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Line 6 Helix Multieffects


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(Note: Pro Reviews are Harmony Central's unique, interactive, open-ended, and "open-source" reviews. Subscribe to the thread, or check back often, as the review is ongoing - it's part blog, part forum, and part Q&A. Feel free to ask questions; if I can't answer them, someone from Line 6 will. For more information on Pro Reviews, please refer to the FAQ and forum rules.)



I've been tracking the progress of the Helix for quite some time, including a chance to see Marcus Ryle (Line 6's head honcho) demonstrate it at Sweetwater's GearFest 2015, which I documented in my GearFest show report. Considering that Line 6's POD Farm is what got the whole amp sim thing off the ground, the fact that the company - now under Yamaha's ownership - was working on a high-end, no-holds-barred multieffects that was intended to go above and beyond the POD...well, how could I not be interested? Not only did I want to check it out for my own admittedly selfish reasons (the Line 6 Dream Rig was one of the last Pro Reviews I did before joining Gibson, and I like Line 6's effects) but I also wanted to create presets designed specifically for Gibson's new 2016 guitar models. So here I am with a Helix, and here we are with a Pro Review.


Hardware Pro Reviews typically start off with a photo gallery, and this one is no exception. Here's what's in the package.




Clockwise starting from the upper right, there's a surprisingly useful Cheat Sheet for the various functions leaning up against the box. Then there's the Helix itself, and a USB flash drive (don't throw it out by accident with the foam packaging). We'll get into what's on the flash drive, as well as the reason for the hex wrench, later on. Then there's a USB cable with a ferrite bead, and a line cord that's quite a bit longer than the average line cord packed with a device. (So just in case accounting was arguing with product management - "We can save a few bucks if we use a shorter cable, no one will notice" and product management insisted someone would indeed notice...I noticed smile.png).


As is the usual practice these days, there's no manual - you need to grab it online. I keep all my downloads in iBooks on my iPad, so Helix will join the other Line 6 manuals (for details on how to create a manual library with an iPad, check out the article Create Your Own Manual Library).


Now let's plug 'er in, and take a look at the unit itself.




The first thing you'll notice is this thing is built like a tank...it's heavy metal, in the literal sense of the words. The next thing you'll notice is the plethora of displays - the sort of "scribble strip" displays that show what the footswitches do (and by the way, the footswitches have little colored rings that further identify what they do), the display above the footpedal, and the mondo big/bright display that shows signal flow and is suitable for tweaking presets. Or as Donald Trump would call it, the HUGE!! and AMAZING!! display.


The main display deserves its own close-up...




Note the labels along the bottom. These correspond to knobs immediately below the display, so you always know what the knobs are doing. Also, one of the really great features is a dedicated Home button. If you ever got lost in the tweaking process, just hit the home button. It's sort of like clicking your heels twice, and returning to Kansas.


Next, a closeup of the displays associated with each footswitch. Here they're showing individual presets, but you can change modes and show the effects within the presets too...as well as other things, like parameters.




The footpedal is heavy-duty metal...plastic need not apply. It's downright macho (or machette - equal time for all the woman guitarists out there!). If the footpedal could be removed, it would make an excellent personal defense device. OTOH the Helix itself is sufficiently heavy-duty that hurling it at an assailant would probably knock them out, as long as you had good aim. I suspect that the Helix itself would not suffer any damage.




Moving right along, let's look at the I/O on the rear panel. Line 6 has always been good about providing lots of I/O - the HD500 basically set the standard, and the Helix follows along in the same "you can hook this into anything" path. Here's the rear left of the unit.




I haven't dug into the manual far enough to know exactly what all of these jacks do, but it seems there's the option for two other effects pedals, as well as Control Voltage input. Does this mean nirvana for Eurorack synth junkies who want to interface with Helix? We'll find out. Next there's the expected Guitar in and Aux in, as well as the expected-for-Line-6-but-not-expected-for-everyone-else Mic input. There are four sets of send/returns, which I presume are effects loops. Now let's look at the rear middle section.




We're basically in Output Land, with XLR stereo out, 1/4" stereo out, headphones, and of course, a Variax connector. Although I spend most of my time with various Gibson USA guitars, when I do reach for another guitar and it's not my J-45, it's almost always a James Tyler Variax...so I look forward to the same kind of connectivity the Dream Rig offered.


Finally, here's what's on the right of the rear panel.




This is all about digital I/O - MIDI 5-pin DIN connectors (extra credit for remembering not all MIDI gear is USB-friendly...especially the gear invented before USB :)), S/PDIF digital out, and the L6 LINK out option for interfacing with other Line 6 gear. Then there's the USB connector, and an IEC-compatible receptacle for the longer-than-average line cord.


That's a quick look but we have a loooooong way to go with this Pro Review. Like most Pro Reviews, I try to do a little each day, although I don't always have the chance to post every day - this is mostly something I do after hours, and on weekends. But let me emphasize that Pro Reviews are all about interactivity - I'm very interested in hearing from other Helix owners about their opinions, as well as questions from those contemplating adding a Helix to their collection. Also, I've invited Line 6 to participate so they can deal with any questions requiring a degree in calculus to answer, which I'm sure some tech-savvy guitarists will ask.


