Strymon El Capistan dTape Echo - First Look

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Review by Richard Miller.

Ah, Analog. In an always-increasingly digital world, why is it that people who care about sound still seem to prize technology from a bygone era?  Be it vinyl records over CDs, vacuum tubes over transistors, or magnetic tape over hard drives. People who know sound – whether they’re audiofiles, musicians, engineers, or producers – still know that for most things audio, analog just sounds warmer, fatter – better.  And while most guitar effects made the jump to digital over 30 years ago, guitarists old enough to remember tape echo still chase that sound.


Tape echo entered the guitarist's arsenal in the 1950s – initially as part of early guitar amplifiers – they became standalone devices by the 1960s.  Using the technology of the day, magnetic tape, designers attempted to create fading repeats from an input signal.  The results were large, unwieldy; less-than-perfect devices based on a continuous loop of tape, and one or more tape heads.  There were several to choose from. The Maestro Echoplex, the Roland Space Echo, the Watkins/WEM Copicat, the Fender Tape Echo, were among the most famous.  And while they all produced echo, each design was a little different. Some had one fixed playback head, some had multiple playback heads, and some had a sliding record head. Each model had its own sonic characteristics similar to the way tube amps have their own characteristics.

The common factor among all of them was there was a lot that could go wrong, and reliability was not a strong suit.  If you were really gentle with them and used them as intended, the tape just slowly degraded over time and you could replace it. More commonly, however, players like Jimmy Page and Tommy Bolin (and legions of those they inspired) found that beyond just echo, you could create some far out, groovy sound effects by being heavy-handed with them. Slamming the record head back and forth, or changing the tape speed on-the-fly, and generally beating on the poor things well beyond the designer’s original intention. This was great for rock history, and much more fun than being gentle, but not so great for the delicate echo machines. They howled, whooped, and whooshed in protest, and the tape would crease and mangle as it was pinched between rollers, yanked around capstans, and dragged across tape heads. When the tape didn’t break outright, it would stretch, crinkle and deform. The machine itself would get out of whack too, which required service and recalibration. All of these defects altered the sounds coming from the device, and a tape echo with a hundred hours of road use and tape wear would sound rather different than it did the day you took it out of the box new. Still, when it worked, tape echo sounded warm, natural, and huge. Guitarists like Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Brian May, Joe Walsh, David Gilmour, Tommy Bolin, Gary Moore, Andy Summers, Randy Rhoads and others forged rock history with them.

Then came digital, and with it, Digital Delay. Almost overnight, the big, expensive boxes of moving tape gave way to small, inexpensive pedals that repeated your signal perfectly and without any of the downside associated with motors and physical tape. So why would anyone still care about tape echo?  Because while Digital Delay duplicates your signal perfectly, a perfect recreation of your signal is just more of the same. That sameness can be perceived as artificial, characterless, and tonally bland.  By contrast, even brand new tape echos had inherent wow and flutter; and tape age and crinkle actually added sonic interest and character to the delayed signal. Character you don’t get from digital delay. With digital delay, the repeats are exact replicas. With tape echo, the repeats weren’t perfect, and because they weren’t, they sounded more natural.  Three decades later, despite digital delay’s dominance, the number tape echo simulators on the market makes it clear that discerning guitarists and effect makers still miss the character and depth provided by those vintage tape echo machines.

Enter the El Capistan dTape Echo

The El Capistan is Strymon’s take on digitally recreating the sound of the best tape echo machines of the past.  It is an extremely flexible tape echo emulator that is essentially three tape machine types in one.  To get the most out of it, it is important to understand the way  different tape echo design types worked to produce the effect.

The major difference between vintage tape machine designs had to do with whether the tape speed was variable or fixed, whether the tape heads were moveable or fixed, and the number of record and playback heads used to create delayed echos or patterns of echos. For example, the Maestro Echoplex (both tube and solid state versions) ran tape at a fixed speed, and to adjust the delay time, you physically changed the distance between the record and playback head.  The (solid state) Roland Space Echo was quite different. It had one record head, three playback heads, and the delay time was determined by adjusting the tape speed. Having multiple playback heads allowed the Space Echo to produce patterns of echo rather than just fading repeats.  The differences between the various design types also affected tape degradation, wow and flutter, mechanical reliability, maintenance requirements, unwanted pitch vibrato and other artifacts.

