Erica Synths x Ninja Tune Zen Delay review

The iconic record label teams up with one of the leading Eurorack brands to create a hugely inspiring hardware effect unit.

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Collabs between hardware brands and record labels are vanishingly rare, typically limited to basics like logo-embellished headphones rather than fully bespoke instruments or effects. If you wanted to pick a label who’d be ideally suited to something a bit more serious, Ninja Tune would rank highly on your shortlist. Label founders Coldcut made their passion for technology clearly evident from their earliest sampling experiments, right through to various pioneering software releases such as the ahead-of-its-time Ninja Jamm. Teaming up with Latvian hardware specialists Erica Synths, the London label has released the Zen Delay unit, a loosely dub-inspired effect designed as much for live performance as it is for studio use.

Inspired by a visit to Berlin’s modular-focused Superbooth show, Coldcut’s Matt Black sat down with Dr Walker of Berlin’s Liquid Sky artist collective to conceive a new effect unit. The result is, at first glance, quite standard stuff: essentially a stereo delay with filter and MIDI sync. In practice, what might be mistaken for safe design is actually a very considered approach to what makes a classic delay effect work. The delay circuit itself is digital, giving clean or coloured echoes with precise timing from one millisecond up to five seconds. There are five modes for that delay, allowing you to dial it from clean digital sounds to coloured vintage sounds or tape emulation. The delay circuit is paired with an analogue stereo VCF circuit, with a resonant multi-mode filter offering low-pass, band-pass or high-pass options. All of this is complemented by a simple valve overdrive circuit, with a single knob to dial in saturation.

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On the hardware side of things, Erica Synths are clearly highly experienced in the worlds of effects, delays, filters and valve circuits. In fact, in terms of delay-based effects alone you can already take your pick from the Black Stereo Delay, Fusion Delay, DIY Delay, Fusion Box and more. The benefits of the brand’s extensive design and manufacturing expertise are obvious as soon as you remove the Zen Delay from its packaging: it’s a beautifully built unit, with a real sense of quality before you’ve even plugged it in.

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Running a signal through the unit, the first thing that stands out is a matter of ergonomics rather than sound: the control knobs are well placed, tactile and given enough space to make them easy to work with. This is a common feature of Erica Synths modules, and one that highlights just how many other brands struggle with such a basic element of design. The upshot is that your hands are drawn to the larger delay time and filter cutoff knobs at the top of the unit, encouraging you to ‘play’ the effect two-handed. Starting in tape mode, it’s immediately easy to dial in delightfully sloppy Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry impressions, snare drums bouncing around as you crank up the feedback and send things into chaotic dub madness.

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With the unit synced to a MIDI clock input, it’s possible to get a bit more precise. This works particularly effectively on synths. The overdrive control makes it easy to strike that fine balance between glossy hi-fi sheen and gritty warmth that characterises the best dub techno. OK, the subtlety of Basic Channel might be a little more tricky than that, but the Zen Delay works amazingly well at livening up synth lines and chord stabs. It’s unfair to say it’s just a dub specialist, though; the versatility of the various modes and wide range of delay times makes it as much of an all-rounder as any other delay. It’s hard to think of a style of music it wouldn’t work well in, from ultra-technical IDM through to metal.

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Above all, it’s the attention to detail that sets the Zen Delay apart from other delay units. In addition to the well-spaced knobs there’s a reasonably large guard to protect the valve from damage, all of which adds up to make it ideal for live performance. There’s a foot pedal input to allow you to control the unit while playing other instruments, which is a nice touch. The delay and filter circuits can also both be fully bypassed, allowing you to use the unit in different ways. Used simply as a stereo filter it’s a very nice device, with the sound made sweeter by the valve overdrive. I even experimented with running full tracks through the unit via a DJ mixer, discovering that this would be a very fine addition to a DJ setup, offering an interesting mid-way point between a full-on effects box and a classic isolator. It’s probably not the main reason most people would buy it, but it’s a neat little trick to be able to pull off, expanding the versatility of the effect.

The world of synth-friendly delays is in a healthy state right now. As well as Erica’s own offerings, you can take your pick from boutique options like the excellent Bleep Labs Delaydelus 2, plus countless Eurorack modules and stompboxes. The Zen Delay feels like one of the most fully realised offerings of the lot. It’s a brilliantly inspiring effect that brings your music to life in creative new ways.

Greg Scarth
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