Next up, some audio evaluations. I may need to skip a day because this will require studio time to create the examples, but stay tuned and check back often.

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Sweet! Thanks, Craig!


It's kind of hard to tell, but the long scribble strip lenses have a removable plastic film on them as well—you kinda have to peel them off with your fingernail. Everything's a bit easier to read then.


Welcome! Actually I did remove the plastic before taking the shots, but those displays are bright - my iPhone freaked out a bit. "Blinded by the light," and all that.


Also, a correction: Turns out the CV jack is a CV output, not an input. So of course, I started thinking...hmmm, I have a Minimoog with CV and audio inputs...and a Helix with a CV output...hmmm...


Anyway, to those following this Pro Review, I promise not to geek out immediately. As a matter of fact, I'm going to issue the RTFM Challenge! and see how far I can get without reading the manual. Not only is that the acid test of an interface, but anyone who's seen me play live knows I like to work without a net, so let's see how far I get.

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Before posting the audio examples, I want to tell you two POD stories because they'll give some background to the review.


POD story #1: When the original POD came out, I could hardly wait to try it. I liked some models more than others, but overall, I liked it a lot. I even came up with a programmer for it using the late, great Panasonic DA7 mixer's MIDI layer so I could tweak presets easily. Of course, guitarists can be traditionalists and a lot of them took the attitude of "Oh, it's digital, it's crap, you'd never see me playing through that piece of garbage" etc. One friend in particular was shocked that I was using the POD for live performance, but he conceded it was a lot easier to plug it into a PA than lug an amp around.


Several months later, he heard some of my recent recordings and said "Well, I'm glad that at least you're not using that digital crap in the studio." Only problem was...I was using the POD in the studio. But he didn't know the difference, because I'd gotten good at tweaking it, and was able to match the POD to my pickups, guitar, and playing style.


POD story #2: When the POD XT came out, I could hardly wait. Although I liked the POD there was definitely room for improvement on some of the models and effects. I received one for review, plugged it in, dialed through the presets, and...it sounded horrible. It sucked. I was dumbfounded: How could Line 6 have lost the recipe? Why did the new, improved POD sound so much worse than the old POD?


I thought that surely it couldn't be a total loss, so I started playing with the presets and...it started sounding good. Then it hit me: The difference wasn't so much about the POD as that it didn't have presets I'd tweaked over a period of months to complement my guitar and playing style. After a while, I was definitely getting better sounds with the XT than with the original POD. In fact most of the time, all I really needed to do was back off on the Drive for any given distortion, and the sound cleaned up beautifully.


So what's the point of all this?


The odds are that whoever created the presets in any effect, not just the POD or Helix or whatever, didn't use the same guitar, pickups, string gauge, pick, playing style, play the same genre of music, or use the same fingerings. So, probably the worst way to judge an effects is by the presets, also because they're generally designed to show off what the unit can do - not fit like a glove into a track you're recording. There were many times when working with the HD500 that I just took off the effects, stripped it down to the amp, pulled back on the drive, and maybe returned a delay or reverb back into the signal chain - and it sounded perfect for what I needed.


So in this review, assuming that the sound quality is there, I'm going to place great importance on the ease of use and the user interface. A lot of players don't tweak their effects because the interfaces are opaque and user-hostile, so they never realize the full potential of what an effect can do...Helix is NOT a Tube Screamer with three knobs and a footswitch. As a result, instead of segmenting the review into sounds and the interface, I'm going to do the two together...if I hit a sound that doesn't wow me, I'll see how easy it is to make it wow me. And just to be tough on Line 6, I'm going to avoid reading the manual for as long as possible to see how far I get. After all, I need to emulate real-life conditions!


(An aside: Whenever someone comes up to me and says they read a manual I'd written, my response is always "So you're the one! I always knew you were out there somewhere!" That's intended to be a joke, but sometimes I'm not so sure it is...)



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All right, time for some audio!


The first thing I like to do with anything that has distortion is see how it manages the clean-to-distortion breakup, which has always been the hardest thing for digital amp sims to get right. IK does a good job; I think my CA-X amps (ahem) do too because I tried really hard to make that happen. Well, it sure sounds like Line 6 tried really hard too, because the breakup characteristics are excellent for the first preset I tried. You'll hear it for yourself in the audio example: the sound goes from muted/clean to more distortion to heavy, chorded distortion cleanly and smoothly.


Also, pay close attention to the decay. With many sims, the distortion sounds like it "rides on top of" the guitar signal, and the distortion fades out before the signal. Not so in this case: the decay is very smooth, with the distortion following suit. Frankly, given how picky am I about this kind of thing (how picky do you have to be to design your own stuff to get what you want?!?), we're off to a great start. If the other models react similarly, I'm going to be a very happy camper as far as distortion sounds are concerned.


Two other points: First, this is the first amp sim I've tried where my first impulse wasn't to reach for a notch filter to get rid of "fizzy frequencies" - those sort of whistling, sharp resonances you'll hear in most amp sims somewhere in the 3 kHz to 10 kHz range. Second, this doesn't have the typical ugly low end intermodulation distortion that's common with a lot of distortion algorithms. I still don't necessarily like what's happening below 100 Hz, but in the audio example, I applied SONAR's QuadCurve EQ to provide a 48 dB/octave highpass filter starting at 53 Hz. This is standard operating procedure for me with amp sims...I see little need to reproduce frequencies below a guitar's lowest note, particularly because otherwise, it gets in the way of bass, kick, and low toms. To be fair, this is subtle in most amp sims, and even more subtle in the Helix...but as I said, I'm picky.


