What’s The Difference Between Analog Delay and Digital Delay Pedals?

This is a question that always comes to discussion once you get your feet into the land of delay pedals. In the first post, we’ve covered a brief history of the development of this effect. If you recall it properly, we first mentioned echo machines or tape delays. Even though they basically do the same (get a signal and repeat it within a time frame) I believe they are different beasts (at least for the scope of this comparison) and we’re gonna get into them in another post. That leaves us with basically two types of delays: Analog and Digital. Let’s see what each have to offer so later on we can reach to some conclusions.

Analog Delay

Analog delays came first. One the first ones to hit the shelves was the Memory Man by Electro-Harmonix. It was a market breaker because it was the first time delay units were available in a “compact-sized” pedal form. As you can imagine, the Memory Man wasn’t that small, but even to this day, is considered one of the best analog delays out there.

Electro Harmonix Memory Man
EHX’s Memory Man!

Analog delay pedals usually have a “warmer” and more “organic” sound. They feel like this because they do not replicate a perfect copy of your sound and the repeats tend to diffuse each step of the way. You see, analog delays use Bucket Brigade Device (BBD) chips; these chips send the signals to a series of capacitors and every time this happens, the sound gets more and more muddy. You may think that this is actually something bad, but in reality, analog delays can add a very dark and warm character to what you’re a playing which is what makes these units so special.

So, what does Bucket Brigade mean actually?

By the way, BBD is something you will hear a lot concerning this topic and I think it would be nice for you to understand the origin of the term. Bucket Brigade was often times a term used for the method of transporting things with a “human-chain”. Back in the day, firefighters relied on this technique to pass on the buckets of water whenever there was a fire. But as you can imagine, each the time the bucket was passed, some of the water got lost and the bucket was never completely full at the end of the chain. Nonetheless, it was a good technique before the arrival of hand pumped fire engines. Analog delays with BBD works in the same fashion; every time the signal is passed, a little bit of it gets lost, and that’s why (among other more technical things) the resulting sound is never as perfect as the original. How does it feel to be the smartest delay guy on the band?

Let’s keep going on.

Of course this technology has it shortcomings, and speaking about short, yep, you guessed it: analog delays don’t have long delay times as their digital counterparts.  For instance, the original Boss DM-2 introduced in 1984 only had 300 milliseconds (ms); the Boss DD-2 already could reach the 800 ms mark and it was launched one year earlier.

Another issue is that in the early days analog delay pedals didn’t have a lot of features like precise time control (through tap-tempo for instance), preset memories and loop functions. Today that changed a lot, take a pedal like the WAY HUGE Supa Puss; it’s analoge with tap tempo function and some dedicated knobs to tone, gain and modulation.

Way Huge Supa Puss
The Suppa Pass has dedicated knobs to depth (modulation), gain and tone.

To summarize, analog delays:

  • Tend to have shorter delay times.
  • Sound more organic and warm.
  • Usually have fewer features than its digital counterparts (but that’s changing).
  • Sometimes are easier to use.

Digital Delay

Ahhh, the digital units, they sound clean, crisp, so nice and neat. By this time you may be thinking…. why bother with the analog technology?

Korg SDD 3000
This Korg SDD 300 was one of those rack units of the 80’s.

Leaving that aside for a moment, and as we mentioned before, the first digital delay pedal, the Boss DD-2, was introduced in 1984. By no means was this the first digital delay device: prior to that, digital delays came in rack mounted units, but as the technology developed and grew things smaller, the possibility to have a compact pedal materialized.

Well, one thing is for sure, digital delays sound “better”, because they use Digital Signal Processing (DPS); this type of processing treats the signal like zeroes and ones and the processor doesn’t mess with the resulting outcome. This allows the pedal to create a perfect copy of your sound, there’s no signal degradation or whatsoever. Because of the way it treats your signal, it also has the possibility of dealing with longer delay times and as we mentioned before, these units tend to have many more features: preset saving, tap tempo, pedal emulation, reverse delay, etc.

To summarize, digital delays:

  • Sound cleaner.
  • Have longer delay times.
  • Offer better parameters controls and features.
  • They sound less “natural”

So… What’s The Real Difference?

Maybe you just figured this out for yourself, but I’m going to help anyway: the real difference is in the way these units process the sound. Different technologies applied lead to different results; BBD will give you a more organic, dark, warmer sound echoes whilst DSP units will allow you to have crystal clear repetitions of what you’re playing, with more features regarding tone, time control, emulation, etc.

What you end up choosing depends on various different factors, but my recommendation is that you try both, because the truth is, they can complement really well! Most guitarists have at least one digital delay and one analog delay on their boards. This is because they’ve learned how to use the pedals according to the situation. In my case, I keep my analog delay on most times while I’m playing, you know why? Because I like how it colors my overall sound; for me it’s a matter of personal preference, and maybe, just maybe, it will be the same with you :). So, just try both, experiment and have fun!

Later on we’ll be discussing the best analog and digital units out there in the market and what can you get depending on the budget you have.

Until the next time,

M.M

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