Strymon Volante Review
The Milanese monster of magnetic echo returns in DSP form.
Superb sounding pseudo magnetic- and tape-echo effects. Great sonic range. Quality build.
Not easy to master, due to multi-function knobs and cryptic key combinations.
Strymon Volante Magnetic Echo Machine
Ease of Use:
Volante is Italian for “flying,” as in disco volante, or flying saucer. The choice of language reveals the pedal’s key influence: the Binson Echorec, a magnetic delay popularized by the Shadows and Pink Floyd. The first version was created in Milan in the 1950s. (“Binson” was an anglicized version of creator Bonfiglio Bini’s name.) In recent years, several stompboxes have attempted to reincarnate its sound digitally, but the Volante may be the most accurate replica yet.
Still, the pedal is more than an Echorec clone. It’s equally adept at mimicking latter-day tape units such as the Echoplex and Roland Space Echo, as well as relatively hi-fi studio tape delay. The Volante sounds especially rich and realistic because it replicates not only the delay portion of the sound, but also the coloration introduced by tubes and transistors in those antique circuits. In a sense, the Volante is part distortion pedal.
Drum Roll, Please
Note that the pedal is called a “magnetic echo machine,” not a “tape echo machine.” That’s because the best-known versions of the Echorec use magnetic drums as their recording medium. An array of recording and playback heads surrounds the drum, their relative distances determining the delay times. In a way, it was the first multi-tap delay. But part of the original machine’s allure is the complex tube circuitry surrounding the echo element. It gives the device a warm, gooey character that’s difficult to mimic digitally.
Other digital peals inspired by the Echorec tend to be good at copying the rhythm and treble loss of the original’s delays, but they don’t aspire to reproduce the elusive “baked-in” quality provided by the original’s lengthy analog signal path. The Volante does better. Its input level control excels at mimicking analog saturation and flat-out signal-fry. When you push the input level, delay and reverb tones get positively vicious. Two additional controls, mechanics and wear, simulate an inconsistent disc motor and the attenuated highs of ancient tape.
Other digital delay pedals simulate these effects with simple LFOs and low-pass filters. Stymon’s controls are more nuanced and random-sounding. That’s not to say the Volante sounds exactly like an Echorec, assuming you could even determine the “official” Echorec sound. (Originals, now 50 to 60 years old, vary in sound from unit to unit.) But the Volante goes further in capturing that loose, smeary warmth.
The Volante’s “type” switch toggles between drum, tape, and studio modes. The latter adds subtle tape compression and warmth with less sonic mutilation. Tape mode splits the difference, with more coloration and distortion, but not as much as in drum mode. Between the five controls on the pedal’s left-hand side (input level, wow, treble-loss, plus a low-cut control), you can specify the character and degree of analog “damage.” There’s a lot of range here—and we haven’t even discussed the delay section yet.
A central knob sets the principal delay time. You choreograph the four delay taps via two banks of four buttons. Touching a top-row button activates a delay tap. The bottom-row buttons specify whether each delay tap sounds only once, or feeds back according to the global repeat setting. You can set all delays to equal volume, or have each tap be half the volume of the one that precedes it. The ability to set feedback independently per tap permits complex rhythmic patterns you simply can’t get from most delay pedals.
Meanwhile, a “spacing” control specifies whether echoes are metrically precise, arrayed in triplet rhythms, or clumped together in more complex configurations. There’s also a separate spring reverb simulation—and a damn good one. (Echorecs lack this option, but it’s a cool feature on the Roland Space Echo.) Volante can do delay and reverb simultaneously, while providing a palette of complex multi-tap delays that seem to split the difference between the two effects.
All Mod Cons
The Volante is no slave to the past. It’s packed with modern updates. It’s true stereo. (I recorded the first demo clip in mono through an analog amp. The second clip is in stereo, heard through an amp modeler.) There’s tap tempo and full MIDI implementation. You can toggle between forward and reverse playback.
The expression-in jack has many uses. You can connect an external tap-tempo switch (not included). Or you can plug in Strymon’s Multi Switch Plus (not included or tested) to change presets or control the transport of the Volante’s single-track looper. Or connect a controller pedal (not included) to morph between any two sets of parameters. Morphing can create mind-altering effects of the “whoa, did you ever look at your hand? I mean, really look at it?” variety.
You don’t have be a genius to edit sounds on the Volante, but it helps. There are 21 top-panel switches, pots, and buttons. Even so, many functions require two-handed control combinations, or powering up while pressing various buttons and switches. Example: It’s awesome that you can set the panning independently for all four taps. But you’ll need to remember that you set panning by holding down one of the feedback buttons while turning the time knob. Simply switching presets (without the optional controller pedal) is a two-handed move. Deep editing requires much secret-handshake button pushing and rebooting while holding down various controls. Keep that PDF manual right on your computer desktop—you’ll need it.
This echo box has a personality—one I adore. It does more than replicate the old Echorec’s functions. Bitchin’ distortion algorithms spawn all manner of greasy, unstable echoes. The spring reverb simulation is both deep and aggressive. There’s a stiff learning curve, but I say it’s worth it. There’s just so much creative potential here. And if you’re accustomed to working with complex digital stompboxes with hidden parameters and multi-function knobs, don’t sweat the cautious “ease of use” rating. The Volante’s sound quality is superb. Its tones are perfectly imperfect. This ambitious delay pedal soars like a … disco volante?
Watch the First Look: