Delay is an audio effect which records an input signal to an audio storage medium, and then plays it back after a period of time. The delayed signal may either be played back multiple times, or played back into the recording again, to create the sound of a repeating, decaying echo.
The first delay effects were achieved using tape loops improvised on reel-to-reel magnetic recording systems. By shortening or lengthening the loop of tape and adjusting the read and write heads, the nature of the delayed echo could be controlled. This technique was most common among early composers of Musique concrète (Pierre Schaeffer), and composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had sometimes devised elaborate systems involving long tapes and multiple recorders and playback systems, collectively processing the input of a live performer or ensemble. Audio engineers working in popular music quickly adapted similar techniques, to augment their use of plate reverb and other studio technologies designed to simulate natural echo. Tape echos became commercially available in the 1950s.
Before the invention of audio delay technology, music employing a delayed echo had to be recorded in a naturally reverberant space, often an inconvenience for musicians and engineers. The popularity of an easy-to-implement real-time echo effect led to the production of systems offering an all-in-one effects unit that could be adjusted to produce echoes of any interval or amplitude. The presence of multiple “taps” (playback heads) made it possible to have delays at varying rhythmic intervals; this allowed musicians an additional means of expression over natural periodic echoes.