The Musician's Room: Have you been absorbed?
Background . Sounds . Physical . Playability . Foot Control . One More Thing . Bottom Line
It fell to Earth one day...
BACKGROUND AND THEORY: I remember back around 1970, ...when I were but a wee lad, blah, blah, blah... As a youth, on Saturdays, I would take a bus (and two transfers) all the way across town to Lynn’s Guitars, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Lynn’s was one of those special places which had a huge room stacked with dusty, traded-in equipment. There would often be twenty to thirty amps lying around. We’d ask for a cord, pull a used guitar off the wall and start poking around amongst the old amps. “Gee I wonder what this old fellow can do?” I could spend the better part of a Saturday there, hopping from amp to amp, smelling the hot smell as each of the amps woke up for the first time in a long while and burned off the accumulated dust. In this musty room I learned the wonders of the electric tonal pallet of the time. If a speaker was out, I’d patch across to another amp. Every once in a while, the grinning salesman with slicked-back hair (It turns out to have been Lynn Clapp himself) would come back and say, “You boys aren’t breaking anything, are you? No? Well, enjoy yourselves!” It was here that I learned that amps had as much influence on your sound as guitars. It was here that I discovered that with the right amp and sound, the electric guitar fingerboard actually feels better and your fingers move better. I remember the smell of smoky bars indelibly implanted in the old amps. Each manufacturer had his own color of jewel lamp to show that power was on. As I played mouldering tweeds and bright-sounding blackfaces, I had no idea that the hits of that day were being recorded on these very amps. It was the age of the wall of amp stacks. Who’d have thought that Eric Clapton could have played the “Layla” album entirely on little Fender Champ student amps? Boy, they don’t seem to make guitar shops like they used to…
These days there are many who, like me, feel that in an electric guitar rig, the amplifier contributes as much to your sound as the guitar. While the guitar provides the direct interface to the notes, there’s an interaction between a player and his amp which provides the sound and tonal nuances of the electric instrument. When the sound is dialed in, I can feel a difference. To that end, throughout the history and evolution of guitar sounds, players have pushed their gear to the limits to get new and varied sounds. Amp controls have been tweaked in every way imaginable to create the sounds, from highly driven harsh to extremely subtle. Some players appear live with multiple amps, and rigs which switch or blend them. In studio cities, guitar and amplifier rental companies provide large bouquets of obscure amps for session rental.
So, as we modern guitarists record and perform, the bar has been upped on sound and sounds. Over our shoulders lurk years of experimentation. In today's culture of instant gratification, audiences want variety and they want it now. We can often feel we need to assemble a monstrous collection of amps to create all the sounds we need. The image of mounds of dusty, rotting blackware boxes impinging on our living space immediately comes to mind.
But a while back, a friend of mine came into the studio where I work with a guitar and a POD bag over his shoulder, and enthused, "You've got to hear this!" Placing the items in my hands for the day, he left for work. And you know, he was right.
...Enter the POD...
Left Behind by Aliens: The Humble POD
Click the image for a larger pic
THE SOUNDS: Over the years many amp manufacturers have tried to create one-shot “universal” amps offering "all known amp sounds in one convenient package." They’ve failed so often and so miserably that whenever this sort of thing comes along, we guitarists tend to think, “Yeah, right!” The approach of the folks at Line6 was born out of a philosophy which analyzed the impact of the entire signal chain, including the stomp boxes, amp, speaker cabinet, and Mic’ing job, as if it were all one giant stomp box. As a result, Line6 has ended up with some computer descriptions of a variety of amps, speakers, and effects. Through DSP (Digital Signal Processing), the effects are applied to your guitar's signal. Line6 spent a lot of time at the drafting boards, followed by a strong beta period (which I was privileged to watch during the early days of the internet). They then spent a couple of years refining that product in their first line of amps before they settled on the models and interface shared by the POD and Flextone amp series. Your guitar still plays the same role it does with analog, tube amplifiers. Different guitars sound very different through the POD. The POD is designed to sound great over a PA or in a recording chain via the proprietary “AIR” room modeling, but also offers the ability to switch out AIR and run it through a guitar amp as well.
