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Stompbox Shootout: Dark Echo vs. El Capistan

Lately, Strymon’s El Capistan delay pedal has been all the rage and their freshly-released Timeline pedal seems to be eclipsing the El Cap. I have been fortunate enough to have an El Capistan on loan for a couple of weeks and I brought it on the road with me while I’m traveling the country doing in-store clinics. That means I get the chance to try the pedal through a number of different amplifiers and in a number of different venues.

On that same pedalboard, I have my beloved Jack Deville Electronics Dark Echo pedal, which works similarly. These days, everyone is trying to replicate the goopy, swirly madness that once was tape echo machines. The sweet little secret is that those tape-based machines needed care and feeding and when they started to slip a little, the echoed repeats took on a life of their own. It was as if time and space were bending before your very ears.

SO, Strymon attempts to capture that swirly goodness in El Capistan, Jack Deville tries with his Dark Echo. I’m not going to bore you with the ones and zeros of how each manufacturer achieves the goal, I’ll just tell you this. Both are great, but I can’t for the life of me trade out the Dark Echo for the El Cap.

The pedal sounds great. Some folks may not know that Strymon is a subsidiary of Damage Control, which is a team of ex-Line 6 guys that went off to do their own thing. I’m a huge fan of the Line 6 world and believe that using IC chips and digital interfaces to replicate analog sounds is a great means to an end. These lab coats musicians give us the El Cap’s greatest asset: tap tempo. The delay sounds great, but getting a great delay pedal is fairly easy between MXR’s Carbon Copy, Way Huge’s Aqua Puss, EH’s much-loved Deluxe Memory Man, Roland’s vintage Space Echo units, and a true vintage Echoplex- and that doesn’t include the TONS of other boutique builders. It just comes down to money, right? Another very cool feature is the ability to save one preset via an optional “Favorite” one-button pedal. You can set the knobs anywhere you’d like which allows you two settings, one WYSIWYG and one favorite.

There may be a little too much hype surrounding the pedal. I think it sounds great and I continue to use it with a smile each night, but it hasn’t changed my playing or dragged me kicking and screaming to the well of creativity. It sounds great. But it’s SUPPOSED to sound great. I’m not going to clap for someone delivering what is expected. Frankly, I would compare it to the Line 6 M9, but will give El Cap an extra gold star because the processing power is dedicated to making the lo-finess as high resolution as possible. (Irony Alert)

I’m hearing something that is a little bit of magic dust. I’m convinced that I hear an onboard buffer that gooses the top end a little bit, which is cool because the delays are nice and dark. When in the loop of my Electroplex Rocket 22, I hear the same thing as when I put a ZVEX Super Hard On in the loop. It’s just a little more alive. Also, while I’ll complain about the modulation in the next section, I’ll say that it’s actually different. What a novel concept! Let’s do something unique! In the gear world, there are certain recipes and iconic designs that seem to get recycled and one-upped by everyone. Much of it is really really good- but little comes out that is truly unique. Dark Echo gets a gold star for being the weirdo kid.

The “sway” knob is what controls the amount of goopy and gobbly modulation on the repeats. That knob has a spot right about 11 o’clock that is standard modulation similar to what you’d hear from a Deluxe Memory Man. But anything between off and 11 o’clock is shallow and fast and anything beyond is like vertigo. I find that I don’t use the modulation all that much unless I’m really going for something that is outside of convention. Also, the lack of tap tempo is a real pain since it’s such a huge part of live performance. You can say you’re sick of the “U2 Sound” but it’s here and I’m not sure when it’s gonna go away. And why should it? It’s a great sound.

When it comes down to it, I believe both pedals are great. I still prefer the chewy and white chocolatey goodness of the Dark Echo since I already proudly own an M9 and M13 from Line 6. The El Cap is great, but I suspect that once the TimeLine hits the used market, the frenzied evangelism for the El Cap will wane and I’ll be instructed towards the next gotta-have-it pedal. And once the next boutique company releases the next cool delay pedal, I’ll be ushered towards THAT pedal if I wanna be taken seriously as a guitarist. Once once the NEXT pedal comes out… (yawn).