For the technically curious, I recorded using a 2014 Les Paul Standard set to the neck pickup. FWIW the distortion didn't overwhelm the other pickup positions, they retained their identity. I would have recorded a second audio example if they had sounded the same just to point out that this was an issue, but it wasn't an issue.




Now, after all those well-deserved compliments, it's time for my first complaint - and this is no means limited to Line 6: preset names. I chose the first Helix preset for the audio example (begin at the beginning, right?) which was called "LickedByAWhale1." Now, it's very possible that being licked by a whale produces a sound similar to an overdriven amp, but I doubt it. Why not "OD Rock Rhythm" or something that at least gives a clue as to what the sound is? Granted, if it was up to me preset names would be booooring, but sometimes boring is helpful.


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POD story #1: When the original POD came out' date=' I could hardly wait to try it. I liked some models more than others, but overall, I liked it a lot. I even came up with a programmer for it using the late, great Panasonic DA7 mixer's MIDI layer so I could tweak presets easily.[/quote']Nice! The first time we met was at a Panasonic DA7 clinic in Tucson where I was working retail. The crowd was a bit geekier than most, so in lieu of the usual pitch, you showed us all sorts of left-field coolness, like how to turn the DA7's jog wheel into a wah pedal. Fun was had.



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Let’s talk about presets, footswitches, and programming. The most unusual aspect of Helix is that it’s a floor unit, but put it on a tabletop, and you can program it without getting near a computer. Part of this is because the footswitches are touch-sensitive, and we’ll find out the ramifications of that feature soon enough. Some might even argue that given Helix’s physical size, it’s actually easier to program than with a mouse and computer screen.






There are 128 programs resident in Helix at any one time; all 128 presets can be overwritten, because there’s no dichotomy of unalterable factory presets and editable user presets (thank you). The presets are arranged as 16 Banks with 8 footswitch-selectable presets per Bank. Presets within a Bank are numbered as groups of four, for example the first bank is 1A to 01D for the four lower footswitches, and 2A to 2D for the four upper footswitches. Two footswitches on the left choose Bank Up and Bank Down. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to select Banks randomly.



The two footswitches on the right are more utilitarian. Tap the lower right footswitch to do tap tempo, or hold to open a tuner. And here’s where we meet our first touch-sensitive switch application: touch this switch to see a tempo control panel, where you can choose whether Helix syncs to tempo globally or per-preset, and the base tempo.



The upper right Mode footswitch switches modes. The default mode is Preset Mode (although I think of it more like Bank select mode), but push it again to enter Stomp Footswitch Mode where the footswitches toggle the effects within a preset on or off. This may seem business as usual, but there are some significant differences.


  • The footswitches light up with different colors. Effects within Helix are color-coded by function—e.g., reverbs are red, delays green, modulation blue, and so on. When you’re in the heat of the moment and want to do something like bypass the reverb, parsing colors is faster than parsing text. Those who are color-blind won’t be able to take advantage of this particular feature, however the text legends are clear (e.g., "Gray Flanger," not "Cosmic Swirl" or something equally confusing).
  • If you’ve selected a preset and edited it, pressing the associated footswitch again reloads the originally stored preset.
  • If you hit a Bank footswitch, Helix automatically exits Stompbox Footswitch Mode and returns to Preset Mode. You don’t need to hit the Mode button again, or hit something else to exit.


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This adds a dimension I haven’t seen in other multieffects: press and hold the Mode footswitch to edit presets. Did I find this out by reading the manual? No, the scribble strip below the Mode footswitch says “hold to edit.” :)



Anyway, you can edit conventionally, which we’ll get into shortly, by using navigation buttons and knobs below various parameters. Here’s an image that shows the parametric EQ being edited; you can see the parameter names clearly, and the knobs with which you vary the values.




However since we’re talking about footswitches, let’s get into how you can edit with your feet.



After pressing and hold the Mode footswitch, the footswitches now correspond to the effects used in the preset and flash. Again, colors help you zero in on a particular type of effect. The following image doesn’t do the display justice at all (sorry), the display is just too bright and the camera thinks it’s pointing into the sun or something :) If you see a Helix in person, you’ll see what I mean...the displays are super-readable...except to an iPhone camera.





As for how you would use a foot-controlled editing option, suppose you want to edit the Noise Gate threshold because there’s more ambient noise at a club than you expected. Step on the footswitch that corresponds to the Noise Gate, and now the upper row of footswitches displays the editable parameters and their values. If there are more than six parameters, the lower row of footswitches includes page left/right buttons to select a different page of parameters. You then can change values with the Value +/- footswitches. Again, the nasty image below is the best I could do, but it gets the point across.




That’s four of the lower footswitches. Of the other two, the lower left footswitch returns you to Edit mode so you can choose a different effect, the lower right footswitch exits from Edit mode but if you want to save the changes you made, you can press and hold the Exit footswitch to save.