Can you repeat that?

The El Capistan’s three-position Tape Head switch lets you choose between Fixed, Multi, and Single design types. In the Fixed and Multi (head) settings, the pedal creates the responses associated with tape echo machines that used variable tape speeds to vary the time between repeats. The Single (head) selection creates the responses associated with machines that used a fixed tape speed using a moveable head to adjust the time between repeats. In addition to the three Tape Head types, the El Capistan provides three modes for each tape type it emulates. This provides an impressive array of options. So it really is the best of all worlds.


The El Capistan arrived well-packaged and included a power supply and an excellent user manual. As I removed it from the packaging, my initial thoughts were: wow, it’s really small, and surprisingly light. The chassis is made from anodized aluminum and the DSP does a lot of what heavier parts did in older effect pedals. Size wise, you couldn't get more pedalboard friendly.

Pedals this small often have the problem of knobs and other controls getting in the way of the footswitch(s). Not so here. I was able to tap either foot switch without accidentally adjusting the pedal settings.  On a 4.5" x 4" face plate, Strymon beautifully lays out five control knobs, two three-position micro switches, and two foot switches with separate LEDs. Each of the five control knobs does double duty and controls two different parameters. This gives you 12 adjustable parameters, and nothing gets in the way of anything else. Looking at the face of the El Capistan you see control knobs labeled Time, Tape Age, Repeats, Wow & Flutter and Mix. What you don't see (but should) are labels for the secondary control knobs as Spring Reverb, Low End Contour, Tape Bias, Tape Crinkle, and 3 dB Boost/Cut. These secondary parameters are accessible by pressing down both foot pedal switches while making your adjustments.

Both Tap and Bypass are footswitchable. The Tap switch is also used when in the Single (head) position to create the in and out points for Sound On Sound recording. 

The rear has the guitar input, an input for a favorites pedal (sold separately) that lets you save your favorite setting, a left channel/ mono output, a right channel output for stereo capability, and the power supply input.  The pedal offers the user the choice of True Bypass using electromechanical relay switching or "trails" mode with a high quality Analog Buffered Bypass.

A La Mode

As mentioned before, the Tape Head switch lets you choose between Fixed, Multi, or Single head machine types.  The second switch is a Mode switch that, depending on the position of the Tape Head switch, changes parameters such as available length of delay or sound on sound capability. The modes work as shown.

Take Control

Once you have selected the type of tape echo machine you want to emulate, and the desired Mode for that machine, the El Capistan employs the familiar controls found on delay and echo pedals with knobs for Time (length of delay), Repeats (number of repeats) and Mix (how loud the repeats sound in relation to the original signal).

What really allows the El Capistan to emulate the sounds of tape echo (in any mode) are the controls for Wow & Flutter, Tape Crinkle, Tape Age, and Tape Bias.  These are the elements that Strymon believes make tape echo sound like tape echo.  If you roll these settings off to zero, the El Capistan effectively becomes a Digital Delay pedal with a few extra bells and whistles. But as you bring these elements into the sound, you are able to accurately reproduce the characteristic sounds of the vintage tape echos. They work as follows:

Wow & Flutter
As stated before, wow and flutter was present in all tape echo machines, brand new out of the box.  Tape was moved through the machine by means of electric motors, and wow and flutter was just something you lived with like you lived with amp hiss. The El Capistan’s Wow and Flutter knob controls the amount of mechanically related tape speed fluctuations, and thus provides a natural tape echo-style modulation. Turn the knob fully counter clockwise for a perfectly tuned, cleaned and serviced tape machine. Turn the knob fully clockwise to hear the sound of a tape machine in need of service. Between the extremes, you’ll find a natural tape modulation.

Tape Age
Tape Age simulates the bandwidth of the echo machine’s tape as it would change over time. As tape wore out, the bandwidth became more limited. Set to the minimum, Tape Age provides the sound of a fresh tape and full bandwidth. As you turn the knob clockwise, the tape sound being emulated gets progressively darker.

Double Down

The following secondary functions are accessible by holding down the two footswitches simultaneously.

