The idea of physical effects is something we’re out of touch with these days. Our sounds are created mostly via electronic circuitry, digital signal processing, or some combo of the two. But what would happen if you showed up at NAMM and the latest innovation was a spacious, ambient, echo chamber, that pretty much looked like a tuna can strapped to a DIY electronic project gone wrong? If you know your delay history, you’d recognize the simple brilliance of this design. Of course, I’m talking about the old school charm of an oil can delay.
Vintage delay typologies come in a few shapes and sizes, but mostly we’re dealing in variations on ways of recording and playing back a sound with magnetic tape. This was traditionally achieved by either spindles of tape, for example the Echoplex or Roland Space Echo, or hammered thin magnetic wire, such as in the Binson Echorec. Yet the idea of so-called oil can delays is based on another way of recording and (re)transmitting a signal. Like most delay stories, this one starts back in the 1960s. Unlike most delay stories, however, this one starts in a Los Angeles television repair shop.
The brain behind this effect is Ray Lubow. You might be most familiar with his designs from the company that later delivered his effect innovations, Morley. While most others were tinkering with tape as the echo mechanism of choice back in the 1960s, Ray, then owner of a television repair shop with his brother, explored new tonal terrain. The idea was simple yet brilliant: take a can filled with oil, load a pickup on the inside, and then spin the can at different speeds so the sound recorded and played back creates a delay effect when transmitted through the liquid.
Early on, the Lubow brother’s design of the “Ad-N-Echo” came out under the company name Tel Ray Electronics. Within a few years, however, this unorthodox design caught the attention of some big name brands. For example, Fender marketed the Variable Delay and, in short order, three versions called the Echo-Verb. Gibson too took a run at the new form of delay with the GA-4RE. All of these integrated variations of Rey’s oil can memory technology.
Of course, the Morley EVO-1 still lurks around on the used market, showing the ongoing heritage of Ray’s original concept. What is perhaps the most forward thinking of this design is the way it allowed for real-time command of the effect using a rocking pedal. These days, of course, we’d call this “expression pedal” control. Turns out, Ray was ahead of his time in more than one way.
While tape, analog, and eventually, digital, would win the day for the technology behind echo sounds, there’s a few places you can still find an oil can inspired sound. The Catalinbread Adineko will get you there, as will the Earthquaker Devices Space Spiral, which goes from classic oily-like delay to otherworldy space odyssey in an instant. The best part? These will never spring a leak.