I don’t know of any multieffects that lets you get into this granular a level of editing with your feet, and it’s very thoughful and easy to use. One suggestion for a future update is to be able to hold a Value footswitch and after a short delay, continuing to hold would scroll up and down through values. As it is now, you have to tap each time you want to change a value...so if you want to edit the Noise Gate threshold from -55 to -38 dB, that’s a lot of tapping. Also these are not acoustically noiseless footswitches, so you’ll hear a mechanical click with each tap (although to be clear there's no click in the Helix output). I don’t consider this a big deal but as long as the scrolling wasn’t too fast, I think being able to scroll through values would be a useful addition.



Now bear in mind that so far, I’ve been true to my word and haven’t looked at the manual. Between the interface giving you useful tips (like “Hold to Save and Exit”), the color-coding, extremely readable displays, and logical workflow, so far this is a remarkably easy multieffects to program.



Next up: how to edit in a more conventional way.


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We’ve covered how you can edit with your feet, but of course, editing with your hands is quite a bit faster. And I might as well give you the short form: The user interface on the Helix continues to prove itself to be obvious, transparent, and—although I hate to use this word because it’s so overused—it really is intuitive.


Long-time readers of Pro Reviews might remember my review of DigiTech’s iPB-10, which was a multieffects that used an iPad as its user interface. The concept was brilliant, and prior to Helix, was the best interface I’d encountered in a multieffects. But, there were two fatal flaws. Dependency on Apple can be tricky, as DigiTech found out when shortly after the unit appeared, the iPad connector and form factor changed. The company had to scramble to produce a new tray and mod to accommodate newer iPads. Furthermore, DigiTech never really made it clear that you didn’t need the iPad when playing live—you could just program all your sounds, then leave the iPad at home so you didn’t have to worry about stepping on it or someone pouring beer all over it.


I’m bringing this up because the Helix offers the same level of user interface facility a dedicated iPad could offer, but without the drawbacks. I can’t emphasize enough how intelligently the Helix uses the displays, including prompts that guide you through the process.


It was a tough call whether to do a video showing the interface or describing it in words and pictures. Ultimately I decided on words and pictures, because the interface is so simple and obvious it would take less time to describe what’s happening than to watch a video. Here’s how you create or modify patches (and again, apologies for the photo quality but it's good enough to get the point across).


The “programming” section has three main elements, with a total of eight switches and eight knobs (the one on the right is a combo knob/joystick). All knobs also include a push switch, so many times, your action will be to turn a knob to choose something, then push on it to select what you just chose. The limited number of controls also encourages “poking around”—hit stuff until what you want happens.


Referring to the picture below, on the left (outlined in red) are the more global functions: call up presets, save, access various global functions, the “home” button that always returns you to the main preset screen (like a “back” button that takes you all the way instead of having to step through “back” several times), and an “amp” button that takes you instantly to whatever amp/amp+cabinet/or preamp is in the signal chain. If you have more than one of these modules present, pressing repeatedly on the button cycles among them. This is basically a shortcut button on the assumption that of all the modules in a patch, you’ll probably end up doing the most tweaking on the amps. I agree.


Toward the bottom, six knobs (outlined in yellow) change values, which can also include switching between options. Toward the right (outlined in blue) are three navigation buttons, a bypass button, and joystick.


I wanted to create a preset from scratch. Now, remember I still haven’t cracked the manual. So I called up a preset. Of all the buttons, my guess was that I wanted an “Action,” like initialize preset. Upon pressing Action, here’s what showed up.




Bingo! Right above the fourth knob was a graphic that said “Clear All Blocks.” I pushed the knob, all blocks were cleared, and the preset was initialized. Then being ever-helpful, this display appeared and told me to “Press joystick to open model list.” Okay...sort of like a Siri that doesn't talk. :)




So I pressed the joystick to open the model list, and was was greeted with what’s shown on the left of the following image: a listing of all the effects categories. Note that as mentioned earlier, these are color-coded. I figured I might as well start with a compressor, so I rotated the joystick knob to Dynamics, and pressed the knob down. This opened up the Mono/Stereo choice in the middle. Another push to open up the Mono options, and the column on the right appeared with the different models. I landed on LA Studio Comp and its editable parameters appeared above the six knobs. For models with more parameters, you have Page Left and Page Right buttons.




I pushed the knob again, and returned to the preset with the compressor in the signal chain.


And really, that's all there is to it. Sure, there are some additional options, like having two parallel paths. So push the joystick down or up to select a path. You can even move the joystick all the way to the right and select an appropriate output.


Everything else is totally obvious. To add another effect, move the joystick to where you want the effect, the push the joystick button and spin the dial until you get the effect you want. When you want to move a block to someplace else in the chain, when you hit Action you're told to move it with the joystick...and so on.


I've joked in the past about my system for rating user interfaces. It consists of two digits: the first is the number of drinks consumed, the second is the hour in the morning. The highest rating is 5 x 5 - after five drinks at five in the morning, you can still find your way around the interface. This is a brilliant user interface that takes the pain out of programming or editing, and more than deserves a 5 x 5 rating.

