The Roots of Echo

Pre-Echoplex Devices, Part I
Pre-Echoplex Devices, Part I

Post-WWII advances in recording techniques, including the use of artificial reverberation and delay enhanced music as opposed to merely capturing it. The sound became almost as important as the material and musical performance, with producers and engineers gaining celebrity status and appropriate financial compensation. The amplified electric instruments, first seen just prior to the war, became the dominating force in popular music during the second half of the 20th century, aided and abetted by a multitude of effects.

While there is a charm to the simplicity of a lone instrument’s song, there is an overwhelming magnificence to a symphony orchestra or even the big bands of the 1930s and ’40s with their counterpoint and harmony, not to mention the choral effect of multiple horns, woodwinds, strings, etc. Electronic effects allowed small combos and even musicians working by themselves to compete sonically with the larger, traditional aggregations, both live and on recordings. Guitars and keyboards came out of the rhythm section and moved up front, where they have stayed for most of the last 50 years. And many of the most gifted composers of our generation have chosen these instruments, sounds, and the popular (or jazz) mediums for their work.

Whether it be a traditional handmade Spanish model of exotic woods in the manicured hands of a classical virtuoso, an open-tuned National plunked on by a self-taught, jackknife-wielding bluesman, Charlie Christian playing saxophone riffs on six strings through a 15-watt amplifier, Chester or Lester making one electric guitar sound like two (or three or four), Hendrix sounding like all hell breaking loose, whatever. If guitar music touches you, it’s relevant and should not be discounted, no matter the voice. Those who make accusations of minimal technique being hidden behind a wall of effects should reconsider why we make music; how well we play should not be judged by what our hands are doing, but rather, by what our ears are hearing.

That said, let’s move on to part two of this series on Echo (last month’s “Roots Of Echo, Part I” included interviews with Les Paul, discussing the first use of echo in a musical application, and with Ray Butts, creator of the first commercially available echo device). There are many similarities between “echo” and “reverberation” and the terms are often used interchangeably, but the differences deserve mention. Dictionary definitions are vague, with echo being, “A repetition of sound produced by the reflection of sound waves from an obstructing surface,” and “A sound heard again near its source after being reflected.”

Neither of these acoustic-related descriptions take into consideration an electrical reproduction, and could also define reverberation. “Reverb” is, grammatically, a verb – as in “to reverberate” or “cause to rebound.” But we in guitardom use it as a noun, an abbreviation for “reverberation,” as in, “The persistence of a sound after its source has stopped, caused by multiple reflection of the sound within a closed space.”

This is getting closer to the idea that reverberation is a wash of many different repeats having different times, with most of these times very short, and echo is a repetitive series of decaying (usually) but equally spaced sounds identical to the source.

Acoustic reverb has been exploited for centuries in churches and concert halls, and to many, the early electronic devices were poor imitations. Echo devices, on the other hand, were so otherworldly that comparisons to any acoustic environment known to man was ludicrous. Here’s a look at the first wave of portable outboard echo devices from the U.S. and Europe, plus an interview with Del Casher (nee, Kacher), who was closely associated with Ecco-Fonic, the first and most important of these devices.

Ecco-Fonic (Styles 1-5)
Although short-lived, the Ecco-Fonic company managed to start and end its run with the mighty Fender Electric Instruments company. However, most of the actual models were sold under their own name. Starting with an aborted promotional campaign in ’59 for a not-quite-ready prototype and ending with the modern-for-’63 solidstate line, these two companies never quite clicked in a business sense. But the period from 1960 to ’62 was responsible for a respectable production run of tube-type Ecco-Fonics, in four distinct versions, built under the guidance of four different owners. Since at least the last three tube versions were marked Model E, they will be referred to here as Styles 1 through 4, with Style 5 referring to the solidstate version.

Style 1 (two-knob)
“Ecco-Fonic” was as close to its only competition of the time, “EchoSonic,” as some of the Japanese companies like “Gibbon” and “Ferder” were to their American inspirations in the ’60s and ’70s. However, the Ecco-Fonic actually filled a void between the recording studio and Ray Butts’ $600 echo-amp. Fender began promoting this new device in the summer of ’59 with a single-page flyer and inclusion in the annual guitar issue insert of DownBeat magazine.

