Legendary Tones, 2005
MAXON AD999 VERSUS EH MEMORY MAN
Originally, this review was intended to be a comparison between the two delay units, but as the delays showed their wares, I began to feel that they were actually two separate units that shared a common function and construction. And in a world full of different delay options, it’s these units shared and disparate qualities that set them apart.
Now, normal analog delays can only go up to about 300 ms or just over a quarter of a second, of delay time, mostly offered in various pedal or a few rack formats. With the advent of less expensive digital technology in the late 80s, the use of delays shifted more to rack-mounted units and digital pedals, which offered up to 1000 ms or more and a “cleaner, more accurate” delay. Each repeat could be crafted to a precise replica of the original input sound that could continue forever.
And this worked well in the rack world, the units were accurate, programmable and you could have a really loooooong repeat, canyons of delay for as long as you wanted. And, you could have all of this with none of the sonic idiosyncrasies and limitations of a tape delay or analog pedal.
When the big guitar-era pendulum began its arc back towards using amps, cords, pedals and guitars again, the digital delays made the trip, too. In a pedal format, they were again providing that convenient delay service. They worked and played well with the other pedals and were great for looping and other long-delay effects.
But as players investigated the older tones, they found that many of the classic tones came from tape delay units, like an Echoplex or Binson Echorec, or from a couple of analog pedal-based delays such as the Electro Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, the MXR green delay and others, such as the Ibanez AD-9. The Ibanez pedals were originally manufactured by Maxon, who is now offering a reissue of the AD-9 (see David’s review of this unit here), and of course, the AD999.
The AD 999 improves on its predecessor by offering up to 900 milliseconds (ms) of delay time, just short of one second. This delay time ability puts the AD 999 squarely in the competition class of the digital delay pedals, such as a Boss DD-3. It is a logical extension of the venerable AD-9, keeping the same control format of three knobs and a footswitch. However, the case is a bit larger than the standard Boss or MXR unit, nearly twice as wide and slightly longer. Finished in an unobtrusive off-pink, the unit is clearly laid out and easy to use.
Connections are made via the input jack on the right and two output jacks on the left; one for a dry signal out and the other the delay. This comes in handy when using a two-amp stereo setup or for providing a dry/wet signal for other uses. Power comes from a single 9-volt battery, but you are better off using the included power supply, since the AD999 will really chow down on even the best alkaline battery.
The included power supply, which is your standard-size pedal wall wart variety, comes packaged with the AD999 and contains a card with a stern warning against using any other power supply for the unit. The power supply says Maxon on it, and it looks like a standard 200 ma, center-negative supply, but who knows? The card explains that the incorrect power supply could damage the unit. I mean, they are serious, warning that the warranty will be voided if another power supply is used and any damage is incurred.
Sufficiently chastened, I used the Maxon power supply and made the hookups between a Stratocaster and a clean Fender-style amp. For reference, I had my Visual Sound H20 chorus/delay pedal, which features a nice digital delay line (DDL), at hand to compare against the AD999.
The control knobs are lined across the top of the pedal and are slightly recessed to prevent accidental turns. It’s a little difficult to adjust on the fly via your foot, but you can do it. You have a control for Delay Time, Repeats and Delay Level. Each knob felt secure and had a smooth turning radius. As I found by setting up, the controls provided a very fine amount of tuning, which comes in incredibly useful when constructing sounds.
The Normal/Effect footswitch either engages or disengages the unit, naturally. Switching for the AD999 is handled by a 4PDT mechanical switch for transparent, noise free operation. This makes the AD999 a true bypass pedal, meaning that when it is disengaged, the circuitry of the pedal is bypassed. The transparency of the unit in bypass is definitely much better than the average pedal, and when engaged there is only the slightest coloration. It is completely unnoticeable when you are using the unit. This makes the AD999 useable in other applications, such as recording or even for a PA, in a pinch.
First up was a shorter, slap-back style echo with just one repeat; instant rockabilly! The AD999 delay was clean but had a warmer feel to it than the H20. There was less “bite” on the repeat; it was softer and faded a little quicker. Adding a touch more of the Repeats level gave the repeat the same “tail” as the DDL.
I went from one repeat to about three, added some more time (to about 350ms), but kept the delay level low and added some chorus after the 999 via the H2O. This gave me one of my favorite sounds, a chimey, wide-sounding clean, reminiscent of Eric Johnson. The fine tuning ability of the AD999 let me dial in the sound I wanted, with just enough delay level and repeats so that any variation in picking would accent the level of delay in the tone.
In this instance, I could easily leave the chorus/delay combination on all the time in a clean channel, which was exactly what I was looking for in a delay. I currently use either an old Echoplex and a chorus or the H2O chorus/delay for this, but I would definitely want the AD999 in a live situation. It had a lot of the warmth of the Echoplex, without the rather fragile nature of the classic tape delay unit. The AD999 also worked well with any of the other chorus pedals I paired it with and made no negative impacts anywhere in the pedal chain order.
By turning up the delay time, level and repeat controls for a more trippy-sounding effect, I was instantly buried in the swirling, cascading repeats. It really got fun when I quickly hooked up another clean amp via the dry output; this made for a wide stereo effect. And, the AD999 will do the “spaceship sound” to a Tee, just max all the controls and you are cleared for liftoff. You can just unplug the input and take that sound for a ride!
After some other good, clean fun, I wanted to try the AD999 with a heavier sound. So I dialed it back to about 300 ms, with one repeat and a very low level. I then hooked up to a favorite half-stack (’74 Marshall 50-watt w/matching Greenback cab) and a Les Paul. This combination I liked immediately; the single repeat helped fill out the sound on rhythm parts, almost like a reverb. Not like a rockabilly slap-back, but just a little “width” on the chords. I got a good sound that reminded me of Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away.”
By adding another repeat or two and some more delay time made for a good lead delay sound. The length and depth of a delay is a personal choice in this mode and it was nice to have enough and more of what I needed. It was also very quiet and transparent, even with high gain and volume, and this is a huge plus.
Judicious use of the controls is essential in these situations to keep the delay from becoming obtrusive. And the AD999 has the fine-tuning abilities to make these fine adjustments. This is one of the unit’s strongest points, the range of control over the sounds it can create. In all of the various applications I put it in, the AD999 proved to be a remarkable delay unit.
The Deluxe Memory Man is more than a delay pedal, though, actually much more. One might argue that the size of the DMM puts it into more of a rack-mount rather than a pedal category; it can still sit on a larger pedalboard. With the connections all in line along the back, it could be positioned at a 90-degree angle or even 180-degrees from the rest of the pedal line.
The controls are not as simple and intuitive as the Maxon unit, but because of the way they are configured is why you can get the DMM to sound the ways it can. After a short time, you become aware of how many popular guitarists got certain sounds with this unit. For example, artists ranging from Eric Johnson to the Edge of U2 used this unit to great effect on many songs. It can act as a stand-alone delay or chorus unit, or be called upon to provide the rhythmic hook of a song.
After making the basic connections (a standard wall-wart with no warnings), I powered the unit up via the Power switch. My first introduction was a large pop when I engaged the unit for the first time. The footswitch needed a few clicks to discharge the static, and then it switched quietly after that. With the controls set randomly, it took me a moment to get the unit under control.
I used the Level control to set the input level so as not to have any signal clipping. This control could be useful in balancing the level of an incoming pedal or device. The Blend control, which mixes the amount of dry to delayed signal, Feedback provides the number of repeats; the Delay control sets the delay time, and the Chorus/Vibrato which adjusts the type of modulation.
It was a little confusing at first, learning the way the blending of the controls worked, but after a couple of frustrating moments, I had a good handle on them.
My DMM review process became more of a series of hours lost in stumbling across new sounds and frantic note taking. If I learned one thing, it was to keep pen and paper handy to write down settings and any musical references. And the manual provided with the unit is just a one-page set of very basic instructions towards getting the DMM up and running. So if you are not familiar with the unit or delays in general, you can expect a bit of a learning curve.
I tried a simple chorus first by selecting Chorus via the Chorus/Vibrato switch, then set the delay time short and the Chorus knob up high. A wide, shimmering chorus sound came up quickly, and there was enough range between the controls to get a series of different choruses. After increasing the delay time, turning the switch and control knob to Vibrato, I found a couple of interesting vibrato sounds. Centering the Chorus/Vibrato control let me dial up a straight delay. But as I played with these straightforward sounds, I became more interested in the sounds I found during my transitions between the standard sounds. By their nature of blending, the controls provide access to some very unconventional sonic creations.
Once aware of these foibles, I strayed away from seeking a straight delay sound for getting lost in an array of unique but familiar sounds.
I ran across one that worked brilliantly for a repeating figure that that threatened to collapse at any second. You could use the Feedback level to create a drone effect by striking an open D string, and then begin playing a series of double stops or triads over that. The Feedback control is the key to the instability; by 12 o’ clock, things are beginning to run away from you and further than that leads to total collapse. The textural possibilities are endless and that is why I felt the DMM was more than just a delay; it can become a key component in creating an array of different sounds.
Regressing for a moment, I used the wobble available from the vibrato to create a tape delay sound that had a lot of the Echoplex magic to the lo-fi tone. Though the delay time available is shorter than the AD999, I was pleased at how well it worked as a straight delay unit. But that almost seemed to be a waste of its possibilities.
The DMM is a bit noisier than the AD999, especially in a full chorus mode, and is not as transparent when inline in the signal chain. And the bear-sized footprint could cause problems on a crowded pedalboard, but these things can be overlooked in the right application.
Both of these units shined in the delay application, with the AD999 taking a lead in delay time, sonic transparency and size. It definitely exploits the analog charm and tone while offering a near digital delay time lengths. The construction is top notch, the features are all very useable and the unit’s size makes it a shoe-in for most pedalboards. The AD999 is a pedal that can provide nearly all of the delay requirements that one is looking for in a relatively affordable, compact package.
The Deluxe Memory Man offers greater sonic textures and opens up the possibilities for more truly unique sounds. Its oddball characteristics are what gives the DMM its personality and are actually the unit’s strengths. It might not be a plug-in and go kind of pedal, but for someone wanting an effect that does more than a delay and that offers a larger sonic palette, the DMM is great choice. I really enjoyed my time with both of the pedals and I want both of them in my arsenal.
Both of these delays can find a home with most guitarists because of the abilities and reputations they have within them. The sounds and moods they create are unique to the player and the vision that they have within themselves.