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Fun will be had in this review' date=' too [img']http://www.harmonycentral.com/forum/core/images/smilies/smile.png[/img] Quick question: The algorithms sound in some cases like re-writes, not modifications of what you had before. Is that correct?
Correct, with a few exceptions. The reverbs, eight of the ten wahs, and Line 6 Epic, Doom, and Elektrik amps started out as M-Class/HD effects, but have been rebuilt in the Helix engine, so they sound better. All others have been created from scratch within the new engine.
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There are 128 programs resident in Helix at any one time; all 128 presets can be overwritten' date=' because there’s no dichotomy of unalterable factory presets and editable user presets (thank you).[/quote']Helix actually has 1,024 presets. Pressing the PRESETS encoder opens the preset menu, and allows for selecting one of 8 available setlists, each containing 128 presets.


I don’t know of any multieffects that lets you get into this granular a level of editing with your feet, and it’s very thoughful and easy to use. One suggestion for a future update is to be able to hold a Value footswitch and after a short delay, continuing to hold would scroll up and down through values. As it is now, you have to tap each time you want to change a value...so if you want to edit the Noise Gate threshold from -55 to -38 dB, that’s a lot of tapping.
While in Pedal Edit mode, moving the expression pedal is meant to get you in the ballpark, and [VALUE-] and [VALUE+] are designed for fine-tuning. Agreed, it'd be cool to hold either switch, especially for Helix Rack/Control guys who don't have an expression pedal connected!
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Hey Mr. Igloo - thanks much for chiming in! The drawback of seeing how far I can get without the manual is that I miss things that are in the manual :) However, at this point I'm convinced that you really CAN get far without cracking the manual, so I think it's time to pull out your USB stick and do a little studying.


That's great about the 1,024 presets - not because I'd use that many on a gig, but because it means I'll probably never need a computer application that shuttles bundles of presets in and out of a limited amount of memory to suit different occasions. Also interesting about the expression pedal. Never occurred to me that an expression pedal could be used for things other than expression.


Right now I'm recording some audio examples to put in the next post. After that I want to look at the I/O, and then get into individual effects. So far the Helix has been an absolute delight to play through and program. I'm hoping that the ease of use will encourage those who were programming-phobic to create signature sounds and exercise their creativity fully.

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I'm hoping that the ease of use will encourage those who were programming-phobic to create signature sounds and exercise their creativity fully.
This was a top level goal from the beginning. As many have noticed, guitar has taken a back seat in popular music of late, and we believe much of that has to do with the same old tones being shoehorned into modern production. Helix will hopefully push people to make cool and unique guitar sounds that no one's heard before.



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One of the most important reasons for good editing is that patches you create at home never work quite the same live. Its really important to be able to easily tweak and save the patches in a live setting, just like you would with any amp. Helix supports this without having to have a computer or iPad, both of which can be expensive and somewhat impractical for live use.

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I could be wrong as I have changed up a lot of my patches already, but I think the "licked by a whale" preset is in bank 2. Those patches are a bit "out there" compared to the bank 1 patches, names and all.


I was one of the fortunate few who got in on the first batch of Helix's. I had the HD500 previously(as part of the Dream Rig) and hated it. I loved the DT25, but the HD500 seemed to kill all of my tone as soon as I plugged it in. I dabbled at tweaking my own patches, but the UI was user hostile, and as soon as I plugged in the USB to use the PC editor it messed with my audio drivers, so it never stayed plugged in. I doubt it has more than a few hours on it total.


The Helix on the other hand is all sorts of awesome. The presets didn't really wow me out of the box for all the reasons you mentioned, but tweaking them isn't a chore at all, it in fact is a lot of fun. Within minutes I was getting great tone. So great that I'm seriously thinking about selling my dt25 and going FRFR. It has enough I/O that I can use it in place of my dedicated audio interface (I do wish it had another mic pre), I've already recorded one song on it from scratch and it sounds great.


It's not perfect, it needs a few global perimeters. Right now if you want to turn off cabs because you have it in front of a guitar amp, you need to do it on a patch by patch basis. When reamping (something else the hd500 sucked at), you have to change the input on each patch as well. Hopefully Line 6 will get that stuff working a little smother as time goes on.

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I had the HD500 previously (as part of the Dream Rig) and hated it. I loved the DT25' date=' but the HD500 seemed to kill all of my tone as soon as I plugged it in. I dabbled at tweaking my own patches, but the UI was user hostile, and as soon as I plugged in the USB to use the PC editor it messed with my audio drivers, so it never stayed plugged in.[/quote']


Thanks for chiming in! It's good to see people are starting to participate.


Sorry to hear about the HD500...it took me a while to wrestle the HD500 into doing my bidding, but once I figured it out, I was able to get the kind of sounds I wanted. (In fact one of the songs on my YouTube channel is an ambient-type piece done live in one pass with only guitar and HD500.) However I was totally dependent on using the computer editor for programming. I can't imagine doing serious HD500 sound design from the front panel, which is one of the biggest points of differentiation with Helix.


The Helix on the other hand is all sorts of awesome. The presets didn't really wow me out of the box for all the reasons you mentioned, but tweaking them isn't a chore at all, it in fact is a lot of fun. Within minutes I was getting great tone. So great that I'm seriously thinking about selling my dt25 and going FRFR.


