In A World of Echo, and I'm Awash.

I'd like to talk about my experience with the Catalinbread Belle Epoch Deluxe (B.E.D.) pedal, a modern, electronic, tapeless version of its inspiration, the 20th century electro-mechanical wonder, the Maestro Echoplex EP-3. However, this article isn’t intended as an in-depth review of the B.E.D. but as a tale of my rediscovery of an old guitar experience, and of a new experience I encountered subsequently while learning to use the B.E.D. Along the way I might perhaps answer the question, “Does the B.E.D. sound and act like an EP-3?”

When I was a young player back in the ‘70s in the South, the Echoplex EP-3 was the state-of-the-art in guitar delays and was basically the only tape echo in my little town at that point. The competing Roland Space Echo was something I only saw in the magazines. The EP-3 was basically a small, portable tape deck with its features configured to offer echo to guitarists. You can read more about the Echoplex in my article, HERE and follow a typical repair, HERE. The works were housed in a sturdy wooden case with a removeable lid. My first one, purchased used in a little backwoods Tennessee store back in 1978, came to me looking like a barn find – covered in dirt and dust. I'm a recording engineer/producer who started his career in analog tape days, so maintenance of the unit was not, how you say, a problem to me. I cleaned up the unit and adjusted it to work like new. Once I had my fingers on it I used to sit for hours in my mountaintop college dorm room, playing into the Echoplex, making tiny tweaks, and floating off with the spacey sounds it created. As dusk approached and the light in my room faded into the lovely reds of sunset, the shimmery stream of my guitar’s echoes would float me away as I leaned into the Echoplex.

The pros: The EP-3 is an unusual effect, almost an instrument, that features interactive controls. You need to learn to play it, to drive it, and to play into it. Once you do, it becomes capable of some really captivating sounds and amazing writing inspiration. Because of the EP-3’s J-FET preamp and mixing amp, the way the echoes float under the dry sound is quite unique, different from classic digital or analog delays. The EP-3’s preamp and mixing amp roll out a little bass, round out the top end a tiny bit, and add a little upper-midrange presence. As a result, the echoes fade away brightly rather than increasingly darkly, as one might expect from a tape delay. Because it doesn’t offer true bypass, the unit also imposes its euphonic sound onto your guitar’s direct signal. That sound is highly desired by guitarists, even today. There are now pedals on the market that do nothing but recreate that EP-3 preamp EQ effect and perhaps offer a boost. But in the echoes there is also a bit of tape warble. Now, I kept and keep a really clean, well-adjusted Echoplex, but due to the endless-loop cassette system in the units there is always a tiny bit of tape wow and flutter introduced into the system. Though they are technically flaws, the gentle wow and flutter create a lovely, unpredictable shimmer in the repeats as they are blended with the dry sound.

But the cons? When it debuted, yes, the Echoplex was an electro-mechanical wonder, but all mechanical wonders are susceptible to wear and decay. Folks, this whole package is the very picture of entropy. From the moment you switch it on until the moment you shut it down, the tape is wearing down the heads. It is the way of things. There are also a hundred things inside the box, all trying to out-do each other at wearing out. Since production ended over thirty years ago, some parts are becoming extremely scarce. If entropy bothers you like it does me, the EP-3 gently niggles at you the entire time you use it. I still have an Echoplex, one that is in near-mint condition that I found in an online store and snapped up. It looks like it spent the last forty years wrapped in plastic in a closet – so clean you could eat off it. Because it is so clean, I don't want to beat it up or wear it out by taking it out to gigs. It is easily worth two or three times what I paid for it a few years ago so I want to reserve it for use at in the studio and at home. I might be accused loving this thing a little too much. I did back off on freely using it.

So, this Christmas my lovely wife gave me a Catalinbread Belle Epoch Deluxe, a new one in the black and silver livery, as a gift. She knows what I like! Que bella cosa! (What a beautiful thing.) The idea of this pedal is to have the sound and feel of the EP-3 with very little entropy. A few years ago after creating the Catalinbread Belle Epoch pedal as an EP-3 copy, designer Howard Gee became obsessed with trying to more precisely duplicate the sound of the Echoplex. To do so, he chose to reproduce the preamp and mixing amp of the EP-3 exactly, right down to the component level. He powered them with an internal twenty-two volt supply and then used a 24-bit digital delay line to replace the tape. The result was the Belle Epoch Deluxe. Sounds great, right?