One of the first strikes against mass marketing this early version was the method used to get signal into the record unit; a special cable was required with a 1/4″ phone plug on one end and two alligator clips on the other for connection to the speaker leads! “…may be used with any single or dual channel amplifier, taking the signal from the speaker voice coil leads and introducing the echo or reverberation back into the amplifier.”

Don Dixon, of Echoplex fame, also experimented taking a signal from the speaker output to gain multiple repeats on his ca. 1957-’58 prototype tape recorder conversions (see next month’s interview). This approach was due to the single slapback echo inherent in using a tape deck, which Les Paul and Chet Atkins got around by using multiple playback heads and Ray Butts overcame with a clever electrical feedback loop inside his EchoSonics. But the Ecco-Fonic apparently used this feedback as well, due to the inclusion of a “Reverberation On/Off” control; “Then by the use of the reverberation selector switch, the same selection of echo can be attained plus the additional feature of volume decay with each successive echo.” How this was all done and how the feedback loop from the speaker output was restrained is unanswerable without getting one’s hands on one of these, which nobody seems to have done. Not that collectors today wouldn’t trade their eye teeth for this tweed-cased accessory/mate to their 4 X 10 Bassman, but has anybody seen one of these?

Don Randall of Fender Sales reportedly was not impressed with the reliability and test-user satisfaction, so it’s probable that few if any were sold.

In defense of this variant are a few firsts in the music world. Number one was a cartridge to hold a relatively long loop of tape, at least when compared to the fast-wearing loops that simply stretched around the heads and capstans, etc., as on all the machines preceding it and many that followed. Their short lengths of spliced tape would go past the heads about once every second, as compared to about once every 15 seconds for the Ecco-Fonic (assumption based on later models); “Ecco-Fonic employs a built-in 15 IPS tape recorder with repeating memory tape cartridge.”

An added benefit of the longer loop (and another first) was the inclusion of an “erase head switch,” referred to as the “Echo Selector Switch.” This allowed the musician to record a short section and then play along with it repeatedly; “In addition, Ecco-Fonic can be used to record a passage of music and played back as often as desired to study interpretation or technique.”

Most important was the ability to change the delay time; “The Variable Delay Control permits the player to select any rate of straight echo playback desired. This can be from a microsecond to as much as a full half second delay” (not to be confused with half of a full second).

The control knob was in a different position on the chassis compared to later models, so who knows what was responsible for the change in delay times. Possibilities include a potentiometer that slowed the motor down or a movable playback head using a different approach than later generations. A jack for a remote foot switch, an AC power switch and a pilot light completed the appointments. These appear to have been the earliest effort by Ecco-Fonic founder Ray Stolle. The elongated shape of the gold-painted chassis and the positioning of the controls leave little doubt this was the predecessor of later models, although the one-piece top implies that cleaning heads, changing tapes, etc., would have been a nightmare. Later versions used a split chassis with a removable cover for the tape path.

Style 2 (three-knob)
Ray Stolle lacked the financial capability to go into mass production and chose to sell his ideas to one E.S. Tubin, who opened a factory and offices at 905 S. Vermont in Los Angeles and began to advertise heavily. Besides Casher, he won the endorsements of country music star Hank Thompson and “Western Ranch Party” star Joe Maphis. With the advice of Del Casher, they corrected many of the early models’ shortcomings, with the prototype gong to Casher in late ’59. These three-knobbed Ecco-Fonics were very short-lived, as ads in April of 1960 already show the third style, including the carrying case, “…in smart Naugahyde desert tan with brass fittings.” “Attaches to your Instrument or Microphone,” exclaimed the caption accompanying the early Ecco-Fonic ads.

