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  • Line 6 Sounds Suck! Line 6 Sounds Are Great!

    This is sort of a preview about a section in the TonePort UX2 review I wrote that's going out in the next HC Confidential newsletter, but given all the threads about virtual amps and such, I though it was worth posting here.

    I see a lot of posts about how great Line 6 amps sound and others about how much the sound sucks. Now, the thing is I believe both sides are sincere. Are our ears and tastes really that different, or is there more to the subject of tone than meets the ear?

    When I tried out the UX2, I thought it didn't really sound that great, and the words of Lee Flier kept coming back to me Had I just been fooling myself?

    Well, on with the review, so I started tweaking. And before too long, I was getting some really great sounds. I mean gorgeous, huge, wonderful sounds. WTF?

    Then it hit me: I think the presets are more guitar-dependent than most people realize. No one created the presets for my guitar and my playing style. For example, with some patches I was able to go from
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  • #2
    Here is my perspective, from experience with a Line6 Bass Pod Pro (sold) and Pod XT (still using).

    I've used many amps and modelers over the years. Even before they were called 'modelers'. I got the first Roland COSM GP100 when it first came out - as far as I know the first 'modeler'.

    From what I can tell, digital guitar processors have come a long way, and the current Pods are a lot better than previous offerings, but they still leave a lot to be desired. Not that tube amps are perfect either - they are mosty too noisy and loud for my needs. But you can't deny the basic tone of a good tube amp.

    POD's offer so many things in a small box, that it's hard to compare apples with apples. For my needs, I don't really care about all the effects and bells and whistles. I'm looking for the perfect guitar preamp for TONE.

    And don't get me started on cab, mic and air modeling. I use my Pod as a preamp for a quiet power amp and real guitar cabs - Electrovoice, Celestion etc. POD AIR is just a nasty little slap delay and bad room reverb. You can do much, much better with plugin reverbs and delays. Or convolution impulses of real cabs.

    Much better ...

    Young players can get all excited about features and options and it's a buzz to be playing with delays and chorus and verbs and stuff for the first time. But that buzz soon wears off.

    For basic tone, I have a major problem with the Pod distortion sound. All the amp models appear to be variations on the same basic distortion sound - gain variation, response variation, eq variation, but basically all the sounds have a similar 'sound'.

    If you listen very carefully, on single string notes up the fretboard, you will hear definate pitched artifacts that sound like a detuned pitchshifter. These are called 'wolf tones', and they aren't exclusive to digital distortion - some tube amps have wolf tones too. When you hear them, you can't stop hearing them, and they are not musical at all.

    Guitar tone is a long chain of things, starting with your fingers. But generally, the secret of guitar tone in the electronic domain is the perfect matching of several distortion stages in a row (usually not just a single distortion stage). The eq of the circuit before and after each distortion stage is critical to the sound.

    Various players have various approaches - they might use stomp boxes, or they might use tube amps, or combinations. But basically it comes down to multiple distortion stages, with multiple eq stages.

    Analog eq circuits are expense to build right. So cheap analog eq, whether amp tone stacks, or pedals or racks, are usually as noisy as hell. Distortion circuits are high gain, and multiply any noise from the pickups or the eq circuits. So guitar amp chains are typically very noisy - which I hate.

    The beauty of the Line6 stuff is that digital is rather good and quiet for eq. The amp and cab models are little more than combinations of digital eq and digital distortion.

    So I find for getting the rough "shape" of an amp tone, the Pod can be better than some analog solutions. But I really don't like the flavor of the distortion sound, or the wolf tones.

    OK - so I tried using my good analog pedals to provide the distortion I like, and use the Pod simply as a clean amp tone stack. But i'm still finding it imparts wolf tones.

    I can tolerate the Pod for high gain riffing and chugging on the low strings. But for sweet lead stuff, it's ugly and un-musical.

