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After an inspiring trip to Berlin’s Superbooth in 2016, one half of Coldcut and Ninja Tune co-founder Matt Black, alongside longtime friend Dr Walker, dreamt up a concept for a custom effects unit. Fast forward several years and their dream has become reality, as the independent UK record label joins forces with Erica Synths to create a custom performance delay box.
The Zen Delay features a BPM-synced stereo digital delay alongside an analogue multi-mode 24dB filter and a valve overdrive. Rather than hide everything behind buttons and menus, it’s been designed with large knobs for each control, allowing you to get hands-on and create extreme dub feedback and experimental effect sweeps exceptionally quickly. Might this zen-coaxing unit be the perfect blend of analogue and digital?
The unit features Erica Synths’ signature look, with a sturdy black metal case and large bakelite knobs that beg to be tweaked, plus a valve tube in the centre covered by a protective bar. On the back, there are stereo 1/4-inch inputs and outputs, a footswitch input for bypass and tap tempo, and a MIDI-in to sync the unit to a host BPM. There’s also a tap-tempo button on the front to set the speed.
There are five delay types, which include mono and ping-pong tape, mono and ping-pong digital, and a vintage mode. Essentially, the tape algorithms change in pitch as you alter the time, and the digital ones will keep the pitch the same. In practice, this means you can create some wild siren sounds, tape-stop effects, and chorus-like wobbles using the tape mode, and more comb-filter-sounding glitches and stutter repeats with the digital settings.
On release, the fifth mode was a crunchy lo-fi BBD effect that could create bit-crushed destruction when turned up full. However, it wasn’t necessarily the best choice for a delay unit, so Erica saw fit to update the firmware with a new vintage tape model with a built-in LFO. This allows you to create warm-sounding chorus effects and extreme high-feedback flanging, which is more what you’d expect from a unit like this.
What really sets this delay apart are the thoughtfully weighted dials. The delay time dial is highly sensitive in the short time region, meaning you can fine-tune the pitch when you have more feedback and perform with it as if it were an instrument. Likewise, the feedback dial is extremely forgiving in its upper half, meaning you can ride the crest where it starts to increase in volume without accidentally sending the repeats and your ears into meltdown.
You could easily set a loop going and go and make a cup of tea, safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to overload after 30 seconds. In this way, the Zen Delay acts a bit like a loop pedal, making it excellent for some types of live performance. You could set an ambience going, for example, and then move on to manipulating other instruments or controls, revisiting the Zen Delay when you wanted to make an adjustment. That said, as easy as it is to set a hypnotic loop going, it’s also easy to bring it all crashing down with one wrong movement. Think of this as an instrument – it can take a while to learn where the sweet spot is for each dial.
Find a path
The delay is only part of the package. There’s also an exquisite-sounding filter with low-pass, high-pass and band-pass modes, as well as valve distortion. The filter has resonance and cutoff dials, with a satisfying and pronounced resonant peak that can be combined with longer feedback times to create massive rises and falls. The valve can be driven using the in-level dial, and can add thick saturation to any signal. The drive dial is actually a wet/dry control, so you can create parallel saturation, and add an additional level of crunch by increasing the input volume to clip the internal DSP. By cranking things up, you can dramatically transform the smallest of sounds into characterful monsters. The manual says that there’s a built-in limiter to prevent increasing the drive from increasing the volume but we found that this wasn’t entirely true.
With delay, a filter and distortion, the Zen Delay’s signal path can take some getting used to. The input goes through the valve first, then through the delay and finally the filter. There’s then a wet/dry dial that blends the delay/filter signal alongside the valve-warmed dry signal. There are pros and cons to this. On one hand, it grants you immediate control over the delay tail, and you can do filter sweeps without affecting the repeats. The flip side is that you can’t manipulate the tails (outside of increasing the feedback to gradually saturate the repeated signal), so you can’t create more traditional filtered dub delays.
Although the Zen Delay is a lot of fun, we encountered a few issues with it. The most significant being that the unit won’t sync perfectly in time with your DAW. After chatting to Erica Synths and a subsequent firmware update, we were still running into problems. It seems as though our case was in the minority though, with many others operating without sync issues. It’s hard for us to say whether it was the unit or our DAW setup at fault. There’s also a slight latency in the Zen Delay’s wet signal, which means you get some phasing when using the wet/dry control with no delay. This won’t be an issue for some sounds and can even be used as a thickening tool but it could prove problematic for more percussive audio.
On longer delay and feedback times, the digital delay decays down to a pronounced pitch, which again could be used as a sound-design tool but might not always be what you want. It also feels a little criminal that you can’t automate or modulate Zen Delay’s controls. If it had CV or MIDI-in, you could use LFOs to create smooth swelling choruses, use envelopes on the filter to help it gel with a synth riff or program specific timing jumps to create tight glitch edits. As it stands, the precision and smoothness of the results are solely dependent on your ability to dial them in.
Find your zen
This, though, is perhaps the point. The Zen Delay was built as a performance tool that breathes organic life into whatever audio it’s fed. Your interactions with the box will generate more natural and interesting modulations than those you’d come up with via traditional modulation sources. It may sound as though we’re unhappy with this unit but, despite our misgivings, we enjoyed our time with the Zen Delay, and will likely pick one up as soon as it’s available again.
Do I really need this?
If you’re looking for a flexible delay with lots of sync options and plenty of control of the tails, then this isn’t the unit for you. However, if you want to get to grips with performing your delays and creating more rough and organic sounds, you’ll find that the Zen Delay is in a class of its own. It can also be used to add warmth and width to mono synth signals, create note-repeat-style glitches and pitched rolls on a drum beat, and to add valve saturation to a whole mix by rolling off the tops and adding thickness to the lows. Whether you’re using it for live performance or in the studio, it’s sure to fulfil several roles.
- Stereo digital delay box
- Multimode 24dB analogue filter
- Valve overdrive
- Stereo 1/4-inch jack input & output
- Sync via MIDI
- Five delay types, 1-5000ms
If you’re after a clean-sounding delay, consider Erica Synths’ Eurorack module, which has similar tape and digital models, as well as large and carefully configured dials. It lacks the valve sound and filter of the Zen Delay but boasts CV control of parameters.
Described as an advanced robot-operated digital-tape machine, Thyme excels at complex programmed delay sounds and effects. It lacks valve saturation and different delay modes but has built-in modulators and CV input, plus a patch sequencer.