Tape Crinkle (secondary function)
Controls the amount and severity of physical tape irregularities such as friction, creases, splices and contaminants. Tape Crinkle characteristics track accordingly to tape speed. Set to minimum for a fresh, clean tape. Set to maximum for a tape that has been mangled and chewed for years. To get an idea of how tape crinkle affects the sound, check out the first demo video starting at about 1:40 into it, and around 2:15 you’ll ear how Tape Crinkle affects the sound – particularly during the single picked notes.

Tape Bias (secondary function)
Tape Bias adjusts the tape echo’s bias, from under-biased to over-biased. Higher bias levels result in reduced echo volume and limited headroom. Lower bias settings result in the cleanest echos with the most headroom. For an optimally biased tape machine set to 9:00. For an under biased tape machine with extra high frequency response set to minimum.

Low End Contour (secondary function)
Controls the low frequency shaping of the echo repeats. Set to minimum for extended low frequency bandwidth. Set to maximum for extremely high-passed, magnetic drum style repeats.

Boost/Cut control (secondary function)
+/- 3dB boost or cut when the pedal is engaged.

Spring Reverb (secondary function)
Controls the mix of the integrated spring reverb tank in any of the delay modes.

Note: I highly recommend setting the El Capistan's parameters in this order:

  1. Tape Head toggle switch
  2. Mode toggle switch
  3. Secondary settings
  4. Primary settings

Your secondary settings are actually preserved when you release the footswitches and return to the primary settings, but as the knobs do double duty, your secondary settings will not be visually aparent by the position of the knobs.

Wowed and Flustered

If 12 adjustable parameters at your fingertips – or perhaps at your toes – sounds daunting, understand that Strymon has created a pedal that delivers The Best of the Best and all of the Rest, All rolled into One.  Unless you’re looking for a very specific sound one day, and a different sound the next, you're probably not going to be constantly changing the parameters on the El Capistan.  Most players will probably just dial up something that sounds good and go with it.  Another likely use case is that you're going to dial up an Echoplex, a Space Echo or whichever vintage machine you prefer, and then just adjust the Time, Repeats and Mix knobs as needed. Dialing in that initial sound might take a while, but once you find it, you'll have your favorite tape echo machine sound for far less money and fewer headaches than the original.

Against the Classics

I thought it would be interesting to put the El Capistan to the test and A/B it against some real, vintage tape echos to see if I could create an authentic, sonic mirror image with the El Capistan.  Turns out you really can!  If you want and Echoplex EP1 sound, it’s in there.  You want an EP2, or an EP3 sound? Tweak it a bit. If you want a Space Echo sound, change the Tape Head setting and tweak some more.  

Having an El Capistan is as if you went out and bought all the best vintage echo machines, and you can run them anywhere from pristine, to road-worn.  But as there are no presets on the El Capistan, finding exactly what you want can take quite a bit of tweaking. I found that by playing with the Tape Bias, Tape Age, and Wow & Flutter knobs, the El Capistan was able to virtually mimic an Echoplex EP2, (tube) or EP3, (solid state) tape machine.  While I was in the Echoplex zone, I riffed out on some James Gang, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, Journey, Queen, and Van Halen. The sounds produced by the El Capistan were excellent and authentic.

By adding in the onboard spring reverb and adjusting the tape head switch and knob settings, the El Capistan produces a very convincing Roland RE-201 Space Echo. Adding a Chorus pedal in the signal chain takes you into RE-301, RE-501 or SRE-555 territory.

Against the Competition

Strymon is not alone in their goal of reproducing the sounds of tape echo using digital technology. Competitive products are made by Hughes & Kettner, Empress Effects, Plush, T.Rex, Guyatone and Carl Martin. Modeling units from Line6 and Boss are out there. Fulltone still manufactures a true tube tape echo based on the Echoplex. How does the El Capistan compare with the other products?

At a MSRP of $299.00, it's small, lightweight, versatile, sturdy and capable of delivering the voices of most vintage tape echo machines with a high degree of accuracy.

Compared to my Hughes & Kettner Replex, (MSRP $699), the El Capistan offers better and more versatile echo voices and echo machine types. The tweak ability offered by multiple control knobs provides far more accuracy in creating vintage voices than the Replex's Vintage knob offers. The Replex is more road worthy, (built like a tank), and has an input gain control much like a preamp that contributes to the tonality of the picked notes that I've always liked having onboard. Then again the Replex is huge. It eats up a lot space on a pedalboard.