    Still looking for the perfect well behaved low wattage tube amp. Most makers seem to think that low wattage amps are for children or morons, so they make them cheap and noisy and throw away the tone stack.

    There are some interesting botique makers - a few in Canada in particular. But i'm not brave enough to buy stuff without hearing it first.

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    • #3
      Well I've spent an awful lot of time tweaking POD's. I do own one, after all. And I did make a valiant effort to get some kind of sound out of it that would make me happy.

      Sure, if you tweak them you can get 'em to sound better than they did. Which is not to say "great." It does do some sounds better than others, and it does as you say respond better to some guitars than others. But the type of tube distortion that hits me where I live, it does not do. And P90's and other lower gain pickups don't care for it much, either.

      Playing it live is a real bummer, too... I feel really disconnected from the process of playing and feeling the music when using a POD or anything similar (and yeah I've tried the XT Live... same deal). And it doesn't cut through a mix very well, if live instruments are involved.

      As far as tone being in your hands... well, it is, but it's more like a relationship between your hands and the gear. You finger something a certain way with a certain amount of pressure and your guitar and amp respond a certain way, and you in turn respond back. And again certain guitars and certain amps are more sensitive to subtle changes with your hands than others. I just don't like the response (or lack thereof) that I get from the POD. But people who use higher gain pickups and amps may be fine with it.

      I think these things are pretty much like any piece of gear, they work for some people/applications and not others. The problem is some people try to shoehorn them into every application and act like they could be made to work for everybody. I wouldn't try to play a Fender amp in a metal band and that's no diss on the Fender, but the POD claims to substitute for both and more. And it doesn't.
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      • #4
        <<I think these things are pretty much like any piece of gear, they work for some people/applications and not others. The problem is some people try to shoehorn them into every application and act like they could be made to work for everybody. >>

        Well that's exactly my point. You really have to customize settings to take variables into account, and of course for some people, certain pieces of gear -- analog, digital, vegetable, mineral -- won't do what they want no matter what. But given the large number of people who LIKE the sound of modelers, I'm not about to dismiss them all as not knowing which way is up...so I think it's important to find out what causes them to think the way they do.

        Honestly, I don't think we even know exactly WHY people like tubes...just saying "They sound better" or "they feel better" isn't a lot of data to go on!
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        • #5
          Originally posted by Anderton

          Honestly, I don't think we even know exactly WHY people like tubes...just saying "They sound better" or "they feel better" isn't a lot of data to go on!


          Well I don't need any data, I just plug one in and turn it up... and then I know exactly why I like 'em. :thu: And so, it seems, do most people within earshot.

          Yeah people have done studies about the harmonics in tube distortion and why they're pleasing to the ear and all that... but I don't really care... it's pretty easy with a minimum of tweaking to tell whether a particular tube amp hits me right, and either it does or it doesn't... sure I'll always learn to tweak it better the more I play with it, but I'm consistently happy with tube amps that I like.
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          • #6
            Tubes, in their non-linear region, add harmonics which you can easily graph.

            I'm guessing that the ugly wolftones i'm hearing are a dsp attempt at modeling these harmonics - maybe. They just aren't right.

            Tweaking is fine - but unless the basic sound quality is pleasing, there isn't much point in being able to tweak millions of parameters.

            1000 shades of kack is still kack.

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            • #7
              LOL... yeah that's pretty much what I was saying.

              Really it would probably be better if modellers just went for their own entirely new sounds, and didn't pretend to be tube amps.
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              • #8
                The thing is, I don't want to beat this subject to depth. I want to dig deeper.

                It's like the endless debates about "Cables do make a difference to the sound!" "Cables don't make a difference to the sound!" I've heard people whose opinions and ears I respect believe passionately in both viewpoints. That kind of thing interests me. I've always felt if a musician heard something you couldn't measure, you had the trust the musician, not the test equipment. So my conclusion was that there had to be a rational reason for this dichotomy, and I'm pretty sure I found it: The reaction depended on the output impedance of the device feeding the cable, the input impedance of the device receiving the signal, the amount of cable capacitance, and the type of shielding.

