Every once in a while a familiar topic gets rehashed on music production forums, with the gist usually being: "I'm producing electronic music but want to use guitar pedals. What are the best options?" This is an understandable request. The market for guitar pedals has had a few decades of strong demand, creating a world of pedals that is vast in both quantity and variety.
There are some technical considerations to be taken before using most guitar pedals in a studio setup. Namely, most guitar pedals are mono rather than stereo and run at instrument level, which is much lower than the line levels that studio gear runs at. Therefore, most traditional pedals require that you run signal through something like the X-amp reamplifier to make that transition. There is a new generation of studio-class effect pedals, though, that is beginning to bridge the gap between these two worlds, offering pedals with stereo inputs and outputs that can accept both instrument and line levels.
One of the most popular makers of these studio-class effect pedals is the US-based Strymon, who make a handful of high quality digital pedals. Their newest pedal is a stereo delay pedal called the TimeLine, which was released officially at the end of last summer, but high demand has kept it consistently in a state of limited availability on their website, leading to some higher-than-retail eBay sales to impatient buyers. After dutifully waiting our turn in the ordering process, we finally got our hands on one, and sat down to give it a full review.
So, what does the TimeLine do exactly? As we mentioned, it's a digital delay pedal—but calling it that is a rather crude simplification. The Strymon guys used the beefy SHARC DSP chip as the foundation of the TimeLine, which means that they were able to build in more than just a standard digital delay algorithm (which on its own doesn't require much processing power). In fact, they developed twelve different effect algorithms, each with its own unique flavor.
The delay machines you would expect are all there, with a clean digital delay, a multi-tap delay, a sliding-head tape echo and a bucket brigade-style delay all included. There are also some more advanced delays that don't follow the traditional model of repeating back the original signal at a static rate. For example, there is a pattern-based delay that lets you pick from 16 different patterns, and a delay that plays back the original signal in reverse. Finally, there are a handful of algorithms that combine other effect types into the delay chain, such as pitch shifters, tremolo, filters and bit-depth/sample-rate reducers. Once you realize that you can use these effects on their own by utilizing a very short delay time and a fully wet mix, you see what kind of power this pedal has.
All of the TimeLine's algorithms share seven front panel knobs that on most algorithms allow you to control the time, repeats, mix, filter, grit, modulation speed and modulation depth of the effects. Additionally, almost all of the algorithms have their own unique parameters that can be adjusted by doing a bit of menu diving using a multi-function knob, and a couple of the algorithms actually override some of the front panel controls to allow for additional specialization. For example, on the tape echo algorithm you can control the parameters of the tape as if you had the reels in front of you—adjusting the age, bias, crinkle, speed, low-end contour and wow & flutter of the tape. If you're not familiar with those terms, the TimeLine manual does a great job of explaining each and how they affect the sound of the delay.
What might be most impressive about the TimeLine is its robust MIDI control. (Yes, the TimeLine has MIDI in and out jacks in addition to the stereo inputs and outputs—a rarity in the pedal world.) The delay time can be synchronized to incoming MIDI clock, and every one of the controls discussed earlier can be individually controlled via MIDI CC. This is a godsend for using the TimeLine in a studio, where you could automate every parameter of the effect via DAW automation. Additionally, the MIDI out port can be configured to mirror the input, creating an instant MIDI thru, allowing for the TimeLine to be easily inserted into a chain of devices.
The final trick that the TimeLine hides behind its aluminum chassis is a 30 second stereo looper that runs independent of the delay, and can be positioned before or after the delay via a global option. The fundamental parameters of the looper can be controlled via the TimeLine's three footswitches, which allow you to record, overdub, play and stop the loop. Additional looper features like reverse, half speed and undo/redo exist, but can only be controlled via MIDI CC, or via notes from a MIDI keyboard, which makes the looper very accessible to even the non-techies out there.
So having sung the TimeLine's praises, are there areas that could be improved? We did find a few items that could be helpful additions. First, there is no limiter on the looper input, so if your signal is too hot, you will get nasty digital clipping forcing its way into your loop. The undo function is nice in these situations, but currently it jumps all the way back to the initial loop—even if you've overdubbed six times since then. It would be nice if you could configure it to jump back just to the last overdub to correct the mistake. Sticking with the looper, it would be great to have quantization options for the loop start and stop points—although it is not difficult to configure this using a MIDI sequencer thanks to the MIDI note looper control. Finally, we found the TimeLine to be a bit quiet in our chain, but the boost parameter is preset-specific, so we ended up having to turn up each preset we used. A global option would be welcome here.
Despite these small complaints, the TimeLine is certainly one of the best (if not the best) delay pedal we've ever had the fortune of using. The effect algorithm variety is superb, the MIDI control and associated documentation is outstanding, and the independent looper makes it stand out from the crowd. The fact that it works out of the box with today's studio interfaces without any converters makes it worth consideration for any producer looking for a go-to delay.