Helix: Is It All That and a Box of Chocolates?
LIFE BY SEASONS AND CYCLES
It is funny how things go in cycles. I’ve lived through all sorts of cycles of gear popularity in my forty-nine years of playing. The big thing I discovered is: don’t get rid of out-of-style gear - blink your eyes and it will be back in style. In the case of amps and modelers, my perpetual search for the tone in my head first naturally led me to various tube amps and pedals because that was all that was available. Through this search I became the archetypal tube amp purist. But one day a friend brought his Line 6 POD 2.0 modeler into the studio, stuck it into my hands, and over my protests, insisted I give it a try. Surprise! It could do some very cool stuff! I was hooked and began to use modelers alongside tube amps. Thus began the cycle – tube amps led to modelers and then back to the interesting backside of the same cycle – modelers led to tube amps, because of what I heard in modelers. At this point I've been through these cycles between the dark and light sides of amplification several times.
And so, at the time of this writing we intersect the undulating curve of the cycle once again, this time as it heads off towards the modeler side. This is going to be my third generation of modeler. The things that drove me towards this next step were the quality advances in modeling I heard of and the development of cabinet and room IRs (Impulse Responses) that began being offered aftermarket. These IRs allow a person to record a good cabinet or room response, apply them to his models, and distribute them to others. As it turns out, there have been many other advances as well.
Right before I started looking into the latest generation of modelers I had just brought in a vintage amp simllar to one I owned in the '70s, in order to allow me to recreate some of the sounds I remembered from my college years. The amp indeed allowed me to create many of those sounds, but once again I found myself banging my head up against the inevitable brick wall limitation of all tube amps: it is impossible to get a full, cushiony, sustained, power-amp-driven lead sound on any tube amp at a volume level that is reasonable for home consumption. That includes the little five watt practice amps! For that matter, not all recording studios are situated where you can crank up a loud amp at any hour to get your sound. Those need another solution as well. And finally, as a recording engineer and producer I can no longer afford to irradiate my ears at loud sound levels and take the damage. Increasingly I found myself falling back upon modelers to tame the levels. But the good news is that things have changed in the guitar world and the options for modelers have increased. As I began to look at modelers, I started with what appeared to me to be the most popular models on the market, the Kemper, the AxeFX, and the Line6 Helix. I watched extensive YouTube comparison videos between these units while listening to their sounds on the big monitors at the studio. I came to the conclusion that the biggest factors in a choice between the three are the feature set you need for your particular application and whichever navigation system built into the unit that you prefer. Their sounds at this point appear to be nearly equal in quality. The prices of two of them, AxeFX and Helix, are quite close. On the other hand, the Kemper adds $1000 to the cost of either one of them. Rarely has the guitar world offered a better parallel to the Ford/Chevy truck paradigm – it really seems to come down to personal choice. For my uses the Line6 Helix won the day, mostly because after fifteen years I'm quite used to Line6's ecosystem. No surprise there, huh? There was also a slight edge given by most of the reviewers to the quality of the Helix effects and its ease of signal path construction and manipulation. I paid attention.
As is my usual practice, I let the technology become mature enough to move past the “bleeding edge” stage to avoid the teething problems of the first editions and then found an immaculate example to purchase used. The Helix I found was less than a year old, came with all the packing materials, and still had the plastic on the displays. I was able to purchase the unit at 73% of the retail price of a new unit. Incidentally, that retail price isn’t dropping or being discounted at bit. In fact, there have been recent price increases. My Helix was delivered on the date of Line 6’s biggest Helix firmware update to date, version 2.80. I played around with the unit for one night just for fun and then undertook what was acknowledged to be the toughest, most comprehensive update process they’d ever created. I followed the update directions scrupulously. Though it took several steps, the update actually turned out to go rather smoothly and quickly, all things considered. Very soon it was,
“Good morning, Dr. Chandra.
I am completely operational
and all my circuits are functioning perfectly.”