A flywheel with a movable bracket, connected to the center point and holding the playback head, allowed for the delay time to be varied while maintaining a constant tape speed, now 7.5 IPS. While it’s unclear how intense the repeats were when the reverberation was switched in on the first style Ecco-Fonic, on the second style, an additional potentiometer controlling the feedback allowed total control; “To be able to get repeated echo you simply have to turn “reverb” knob to get from one to six reverberations. By doing this you can make your instrument sound like six instruments playing at once.” Although the internal preamp could now accept signal from a guitar, it should be noted that the entire signal went to the record section, with only the echo signal (wet) showing up at the output jack. This required a “Y” cord from the guitar to both the Ecco-Fonic Input and that on the amplifier. This provides the highest fidelity for the straight guitar signal (dry), but required a certain amount of expertise on the operator’s part. It would change with the next model. What wouldn’t change was the introduction and continued use of an RCA jack for the output. This required a special RCA to 1/4″ cable, disabling the machine if not there and in good working condition.

Style 3 Model 109 (first four-knob model)
Tubin quickly changed the input section to include a fourth control, the instrument volume pot. This way, the wet and dry signals could be blended to taste before sending their sum to the amplifier. This version (Model 109?) Was the first to sell in any number, as Stolle had no real manufacturing facility and possibly only hand-built a dozen or so Ecco-Fonics total before selling the company. It could be that Fender was going to have to build their own, another good reason for them to drop the line before getting started.

Style 4 Model 109-B (second four-knob model)
The final production tube model, the 109-B, supplanted the earlier model by September of ’60 although it appears very similar. Besides a rearranged control panel, the big change was dropping the “Reverb On/Off” switch. This device was really not very useful, in that it activated the pot controlling the number of repeats. Since this pot could be turned all the way down and accomplish the same single repeat effect, it’s surprising that the switch lingered on from Style 1 to Styles 2 and 3. It seems safe to say that the majority of Ecco-Fonics out there are Model 109-Bs. Examination under the hood of an existing example reveals three adjustable pots under the tape transport, plus two 12AX7s and a ## under the control panel. The company ended up being sold in 1961 to a Milton Brucker, who eventually moved operations to Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood, pursuing radio stations and recording studios with the Broadcaster, a large console model. Serial numbers on 109-Bs going up to at least the mid 2,000s carried the legend “Los Angeles-California-Pat. Pending below, and to the right, of the logo stenciled on the cover plate for the tape mechanism. By the late 2,000 numbers, a new, straighter logo was applied, with the address of “Hollywood 38, California” and the warning “Patent Pending” applied across the bottom edge. The new company did continue to use the old logo plates (and address) on the fronts of the cabinets. Considering Casher’s Stolle/Tubin prototype has Serial Number 1012 and knowing that it was the first few made, we can deduce that Ecco-Fonics started with number 1001 and went to at least the 3,000s. If production numbers relate to the serial numbers, then a few thousand were made before the switch to solidstate. Attention Ecco-Fonic owners, please send serial numbers!

Style 5 Fender Solidstate
Another change of ownership in the Fall of ’62 turned Ecco-Fonic over to Bob Marks just before Stolle was granted his patent on the device. Marks was an electrical engineer with a strong background in modern electronics, as was chief designed Russ Allee. They saw solidstate as the future and set about converting to it at the new factory on Pico Blvd. This new model, although lacking any mention of Ecco-Fonic, was again distributed exclusively by Fender, who offered them for a number of years, starting in ’63. They fared better on the second try, although new competition from Echoplex restricted any growth. Marks, who reportedly survived a heart attack around this time, retired the concept as orders dwindled, with the name Ecco-Fonic fading into history.

Echosonic & EK-O-Sound
While not outboard units, the Ray Butts custom-built EchoSonic echo-amp (VG, July ’98) and the Rickenbacker M-30 EK-O-Sound licensed clone were the only U.S. competition to the Ecco-Fonic in the early days of the ’60s, along with spring reverb. Both of these amps were made in extremely low numbers, but need to be noted. The M-30 did not take the custom-built EchoSonic to a larger market, as F.C. Hall of Rickenbacker had undoubtedly hoped. At $773 with a non-variable delay time, it’s apparent why demand was small. The company did, however, continue to market the top-of-the-line amp until ’67.