I went FRFR in the late 60s by ditching guitar amps for keyboard amps ,and never looked back. Being able to get the sound your want and have it translate no matter where you go is really great...whether plugging into a PA live or into a computer interface, you have "your sound." But if you do studio work I think it's worth holding on to the DT25 - sometimes you just want to "move air" and mic it. I have a DT25 and Peavey Windsor that lends itself to modification; between the two of them, I'm covered.


It's not perfect, it needs a few global perimeters. Right now if you want to turn off cabs because you have it in front of a guitar amp, you need to do it on a patch by patch basis. When reamping (something else the hd500 sucked at), you have to change the input on each patch as well. Hopefully Line 6 will get that stuff working a little smother as time goes on.


Those are great suggestions. One of the best aspects of a Pro Review is that manufacturers are paying attention and listening. I did a Pro Review of Avid's Eleven Rack where there was a lot of participation. When Avid came out with an expansion pack for Eleven, everything in it had been suggested in the Pro Review, and the product manager told me that the review was hugely influential on what was included. That's rather gratifying. So Digital Igloo...welcome to the Helix 2.0 focus group :)



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Shall we listen to some presets? Yes, we shall smile.png


Today I actually looked at the manual because I didn't see any obvious way to adjust input gain. In fact, I still don't so maybe someone can set me straight if there is. However, you can set a pad for the guitar input if your axe has an onboard preamp or otherwise generates a lot of level. Regardless, the Les Paul Standard I use when I want humbuckers, and the delightful 2014 Melody Maker with P90 single-coil pickups, seemed to fit the available headroom. I don't know if a tapped single-coil pickup could drive the Helix hard enough, but given that tapped single-coil pickups aren't that popular, it's probably not an issue.


Anyway...it seems the presets are arranged so that the fourth preset in a Bank (e.g., 01D, 02D, 03D, etc.) is the "hey, look what this crazy Helix thing can do!" preset. So, we'll audition the first three presets in Banks 01-04 to get an idea of what the more conventional tones are like, then go nuts with the weird stuff later on.


Again, let me emphasize that with all the presets, my first instinct was not to grab a parametric to get rid of any "fizziness" and resonances...there aren't any. The more I listen to the amps, the more I feel Line 6 got it right.


And now, let's audition some presets.



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Here’s how easy it is to edit Helix...and why sometimes less is more. I wanted to try a heavy sound for an industrial-type passage, and found a preset called “Uncle Muscles.” In isolation, it sounded pretty nasty but when I combined it with the track, it didn’t sound right...i\a little too angular, if that makes any sense. It was quite complex, with two parallel effects chains and five effects in each chain.


In the audio/video example, you’ll hear that preset first, complete with a fast lick that is arguably even sloppier than Jimmy Page. :) Then I started to slim things down. I kept removing modules until I had it down to one amp, which I changed to the Line 6 Elektrik amp. I put a filter in front of it to take out some highs and lows, and put a delay after it. That’s all, and you’ll hear the results of putting the preset on a diet in the second half of the example. I think you’ll agree that even stripped down that bare, the sound is fine for the context.


So does this mean my patch is “better”? I’m sure whoever designed “Uncle Muscles” sounds awesome playing through it. But as mentioned early on, he/she is probably playing a different guitar, with different strings, a different playing style, and uses it in a different context. That’s why the user interface is so important—you have to tweak the sounds to fit your needs. I totally agree with Wendy Carlos: “Every parameter that you can control, you must control.”




Now, one other note. I’m going to give most of these videos unlisted links because people will stumble on to them expecting them to be “hey, listen to my cool shredding and how great this awesomely wonderful box is!!!,” not tests in the context of a review. Tests tend to sound somewhat boring, particularly because (present example aside, where context matters) a lot of times we’ll need to hear the guitar by itself so you can hear exactly what the effects are doing. Yes, I know listening to distortion breakup and naked presets with a repetitive part for a fair comparison isn’t particularly sexy, but you’ll end up finding out more about what makes this box tick then just watching someone play. So rather than deal with the typical YouTube “everything sucks, you suck, I’m really, really great” comments, we’ll reserve these examples for people who understand what we’re trying to do here.


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Let's turn out attention to "gozindas and gozoutas." Following in the spirt of the HD500, Helix gives you more options than just a 1/4" input and a couple outputs.


As noted earlier re the guitar input, I couldn't find an input level control but for there is a pad and also, a choice of impedances. So if you want a high impedance for optimum signal transfer or a lower impedance to emulate the "drag" some older effects and amps added, you're covered.


The main inputs most people will use are Guitar In, Aux In (basically a line in/active pickup in with a 10K input impedance), Variax In, and XLR Mic In with switchable 48V phantom power (there's also a dedicated low cut filter - nice! - and gain control). However, the four FX send/returns can be pressed into service as four additional 1/4" inputs with either instrument or line level. In digital-land, you have S/PDIF and MIDI in, As to the input architecture, Helix has two parallel "paths" in each preset. There are several input "blocks" for different signals; you can choose up to two blocks per path. For single-path presets, you can mute the input to the second path to make sure there is zero noise contribution.


