We recently acquired an Echoplex EP-2, our favorite and preferred Echoplex model, which was the last tube Echoplex, being replaced by the solid state EP-3 in the late ‘60s.
When operating properly the EP-2 possesses a warm, vibrant tone with very round, rich and full repeats. Users have commented that the EP-3 by comparison has a slightly colder, sharper tone. EP-2s can be found in usable condition, although many require minor maintenance and restoration by a technician experienced in working on them. We are blessed to have Jeff Bakos here in Atlanta— in addition to working on countless vintage guitar amps Jeff has restored a lot of Echoplexes and knows all the different models very, very well. When he saw our Echoplex he commented that it wasn’t the cleanest one he had ever seen, but he had seen a lot in worse shape, too. We took that as a positive of sorts…
If you have been with us for a while, you will also recall that we visited with Echoplex founder Mike Battle in Akron, OH while we were in Cleveland to attend the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame James Gang shows with Joe Walsh and the original James Gang members. That was a show to remember… Mike was still building and servicing Echoplex units at the time, and he was a very gracious and enthusiastic host.
Battle initially teamed up with a guitar player by the name of Don Dixon, who was getting a rudimentary echo effect by mounting an additional head to and old tape recorder. Battle was running an ad in the newspaper for old tape recorder parts because he was fixing them and building background music machines out of spare parts.
Mike Battle: “Ray Butts had built the Echosonic machine, and it sounded pretty good, but the tape ran out too soon and you really couldn’t adjust the delay. Don Dixon saw my ad in the paper and he brought this thing in, turned it on and played. He said, “Can you make something better?” He wanted it to be adjustable with more variation in the delay, because the Ecco-fonic didn’t have but two feet of tape in them and they didn’t hold up. Seemed like everyone had one in their closet. I built a prototype that I thought sounded pretty good, but Don didn’t think it was good enough yet, so we kept working on it. It was the wow and flutter that I kept working on. We needed a heavy flywheel for the tape to run smoothly and we were cramming everything into a tiny 6×6 space, so I machined all the parts myself, and it worked like this: First of all you have the straight signal from the guitar that goes to a tube preamp, and it’s also fed into a recording amplifier. It follows the path from the erase head to the recording head to the play head. The recording head can be moved, and the distance between the recording head and the play head allows you to adjust or vary the delay between notes, from real tight for a reverb effect to wide separation for a slow beat. I recommend using two minute tape, but the length of the tape can be varied. I also made one model that was sound on sound. You could keep adding parts to it until you had as many as five or six parts with no degradation in the original sound because it wasn’t wiped off by the bias on the next head. I got that idea from Les Paul.”
The original Echoplex distributed by Market Electronics was a great success, introduced in 1962. The first units were housed in a surplus brown case with separate controls for echo and instrument volume. The patented tape cartridge and movable record head were true innovations at the time. The second EP-2 appeared in the mid ‘60s in a wider grey box that was destined to turn to a medium-dark shade of green. The EP-2 combined the instrument and echo volume controls in a single pan pot that ranges from the instrument only signal turned counter clockwise to full echo turned fully clockwise allowing the mix of echo and instrument to be blended to taste. Both the EP-1 and EP-2 units are tube designs with a preamp circuit that imparts warmth and a tactile boost to the signal. Police guitarist Andy Summers frequently used an Echoplex without the echo effect just to further boost and enhance his old Telecaster, and indeed the Echoplex is a great tone enhancer on its own. Remember that.
The solid state EP-3 designed by Battle for Market Electronics appeared in the early ‘70s in a black box with black knobs. The previously hard-wired output cable was replaced by a jack. The metal cover over the tape cartridge was also changed to plastic. The EP-3 is a great bargain since the tube models are harder to find and priced accordingly. EP-2s generally sell for around $1500, while EP-3s can be had for roughly half of that. The EP-4 was not a Battle design. Market Electronics arranged distribution through Harris-Teller in the ‘80s after the Maestro brand and Norlin disappeared. Some EP-2s, EP-3s and EP-4s were built with surplus original parts and these units are quite rare.
EP-2s like ours are fairly easy to find. There were two on eBay and three on Reverb at the time we looked, and we bought an EP-2 for $999. When we received our EP-2 it wasn’t working properly, although the seller, Blackrider Vintage had assured us it was. When we informed him that it needed work, he replied that it just needed a little TLC and it would not be accepted for return. We returned it anyway, and Mr. Blackrider had it returned to us by refusing acceptance of the FedEx delivery. Blackrider had also just vacated his previous Lexington, KY address. We wrote to Bob Willcutt who is also in Lexington and asked him if he was aware of Blackrider Vintage. We had actually bought something from Blackrider before years ago (a Gibson amp?). Bob responded by telling us that Blackrider had recently left town and he would not recommend him. We should have sent that e-mail before we bought the Echoplex…
Having done business with the Blackrider before, we had assumed all would go smoothly. It didn’t, and you can be assured that we won’t make that mistake again. Now stuck with it, we took the Echoplex to Jeff Bakos at Bakos Amp Works. Jeff has worked on a lot of Echoplex units and we hoped there was nothing too daunting or amiss with our EP-2. Jeff spent about two hours going over it as we watched, carefully measuring all the critical values in the circuit, correcting solder joints that needed repair, and meticulously adjusting the tape heads in the tape path. He commented that it would be a good idea to get a new tape cartridge, so we ordered one from Analogman.com. This is very high quality mastering tape in a durable (and reusable) metal case. Recommended. Don’t be tempted to buy any of the old NOS Echoplex tape cartridges you’ll find on eBay… Recording tape does not improve with age, and it is best to buy a tape cartridge loaded with new tape.
