MXR M-118 Analog Delay
Much has been said in Cabinet canon regarding MXR and their amazing work. And to that end, everyone is familiar with the “script” pedals (that eventually became “block” logo), but far fewer axepersons are familiar with what I am calling the “block-only” era. This is unfortunate; some of my absolute favorite MXR pedals are from this series, and there’s a decent chance that you, the reader, has never heard of any of them.
By the time MXR had gained a foothold in the market, it had a handful of competitors and a legacy to uphold. Major players such as Mu-Tron and Electro-Harmonix were constantly pushing the boundaries of effects further and further. MXR released a pedal simply called “Envelope Filter” (also known as the M-120) as an alternative to Mu-Tron’s III. Personally, I actually prefer the MXR. Between it and the Multivox Big Jam Spit Wah, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.
One of the guitar shops I worked at years ago was across the street from a mid-sized music venue and one day Wire came in. The guys were incredibly nice and Colin Graham revealed to me one of his “secret weapons,” the MXR M-143 Limiter. He gestured to the one in the case and explained that he bought them whenever he saw them, and ours was the latest. Eventually we got another one in, and man, that thing is awesome. This brings us to today’s topic, the M-118 Analog Delay.
As far as I can tell, the M-118 is the first analog delay in compact stompbox form, dating as far back as 1975. Some might say the M-118 is the grandaddy of the Carbon Copy. The M-118 is cut from the same cloth as other analog delays of the same era. And because MXR was blazing trails in the bucket-brigade domain, the M-118 offer leans into the murky repeats and clock filtering, delivering some viscous and expertly-voiced slapback. The resulting tone is thicker and weightier than most other analog delays. Some might say it does this too well, which is why it isn’t mentioned more among the more notable delay boxes, but that sure didn’t stop Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, Glenn Tipton and Claudio Sanchez of Coheed and Cambria from using them, even considering the unit’s relatively short delay time of 300 milliseconds.
One of the most underrated aspects of the M-118 lies within its ability to process dirt boxes. While this can be attributed in part to its 12-volt operation (stepped down via internal transformer and regulator) and the accompanying headroom, there’s a special magic to how the murkiness envelops whatever you feed into it. Some other analog delays of the time period sound strident when pummeled with dirt; certain frequencies leap out of the mix which gives the illusion of note separation. And yes, while that can be a desirable attribute in other effect types, analog delay is supposed to sound washy and murky.
The usability of the Regen (feedback) control completes the ensemble. Many delays spiral into self-oscillation when the Regen control is cranked. And while many delays achieve this right at the end of the dial, the repeats spiral out of control rather quickly. Dialing a more subtle creep involves a jewelry loupe and a modicum of patience. However, when the M-118’s Regen control is cranked, it simulates more of a sound-on-sound effect that accelerates gradually, eventually overpowering the signal. It’s about as expressive as old analog delays get, and you only have to crank a knob to its maximum position.
Gut-wise, the M-118, like many pedals of the time, were made with a variety of components and in a handful of variants symbolizing manufacturing eras. The first version features a solitary output jack and features a full complement of three Reticon SAD1024. The second version, which mine is, serves up an extra wet-only output and an upgrade to the rare Reticon R5101. The third version adds an LED. Apparently, a rare four-knob analog delay (just called “Delay”) exists, but I’ve never seen one in person and may never.
If it seems like I’ve written a lot about MXR, it’s only because the company excelled at everything they did. I have a couple more of them up my sleeve that we’ll get to in due time, but for now let’s appreciate delay greatness.