Update 2.80 unified all of the Helix products (Floor, LT, Stomp, HX Effects, Native, and HX Editor) into a common ecosystem that allows free exchange of presets and data between the various platforms. Two weeks later Line 6 issued another quick maintenance update, 2.81, to fix some of the issues with the new firmware found by users in the field. I applied that update as well and it went very slickly. Bugs squashed, though I had never encountered them in the first place. And finally, a month later another bug squash update, 2.82, arrived and I applied it.
So, what’s the point of this report? This time I'm not justifying or explaining modeling. I'm not comparing the complexity of modelers to the simpliciy of amps: I've done that before in my two previous modeler reviews. I'm definately not comparing and contrasting the various brands and types of modelers on the market. This time, the point is narrowed down to asking, “Is Helix all that? Is it worth my while to move up from the previous generation of modeler, say, the Line 6 POD HD500X, to the Helix?” First, a little history: In 2010 the Line 6 development team were working on the Helix design concept but a huge problem loomed on the horizon: it was the absolute nadir of the Obamaconomy, the pit of the recession. Consumers were deep in the slump and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. President Obama was repeatedly warning that this low point was to become the “new normal” for our economy - we would likely never again see better economic times. The Line6 marketeers just couldn’t see dropping a new, flagship modeler, , then projected to cost $1600, on entrepreneurial guitarists/pizza deliverers, in the middle of those economic conditions. Instead they set about creating a less-expensive model, the POD HD500, that could keep the company visible in the market, until economic factors could improve. They held up the debut of their projected flagship model, the Helix, and continued to develop it. How’s that for optimism? If you look at product codes of the two models you can see the procession: Helix is P21 and the HD500 is P22. So now you know why the HD500 went into development after the Helix but Helix debuted in 2015, years after both the HD500 and HD500X with its improved memory. I’ve been working with the HD500X for several years with excellent results.
So, what is different with the Helix? To begin with, the Helix offers far more processing power, far more models of amps, cabs, and effects, far more user preset storage area, more inputs and outputs, more flexibility, and greater communication capabilities than the machines that came before it. Instead of a stamped steel enclosure there is a rugged anodized aluminum one with a snappy, modern-looking foot treadle and electronic scribble strips above each of the foot switches to identify their functions. Instead of a small monochrome display there is a much larger, brighter, crisper HD color one that is much easier to read when the Helix is on the floor and you are off the floor. The individual models are far more detailed than those of the HD500X. In fact, the sound detail is actually pretty astounding. Line 6 also dived into the current and classic effects pool and modeled some of the coolest and most desired effects ever in this package. The August 2019, 2.80 update brought some really modern amps and effects, including the AnalogMan King of Tone and Prince of Tone, and the modeling crew at Line 6 continues to model others for future updates. This time, while they were at the business of modeling effects they modified some of the classic effects in useful ways. For instance, the classic Maestro Echoplex EP-3 solid state echo, a mono effect, is also offered as a stereo effect with adjustable echo bounce! Frankly, in developing the Helix, Line6 has upgraded just about everything, even including the tuner. The idea was to create a flagship modeling system for their line that offered excellent performance and gave the impression of professionality and substance at every turn.
Here is a typical new feature: Helix places two important, oft-used devices outside of the regular signal chain so that they don’t take up processing block positions in the chain. A noise gate is placed in the input block, slightly hidden but always available. At the other end of the chain, a global parametric EQ is placed at the output where it can be adjusted to adapt your rig to changing venues or signal chains. For example, if you use the unit in the studio and want a pure sound, the global EQ can simply be switched off. If on other days you play live and run the output of the unit into a guitar amp, you can EQ it to sounds its best in that application as well. The EQ settings and status are saved and survive power cycles.
Another concept expansion embodied in the Helix: You have two sets of processing paths, each of which has two lines of processing available. The HD500X had two paths with only one line each. The two Helix paths AND their lines can be either serial (one routed into the other) or parallel (both running at once). By that scheme, you can create a four-line path with blocks and blocks and blocks of amps, pedals, cabs, etc. or run two extensive paths at once. What’s more, in a great example of flexibility, one path can go to the ¼” outputs and another can go to the XLR outputs or you can run one set of outputs with a cabinet simulation and route another line to the other outputs without the cab sim. And finally, there is the snapshot function. Each preset offers eight snapshots that allow you to silently change the “in” and “out” status of processing blocks as well as several other parameters.