Jeff also replaced the original instrument cable coil cord with a very high quality Evidence Audio “The Reveal” cord provided by us. He seemed to feel that replacing the old cord was very important. Both 6EU7 NOS preamp tubes were good, the recording heads appeared to be in good shape, but we couldn’t get rid of previously recorded remnants on the tape. Jeff observed that a new tape wouldn’t hurt. We tried using silver polish on the steel control panel to remove some of the tarnish. It did a very nice job of cleaning the panel, but failed to remove most of the heavy pitting. That said, it does look better having been cleaned. Who knows how many Camels were smoked around the EP-2?
After Jeff spent still some more time trying to adjust the EP-2, he realized that the replaced heads on our Echoplex that had been originally made for the Plex circa 2000 were never going to work properly in the EP-2. The impedance was way, way off and no amount of adjusting was going to fix it. The only workable remedy would be to install the proper, new tape heads. Fortunately, Shane at Echofix.com sells new Echoplex tape heads, and to our knowledge he is the only source for these parts in existence. We ordered new playback and record heads from Shane at $144 total, and he was kind enough to send us his EP-2 service kit consisting of a new pinch roller, three felt tension springs, a replacement drive belt, vintage style tape to reload our existing cartridge in the future, and splicing tape tabs. He also warned us that the tape sold for the Echoplex was often the wrong type. Well, our troubles aside, nothing quite sounds like an Echoplex… Yes, they can be quirky, and Jeff advised us that no two are quite the same, or plagued with the exact same problems. They are all a little different. With the new heads our restoration of the EP-2 was a smashing success, resulting in an Echoplex that sounds every bit as good as new, which is an excellent outcome for a +50 year old device. Seriously, the EP-2 is now as good as it gets, which is good enough to turn you into a hopelessly smitten Echoplex freak. Yes, it is.
Jeff commented on his work: On the EP-2 a brief summary of what I did to get it running again… Initially the EP-2 didn’t playback the echo and made a loud buzz. I resoldered tube sockets and dressed leads, and tightened chassis screws to deck plate. I eventually had to replace the erase/record head and the playback head— the Plex heads that were originally installed were the entirely wrong impedance, and I couldn’t get the bias high enough to properly erase. The replacement heads came with a new roller and felt pad that really helped a lot with the wow and flutter. After installing the new heads and new roller and pad I cleaned, lubed and adjusted the tape path, heads, roller guides, motor, capstan, and set the bias and record levels. I also replaced the output cable with a much better shielded cable that David supplied and it improved signal to noise a bit. The EP-2 now works precisely as it should. It is very quiet (for an Echoplex) and sounds good. I would say it sounds as good as new.
Should you wish to go on an Echoplex hunt, a few words of advice are in order. Decide what you really want first— the authentic old school sound of an EP-2, or the more direct sound of a solid state EP-3. We have nothing against the EP-3 at all, and you are likely to find them in better cosmetic shape than the EP-2s. The plastic cover doesn’t tarnish as it does on the EP-2, and if you patiently conduct your search you can definitely find an EP-3 in excellent functioning condition. They are fairly plentiful.
While you are chasing down an EP-2, don’t be discouraged by any tarnish on the steel cover. After all, it doesn’t affect the sound of the unit one bit. Just focus on getting an EP-2 that has been well cared for and is in good working condition. That said, expect to have some additional tweaking done by a skilled tech. Consider this inevitable. If in doubt, you can send it to Jeff Bakos in Atlanta. There is none better. Short of a dead transformer, which is really unheard of yet easily replaceable, there really isn’t anything that can go seriously wrong with the Echoplex that can’t be fixed, and the cost of replacement parts is very reasonable.
With either Echoplex. you may need to have work done on the circuit board (cold solder joints), the tape heads and tape path may need cleaning, the bias and record levels set, and the tape path may need to be adjusted by moving and adjusting the tape heads. And don’t forget about replacing the old coil cord on the EP-2— you can just sacrifice any high-quality guitar cord for this purpose. This is all common stuff. Just remember that an Echoplex is really just a somewhat crude tape recorder, although it is a bit more complicated. You may need a new drive belt, and if you need a new tape cartridge or anything else, go to Echofix.com. DHL shipping from Australia is remarkably fast and efficient. Otherwise, your Echoplex experience should be highly rewarding if not habit-forming. Our restored EP-2 is everything we could have possibly hoped for— the echo repeats are strong and lush, the Echoplex functions very smoothly and Jeff was right— wow and flutter are at a minimum, yet what is there adds a tangible spatial quality to the sound. Our Echoplex is also exceptionally quiet now. The EP-2 also serves as a magnificent tube boost device… When you turn the EP-2 off something very big and significant seems to be missing from the guitar signal altogether. In this sense the Echoplex is completely addictive. The lush and hypnotic echo effect is mesmerizing in its complexity and other worldly tone, and the robust boost it provides is rich and proud. Just pay attention and take your time while you search for your very own EP-2 or EP-3. Until next month…Quest forth… TQ