British and European Models
A number of portable tape-echo units were offered across the Atlantic, with the Italian-made Maezzi probably the first. This unit is very collectible today, due to the continued interest in Hank Marvin of the Shadows, who reportedly used one in the early days. Vox offered a similar model under their own name, although who built them is a mystery. Their big competition came from the Watkins Copicat of the early ’60s. A few years later these units were claimed to have been used by all the British Invasion, being imported into the United States by Guild Guitars around ’63. For the first few years, the Copicat came with a two-piece lid, for those of you interested. Along with the Echolette from Germany, most, if not all, of these units were somewhat primitive in their capabilities, using push buttons to activate the multiple heads. The Binson Echorec came in two styles, though they appear to have got a late start into the battle. These units were tapeless, depending on revolving magnetic disks.

While the events described here transpired, two men in Akron, Ohio, were perfecting their version of an echo producing device for the electric guitarists. Custom-built models were being sold by ’59, but it wasn’t until C.M.I. became involved in ’62 that the Echoplex would take over this market. Next month we’ll take a serious look at all the variations through the recollections of Don Dixon and Mike Battle, the musical and electrical minds behind them.

Del Casher Talks About the Ecco-Fonic
Although he claims to play guitar more like the late George Barnes than Les Paul, comparisonsa between Del Casher and his “adopted uncle” Leo reveal two outgoing youngsters who have played music all their lives, learned the ins and outs of technology while taking it a step or two further and show no signs of retiring or even slowing down. A wealth of musical and related hardware knowledge and nearly 50 years of experiences turned into a few hours of phone conversations, from which this interview has been assembled. A shared interest between the interviewer and the interviewee in musical trivia and asides cheerfully led to the talks off the subject on more than one occasion, requiring a condensed version here to keep to the topic of Ecco-Fonic. His willingness to retrieve prototype units, papers and promo records, as well as share his firsthand knowledge of the subject is greatly appreciated. For more on Mr. Casher’s fascinating story, including his association with the Vox Wah-Wah, Elvis’ Roustabout, Roland’s first guitar synth, etc., see Willie Moseley’s interview (VG, January, February ’97).

Vintage Guitar: Let’s start with the Fender Ecco-Fonic flyer from mid ’59 (sent to Casher by the author).
Del Casher: That must have been something I wasn’t aware of. I was really enthralled by this, even the logo was an earlier version. Possibly Ray Stolle had contacted Fender, he had the Ecco-Fonic stuff in the back room of his TV shop.

It was really short-lived. It wasn’t in the ’58-’59 catalog and it wasn’t in the ’60 catalog. It was just in the eight-page ’59 DownBeat insert and this flyer. I don’t think it was in any of the price lists. Anyway, look where the wheel is placed, for the delay time…
That wheel, I don’t know if that was a wheel. Ray didn’t have the movable arm around the flywheel. He was doing a thing where there was a tape loop and it moved sideways, left to right. I wouldn’t have wanted to get onstage with it.

Maybe it controlled the tape speed, hooked up to a pot.
That could have been it. By the way, Fender did come out with the Ecco-Fonic concept again much later, but that was Automata, after Bob Marks took over, after Milton Brucker.

(laughing) We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Who was responsible for the Ecco-Fonic? The company men?
Ray Stolle was a guy who had a little TV shop on Sunset and he was trying to make this machine work, with a little tape loop. And he had limited resources, it wasn’t working really well; I didn’t think much of the unit because it wasn’t stable enough. There was a guy named E.S. Tubin, he had some financial backing, like an industrialist, and he set up a factory in Los Angeles, on Vermont Avenue, and he knew I was playing, performing with the Three Suns. He said, “Look, I’d like to have you help me get this off the ground. What do we do with this thing?” I’d had the idea, when I lived in Hammond, Indiana (mid ’50s). I thought, “Gee, if I could glue some tape around a turntable, and put the heads around the table, I’d have it!”

