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Ray Butts’ EchoSonic by Chet Atkins circa 1953) was delay-equipped outboard unit
to enable guitarists to achieve slapback echo in a live setting. Photo courtesy of Dave Kyle.
The EchoSonic had a fixed delay time, but it yielded a perfect slapback echo that helped define the rockabilly sound of that era. The first notable guitarist to use the EchoSonic was Chet Atkins, who recalls having the amp as early as 1953 or 1954. Next in line was Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, who commissioned an EchoSonic after hearing the one Atkins had. The revolutionary device can be heard on Chet Atkins’ recording of “Mister Sandman,” and on much of Moore’s work with Presley, starting with “Mystery Train” and on through the early RCA singles.
In 1958, Charlie Watkins helped develop what may have been the first commercially available tape delay—the Watkins Copicat. Shortly thereafter, other manufacturers began making echo-machine designs of their own. By the early ’60s, nearly a dozen manufacturers were selling portable delay units.
Debuting in 1958, the Ecco-Fonic was an attempted improvement on the earlier EchoSonic. Designed in Los Angeles by Ray Stolle, it was a tape-loop delay (like the EchoSonic), but it featured a variable delay length. Session guitarist and Ecco-Fonic endorsee Del Casher told us he suggested the method of moving the tape head (rather than slowing the tape down) to adjust the echo.
The Italian-made Binson Echorec —today one of the rarest and most sought- after delay units from the late ‘50s and early ’60s— was key to the early Pink Floyd sound.
In 1959, German manufacturer Dynacord began making the Echocord. One of the more popular European echo units in the ’60s, the Echocord Super 65 sported six ECC83 tubes, making it a terrific guitar preamp. Early Dynacord echoes were nearly identical to those from another German company, Klemt. One of the odd drawbacks of these German machines was their use of five-pin DIN sockets for the inputs and outputs—not terribly convenient for the average guitarist.
For the true echo connoisseur, nothing is more highly prized than the Italian-made units of the late ’50s and early ’60s. From Milan, Italy, came the Binson Echorec—one of the most desirable and collectible designs of all time. It used a rather unique system involving a rotating drum that had record and playback heads placed around it in a circular fashion. The drum contained a magnetic wire-recording disc that spun continuously past the heads. The legendary Binson design was integral to the sound of early Pink Floyd, as both guitarists Syd Barrett and David Gilmour made extensive use of it. It can be seen in action all throughout the movie Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii.
Italian amplifier company Meazzi became much better known for its Echomatic delay units than for its amps. British guitarist Hank Marvin made great use of the first Echomatic for his famous “rippling echo” effect with his band the Shadows. The first version of the Echomatic used a rotating-drum system similar to Binson’s Echorec. But after having problems with the rotating drum, Meazzi switched to a tape-loop system. The better-engineered new version of the Echomatic featured six playback heads equidistant from each other, and another separate playback head for an extra-long delay.
The key component in the classic Tel-Ray “oil can” delay isn’t all that different from this Sterno can.
Over in the U.K., JMI (Jennings Musical Industries, makers of Vox instruments and amplifiers) began importing Meazzi echoes and rebranding them with the Vox name. Vox engineer Dick Denney (designer of the famed Vox AC30) decided to build his own echo machine. The result—the Vox Echo—also came to be known as “the Shadows echo” due to its endorsement by Marvin’s famous instrumental outfit, even if there is little evidence the band actually used them.
But not all early echo machines used magnetic tape. Raymond Lubow of Tel-Ray Electronics developed the Adineko Memory System in 1958. The Tel-Ray Adineko is referred to as an oil-can delay due to its unique method of generating echo by means of a small tin can (like a container of Sterno cooking fuel) containing an electrolytic oil. A motor is used to turn a small rubber belt, which in turn rotates a flywheel armed with a pickup inside the oilcan. The oil helps store the electrical charge that generates the echo. The resulting sound is not as clean and well defined as a tape delay, yielding a sometimes bizarre, warbling combination of echo, reverb, and pitch shifting.