Analog vs. Digital Delay – The easy explanation

If you are a fan of pedal boards, then you most likely will have heard of delay pedals of both the analog and digital varieties. Ever wonder what’s the difference between the two? If so, then read on. Today we will look at analog vs. digital delay pedals in detail, discuss the pros and cons of both, and point you towards some of the best manufacturers on the market.

What is a Delay Pedal?

Before we discuss the differences between analog vs. digital, let’s first answer the question: what is a delay pedal? Delay pedals, as their name suggests, creates an echo effect in your sound. In essence, it is a type of distortion. This effect was initially created with tape in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tape delay did not use a pedal to make the echo effect. Instead, you record yourself playing on a tape which then loops continuously. Tape delay machines were popular because they allowed for a wide variety of delay times and speeds and its natural sound. Yet, tape delay had a few drawbacks, the most important of which was the cumbersome device. It was just not feasible for a musician to carry these tape machines from gig to gig.

In order to solve the problems of tape delays, delay pedals were created to mimic the sound of tape delay. The first of these pedals to hit the market was the analog delay pedal.

Analog Delay Pedals

Ask most guitarists which type of delay pedal they prefer and they will name the analog delay pedal. These pedals have been around since the mid-1970s. Analog pedals use a bucket-brigade device (BBD) that take a signal and pass it down a line of capacitor chips. The chips lengthen the amount of time it takes your guitar’s signal to pass down the chain.

Analog delay pedals create the echo effect heard on songs like Guns ‘n Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” and Pink Floyd’s “Another brick in the Wall Pt. 1.”

Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering an analog delay pedal.

PROS
  • A natural sound: Because of the way the sound signal is passed along the lines of capacitors, a natural decay in the echo occurs. The delay effect produced is similar to the sound of a shout in a cave. The echo gets quieter and quieter the longer is continues. Essentially, each vibration—or echo—of the sound is slightly weaker than the last. Most guitarists prefer this “natural” deterioration.
  • Better sound: Preferred sound is a very individual preference among guitarists. However, in general, most people claim that analog delay pedals create a warmer and richer tone than digital delay pedals. Because of the simplistic technology in analog pedals, the sound is actually more lo-fi than either tape or digital delays. It would seem, then, that the lo-fi sound is what contributes to the feeling of warmth most musicians note in the timbre of the analog delay pedals.
CONS
  • BBDs limitations: Because of restrictions inherent in the BBD chips, analog delay pedals have shorter maximum delays than digital delay pedals. This is not a problem unless you want a longer delay.
  • Less flexibility: In general, you will have less control over the delay with analog pedals. The presets, timing controls, etc. found on digital delay pedals are not options with the analog versions.

Top Brands

Many people in recent years have preferred to purchase vintage analog delay pedals. The popularity of these original models has made the price rise exponentially.

Don’t despair if you can’t find or afford an old pedal. There are a number of modern companies that make great new analog delay pedals. The new pedals are often cheaper and have more flexibility than 1970s and 1980s models.

  • Ibanez: Ibanez is a Japanese guitar brand that began doing business in 1957. They sell electric guitars, basses. hollow bodies, acoustic and electric accessories. They currently produce one analog delay pedal, the Echo Shifter (ES) 2.

    The ES2 uses analog procedures but strives to give you digital-like control over the sound. This means that you get an oscillation switch, feedback control, modulation, and depth control with the ES2.

  • Electro-Harmonix: Another old company, Electro-Harmonix was founded in 1968 by Mike Matthews. The company makes vacuum tubes and was the first company to make affordable pedals like the Electric Mistress, Micro Synthesizer, and Hot Tubes.

    Their analog delay pedal series is called the Memory Man and includes their original designs as well as newer models. Today you can choose from Deluxe Memory Boy, Deluxe Memory Man, Deluxe Memory man 550-TT, Deluxe Memory Man 1100-TT, Memory Boy, and Memory Toy for your analog delay pedal needs.

Digital Delay Pedals

In contrast to analog delay pedals, digital delay pedals use a digital signal processing (DSP) chip that helps them create echo effects. They first hit the market in the 1980s and were immediately popular. However, as mentioned above, they have fallen out of favor in recent years.

Like all things digital, this chip converts the sound signal into a series of numbers in the device using an analog to digital (A/D) converter. It is then sampled and added with the original signal after a specified delay. In order to come out of your speaker with the correct sound, the digital signal must be converted back to analog at the output with a digital to analog (D/A) converter. While it sounds complicated, what this process causes is an echo effect.

Songs that use digital delay pedals include Van Halen’s “Cathedral” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

Still on the fence about digital delay pedals? Here are a few of the most important pros and cons to consider before you make your decision.

PROS
  • Infinite variability: Because of the digital technology used in digital delay pedals compared to analog delay pedals, there are way more options. Some of the variables you can change include speed and time control of the delay, analog delay emulations, and programmable presets.
  • Reliable: For the most part digital delay pedals are extremely reliable machines. The lack of circuitry means that there are less parts that can break or fail, which means that you can use your pedal for a much longer time without having to replace anything.
  • Cheaper: Because digital delay pedals are less popular among guitarists today, you can pick them up relatively cheaply. In fact, pedals that would have cost $200 or more in the 1980s go for around $50 today.
CONS
  • Sound that’s too clear: The biggest complaint leveled against digital delay pedals is that their sound is too perfect. None of the decay inherent to analog delay pedals is present in the digital version. However, now manufacturers are beginning to catch on and offer digital delay pedals that mimic the sound of analog delay pedals.
  • A/D and D/A converters are not always the best: If you get a faulty A/D or D/A converter or both, then the sound of your digital delay pedal will not be correct. It could cause the device to be less reliable or change the sound significantly.

Top Brands

Lots of manufacturers make digital delay pedals. In our opinion, some of the best pedals come from the following companies.

  • Strymon: Strymon has made music technology since 2004 and are known for their tube-driven effects pedals. They have a large number of digital delay pedals available including Timeline, Deco, Dig, El Capistan, and Brigadier.
  • Line 6: Line 6 was founded in 1996 to design groundbreaking music technology. In addition to their delay pedals, Line 6 offers amps, guitars, multi-effects, software, interfaces, and livesound. They make one digital delay pedal called the DL4.
  • TC Electronic: TC Electronic has been around since 1970. They made their mark as a designer of effects pedals but have since moved to amps, computer audio interfaces, software, equalizers, and other production equipment. Their digital delay pedals include the Flashback, Flashback 2, Flashback Mini, Flashback triple, Flashback X4, and ND-1 Nova delay pedals.

    TC Electronic is the only company mentioned in today’s article that produces both digital and analog delay pedals. They have one analog pedal called the Echobrain.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, what delay pedal you choose will come down to your own personal preferences and requirements. Some genres lend themselves to digital delay pedals vs. analog delay pedals. For example, the classic sound of analog delay fits blues, jazz, country, classic rock, psychedelic rock, and surf music the best. On the other hand, the heavily processed sound of metal, grunge, and modern rock lends itself to the timbre of digital delay.

There are no hard and fast rules with it comes to analog vs. digital delay pedals. This is why we recommend trying out both types before purchasing. If you have the desire—and funds—you can even purchase both types of pedals for your board, which will enable you to play around on both and figure out each’s benefits and limitations for yourself.

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