So I talked to several of my older friends, who were engineers, and they said that’s a great idea, but I was trying to get through college, things like that. So, Eddie (Tubin) liked the idea and they built one. The idea was to have a cylinder so there would be no tape flutter, so it was stabilized. He said, “That’s a great idea,” and I said, “If you make the playback head swing around in a cylindrical fashion, then your echo could be any speed you wanted.”

Yeah, which the EchoSonic that predated the Ecco-Fonic didn’t. He had, in the patent, specified that you should be able to move the head. And change the tape speed.
That was the main point I told Tubin, was the problem there with slowing the tape down increased your chances for wow and flutter. And if you slow your tape down, the fidelity goes down, the biggest problem with tape loops was you wanted the highest natural fidelity. I said, “Get it at the maximum speed and then don’t change the speed because your quality would change.” 7-1/2 IPS was the absolute slowest you could possibly go. The way you change your echo was with the spacing, with the [distance between record and play heads].

Back to Stolle and Tubin…
Ray still had the thing, originally. Eddie Tubin put the money behind him to build the Ecco-Fonic – that was with the circular device – and they built me the prototype in ’59; in December I took that unit to Las Vegas and then Japan. We had the biggest-selling album in Japan, called The Three Suns In Japan, and we went there to perform. And I had it, it was like a little suitcase, behind my Fender Amp, so when I stomped on the pedal, that just blew the Japanese away. They thought it was all coming out of the amplifier. Of course, when we played Vegas nobody cared ’cause they were all gambling! But when we went to Japan, I didn’t realize we were really huge there. We’d have like 5,000 people at these concerts. Eddie Tubin said, “Make sure you let the people know in Japan.”

An interesting thing was that our “roadie,” the gentleman who loaned us our Hammond B-3 – the only B-3 in Japan at the time – was renting us this organ for every show and he was always telling me, “I’d like to buy that from you.” And everywhere we went, he would say, “I want to buy that from you,” and I kept telling him “No, no, no!” Many years later I met him in the U.S. and he said he still had pictures from our tour. Turned out he was Mr. Kakehashi, president of Roland.

How long did Mr. Tubin run Ecco-Fonic?
Eddie Tubin was bought out about a year later by Milton Brucker, who was a very wealthy man, but for some reason he was fascinated by this Ecco-Fonic. He sent Joe Maphis and I to the NAMM show, doing promotions. I did one, I still have my itinerary, on Ecco-Fonic stationary; (reading) leave United States, Monday evening, February 27th, 1961, go to the Statler Hotel in New York for Sacks & Barandes to demonstrate the Ecco-Fonic. It says we are going to announce shortly sales plans for the Vaudevillian and the Singalong, those were part of the grandiose plans to fill all possible markets. So if you’re looking for a Vaudevillian, I don’t think you’re going to find it. It also says Ecco-Fonic dominates the field and explains the company has been in business for approximately two years, this was a note to me, however for the past four or five months has been under new ownership of Milton Brucker. It says it would be great for churches and cathedrals and synagogues and auditoriums, talk about various models, the Encore, the Vaudevillian. Okay, when Milton Brucker took it over, he started to develop different models, he wanted to sell to, like to radio stations. I don’t know if this is important or not.

Sure, this is great stuff. So five months from February would be, like August or September of ’60 for Brucker.
Yes, because that was about the same time I bought my house. He took over the factory and paid Tubin off and that’s when they started to modify it and do the broadcast units. Then they moved to nicer offices over on Santa Monica. That went on a year or two; enter Bob Marks, who was with Litton Industries, a technical firm. He was an engineer, early computer days, a technical guy, and he formed a company called Automata and that’s who took over from Milton Brucker.

The first thing Bob did was ask me, “How much have you been making with Milton?”

I said, “Whenever he calls me, he pays me,” and he says, “I’m going to put you on a retainer and send you a check every month.”

