Tape delay is one of the oldest and coolest of all studio effects, from straight-up '50s slap-back to swooping '60s psychedelic. Arguably the most famous purpose-built tape-loop device was the Maestro Echoplex -- its '70s solid-state versions, the EP-3 and EP-4, were the most common and popular. Think of the "Whole Lotta Love" solo in the "Song Remains The Same" movie and you will know what I am talking about.
Eventually replaced by digital delay pedals, these 40-year-old relics still show up from time to time on the used market... expensive, finicky, and almost always in need of servicing. Lucky for us Universal Audio has chosen the Echoplex as the target for its newest plug-in emulation for the popular UAD line of powered DSP cards.
Meet the EP-34
This is not UA's first model of a tape-delay unit -- we looked at UA's Roland RE-201 Space Echo a few year back in our June 2007 issue. Lest you think this plug-in is a simplified RE-201, or that all modeled tape delays sound the same, read on.
The EP-34 is an amalgam of the sonics and features of the EP-3 and EP-4 tape echo units. Like most UA recreations the EP-34 software is visually akin to the hardware, in this case closest to the look of the EP-4. When appropriate, all switches, dials and LEDs respond just like those on the real deal. Of course the plug-in includes some extras, and does away with unnecessary accoutrements such as footswitch jacks and the like.
The original units were simple mono machines with a choice of instrument or mic input and a single output marked Playback. Five knobs handled Echo Repeats, Echo Volume, Recording Volume (input), and Treble and Bass eq.
The tape cartridge was located on the top of the unit and the tape loop passed across a moveable tape head attached to a large adjustable metal slider arm. Moving this slider changed the delay time. The EP-4 added a 4-step LED Recording Level meter.
All of these functions are retained, including the dual input choices of hi and low-useful for driving the inputs-as well as a slider tension adjustment.
The EP-34 plug-in also gives you DAW-era conveniences such as tempo/BPM sync, an alphanumeric display, wet solo, an input kill switch just like that of the RE-201 that's useful for dub effects, and of course the plug-in can be stereo or mono (complete with echo panning).
Sound and operation
I have used many real Echoplexes and can say that UA nailed both the functions and, better yet, the quirks, especially the "tape gulp" that grabs and suspends the delayed signal for a millisecond as you move the big slider. The EP-34 has a maximum delay time of 700 milliseconds, not very long by today's standards, but absolutely authentic to the era and sound of this plug-in.
UA nailed the sound, or -- I should say -- one sound, that of a well-maintained EP-3 / EP-4. The unit's input path, tape repeats and eq are fantastic, and the way it saturates and distorts needs to be heard to be believed. It's that good. But it won't sound like every hardware unit you'll ever hear, since in the real world no two 40+ years-old hardware units will ever sound exactly alike.
EP-34 and RE-201 head-to-head
The EP-34's only real competition, at this point, is its cousin the RE-201. In case you're wondering: I would call the EP-34 the grittier and fatter, the RE-201 smoother, more open and lush. When pushed into self-oscillation mode, the EP-34 is again grungier and more Rock'n'Roll, while the RE-201 is a bit more "Forbidden Planet" and sci-fi. The biggest difference I noticed is when manipulating the delay time controls. With the EP-34 you hear the sound of the tape warbling and stretching, while the RE-201 remains completely smooth.
The RE-201 has maximum of 480 ms of delay, while the EP-34 has 700, and of course the Roland gives you 3 tape heads and spring reverb and is $50 more. Also, presumably due to the complexity of the moving head and the more complex saturation algorithms, the EP-34 only gives you on average about half of the usage instances of the RE-201, three on a SOLO card, six on a DUO and twelve on a QUAD.
The only thing that I wish the EP-34 had that the RE-201 does is the choice of tape quality/age. Bottom line, these are two different beasts, each with its own strengths. [Universal Audio reports that tape age was considered as a feature, but in listening tests and measurements it turned out to be a much more subtle effect on the Echoplex hardware than on the Space Echo. -- Ed.]
It's easy to become elitist and cynical when it comes to hardware emulations of vintage gear, especially tape-based... as long as you are dedicated enough and lucky enough to find a real unit in pristine shape. And even then, well, do a search on "Maestro Echoplex" and read about what those dedicated and lucky people have to go through to keep their units running smoothly.
For the rest of us, though, with the EP-34 the folks at Universal Audio really did their homework and outdid themselves in every way. Its gritty, grungy, dark and syrupy delays are a treat to fiddle with, and bring the Echoplex magic to a new generation.
The Fine Print
Delivery: Authorization file download from UA online store
Format: Universal Audio UAD-2 (will not work on UAD-1 cards)
License: Single user/multiple UAD cards
More from: Universal Audio, www.uaudio.com.