As to the blocks themselves, the most "unviersal" one is Multi, where the guitar, aux, and Variax inputs are all active simultaneously. You can also choose any individual one of these inputs, although of course the Variax option has some extra mojo, like being able to select only the magnetic pickup signal or the model or magnetic signal, as selected with the Variax. There are also multiple ways Variax can interact with Helix, like locking or unlocking controls, and enabling alternate tunings. (There are also USB inputs which are more about working with computers; covering all the options on would really derail the flow, but we'll get into this in depth later on. Basically, Helix can be an audio interface with re-amping, MIDI, and more.)


The selection process for all of these is straightforward - the blocks are like effects blocks in that just as you can choose different effects for effects blocks, you can choose different inputs for input blocks.


As to outputs, again you have quite a few options. Physically, there are left and right 1/4" (switchable for instrument of line levels) and XLR outs (switchable to mic or line levels), headphone out, S/PDIF or AES/EBU out (the latter doubles as the L6 LINK connector for use with other Line 6 products), and similarly to the inputs, you can use the FX loop sends as outputs, again with instrument or line levels. One very important point is that you can adjust the sample rate for the digital I/O - 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96 kHz. If you've had the frustration of using effects boxes with digital I/O that's fixed at one frequency, you'll know why I consider this a big deal.


One of my favorite aspects is that the two paths in a preset can go to different outputs, which includes sending the output of Path 1 to Path 2. As with inputs, there's an output block that basically sends to everything, or you can restrict the output to only the 1/4" outs, only the XLRs, etc. Again there are USB options, which we'll delve into later.


So what does all this mean...well, Helix has really flexible I/O. However, it's eminently configurable so if you just want to plug and play you can patch it between your guitar and amp, or you can make it the nerve center of your studio setup. I didn't find any way to save configurations, but this is another case where the UI justifies its existence as it doesn't take long to set up Helix for different configurations.


Helix is a very deep multieffects. That doesn't mean you have to know everything, but to really master it requires an investment in terms of time and practice. As such, I hope that Line 6 will treat this more like a "platform" that can have an extended life. Now, I realize that economically speaking, that's not the way our system works and companies need people to invest in new products. But if Helix is sufficiently open-ended, I would not object if Line 6 decided to offer paid updates for significant changes that would extend its product lifetime. Something to consider...




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Okay...now we get to the really fun part: Checking out all the processing options so we can make intelligent choices in what we want to use to assemble patches. Lets’s start with compressors, because they often go toward the beginning of a signal chain. There are three compressors in Helix, and they serve very different purposes.


First, though, one thing they all have in common is a Mix control so you can do parallel compression inside the compressor itself—no need to use up two parallel paths on this common routing. The virtue of parallel compressor is you can set a balance of dry and compressed sounds. We’ll see why this is useful shortly.


The audio examples are based on strummed chords with open strings. This makes it easy to tell if level changes in the fretted strings are influenced by the greater level fluctuations in the open strings. You don’t want something that “chatters” too much, but sounds smooth. Of course much of this depends on compressor parameter settings, but some compressors are more prone to “pumping” than others. Also listen carefully to the sustain; you want a smooth decay, without much pulsing...unless that’s what you want!


Furthermore, I’m hitting the strings really hard with a thumbpick, using both the bridge and rhythm pickups of a 2014 Les Paul Standard, so you can judge the way the compressors handle attacks. I also let the decay ring out until I get impatient...






This is a general purpose, guitar-oriented compressor. It gives a decent amount of squeezing; it’s not transparent, but strikes a good balance between the radical sustain characteristics of the Red Squeeze, and the more transparent vibe of the LA Studio Comp. Deluxe Comp has the typical compressor parameters in addition to the Mix control for parallel compression: Threshold, Ratio (up to 20:1), Attack, Release, and Level. Careful setting of the Attack and Release controls can really smooth out the sound, or make it sound more squeezed. I’d use this compressor to give a powerful lift, send more level into an effect, and/or get more consistent distortion characteristics if followed by distortion.




This one is a throwback to the “sustainer” type of MXR Dyna Comp stompbox compressor that grabs your guitar by the throat and doesn’t let go. In addition to Mix and Level, there’s only one control: Sensitivity. The first of the two Red Squeeze audio examples is the default. As you’ll hear, this has the brutal vintage stompbox sound, with a “snap” at the beginning, and a rising of levels as soon as you stop strumming. In this basic form, it’s intense and if you want a fuzz box to sustain for the next couple weeks, patch this in front of it.


But now listen to the second example, and behold the power of the Mix control. This sets an approximately equal mix of dry and compressed sound. As you’ll hear, the beast has now been tamed to give a beefier compression effect than the Deluxe Comp, but without the extreme compression effect of the “native” Red Squeeze sound.




This is the most nuanced and transparent of the three compressors, and is more like an LA-2A-type studio compressor than a stompbox. The default patch really brings up the guitar’s level but in the process, retains clarity and a sense of dynamics. Also notice how I “snapped’ the string in a couple places on the attack, but the compression absorbed them well, and carried on.


The controls are faithful to studio rack compressors: Peak Reduction (the extent of the compression), Gain, Type (compression or limiting—nice), Emphasis (subtle, but seems to alter frequency somewhat; I've asked Line 6 for a detailed explanation), Mix, and Level. Gain interacts with Peak Reduction.