Click on POD for a list of its sounds
The sounds have much of the interactive character of the old amps, with sustain increasing and attack decreasing as the gain goes up. In order to give the impression of dealing with the actual amps, the tone controls of the unit respond much like the originals, with Treble and Middle controls interacting on those amps where they originally did. Straightforward amp simulations also maintain the tone controls of the original amps: A Tweed champ had no tone controls so the Line6-ers made them all more like post-amp, post speaker, mixing console controls. The Tweed Deluxe had only a Treble control so its other controls act like mixing console controls. What sets this apart is the high-quality sounds and well thought-out interface. In fact, the POD has been so successful it has become the defacto standard and model for a generation of copies.
But I must admit, I’m not the man to ask when it comes to exact accuracy on the amp models. I’ve always chased sounds which live inside in my head, so by and large, the amps and effects I used were just components to create something else, rather than ends in and of themselves. Mind you, I LOVE vintage gear. I've flogged some of the best in my time. But I love making music and beautiful sounds even more. This is exactly what the POD offers me: A pallet of tools to bring to life the sounds in MY head. With the POD, I can readily switch back and forth between darn good models of some really great amps, all tricked out with effects and tweaked to get the right sound for me, without any climbing and patching. Once my channels are stored, there need be very little tweaking, either! Were I asked, I'd have to list the Blackface Fender Deluxe, Vox AC30 Top Boost, Vox AC15, and the Marshall Plexi as my favorite models. No surprise there, eh? My least favorite feature/effect is the rotary speaker effect. Frankly, it's not very convincing to me, sounding more like a Rotovibe than a Leslie. You never know, though. One day I may have a need for a "cheesy rotary speaker sim" sound. One thing I have noticed is that as the gain goes up beyond mid-to-early high on the models, their believability drops. That means the classic amps are the best models to my ears.
PHYSICAL: The POD is cleverly packaged in a bright red, rounded, aluminum box with an assortment of knobs, buttons, and rotary switches, and a small readout on the front. The cool art nouveau kidney-bean shape is practically irresistible. It reminds me of the opthamologist's apparatus, or maybe those coin-op binoculars at tourist attractions. The front-panel knobs and switches have a neat retro look to them. The outputs are balanced tip-ring-sleeve plugs with enough juice to feed anything from a high-end recording console (+18dbv or 30v peak to peak) to a guitar amplifier (-60dbv or 1v peak to peak). POD "senses" whether one or two plugs are inserted in the outputs and serves up its sounds mono or stereo accordingly. The inputs, outputs, MIDI and footpedal jacks, and some switches, are arranged around the perimeter of the bean logically. There are inlets for a mounting bracket on the back. The POD can be used live with the optional Line6 floorboard or four-switch footswitch (see below).
Under the Hood
Click the image for a POD Photo Tour
PLAYABILITY/USABILITY: Line6 has nimbly navigated the fine line between easy operation and flexiblility for tweak-heads. The easiest operational mode is “Manual”, in which there is basic one-knob-per-function operation for menu-phobics. Only a few immediately important controls are hidden as second functions accessed by holding down the “Tap” button and rotating a knob. Tweak-heads like me will be able to tap into the unit’s flexibility with more of these hidden functions. Do you like the VoxAC15 but would like to hear it with a larger cabinet? Don’t worry about impedance, just rotate a control and you are there. The POD allows you to tweak to your heart’s desire, and save thirty-six of your creations with effects and controls intact. For that matter, the manual starting point for each of the models can be changed and stored so that manual mode calls up your own settings. Via MIDI and a supplied program, “SoundDiver”, your presets can be saved off to hard drive, other’s presets can be imported, and lots of great hidden techno-tweaks can be made to personalize and optimize your sounds. In fact, the POD can be controlled in real time via a MIDI sequencing program.