So whenever they needed me they would call and I’d be there in 20 minutes. But that made my house payments for a few years! We worked on a new model with multiple heads, for getting real short echos, more like reverb. I still have the prototype, it was called the 109-C, in a black box. But at that point, what Bob wanted to do was take the Ecco-Fonic out of being a tube circuit and into solidstate. That was what Automata was doing, but we were also working on a unit with multiple heads, I’ve still got that. I thought if you had a lot of points where you could pick up the echo, you’d get reverberation. At that time, Bob got very close to Don Randall, who was with marketing for Fender. Bob was able to strike a deal where he was going to have the Ecco-Fonic marketed under the Fender name, the solidstate version. They presented it at the NAMM show, but it was short-lived.

Did they make some? Because Fender did do a tape echo around ’63, before they went to a disk.
Fender came out in ’63 with it and that was the Ecco-Fonic patent.

But they didn’t call it Ecco-Fonic.
No, it was called a Fender and it had the Fender logo on the front. I still have mine.

What happened from there?
The Fender thing was short-lived and they just felt it wasn’t going to be a viable product, in keeping with the other Fender amps and guitars. It was a nice gadget, but it didn’t really take off. At that time, Bob Marks had suffered a heart attack, he survived it but at that point he went into retirement. And that was it.

Any tips to current owners on how to maintain theirs?
None of the guitar players understood you had to clean the heads, had to swab the heads, if you didn’t it wouldn’t work right, and they weren’t really into that much technology at the time. They didn’t even want to lift the lid up. And it wasn’t real accessible to get to the heads, you have to take out a thumbscrew to clean the playback head. Even the folks at Ecco-Fonic didn’t realize that you had to make sure the record head was clean, too.

And the erase head, and the pinch rollers.
On a lot of my units, I just left the cover off, so I could clean the heads; it wasn’t a big deal to make it work well, if you knew how to maintain it. The players weren’t willing to take the responsibility to maintain it.

Any way of figuring out how to wind that cartridge? I have one that’s missing the tape, and another with it, but I don’t dare sacrifice the good one!
Very carefully! And be sure to take a tranquilizer before you start! It takes a lot of patience. How you wind it is, you take one big loop of 1/4″ tape and just wind it around the cartridge, making sure you have the right side of the tape out. It comes into the cartridge straight, vertically, and exits the cartridge at the bottom. It comes out at kind of a slant, at a 45-degree angle (note: it leaves laying horizontally and is twisted a half turn on the way to the first tape guide).

And the tape just goes around like a regular reel of tape.
Yeah, you just wrap it around the wheel. But it’s just a loop, about seven or eight feet long and you wrap it around loosely.

Now, would it draw the loop tight once you started running it?
Yeah, and when you stopped the deck, the tape relaxed. And when you turned it back on you hoped it would pick up again and stay in alignment (laughs)!

How about the promotional records.
I was very much involved in the project, I recorded all the promotional records. The Ecco-Fonic came out first with a basic LP, which was only recorded on one side. This was followed by two more 7″ records, these were also 33s (note: these records are a must-hear). I would play “Dark Eyes,” “Two Guitars,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” that was Merle Travis style, “Blue Echo,” to demonstrate what it sounded like with and without the effect. I showed what it sounded with a little echo and then with more. Brucker would always say, “This is one Expensive record!” I have “Expensive Record” on mine!

Later, I made the Fender Ecco-Fonic record, it was a red disk, a 7″, and I play “Caravan” and “Steel Guitar Rag,” all kinds of things on it. I also did the Vox Wah-Wah record (laughing), that’s what my real career was, making those records.

You did use the Ecco-Fonic for years in your studio though…
I recorded with it all the time. Frank Zappa came to me in around ’65 – I didn’t know who he was, he had a beard and everything – and he wanted some real wild sounds. And we did this little production together and I just dug the tape out about a week ago and I said, “Geez, I can’t believe I did all this with the Ecco-Fonic!” And when I was doing the New Zoo Review television show for children in the ’70s, I used the Ecco-Fonic quite a lot, because we only had four musicians on the recording sessions. So the Ecco-Fonic always seems to surface. I’m glad there’s still interest in it!

Vox Echo Reverberation Unit, based on the Meazzi, ca. 1960.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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