Minds were blown when the first digital delays appeared in the late 1970s. Unlike earlier delays that relied on magnetic tape, electrostatic fluid, or bucket-brigade chips, these newfangled devices exhibited no distortion, frequency loss, or wobbly inconsistency. Listeners had never heard such crisp and accurate delays.
But ironically, by the time digital delay migrated from expensive rackmount devices to stompboxes any schmo could afford, musicians began to miss the very qualities that digital had triumphantly eradicated. It wasn’t just nostalgia—the treble loss characteristic of analog delay created a warm wash of sound that sat tidily behind the dry guitar signal. The random pitch variations of mechanical tape transports added subtle but engaging animation. Soon sound designers were mimicking these qualities in digital effects via filters and LFOs. In recent years, many guitarists have fixated not only on the quality of the delay sound, but also the ways analog devices alter the dry signal—witness the popularity of such pedals as the Xotic EP Booster and the Dunlop EP101, which replicate the preamp coloration of an Echoplex tape delay, minus any actual delay.
Strymon’s new Deco Tape Saturation & Doubletracker covers both sides of the equation, providing epic faux-tape echoes and convincing tape-style distortion in a single stompbox.
The Tape, the Whole Tape, and Nothing But the Tape
Some delay/modulation modelers aim to cover the gamut of analog effects, but Deco focuses solely the earliest of echo effects: the slaps, flanging, and chorusing of vintage studio tape decks. (Hence the Deco name). It does so with stunning realism—Deco provides the most convincing tape sounds I’ve encountered in a stompbox. The only sonic rivals I know are pricy plug-ins requiring the horsepower of a computer-based DAW, such as Universal Audio’s Ampex and Studer emulations and Slate Digital’s Virtual Tape Machine.
But note that Deco’s true-to-tape concept means the pedal doesn’t offer all the parameters users have come to expect from delay and modulation effects. For example, there are no feedback controls. You’re limited to a single echo, or two echoes, left and right, in stereo ping-pong mode. (This, presumably, is why Strymon calls Deco a “doubletracker” rather than a delay.) You can’t adjust the flanging and chorus regeneration levels. The available modulation rates are also limited, and the maximum delay time is a modest 500 ms.
In other words, Deco does only a few things. But damn, it does them well.
Deco comes in a lightweight nickel-coated aluminum enclosure. Inside, jacks and pots are mounted on the PCB along with small surface-mount components and the big-ass SHARC DSP chip where the magic happens. There’s no battery compartment—like all processor-intensive digital stompboxes, Deco requires an AC adapter (included).
Two click-less relay footswitches let you use tape simulation and echo/modulation effects independently. In addition to their primary jobs, the five knobs have secondary functions when you hold the footswitches, and tertiary ones when pressing footswitches while powering up. That sounds more daunting than it is—even though the extra functions aren’t indicated on the enclosure, Strymon did a fine job putting the likeliest-to-use parameters front and center. Clearly, much thought went into the layout.
Deco’s pseudo-tape saturation is remarkable. It doesn’t sound precisely like the aforementioned Echoplex-inspired preamps, but it hails from the same quadrant of the tone galaxy. At modest settings, you get a touch a fattening compression and a slight low-end bump. Maximum-drive settings yield crunchier tones with a bit of high-end fizz—in other words, an excellent replica of a vintage preamp.
Like all Deco’s controls, the saturation knob is perfectly voiced, with usable sounds throughout its compass. Someone at Strymon clearly spent many painstaking hours fine-tuning the range and taper of every control. That attention to detail matters—it’s nearly impossible to dial in bad tones here, and the sounds you’re seeking always seem to fall right under your fingers.
I suspect many players will dial in a subtle saturation setting and leave it on all night. Others may opt a more extreme effect and toggle it on to thicken solos and single-note lines. And since most players are likely to place Deco at or near the end of their effect chains, this gain stage is perfectly situated to goose your signal right before it hits your amp.
Deck and Deck
Clicking the Doubletracker footswitch activates a second virtual deck, one whose delay you set via the large lag time knob. Low settings generate a delay of several milliseconds for organic-sounding flange effects. As you advance the knob, the delay lengthens to several dozen milliseconds for thickly chorused sounds, and finally blossoms into audible echoes in the final third of its range.
Meanwhile, the wobble knob modulates the second deck’s pitch. It’s not one of those metronomic LFOs that produce monotonous seasick swaying, but a nuanced and convincingly random-sounding modulator that feels musical even at extreme settings.
A 3-position toggle lets you phase-invert the second deck—a subtle variation that may affect your low-end response, depending on the material. It also lets you route separate echoes to the left and right outputs for a ping pong effect, with your dry signal in the center and a single slap left and right. (Used in mono, this mode generates two echo repeats rather than the usual one.) There’s another cool option for players using stereo rigs: a “wide stereo” mode that sends the dry sound to one side and the wet to another for dramatic hard panning in the manner of early Zep and other classic rock tracks.
Whether flanging, phasing, or echoing, Deco’s tones are detailed and gooey-thick. There’s more low-end impact and mass than you may be accustomed to hearing from faux-analog effects, which is generally a good thing. (And if it’s not, you can always trim some lows.) Digital modulation effects seldom sound quite so high-cholesterol.
Deco has a single expression input jack that you can deploy in multiple ways. You can assign a controller pedal to operate any single knob function, such as setting the lag time, saturation level, balance, or output level. Alternately, you can connect a footswitch to either tap in tempos or leap to one favorite stored sound.
Another bitchin’ feature: When you press/hold the Doubletracker footswitch, Deco leaps to its tape flange sound for as long as you hold the switch. It’s a great way to add random sonic variation, or drop in a surprise flanged break à la ELO’s “Evil Woman.”
Since Deco accepts input levels as high as +8 dB, you can also use it as a line-level studio effect. There’s a “studio mode” optimized for these hotter signals, or when feeding the pedal from an amp’s effect loop.
Looking for a do-it-all faux-analog delay/modulation device? This ain’t it—Deco’s repertoire is limited to the tape-based effects you might have obtained in a late-1950s recording studio: simple flanging and chorusing and short, non-regenerating echoes. But after hearing so many modern digital effects that sound almost as good as the analog gear they mimic, it’s refreshing to encounter a pedal that does only a few things, but does them superbly. Deco isn’t just a nice emulation—it sounds like a frickin’ tape machine!
Watch the Review Demo: