In 1958, a new type of echo unit was released and it changed the game overnight. EMEAPP Creative Contributor, Norm Leete, brought us this tasty article that looks back into the sweet spot of tape echo history. The accompanying photos are of three originals from our vast collection of electromagnetic echo units.
The Copicat: In Search of a Portable Echo
By Norm Leete
The vision for the Copicat evolved from a long history of recording experimentation. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a flurry of effort to record the human voice. Initial successes involved the progressively advancing use of magnetized wire recording. This involved moving a linear magnetic medium, generally thin piano wire, past a recording head at a constant speed. However, the total game-changer came about in the late 1940s with 3M’s development of cellulose-backed tape that we use today. That, in turn, gave rise to tape recorders of the sort we see now.
The typical professional audio tape recorder of the early 1950’s used the new 1/4 inch wide tape on 10.5 inch reels that had the capacity to hold 2400 ft of tape. The speed was usually 15 ips which allowed for 30 minutes of recording time. Early professional machines used single-track heads, but half-track heads soon became popular. It was especially desirable for home use as it allowed the tape to be turned over and used in both directions. Tape reels were made from metal or transparent plastic. Standard tape speeds varied by factors of two. 15 and 30 ips were used for professional audio recording, while 7.5 ips and 3 and 3/4 ips were preferred for audiophile and consumer recordings. Typically 7 inch reels were used. 15/16 and 1 and 7/8 ips were the norm for dictation and other applications where lengthy recording times were needed, but lesser-quality was acceptable. Smaller-sized spools were often used in these situations.
Most machines of this era used separate record and playback heads so it was possible to monitor the recording in a slightly delayed fashion as it was being made. Different electrical routings and alternative placement of the record and playback heads would yield different sonic results. The most popular of these was artificial echo. This effect was first used by Les Paul who, with Bing Crosby’s financial support, created a system that became a key historical component of audio production that continues to this day.
The need arose to create a standalone unit that would be both portable and simple to use. The fifties saw various efforts to make this a reality. There were amplifiers that had the tape mechanism built-in and, in 1953, Binson’s first Echorec was developed. It used a magnetic disk to create a standalone echo machine.
In 1958, Watkins (a.k.a. WEM) created the Copicat. The inventor, Charlie Watkins, had a London music shop. He had noticed that a local studio was chaining together various tape echoes to create the desired effect. Watkins decided to create an effect unit that put everything into a single, easy-to-use box. He called it a Copicat. The Shadows used an early Copicat on a track called Apache. The song became a major hit and, suddenly, everyone wanted one. The urban legend is that the first 100 units sold out instantly with people queueing up down the street to get their hands on a Copicat.
The first version of the Copicat had a simple tape loop that was held in place by a spring-activated tension arm which eliminated the need for a pinch wheel. It had a record head and 3 playback heads that were controlled by a rotary switch to permit 3 different delay lengths. The unit had 2 inputs. There was no need for an erase head as a permanent magnet in the tension arm performed that function.
In 1960 the Copicat Mk1 officially went on sale and was soon followed by the Mk2. It had tubes, specifically the 6br8 and 2 ecc83’s. It had a tape loop, a record head, and 3 playback heads each of which had a selection switch and 2 inputs. The erase function remained the same. It was housed in a split top case in which the top part covered the tape loop, and the bottom half covered the controls. It came in a variety of color combinations.
In 1963 I got my first Copicat. It was black and cream. On this unit, the record valve finally died, and I searched everywhere for a replacement. In desperation, I finally rung WEM and ended up talking to Charlie Watkins himself. Not only did he promptly supply me with a replacement, but it came wrapped in a schematic for the model I had originally owned. Now that’s service!
In 1966 I got my second unit. This one had a new case, a removable single-piece lid, and still used tubes.
In 1969 I purchased the Mk3 which is my current Copicat. It had the same functionality, but it had become solid state. Despite having the addition of an erase head, this early example still had the magnet in the tension arm, and the bias oscillator was now on the main board.
The Mk4 arrived on the scene in the early to mid-1970s. It had various technical improvements which included moving the bias oscillator onto a separate PCB. There were other Copicats made after these which used digital delay lines rather than tape. These, however, are outside the scope of this article.
Using a Copicat is very simple. On most units, there are 4 rotary controls and 3 push-button switches. Starting from the left, there is a SWELL control that alters the volume of the repeat effect. The more clockwise the control is moved, the louder the echo effect becomes. Turning the rotary switch fully in the opposite direction shuts the unit off as the control also includes a mains switch. Moving to the right, we have the SUSTAIN control which determines how much of the delayed signal is fed back to the input. Turning it fully counterclockwise elicits a single repeat, while moving it fully clockwise causes the echoes to race off into a swirly, infinite feedback effect. The next two controls are GAIN1 and GAIN2. They control the relative volume of the 2 inputs as the unit can also be used as a simple two-channel mixer.
Below the rotary controls are 3 switches that are labeled 1, 2, and 3. They activate each of the 3 playback heads allowing them to be selected in any combination. The first one is the shortest delay, and the third is the longest. When activated simultaneously, a thick, multi-tap echo effect is generated. The output wire is fixed and terminated by a standard 1/4 inch jack, and there is a permanently attached foot-switch that allows the echo effect to be muted as needed.
On the rear of the unit is a very quaint warning label that says, “Always earth your amplifier.” This is somewhat alarming as the unit does not, as is customary, have a ground conductor! This means the shield of the output cable is being used as the protective ground.
I should conclude by saying that my unit now has a 3 core cable, a protective ground, and a new grounding scheme that prevents a ground loop. This means the unit now passes a modern PAT check!
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