Delayed Reaction – Line 6 DL4 vs TC Electronic Flashback X4 Shootout


Delays are often sworn about and can on occasion be the cause of a monumentus pain in the ass.  I am of course describing delays to us going about our daily lives. Be it traffic jams, late public transport, or our children throwing up all over themselves and us, moments before we are due to leave for work.  But not all delays are bad.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Or more accurately: 13 years ago, California based amplifier and FX gurus Line 6 released the DL4 Delay Modeler and rewrote the book on what delay pedals could do and what they looked like.  The renowned ‘green box’ subsequently found its way into the rigs of some major players, including the king of delays, The Edge.  The Line 6 DL4 included accurate simulations of many ‘go to’ vintage delay/echo units meaning that non pros could get the delay tones they craved for, and those pros who do have the budget to own an original vintage delay/echo unit, don’t have to take them on tour any more.

Roll forward to 2011, and the TC Electronic Flashback pedal came onto the scene and delivered many of the same sour after tones as the DL4, but was only in a single stomp pedal sized pedal.  What came next in 2012, was the Flashback X4 which certainly expanded on the built-in features compared to the stomp box sized Flashback, but also as a direct competitor to the DL4.  So how does the FBx4 stack up against the DL4, and has the 12 years between their releases meant that technological advances could have given the FBx4 an advantage to out perform the industry standard 4 button delay pedal from Line 6?  Lets take a look….

Both units are a similar size, with 3 preset footswitches, and a tap tempo. They both feature stereo input and output, an expression pedal input and the ability to run from a power adapter.

The DL4 can also run from the included batteries for up to 30 hours per set, but doesn’t come with a PX-2 power supply (they are approx £17 or $25).  It also can’t be run from a stock 9VDC stomp box supply, as it needs 9VAC, which I always found to be an odd choice.  The DL4 is targeted at those wanting to use a delay pedal between their guitar output and amplifier input, which works very well with a clean amp tone, or one that’s starting to breakup and overdrive.  But for those using high gain, often delay is preferred in the amplifier FX loop.  With some amps, the FX loop level can be adjusted, and this will work fine with the DL4.  For those amps with a line level (+4db) FX loop, and no send and return level controls, the DL4 can struggle to cope without it clipping and distorting the signal, but with a little thought to how you’re connecting it, this issue shouldn’t cause you a problem.

The FBx4 uses an included, and more traditional 9VDC supply (although it needs more current at 300mA minimum, compared to many stomp boxes that can run on less than 50-100mA.  But after a quick check, many of the generic stomp box wall warts I have lying around would work with it). The FBx4 can’t run on batteries though.
The FBx4 has a couple of extra connections, and includes MIDI, and also USB.  MIDI can be used for preset changes, and also midi clock sync. The USB port can be used for TonePrints (more on that later), and also for free feature updates in the future (as noted on TC Electronic’s website).  The FBx4 also has auto sensing input and output jacks, so you can use it between your guitar output and amplifier input, or in any FX loop without level issues.

TonePrints are an interesting new feature, allowing you to take an artists settings for a specific TC Electronic pedal, and load them into your TonePrint enabled pedal. It’s as simple as downloading a setting file, connecting the pedal to your PC using a supplied USB cable, and opening the downloaded file and clicking a transfer button. Or you can use your iPhone or Android phone and a free TonePrint App to ‘beam’ the settings to your pedal through your guitar pickup (sounds strange, but is very easy and works well. There are simple instructions within the free smartphone Apps).
The Flashback delay stomp box pedal has 1 slot for TonePrints, but the Flashback X4 has 4 TonePrint locations, meaning you can store 4 additional presets in the TonePrint locations, in addition to the 3 presets assigned to footswitch A, B and C. The 4 TonePrint locations can only be recalled by manually turning the knob to select them, or by storing one of them into one of the 3 footswitch presets.
There is no similar feature on the DL4 for downloading settings, but there are an additional set of presets stored in the DL4. To access them, you simply press a footswitch to enable that preset (i.e. enables a delay setting), and then you rotate the delay model knob, and select any delay model. Each model has a built in preset (that cannot be changed).

As far as the delay models sound on both pedals. I did some tests to compare the 2290 model on the FBx4 with the Dynamic delay on the DL4 (which is a simulation of the 2290), and also to compare the analog delays and the ping pong delays of both units. I also compared the loopers features and how well they worked.

With the 2290 settings, both pedals sounded rich, and unsurprisingly the TC Electronic did seem to sound very slightly more pristine, which is what we expect from a digital delay sound. I was able to tweak settings on both pedals, to get very close sounds to compare, and in a live situation it would be impossible for any audience to hear the difference between the 2 pedals, which I could only hear when using a mixer to A/B test them, and headphones.
The DL4s extra tweek and tweez knobs were certainly an advantage with the ping pong delay, as it allowed me to reduce the stereo field spread of the pings and pongs, to give an interesting mix of anything from no stereo separation right up to full stereo separation of the pings and pings and all in between. The FBx4 was fixed at what sounded like full stereo separation. Something in the middle is what I prefer from a ping-pong delay though.
The analog delay sounded more pristine on the FBx4, but analog delay shouldn’t be too clean and pristine sounding but should be warmer and more musical without being too pristine and sparkley, just like the DL4 was.

The loopers functions are interesing and work just as they should, but I think both miss the mark a little with the way the looper feature is enabled.  I would certainly like to have seen some options for looper control, like a feature to turn the tap tempo switch into a looper enable/disable mode switch.  Even allowing 2 footswitches to be pressed together to enable/disable the looper would be been better.  It would also have been a good idea to allow the expression pedal input to instead be a dual footswitch socket (at the flick of a rear panel switch perhaps), so that another option is to have an external tap tempo and looper enable switch, while leaving the 4 onboard footswitches to be 4 presets.  But there’s some food for thought for when Line 6 or TC Electronic want to release a version 2 of either of these pedals, or for when TC Elextronic decide on what extra features they want to implement on the next firmware release for the FBx4.

Overall it’s hard to choose between these 2 pedals, as they’re both very good at what they were designed to do, and I think the individual needs of the musician will determine which is best for you.  Remember that neither of these are limited to just guitar use, and could be used for other instruments like keys etc. But for now, lets look at this from a guitarists perspective:

Those who would favour the DL4: Guitarists who like to have more control over their sound.  Guitarists who use FX before their amps. Guitarists who prefer to create their own sounds and presets.

Those who would favour the Flashback X4: Guitarists who need MIDI functionality.  Guitarists who need to integrate with line level FX loops. Guitarists who prefer to download persets from artists.