                In other words, I believe it is possible to set up a situation with cables where 100% of the people would say the cable makes a difference, and another situation where 100% of the people would say the cable makes no difference. THAT's the type of thing that interests me here: Why is there such a polarization? I refuse to believe that the people who think tubes are the way to go are just retro snobs any more than I believe that the people who prefer modeled sounds over tubes are ignorant of what constitutes good tone.

                Now I also need to clarify what I mean by "sound": I mean what comes out of the speakers that the listener hears. I don't mean the kickback the amp gives, the sag from hitting a power amp hard, that kind of thing. A tube > transformer > cab is a physical package that CANNOT be duplicated by going through a purely virtual chain until the signal hits the monitor speakers. The experience of playing through the two media is totally different. It's like people who can do creative writing only with a pen and not a word processor, and those who can only use a word processor. They are different PROCESSES.

                But ultimately, in the case of the writers, what we're left with is the WORDS THEY WRITE. I don't care if they scrawled them on toilet paper or used a mainframe. Can we tell, by reading their words as printed in a book, whether they used a pen or word processor? That's the question.

                It's a similar situation. You might like playing through amp A and cab B or modeler C or whatever. Now listen to the mix. What do you hear? Is the sound or playing inferior because of the process? If so, is this an inherent part of the process?
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                • #9
                  Actually Aspen Pittman has some interesting comments about why people like tubes; he believes it has nothing to do with harmonics or distortion, but with depth...something that solid-state can't do. You can see a video of him talking about this in the section with the Frankfurt videos.
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                  • #10
                    Now, getting back to the idea of being left with the sound...I used to do a lot of seminars on guitar processing and would talk about tubes, solid state, modeling, etc. (this was when modeling first came out, even before the POD). I had a part of the seminar called "tube pop quiz" where I played audio examples of tube preamp, tube preamp with passive filtering to simulate a cabinet, tube preamp/amp with direct out from power amp output, IC distortion, and modeled tube amp with DSP. Only one person out of hundreds ever got them all right. Hardly any people could identify the sound of the raw tube as being a tube because, I believe, to them "tube" was actually shorthand for "tube > transformer > power supply sag > bias > cab."
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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Anderton

                      But ultimately, in the case of the writers, what we're left with is the WORDS THEY WRITE. I don't care if they scrawled them on toilet paper or used a mainframe. Can we tell, by reading their words as printed in a book, whether they used a pen or word processor? That's the question.


                      No I think that's the wrong question. See below.


                      It's a similar situation. You might like playing through amp A and cab B or modeler C or whatever. Now listen to the mix. What do you hear? Is the sound or playing inferior because of the process? If so, is this an inherent part of the process?


                      Well that's kind of what I was getting at before - the process does change the experience of playing (or writing) and thus the end result.

                      When I play through a modeller, like I said, I don't like the response and that causes me to think too much about what I'm playing and the sound makes me kind of uncomfortable, as I don't like the way the distortion sounds. Plus it's just not as visceral an experience as a cranked up amp. So I can't get into it (the performance) as much, and because it doesn't respond in a way I like, that interrupts the flow quite a bit.

                      Someone listening to the result might think it sounded "fine" and, if they're familiar with the way I play, still think it "sounds like me." But they wouldn't know what I might have done with an amp that really floats my boat. But I would. And in most cases they probably would too if they actually heard them back to back.

                      Word processing on the other hand, has changed my experience of writing for the better. I feel like in most situations it enhances my ability to write freely, versus a pen and paper. It used to bum me out that I couldn't write in bed before going to sleep, which always seems to be the best time for me, but having a laptop has changed all that. :thu:
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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Anderton
                        I had a part of the seminar called "tube pop quiz" where I played audio examples of tube preamp, tube preamp with passive filtering to simulate a cabinet, tube preamp/amp with direct out from power amp output, IC distortion, and modeled tube amp with DSP. Only one person out of hundreds ever got them all right. Hardly any people could identify the sound of the raw tube as being a tube because, I believe, to them "tube" was actually shorthand for "tube > transformer > power supply sag > bias > cab."