Five Gain and volume provisions allow you to structure your presets for practical use. The “Gain” control serves as a tone contributor to be wound out or used in moderation. A hidden function, "Fuzz", actually adds a kick to whatever gain setting you have dialed in. “Channel volume” serves as a master volume for each sound. “Boost” (Hold the TAP control and twist the Channel Volume past 12 o’clock) allows you to give an added clean volume kick to any preset to make it solo-ready. The unit’s “Output volume” is not saved with presets and allows you to tailor the overall volume of the unit to suit the gear into which it’s plugged and doubles as a headphone control.
Besides these controls, the unit offers “Brilliance” (Hold the TAP control and twist the Treble knob past 12 0’clock), a two-position Brilliance control very much like some amps' tap on the negative feedback control. Some amps have bright switches, only accessable via MIDI. To top it all off, there are some pretty potent effects onboard. You can add delay, chorus, flanger, and rotary speaker sounds or a combination of delay and one of the other effects. Reverb is available for each model as well
USING YOUR FEET:You have some options to allow greater live control possibilities. First, the Floorboard:
Line6 has created an integrated floor controller which doesn't just allow foot control of the unit, but opens up some new features as well. Hah! Value added! Firstly, the physical facts: The unit has two pedals, eight switches, a display, and ten leds which give you both control and status indications. The board is housed in a sturdy and attractive plastic-clad metal box and all pedals and switches are well built. The footboard's power is provided by the POD down the same twenty-foot Ethernet cable which carries data, so only one cord is necessary. While the RJ45 connectors feel a wee bit fragile, should the cable fail, replacement cables are common and available through Radio Shack and most office stores. I can just see running down to Office Depot on a Saturday night between sets...
Okay, let's look at the board's full-time capabilities: The inboard pedal on the right-hand side of the unit provides an always-available wah pedal, modeled convincingly on a Vox Crybaby wah. I say "convincingly" as somone who still owns his original Thomas Organ Co. CryBaby. The outboard pedal is an always-active volume pedal. The Wah is engaged via toe pressure, just as the original pedal was, though you have to bear down a bit. You won't be slipping in and out of Wah mode accidentally. The upper-right switch provides full-time instant access to the POD's tuner and doubles as tap-tempo access for the POD's effects. In tuning mode, the LEDs which normally relate to the footswitches across the unit provide your tuning indication. The large LED display indicates which bank you are currently playing in or are about to accesss and shows a few more parameters. More on that in a second...
Now, on to design and operation philosophy: The controller lives in two operating modes: "Channel Select" and "Effect on/off". The button on the upper left toggles between the two modes. Basically, what changes is the function of the front row of six switches. In Channel Select mode, the first two buttons on the front row allow you to scroll through the banks and the next four buttons allow you to instantly select the preset that you will play within any particular bank. As you scroll through banks, the Footboard's display indicates your current location. Say you begin with the POD on bank 5 channel D, and you want to navigate to bank 6 channel B. When you press "bank up", the Floorboard's display goes from 5 to 6 and the four channel lights are extinguished, waiting for you input. When you press the "B" button, its LED lights and the channel is accessed instantly. Interestingly, until you press the channel button, the POD's display stays fixed on bank 5, channel D. It can be disconcerting the first time, but once understood, it actually allows you to think of the POD's display as the "Current" display and the Floorboard's display as the "target" display. The result is a pretty easy method to access your presets. Think about it: At your leisure during the song, you can select the bank. When you need to change voice, you whack the channel button. Done.
The other mode the board offers is "Effect on/off". This mode is entered by punching the upper left button, assigning the six front buttons to control all the effects contained in your current preset. The buttons toggle in and out your effects and the LEDs show status. Your effects choices, from left to right, are:
"Distortion" - a preamp gain boost
"Drive" - a clean loudness boost for solos
"EQ" - the brilliance control
"Trem/Chorus" any modulation effects you may have dialed into you preset
"Delay" - any delay effects you may have dialed in
"Reverb" - the POD's always-available reverb.
