Strymon El Capistan
It's a tall task to wrangle in and completely capture the expansive sonics, eccentric quirks and randomness of a tape echo machine, but Strymon's El Capistan does a mind-blowing job. It bridges that elusive gap between a simple - and easy to use - pedal and something with the depth of control, that can dial in, and ultimately deliver up, the complexities of analog tape. With five knobs, two toggles and two switches to twiddle, flick and stomp, I was initially struck by how compact the El Cap actually is - talk about small footprint! The thoughtful use of space and placement of controls makes for an intuitive and effortless experience when getting down to the business of crafting your particular echo or delay sound. Two large knobs handle Time and Mix functions while three smaller knobs dial in Tape Age, Repeats and Wow & Flutter options. The pair of mini toggles click between various Tape Head (Fixed, Multi & Single) and Mode duties (A, B, C) while a set of foot switches engage your Bypass and Tap Tempo. The Fixed Tape Head setting offers up fantastic rockabilly snapbacks that bring to mind the best guitar work of the ‘50s and the surf-crazed music of the mid-‘60s. The echoes are realistic, robust and admirably recreate - with amazing accuracy - the sounds and subtleties of a tape echo machine. Mix levels play a key role here: at high levels you'll hear hints of Scotty Moore, Buddy Holly, The Ventures and Dick Dale; while lower levels lend themselves to lively room-esque reverb sounds - think of the bright garage-tinged guitar sounds of Sun Studios stuff, early Stones and the Kinks. Crank the Time, Tape Age and Repeats and you're definitely spacing-out, Syd Barrett-style. Add a bit of Wow & Flutter and things take on a trippy "In Search Of" sci-fi soundtrack vibe with warbly sea-sick repeats, mysterious atmospherics and cascading notes. The A/B/C modes here handle 1/16th notes, dotted 1/8th, or 1/4th notes respectively - enough for covering all the standard bases (with tap tempo to boot!). Clicking into the Multi Head adds a combination of any of the two of three virtual tape heads via the A/B/C toggle. Here, you'll get into some interesting rhythmic repeats reminiscent of The Edge's work with U2, Gilmour-era Pink Floyd or the understated delay work of Jonny Buckland of Coldplay. The addition of an extra delay punctuation in the mix is a great generator for new ideas, unexpected riffs and interesting explorations. Anyone that's worked with multi-tap delays knows that they can serve as a strange sync and - inevitably - your playing follows suit. It’s perfect for injecting a fresh outlook into your playing. The Single Delay setting should suit most of your standard echo sounds - from crisp and clean (A mode) to slightly dirty (B mode). This moveable head mode would make Jimmy Page - or anyone trying to ape his style - proud. Although billed as a Tape Echo sim, the El Capistan has more than enough punch, presence and clarity to closely compete with your classic digital delay sounds. Back off the Tape Age and Wow & Flutter to nothing and you are pretty darn close to digital delays - without that harsh hint of digital sheen. The repeats here are really warm, fluid and very dynamic. There is no strange separation of the sound and instrument that you find in many modeled delays. Nothing gets in the way of pure expression here. Whatever the dTape technology is doing within the innards of the El Cap, it's working, and working very well. Flexible. The C mode of the Single setting serves as a Sound-On-Sound feature for cool tape style looping. Operation is straight-forward, dead simple and perfect for onstage use: the TAP switch splices you in and another hit of the Tap splices you out, while a third hit erases everything. The Bypass button brings the loop in and out. It's loads of fun for creating small loops, drones and atmospheric textures onstage. Accessing the unit's secondary features (which effectively turn the El Capistan into a 10-knob delay pedal!) adds to the unit’s already astounding amount of tweakable sounds. Pressing and holding the Tap and Bypass switches turns the five main knobs into adjustments for the following: Spring Reverb, Boost/Cut, Low End Contour, Tape Bias and Tape Crinkle. The Spring Reverb is spot on - complete with water drip ploinks - and plays well with the slapback echo. It's a match made in twang heaven. The Boost/Cut gives solos and delay bits that extra edge of bite onstage. The Low End Contour either rolls something off the bottom end of the repeats for creating wispy delayed bits or bumping up the lows for something more wooly. Tape Bias gives the fidelity of the repeats a hi-fi sheen or a lo-fi grit. And, as if there wasn't enough control over your tape echo sounding crappy (i.e. fantastic!), the Tape Crinkle simulates a beaten and abused piece of tape. This last setting is blast for creating wild and wonky effects on just about everything we plugged into it - Boards of Canada and Broadcast in a box, basically. For delay-obsessed nuts, there are SO many cool things about the El Capistan: tons of delay flavors, endless tweaking, sexy design, small footprint, stereo operation, tap tempo, and a heretofore unmentioned expression pedal input that can easily be assigned to one of the five knob parameters. The pedal's ease of use lends itself to immediate creativity while the endless array of options will keep power users pumped. It's really a testament, not only to the sonics, but also the thought and attention that went into the classic design and clever features of the El Capistan. As a proud owner of a Roland RE-201 Space Echo, a handful of vintage analog echo pedals (Boss DM-2 and Ibanez AD-9) and a few vintage digital delays (Boss DD-2 and Digitech PDS8000), I have to say that the El Capistan can - without question - hold its own among all of the classic delay units of yesteryear.