Also, the Replex is strictly a mono device while the El Capistan can be mono or stereo.

Fulltone's Tube Tape Echo, (MSRP $1095), is a true Tape Delay / Echo machine. One of only a few in production, it's an excellent example of the tape echo machine. High quality construction and parts, beautiful warm tube tones, available current production tape cartridges, perfect for use in the home or on the road. At less than 1/3 the price, the El Capistan gets close to capturing the voice of the Tube tape echo as well as many other tape echos.  It takes up far less space, requires less maintenance, and never needs tape replacemnet.

Carl Martin's DeLayla, (MSRP $572 Street $399), T- Rex's Replica, (MSRP $539 Street $339), and Diamond's Memory Lane 2, (MSRP $599), are all well built delay / echo devices. They all use quality parts and have solid construction. What they don't have is the El Capistan's tweak ability, vintage tonal qualities, and variety of tape machine emulations possible.

Modeling pedals like Boss's DD-20 Giga Delay or RE-20 Roland Space Echo, (MSRP $312 Street $229 and MSRP $339 Street $249 respectively), Digitech's TimeBender, (MSRP $449 Street $300), and Line6's DL4, (MSRP $349 Street $249), are totally outclassed by the El Capistan. I mention them because of their build type and price range. While they may offer additional features that make them worthwhile purchases, (I own both the DL4 and DD-20), their ability to compete in the primary goal of the El Capistan is nil. Nada. Nowhere on the chart.

The closest thing the El Capistan has to a real competitor would be the Empress (Vintage Modified) Superdelay (MSRP $449). This is a very high quality delay pedal that has been modified to sound more like a vintage echo. It's build quality, parts quality, and small footprint make it an excellent pedal. The El Capistan's layout is a bit more complicated and offers fewer control options. That said, most of the Superdelay's options are delay rather than echo oriented. The Superdelay cannot produce exact replications of individual tape echo devices. The Superdelay does not offer tape echo specific tweak ability the way the El Capistan does. The Superdelay and El Capistan are both excellent with the Superdelay falling more in line with the best analog delay pedals and the El Capistan as a producer of great vintage tape echo from the past.

Nit pick

While our overall experience with the El Capistan was very rewarding and positive, the dual function controls takes some getting used to. We understand that Strymon didn’t want to make the pedal twice as big to accommodate each function with its own knob. However, a sensible middle ground would have been to at least label the secondary functions on the faceplate under the primary functions in a different color – as they have done in the User Guide.  Another item on the wishlist would be some additional sample settings in the User Guide for specifically emulating the various vintage machines.

The Verdict

The El Capistan is a real treat that is guaranteed to put a smile the face of anyone who grew up loving tape echo. We compared it to real tube and solid state tape echo machines, and were able to authentically reproduce those sounds. While it may not be 100% perfect in its recreation of all of them, it's so darn close that only the few lucky folks who still have the originals in their possession will be able to tell the difference, and even then, only if they A/B'd them next to each other.

We compared it to analog, digital, and modeling pedals, and the El Capistan just flat-out beats most currently available tape echo emulators. Pedals in the same price range can't hold a candle to the El Capistan for accurate sonic reproduction of vintage tape echo machines. The few effects that are in the same sonic class as the El Capistan are much more expensive, and in some cases, out of production.

The El Capistan has so many echo options available that it may take you a few sessions to get your head around everything it can do, and to tweak it to your specific needs. However, this is a pedal that rewards your patience.  What stands out above all else is the supurb sound quality. Strymon truly achieved their goal of offering the discerning player a pedal that accurately emulates the performance and sound quality of many of the great tape echo machines of the past. Better still, they did it at a reasonable price!

Well done, Strymon!

Official Demo Video 1


Official Demo Video 2

(see attachment)

Regis's Echoplex Page:
Vintage Guitar Magazine:
Steve's Music Center:
Sound On Sound:
Boss Users Group:
Roland Corporation Company History: article found online at
Fulltone Products:
The Musician's Room: That Fat '70s Sound  article found online at
Guitar player Magazine:
Pete Cornish Tech Talk:
Guitar Effects Pedals the practical handbook written by Dave Hunter.
Secrets From The Masters
edited by Don Menn. Published by Backbeat Books