The nice little touches: The volume control pedal is a smart little gadget that adapts itself to whatever amp model you choose. Low gain amps (left side of the selector) get a pre-preamp volume pedal, just like the classic, with a taper which allows nice swells. In this mode, you can swell from clean into the distortion produced by the preamp. High-gain models (right side of selector) get a post-preamp control, meaning the gain setting is unaffected by the pedal, and a taper is assigned which allows the pedal to be used as a master volume. Slick. These guys thought long and hard...
And the downside: There always is one, isn't there? As with any device which multi-tasks a bank of controls, this one suffers a wee bit with its two-mode approach. When I'm in channel select mode, I want to use just one or two of the functions in effect on/off mode, and vice-versa. Of course, a pedal with all that poop on the front panel would simply occupy too much stage frontage, so it's an acceptable compromise. We can always dream... The only other floorboard downside is that my 9 1/2 EEEE duck feet have a little trouble with space 'twixt the buttons, but that's no big surprise, eh?
Is all of this too complicated? Podiatrically challenged? Line6 also offers the FB4, four button footswitch to allow you to select one of the four channels in the current bank. You can also use the currently selected channel's button to access the tap tempo function. Not bad, and not as expensive as the Floorboard. Note its cool red finish:
AND ONE MORE THING: I've got to say, one of the "hidden benefits" of the POD is the nicely packaged owner's manual, called the POD Pilot's Handbook. I'm not kidding here. This manual demonstrates ALL THAT IS RIGHT with the very best of owner's manual design. After a quick-start section for the truly manual-allergic (Who can really keep his hands off a new toy until he reads the manual?), the Handbook proceeds to walk you through all the info necessary to quickly master the unit in depth, and does it in such a way that it is hard to keep from enjoying the process, even if you are owner's-manual-resistant. Apparently they sent home the usual band of techno-drelbs, retired the dry technical prose, gathered a team of comedy writers and real folks over too many coffees, and let them write the thing. Along the way you are offered, for a change, simple and useful data tables, diagrams, and reference sections which cover the dry bits well. Make me laugh, PLEASE, else I bore. While I was reading, I'm sure I heard the ghost of John Muir (writer of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive for the Compleat Idiot) snickering along. The last time I encountered a manual this well-written was when I sat back with a great cup of coffee and dived into the excellent manual which came with a $400,000 recording console. I've still got that manual, even though the console is long gone. I wonder if Line6 hired the same bunch of crazies to write this one? Whatever, if you ever get in a jam and need the book, the POD Pilot's Handbook is also available online as a PDF.
THE BOTTOM LINE: But what of our collections of classic amplifiers and stompboxes? Will the POD and all of its ilk replace them? Nope, but it ought to join them! It may relegate some borderline inoperative equipment to “hanger-queen” status. It may encourage us to sideline those amps which haven’t had their power leads grounded, for safety's sake. It may help us to protect those pieces of gear which have become a little too delicate to take on the road. But the best use for the unit is to supplement an already-developing rig. It can handily prevent that nagging sensation that a sound which you simply can’t approach may be instantly requested by your band or client. And the aesthetics? Just like a finely crafted movie which allows you to suspend your unbelief and loose yourself in the story, this thing allows you close your eyes and soak in the sound, feel, and vibe of these amps.
So what’s missing? How about that inevitable hot, cigarettey smell which wafts from old gear when it is first fired up? How about the cool jewel lamps on classic Fenders? What about some chrome, tolex, and sparkly speaker cloth? Where’s the standby switch on this thing? How about the dust mice collecting in the back? What about blown speakers? Oh well. It's a fair exchange for those who don't have access to a dusty amp room like the ones of old which I remember so fondly. Thanks, Lynn.
Is it worth the admission price? YOU BET, and that price is coming down!
Incidently, there are a couple of new versions of POD out, the POD XT and POD XT Live:
They offer the ability to run more effects at once, some effects routing options, a little mode flexibility, and some new amp models. Be aware that there is some controversy as to whether the older POD 2.3 models sound better than the new ones. What does this mean? Vintage PODs?
A Couple of Interesting POD Applications