However, the thousand-dollar question in most EP-3 owners’ minds was, "Does the B.E.D. work and feel like the original?" In my mind, it needs both to succeed, so that question initially drove me as I explored the pedal. If the sound and feel weren't right it was all for naught. It didn't take long to find the anwswer: In my humble opinion as a long-time Echoplex user, Howard got it right, and the B.E.D. loses nothing in the translation. If you are familiar with the EP-3 there will be no surprises. It has that sound. It has that feel. Were that not enough, the machine drives like the original Echoplex with its idiosyncratic, interactive controls. It just works.I know that there are those who will argue that some deatil is missing or wrong, but I am delighted. I can enjoy the unique character of the EP-3 without worrying about entropy.

In order for the experience to be authentic, Howard included another little realistic tweak in the machine: In the Echoplex simulations, the “Depth” control dials in the amount of a randomly-introduced, tape drive speed imperfection simulation into to the echoes that causes a lovely shimmer in the sound as they are mixed with the dry signal, just as in the original machine. When used juduciously, that shimmer really adds an etherial quality to the effect. On program 2 (Analog Delay), the “Depth” knob controls the amount of a chorus effect added to the delays only, which offers shimmer for that mode as well. Why do I mention both? Just as the EP-3 could feel a little congested when fed driven sounds, perhaps because of its brightness, the B.E.D. can feel congested as well. Program 2 brings a darker delay tone that offers a way to tame the delays when you are using a driven sound and make them better float beneath the dry signal. The expression pedal can also be used in Mode 1, Echoplex, when you go from clean to gained-up to reduce the echo playback mix that can get jacked up by the gain. Howard also enclosed four other modes in the Belle Echoplex Deluxe besides the standard Echoplex mode, each of which offer other tones and features. But once again, this isn't a throrough review, but instead a description of my experiences.

Before and after I received the unit I watched Howard Gee’s introductory videos in which he explained in depth the goals and functions of the pedal. In those videos Howard revealed that some of the pedal's capabilities aren’t available unless you have an expression pedal. In order to get the whole experience, I bought an inexpensive ($29) M-Audio EX-P expression pedal with a captive cord that serves adequately for the studio environment where I work. There are two expression pedal function options available for each of the B.E.D. modes. In the case of the EP-3 simulator, they are “Delay Time” and “Echo Level.” With the unit switched to “Delay Time” it is possible to dynamically change the delay time with the pedal, just like moving the playback head of the Echoplex did. All that warbly chaos is available. Back in the ‘70s, Boston’s Tom Scholz did this by creating a mechanical treadle with a push-pull control cable that moved the handle of the playback head back and forth to change the delay time. He also hacked the circuit and added an electrical expression pedal to control the volume of the repeats. You can select betwen those functions via the switch on the front panel of the B.E.D..

From the beginning of this little experiment I intended to put the B.E.D. in the loop of my Line 6 Helix Floor. “Why?” You ask, "There is already an EP-3 model in the Helix." The reason is that the Helix model doesn’t feel quite “there” to me - it doesn’t seem to create the same floaty sound and feel of the original Echoplex EP-3 experience. That is why I took a chance on the B.E.D. in the first place. Of course, I can also run it before one of my amplifiers if I so choose. In fact, I did my basic function test into a Fender '68 Custom Princeton Reverb amp and then began exploring the B.E.D. in the loop of my Helix

Once I got through the basics of operation I found myself feeding in guitar lines and experimenting with prominent, floaty delays. I was once again mesmerized by my own sound, just as I had been when I first acquired the EP-3. I became "spaced out" while sitting in my own little guitar rehearsal studio as I had been in my dorm room. I learned once again to interact with the delay length to create melodic harmonies. I pulled up a song I'd written that featured the delay of the Echoplex and tried it out - it sounded great! And again, during one extended exploration session, the wash of echoes floated me away and the emotions were very much like the first time I played an Echoplex.

The rehearsal rig I play through at home consists of two amps in stereo. The amp on the left side of the rig is a Leslie G37 rotating speaker amp, something I didn't have in the '70s. When I select “chorale,” the low rotor speed, the Leslie’s rotor motion introduces an additional shimmer of its own. With the rotor activatedd, both through its own motion and through acoustic interaction with the other amp on the right side of my rig, the sound moves dramatically around the room and the top-end shimmers in three dimensions. When you combine it with the Belle Epoch Deluxe the whole experience becomes even more etherial and spacey. I can think of no more mesmerizing electric guitar sound to use on a song intro or outro than this. And as I discovered the combined Leslie/Echoplex effect, the light outside waned from the red hues of sunset to the blues of dusk. I bathed my guitar in the long shimmery echoes and Leslie chorale and experience an even more vivid effect. The emotional impact was profound and I found myself as much awash in nostalgia as I was in echo as I floated off into the sunset.


For those who are familiar with the EP-3 but not the Belle Epoch Deluxe, I made up THIS little diagram to show how the controls on the front of the Belle Epoch Deluxe correspond to those on the EP-3. Follow the colored lines.