CrazyWombat, on january 13, 2016 2 of 2 people found this review helpful
Price paid: $ 1399
Purchased from: Line 6
Ease of Use: 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.
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.
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. // 9
Sound: Next up, some audio evaluations.
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.
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 wonэt 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.
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. Hereэs 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.
As for how you would use a foot-controlled editing option, suppose you want to edit the Noise Gate threshold because thereэs 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 thoughtful 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.
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. // 9
Reliability & Durability: This thing is built like a tank... it's heavy metal, in the literal sense of the words. // 9
Overall Impression: Helix is a new kind of guitar processor: it's not only a tour-grade multi-effect pedal that sounds and feels authentic, it takes user experience to a new level and can act as the nerve center for your entire guitar rig. Whether you spend your time in the studio or on the stage, Helix is the next generation guitar processor you've been waiting for. // 9