REVIEW: Strymon TimeLine Delay

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS

There are so many different delay pedals out there. Digital, analog, hybrid… some give you a huge amount of features, but are fiddly to use. Others are dead-simple but they don’t offer much flexibility. I guess the ideal for many players would be a delay that offers incredibly fine control over every parameter like a rack unit, but in an easy-to-digest pedal format.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Strymon TimeLine.

I’m not going to waste time here: the TimeLine is probably – no, scratch that: definitely – the best delay pedal I’ve ever used. I like it so much that I’m not even going to save that grand statement for the end of the review. In fact I’ll say it again. The TimeLine is the best delay pedal I’ve ever used.

So why? What is it about this pedal in particular that gets it so right? Well it’s a combination of things: ease of use, quality of sound, depth of available editable settings, flexibility in sound types. Let’s break it down and see exactly what’s going on.

The TimeLine is a studio-class stereo delay pedal. In fact, the best way to think of it is as a studio-quality rack unit placed in a rugged and lightweight anodized aluminium chassis that you can place on your pedalboard for stage use or use on the desktop for recording and mixing. It’s built around a powerful SHARC DSP chip, and every algorithm is so detailed, so involved that it utilises the entire processor. There are twelve different delay ‘machines’ – Digital, Dual, Pattern, Reverse, Ice, Duck, Swell, Trem, Filter, Lo-Fi, dTape and dBucket. We’ll get into what they each do soon. There are plenty of controls on the pedal surface. Aside from the Type knob, which selects between the twelve delay machines, there’s Value (push for Parameter select), Time, Repeats, Mix, Filter, Grit (the effect of which varies depending on mode), and a pair of modulation controls (Speed and Depth). The Type knob also does multiple duty, selecting bank, time or BPM functiions and serving as your Save button for storing presets. There are three footswitches (A, B and Tap) which also have multiple functions: the A and B switches let you select between two presets per bank. Press A and B at once to bank down, and B and Tap to bank up. In 30 second stereo looper mode, the A button becomes the Record/Dub switch, B becomes Play, and Tap becomes Stop or Hold.

There are stereo inputs and outputs, an expression pedal input with selectable control over a knob or combination of knobs, and you can save a different expression pedal configuration for every preset, or use it as an external tap input if your particular setup requires it. There are also MIDI ins and outs, and a LED display for preset info, BPM or time readout and control of the extra parameters accessed through the Value knob.

What else? The pedal is true bypass via electromechanical relay switching, you can select Trails mode so your delay repeats fade out naturally with transparent Analog Buffered Bypass (saveable per preset), there’s a +/-  3dB boost for each preset (great for adding extra volume for solos), selectable Tap Subdivision savable for each preset, an optional Kill Dry mode to mute the signal if you’re using a parallel effect loop (where you would get weird phase cancellation if the dry sound through the pedal tried to compete with the straight amp sound), and a global tap tempo mode which is especially handy if you need to select multiple patches in during the course of a song.

So. The different delay modes. Let’s look at them one by one.

Digital Delay. This is the most straightforward mode in the TimeLine’s arsenal. If you prefer a traditional digital delay sound, it’s never been clearer than this. But you can tweak it too, for textures that aren’t attainable with other delay methods. For example, the Grit and Filter knobs and the additional Smear parameter let you add some roughness, but of a totally different character than that achieved by an analog or tape delay. You’ll get the precision and smooth decay envelope of digital delay but with the addition of studio-quality processing. I especially like to use the Filter and Modulation controls in this mode to add some ambient decay that trails off in a perfectly linear fasion. Far from being just echo that you can have following your notes, it becomes an integral part of your sound, an effect that you can ‘play’ just as you would a wah wah or octave pedal.

Dual mode allows you to configure two totally independent delay lines in series or parallel. In series mode this is where you’ll get some cool multi-tap delay sounds (although the Pattern mode is even better at this), but parallel in stereo is where it really gets fun. My favourite setting here is to set up a very short delay (between 40 and 80 milliseconds) on one side with just a few repeats, blended back a little, with an eighth note repeat synched on the other side. This gives you a great 80s rock lead tone, and it’s now my default lead guitar sound, with a 3dB volume boost. You can also get some amazing, lively chorus effects by setting two different short delay repeats and having some fun with the modulation controls.

Pattern mode gives you the ultimate in multi-tap repeats, with a wide variety of different patterns to choose from and the ability to process the repeats for clearer or mufflier quality (via the Smear and High Pass Filter controls). This is where you’ll really get into the interactive nature of the pedal, as you can structure complete riffs and songs around the repeat patterns, either playing along with them or letting them take over for arpeggiator-like effects.