And here is another BIG step forward: no wall wart. The power supply for the Helix is located inside the main console and the unit utilizes a standard NEMA 5-15 to C13 equipment power cord that is far more robust that any previous incarnation’s wall wart. Yay!!!
On the second day I had the unit, I was able to spend my first long session in front of big studio monitors. My first impression was how amazingly clear, present, and immediate the models sounded. In some ways you are back to square one with some sounds because the pedals interact differently in this unit from the previous ones and because there are many different pedals available in this unit. You'll really want to experiment with the unit and figure out how the pedal models interact. I found that the Helix clean sounds are far more detailed and amp-like than those of the previous generations, a pretty radical step forward. The character of distortion is far more detailed as well, and quite immediate. The intermediate brown zone offers far more range and subtlety. The sound character of pedals is also far, far more detailed and believable. Interestingly, my “Special Sauce” translates well from the previous generations and seems to add that extra something to take the modeler over the top.
Unsurprisingly, so far my two favorite amp models are the US Deluxe Nrm (Fender Deluxe Reverb Normal Channel) and the Brit Trem Nrm (Marshall 1987T Tremolo 50 watt). Because I like a smoother sound, I run both through the 2x12 Double C12N cabinet (Fender Twin open back cabinet with Jensen C12N speakers) which takes some of the hair off. I’ve browsed through the voluminous example presets and keep saying, “Oooo, I love that one!” but I always seem to fall back to my two favorites when it is time for serious work.
With more gainy models and playing solo, headphones seem a bit too “intimate” to me. That’s not an environment I usually live in for either playing or mixing. Under the cans the gain set on studio monitors seems a little too fizzy. I can play there on Saturday morning when the whole household is asleep, but I wouldn’t want to make any significant changes to my patches there. I usually go with AKG K240s because of their gentle high end and smooth response that doesn't fatigue my ears.
So, to the central question, “Is Helix all that?” Yep. It sure is. It is well worth the upgrade, well worth the money, and well worth the learning curve. Of course, this is a really sophisticated bit 'o gear. It isn't like a six-knob amp. As a full-chain modeler, it models everything from stomp boxes to amps to speaker cabinets to the mics used to pickup those cabinets to studio processing after the mics. You will have to do some learning and you will have to tweak for a while to get comfortable. Back in 1962, science writer, futurist, and aclaimed "Prophet of the Space Age," Arthur C. Clarke, stated his Third Law regarding the future: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I’d say with the Helix we are approaching sufficiently advanced technology. When confronted with this technology, guitarists often respond with the question: "Is the end of tube amps in sight?" I don’t know. I find that I am still not willing to let them go just yet, but at this point there doesn't seem to be a good reason not to. Is it the smell? The warmth? The jewel lamps? Who knows. There is still real charm in tube amps. But what I do know is that Helix has rapidly become my home base of operations.
12/10/2020 I had some credits from an online retailer lying around and decided to pick up the Helix Backpack. It is darned expensive but is very well-built and thought-out, and is just the thing for toting your Helix to stage or studio.
01/24/2020 I've sat on this review for a while waiting for rumored unveilings at Winter NAMM. Line 6 came out with a new modeler, the POD Go, that allows access to the models from the Helix line at one-quarter the price and is a smaller package but with reduced I/O, capability, and flexibility. Like the rest of their machines, they offer it with editing software for your computer. Line 6 sees the POD Go as the installment in the POD highly portable, easier to operate POD line. The question before us is, "Does it remove the need for Helix?" My answer would be a resounding "NO." If you are wanting maximum flexibility, are willing to invest the time and study into mastering it, and are capability of some technical thought, the Helix offers far more flexibility to create full-realized sounds. The POD Go offers some of that to less-technically-minded operators and might be something of a bridge between the HX Stomp and the previous generation, as well as a smaller fly-pack alternative. I don't regret the investment I made in Helix one bit. Incidentally, Line 6 has also announced a soon-to-be-released update to the Helix.