as well, in fact there are frequent calls on YouTube for them to sell rackmount units. Strymon is particularly famous for its ambient effects; the BigSky reverb pedal, Deco tape saturator and, yes, El Capistan tape delay are precisely the kind of thing you'd use if you wanted to make pedal steel country music in a vast empty desert.

As with all Strymon pedals the El Capistan is solidly-built from chunks of thick, bent metal, although there are visible panel gaps. It's a shame it doesn't have a stereo input. The output has a subtle left-right stereo panning effect. There's no MIDI, so you have to set the tempo by ear, or use the tap button on the front. The El Capistan was launched in 2010 and is now quite old in Strymon's line-up.

Strymon's pedals are priced at a slightly awkward level. Depending on your outlook they're either expensive guitar pedals or bargain-priced professional studio effects. About the only thing that separates them from studio effects is that they have unbalanced connectors. The El Capistan sells for around £299, vs roughly a tenth that for a cheap delay pedal, vs free if you use Logic's built-in tape delay plugin.

What does the El Capistan sound like? Let's have some examples. The El Capistan has a simple range of controls. The tape age and wow/flutter controls change the fidelity of the echoes, reducing the bandwidth and adding quirks as you turn them clockwise. Even fully counter-clockwise the sound still has a bit of colouring. Here's what the El Capistan sounds like as a normal echo, with ever-increasing repeats:

And here's what it sounds like with the tape age turned clockwise about half-way and wow/flutter progressively introduced:

The El Capistan can also simulate multiple tape playback heads, which creates multiple echoes instead of just one. Towards the end of this example I change the delay rate, which causes the pitch to go haywire for a short while. This is what tape delay units sound like in real life, but I wish there was a way of turning it off:

There's also a spring reverb simulator as a semi-hidden feature. You hold down the TAP and BYPASS buttons and spin the delay knob to control the depth:

Incidentally the bypass light turns on when the unit is active and off when it is being bypassed, which seems wrong to me, but apparently it's normal. Perhaps I am the one who is wrong.

The El Capistan has a simple looper, activated by hitting TAP to start the loop, TAP to stop the loop, and TAP to erase the loop. My timing is awful, but here's an example of a couple of sequences looped on top of each other and then munged so that they sound horrible:

And in the last example I feed a Korg Monotron into the El Capistan, and then into a Strymon Big Sky, because why not. The result sounds a bit like early Tangerine Dream, before they bought a sequencer.

How does it sound in a mix? Here's a piece of music that uses the effects chain above - El Capistan into BigSky - but with nicer notes:

The effect is a little bit like the shimmery reverb that appears all over Brian Eno's 1980s records, but without the pitch-shifting element. Mostly you're hearing the Big Sky, but the droning mechanical sound at the end is reverberated tape delay.

Logic has a built-in tape delay, which has the benefit of synchronising to tempo, and of course you can stack lots of them and you don't have to run cables from your audio interface into an external unit. Conversely the El Capistan sounds much, much nicer when the echoes stack up - Logic's tape delay just distorts nastily at positive feedback levels whereas El Capistan produces a supernatural, saturated, but not distorted wash of sound.

And of course you might have a guitar. You might play live with a guitar and need a floor-mounted footpedal. How does the El Capistan compare to other tape delay boxes? I have no idea! By itself however it sounds gorgeous. At modest settings the delay effect isn't distracting, and I find that I can leave it on all the time. At higher mix levels the combination of modulation and the neat stereo effect sounds massive by itself - I find that feeding it into a reverb pedal is overkill unless I want a huge ambient soundscape.

And that's the El Capistan.