Reverse mode is pretty self-explanatory. Leave the dry sound in to add an unusual character to an ambient delay, or set the TimeLine for a single, super-clear repeat for a straightforward reverse recorded sound. I particularly like using the Smear and High Pass Filter controls within the Value knob’s extra parameter menu to take some of the edge off the reverse repeats, while dialling up the Grit gives you even more of dirty a psychedelic vibe.

The Ice mode chops up the repeats and plays them back an any selectable interval pitch shift amount between an octave down and two octaves up. The effect is very much like having a keyboard playing shimmery pads behind you, and it’s great for those Devin Townsend ambient acoustic type of sounds. I like to use this mode in combination with an octave pedal and an eBow for incredible synthy sounds, but you can also get crazy Steve Vai “Alien Water Kiss” type electronic sounds, no sweat.

The Duck mode fades the repeat up when you stop playing, and you can select Sensitivity and Release Time settings via the Value knob. I don’t tend to use this mode very often but it’s great for playing over slow tempos with a lot of space. You can use it for more extreme sounds too, especially with a lot of processing on the repeats.

The Swell mode can operate like an automatic volume pedal, and is great for ethereal fades and sustained chords. I like to use it for some background ambience with a quick envelope where the note attack is not as important as the body of the chord. Another great mode to use with my eBow.

The Trem mode is another really fun one which gives you access to vintage or modern tremolo sounds. You can choose from triangle, square, sin, ramp, and saw to vary the delay amplitude, and if you use an expression pedal to control the speed you can get some great ramping up sounds and maybe even a little faux Leslie warble. Again the Grit control can give you some great textures. Ever speak into a desk fan and hear your voice all chopped up? Well in Trem mode you can dial in some sounds that are almost like the repeats are being filtered through an old radio with a fan blowing in between the radio and the listener. Very cool.

Filter mode will be a big hit with modern metal bands who use clean sounds for dramatic moments and choruses, but don’t want to sound ‘vintage.’ You can control a huge range of extra parameters here: LFO Type, Speed, Depth, Filter Q, Location and High Pass Filter. Turn off the dry signal for some very synth-like textures with twangy or fat, squelchy overtones. Crank the Grit knob to really thicken things up.

After the futuristic vibe of the Filter mode, Lo-Fi takes you right back to the past, especially thanks to its Vinyl parameter, which adds a simulated crackle just like that of needle on record. It’s a really cool effect that can add some serious vibe to the sound. But this mode is able to do a lot more than that. The Sample Rate and Bit Depth parameters let you dial in some 80s style blips, rings and crunches that also work great for industrial music.

dTape mode simulates a vintage tape echo with a whole range of appropriate controls including Tape Age, Tape Speed, Tape Bias, Wow & Flutter and even Tape Crinkle. Dial in the sound of a brand new vintage tape echo brought forward into the future, or one that has seen regular use for decades. The Crinkle setting in particular adds some serious vibe and character to the sound, and I love using this setting with a fuzz or octave fuzz pedal. Works great when dialled for gritty slapback delays too.

Finally, dBucket mode simulates an analog bucketbrigade (BBD) based pedal. There are two delay ranges available, for single or multiple BBD chip delay times. As an analog delay nut I love this mode. There’s even a Bucket Loss control (which takes the place of Grit in this mode) which adds some very interesting texture as the repeats progressively degrade. This is another mode that works particularly well with old-school fuzz pedals, emphasising how useful the TimeLine is for old-school tones as well as newer ones. You can even dial in a bright first repeat and darker subsequent ones by putting Filter at Minimum and Grit at 12:00.

The Looper mode is ridiculously fun, and you can even use external MIDI control to access additional features like Reverse, Half Speed, Undo and Redo. It’s an incredibly powerful feature and yet one that I found myself overlooking at first because the TimeLine does so many other things. But again, there’s plenty of control and great sound quality here, and easily laid out for stage operation.

And there’s another feature that I think many players might initially overlook: if you set the TimeLine to Mono out instead of Stereo, you can use the additional input and output as a Delay Feedback Loop. Use these jacks to plug in an external pedal and you can use it to process the delay repeats. Want to run your echo through a wah wah while leaving the dry sound unaffected? Easy. Intelligent harmony via an external processor? No problem. Flanger? Octave fuzz? Ring modulator? It’s all fair game. This is an incredibly flexible feature which allows you to really get creative.

So what more is there to say, really? The TimeLine is the ultimate delay pedal, whether you’re into modern sounds, vintage ones, or a modern take on vintage ones. Hell, you can even dial in a vintage take on modern sounds, thanks to the Grit and Filter controls. I’ve not yet run into anything that the TimeLine can’t do, with the exception of intelligent harmony on the delay repeats, and even that is easy enough achieved via the Delay Feedback Loop. The TimeLine is simply the ultimate delay pedal which will keep up with you whether you need simple, easily controlled meat-and-potato delay effects or the most processed, unique, idiosyncratic sounds imaginable.