                        Yeah but... see my last post. I think all that isn't very relevant because any artist's tools are not about the listener, they're about the artist. Not that I'm saying the listener doesn't matter, just that the listener isn't the one who has to use the gear and if the artist ain't feelin it, that WILL affect the listener. But the listener won't know why, they probably won't notice anything "wrong," they'll just skip to the next song. And when they're totally moved by a performance beyond what they expected, the listener doesn't usually know or care why, either.

                        So it's up to the player to decide whether they like working with something, and they can't tell just by listening.
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                        • #13
                          And probably one reason why I'm so into this is because I played through tubes for years (and this was back when tubes were of a pretty uniformly high quality) and didn't really like the sound. Then solid state amps came out, which got me all excited because of the reliability angle, but I liked their sound quality even less.

                          After playing through dozens of amps, tube and solid state, over several years, The closest I ever came to getting the clean sound I wanted with stock amps was RMI keyboard amps with a 2 x 12 cab. BUT they were solid state and the overload characteristics were just plain horrible, so I HAD to get my sound before hitting the amp...and that led me to designing my own boxes because nothing else gave me the sound I wanted.

                          Of all the distortion elements I've ever used, I'd have to say my favorites go in this order:

                          1. Red LED in feedback loop of high gain op amp. Interestingly, I was talking with Tom Scholz once and he's another huge fan of using red LEDs as distortion elements. They have to be red; the other colors don't have the same transfer characteristics.

                          2. CMOS FETs biased linearly (as used in my Tube Sound Fuzz). They're noisier than I'd like, though.

                          3. Tubes

                          4. MOSFETS (very close to tubes)

                          And way below these, transistors and ICs operating non-linearly.

                          So where does modeling fit in? Well, it depends on the algorithm. The guys at Spectral Design who modeled the Quadrafuzz actually understood LED transfer characteristics AND played guitar, and they nailed THAT sound. I didn't think it was possible; they proved me wrong. I've heard other amp algorithms that were just plain nasty, buzzy messes.

                          So why don't I just use red LEDs all the time? Because they only make one sound. I like the sound, but jeez, one sound isn't enough

                          But we're also dealing with tradeoffs. The tradeoff with digital is the artifacts from going digital (although to be fair, GR2's high resolution mode, with 96kHz sampling rate, pretty much makes that point irrelevant). Those will go away in time, they're a sign of an infant technology.

                          The tradeoff I have with tubes is I don't like the way they break up, but I do like their clean and (sometimes) their heavily overdriven sounds. BUT I don't like the way modeled amps break up, either. The difference between the two is that with the modeled setup, I have enough other tools (EQ, preamps, etc.) that I can FORCE the modeled amp into breaking up exactly the way I want it to. Maybe I could force tubes to get the same kind of sound, but the time and effort required to cobble together all the other gear to find out isn't worth it if I can get the sound I want anyway through other means.

                          I guess the bottom line is that I work backwards: There's a sound I hear in my head, and I try to find the approach that makes it possible to achieve that sound. I care how the guitar feels because that influences my playing, and I care what I hear coming out of the speakers, but that's about it. The fact that something now exists that lets me get the sounds I want without having to build a zillion little analog boxes is really, really cool for me.
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                          • #14
                            So I posted that before reading the previous post by Lee...and it's basically the same thing: I'm happier playing because I'm hearing the sound I want to hear.

                            And really, it's like your "laptop in bed" analogy: I now have the tools that let me do things I wanted to do before but couldn't, and that makes me a happy camper.
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                            • #15
                              ...and to circulate back to my original premise, I've found that the guitar and pickup make a huge difference as to whether I'm a happy camper or not.
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