Updated: Jun 2
Catalinbread's Belle Epoch Deluxe is their reimagining of the legendary Echoplex Ep-3 tape delay unit, heard on classic recordings from the '70s onwards from artists like Led Zeppelin, Brian May, Andy Summers, Eddie Van Halen and George Lynch to name but a few.
A Bit of History
The original Echoplex were first available from the early '60s. These delay units used vacuum tubes which provided the famous warmth of the preamp, but were also designed with the important innovation of moving tape heads as well as cartridges. The former allowed for different delay times and the latter protected the tape, arguably providing better sound quality due to less tape degradation. These were clear improvements over the existing tape delays like the EchoSonic, which was actually built into an amp and had been around since the '50s.
The EP-3 was the first unit in the line to use transistors rather than tubes and was in production from the beginning of the '70s till '91.
The Echoplex Reimagined
Zoom forward a few decades, past numerous other pedal formats of Echoplex type delays and enter Catalinbread. Initially, there was the standard Belle Epoch, which really is an amazing pedal for which Catalinbread went the whole hog emulating the EP-3, reproducing the sound of the preamp, the wow and flutter of the tape, and even the record level which controls how hard the virtual tape is hit to give that grit in the delay repeats. Eric Johnson is quoted on their site as saying: 'The Catalinbread Belle Epoch is the closest thing to a real EP-3 that I've ever played' - Endorsements don't come much better than that.
The Deluxe version uses the same core concepts as the standard but adds in 5 other delay modes; the ability to use an expression pedal to control different parameters depending on the mode; and an echo/oscillation foot switch. They even claim to have used 'exact' EP-3 circuitry for the JFET preamp section in their Belle Epoch pedals.
The quality of the components certainly can't be criticised with the pedal having discrete through hole construction, orange drop capacitors, germanium diodes and other top-notch parts. The attention to detail is pretty incredible and Catalinbread's even gone as far as to ensure the unit runs on 22v just like the original by bumping up the standard 9v input internally.
There are 6 dials on the Belle Epoch Deluxe:
1 - Echo Programme:
This sets the delay effect to one of the 6 available. The first is the classic EP-3 voicing and has brighter repeats than the second setting, which is based on a bucket brigade style delay with darker repeats that sit nicely in the mix without getting in the way of the dry signal. The third is a Moto Swirl delay and the repeats sound like they are going through a Leslie style speaker. The fourth is a 'manually sweeping resonant filter' which can make the repeats sound like they are passing through a wah pedal. And the fifth and sixth programmes are both based on a Deluxe Memory Man, with the former based on the chorus setting and the latter on the vibrato.
2 - Depth:
This controls different parameters depending on the programme selected. In the first and fourth it controls the amount of virtual tape warble; in the bucket brigade setting it controls the depth of a 'medium' chorus; in the third it adjusts the depth of the rotary effect; in the fifth it adjust the chorus again and in the final vibrato programme it, unsurprisingly, adjusts the depth of the vibrato.
This is a great control and worth experimenting with as it introduces some very inspiring textures.
3 - Record level:
Basically this emulates how hot the dry signal hits the tape and affects the delay repeats. It can be set low to get a nice light, clean sound that can sit nicely under the mix or it can be increased so the first repeat in particular can be even louder than the dry signal and create distorted, grungy repeats.
Again, a very interesting control that can totally change the sound and feel on the pedal.
4 - Echo Volume:
Basically a mix control that goes from dry through to the pedal's maximum delay signal.
5 - Echo Sustain:
Controls the number of repeats - the regeneration of the delays.
6 - Echo Delay:
Not really obvious by the name, this is the time of the delay. It goes from 80ms to 800ms, purposely emulating the exact times available on the Echoplex EP-3.
You will have noticed that there are two foot switches. One is the bypass switch, obviously this engages / disengages the delay effect. The other is the Echo Osc, which sends the repeats into self-oscillating goodness.
I added the Belle Epoch Deluxe my pedal board, fired up the Two Rock Studio Pro 35 and plugged my Hartung Embrace guitar in with some excitement. I love a good delay and tape is one of those things that if done right just sounds amazing and oozes a special voodoo.
Take a look at the video at the bottom of this review.
The first setting has delays which sound nice, bright and clean, which is a triumph as so many 'tape delays' have a habit of making the repeats sound gritty and dark as standard, which although can be the case with true tape delays, this only really happens when the tape is degraded or maybe if you hit it hard with the dry signal and get preamp distortion too. Which the Deluxe can do too no problem at all by rolling up the Record Level control - very, very, cool.
Adding in a bit of tape warble via the depth control starts to introduce a nice texture, and I was swept away for a while playing clean atmospheric, occasionally playing with the Echo Sustain and Echo Volume controls, with the Echo Delay set around 10 o'clock. Just beautiful.
The delay times available are between 80ms and 800ms as already mentioned. The shorter time is great for slap back, and is very useable for anything from country style lines to thickening up rock riffs. The longer times are plenty for just about anything I can imagine doing with a delay pedal, although some creative people may want both short and longer delay times.
This first setting really is the heart of the pedal with the others moving away from the classic EP-3 in the style of bucket brigade delays and so on. Speaking of the bucket brigade, this too sounds very good with darker repeats than the tape programme which get out of the way of the dry signal, which can be a very good thing.
One of the interesting additions on this Deluxe edition over the original Belle Epoch is the ability to use an expression pedal. This can control either delay time or different parameters depending on the programme, but generally it affects the modulation, in whatever form that is. So on the fourth setting you're able to control the filter effect on the repeats, using it like a wah wah pedal.
This can add a nice movement and is, again, definitely worth experimenting with. One point worth mentioning here is that I used both a Dunlop DVP3 (X) and an Ernie Ball jnr, neither of which worked. I needed to open up the Dunlop and engage the little blue button which reverses the operation of the heel and toe down positions.
I was also able to get a really thick, textured solo tone on the Belle with a Keeley Filaments providing the gain. In fact, there wasn't much that this pedal wasn't able to do, all the while oozing vibe and attitude.
No pedal is perfect though and I must admit if my wishes were able to come true, I'd ask for tap tempo and the option of maybe just two or three available note divisions. There's a lot of stiff competition out there and when pedals such as the Chase Bliss Tonal Recall offers these features, it seems a little silly for Catalinbread not to try to include them. Tap tempo in a live situation is often a godsend and to be able to flick a switch to get dotted eight notes is also highly desirable.
However, overall this is a very well thought out pedal that produces a plethora of very, very useable delay tones. When you have artists such as Eric Johnson extolling the virtues of the Belle Epoch Deluxe, we mere mortals should take heed.
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