The second LA Studio Comp example uses the maximum Peak Reduction setting. You’ll definitely hear some more squashing than the default, but note that the sound is still quite transparent and minimizes pumping. If you then go back to the first example with the Deluxe Comp, you’ll hear what the LA Studio Comp would sound like if you could push it even further.


The bottom line is for vocals, taming keyboards, and compressing dynamics more toward the end of a chain than the beginning while retaining dynamic character, the LA Studio Comp gets the nod. It gets the job done while maintaining the guitar’s characteristic sound and retaining a sense of dynamics. The Deluxe Comp strikes a good balance between character and transparency. As I develop patches, I suspect this will be the one I’ll reach for first if I want to get a "compressed" vibe into the sound.


The Red Squeeze strikes me more as a special effect. You probably won’t use it all the time, or even most of the time...but when you want that sound, you have it. However, the Mix control allows the Red Squeeze to have far more versatility than the original type of stompbox upon which this is based.

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LA Studio Comp is indeed a model of the LA-2A. I offered up my personal LA-2A, but we ended up acquiring a vintage 60's version instead. As for what the Emphasis set-screw knob does, here's a description shamelessly stolen from the UA website:

Emphasis controls a shelf filter circuit in the compressor's sidechain input for frequency-dependent compression.


Emphasis is handy for emphasizing compression on higher frequencies. When the control is fully clockwise in the default position, the sidechain signal is unfiltered and all frequencies in the source signal that exceed the compression threshold will trigger gain reduction equally.


Rotating the Emphasis control counter-clockwise increases filtering of the sidechain signal. The Emphasis filter gradually reduces the lower frequency content of the sidechain signal, resulting in compression that is less sensitive to those frequencies, and more sensitive to high frequency content. As the sidechain filtering is increased, higher frequencies are compressed more.


You can think of the sidechain as the compressor's scolding big brother — the sidechain tells the compressor how it should behave respective to the incoming material, and it helps shape that material for processing.

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As to the input architecture, Helix has two parallel "paths" in each preset.
Also try this: Once you've created a parallel path, move its Split block down to create a duplicate input block, and move its Merge block down to create a duplicate output block. This allows for up to 4 stereo paths, each with its own discrete input, stereo processing, and output. You could quite literally process four band members simultaneously, in stereo. 8 TEMPLATES > Gtr+Vox+Bas+Keys has this set up and ready to go.
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Distortions are up next (whee!), but let’s look at EQ first because I use a lot of EQ in patches before and/or after distortion and amps, and much of the goal of this analysis is to build really cool sounds. There are fewer EQs than in the HD500, but they’re more flexible.


Simple EQ has the same control complement as the HD500’s “parametric” EQ—Gain controls for low shelf, high shelf, and a midrange stage whose Frequency control that goes from 125 Hz to 4 kHz. It’s a decent, functional EQ, but there’s room in the user interface for a midrange Q control. As someone who tends to use lower Q settings than most people, I’d find this a welcome addition but the Simple EQ is still a useful, general purpose processor.


The Low and High Cut filter does...get ready...High Cut (1 kHz – 20 kHz) and Low Cut (20 Hz – 1 kHz). There’s no info on the slope, nor is there the option to alter it, but I’d “earball” it at 24 dB/octave. If you want a steeper slope (not common, but sometimes it's useful) you can put two Low and High Cut filters in series. While this is a very simple tone control, high cut filters are useful for reducing pre-distortion high frequencies to avoid a “brittle” tone, as well as to tame post-distortion highs for a “warmer” sound. Low cut filters can give more of am open-back cabinet vibe, and also keep distortion from trying to amplify artifacts below the guitar’s range. Sometimes you can make amps fit better in a band context or when recording just by cutting everything below 100 Hz.


In case you’re not familiar with a shelf response versus a cut control, see the following illustration. The shelf response reduces or boost frequencies to a certain frequency, then the response stays at that amount of reduction or boost. The response labeled 2 shows a high frequency shelf boost. A cut filter reduces frequencies, with the reduction becoming progressively greater as the frequency moves further away from the cutoff frequency. The response labeled 1 show a low cut response. (Also note that low cut filters are sometimes called high pass filters, and high cut filters are sometimes called low pass filters.)




The Parametric EQ is a true parametric EQ that’s way better than the one in the HD500. It has low, mid, and high parametric stages, with generous, overlapping frequency ranges for each stage—20 Hz – 500 Hz, 125 Hz – 8 kHz, and 500 Hz – 18 kHz, respectively. Q ranges from 0.1 to 10 (I rarely need more or less, except for surgical mixing applications in the studio), and Gain is +/- 12 dB. Furthermore, there are High Cut and Low Cut controls. This means you can stick a Low and High Cut after the Parametric EQ to get steeper cutoff slopes.


Compared to the HD500’s 5-band graphic EQ, Helix steps up its game with a 10 Band Graphic EQ with industry-standard octave bands (in Hz): 31.25, 62.5, 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 8000, and 16000.


The bottom line is while the HD500 had two more EQ options (4 Band Shift EQ and Mid Focus EQ), I think part of that was to compensate for limitations in the other EQs. Helix offers EQs that are more like what you’d find in the studio, with familiar parameters that make adjusting them easier.

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