Back on October 12th I made a blog post about getting a Line6 HXFX, I gave the first impression of it and am now ready to follow up on that as I’ve finally got it out to gig over the weekend!

First of all, in regard to the purpose of the original post (I needed to downsize my rig due to an existing spinal issue), it’s job done. My 50lb pedal board is now less than a quarter of the size and weighs about a third. It’s SO good to walk into the venue with my board in one hand, my guitar on my back and my Mandolin in the other. My back and my surgeon will be forever grateful for this development! 

So, what’s it all about, what’s the purpose, and why did I choose it. Regardless of all the stuff about my back, the main issue was downsizing. I play in a pub band and there isn’t room for a board that big, it just gets in the bloody way. Also, and most importantly, I love the scribble scripts. Because of that, the Helix family was the basic and most obvious choice. Couple that with the fact it’s renowned for being the easiest to use, I was a fan before I even started. However, I really must remember that what is easy for most generally means “bloody nightmare” for me as I detest reading any manual that’s over 2 pages long. I looked up the “how to use” videos and they made it so simple I thought – this is gonna be easy.

I was wrong. 

First World Problems, a two-part tale of western privilege.
Firstly, there is pretty well no point in using this thing without using the HX editor from your computer. Based on space limitations, the HXFX is remarkably easy to use, but you know, it’s fiddly and annoying and you can’t use its full potential without it. This is the first major failing of it to be honest. Considering the technology out there today how on earth this was released with only a computer editor and not some kind of app, preferably with Bluetooth, is really amazing. About a year ago my big brother bought a Line6 Firehawk FX and I had a lovely time editing the sounds on it via an app on his phone as he was playing it. I’m pretty amazed that this technology hasn’t gone forward onto the HXFX. As you can imagine, editing something easily when you are on your computer at home does not translate to when you realise that one of your solo sounds isn’t quite loud enough and you need to fix it on the fly during the break… Plus, it’s 2018. I want to do it on my phone dammit.

Secondly, considering that Line6 are one of, if not THE market leader (when you take into consideration their market share) producers of high quality and small wireless systems, why wasn’t a receiver built in? I feel a trantrum coming on I WANT AN APP!!!! I WANT A RECEIVER!!!

Using it.
As with anything like this, it’s all about the mindset in how easy it is to use. I’m guessing that a lot of people will use it in stomp mode, but I’m willing to wager that there are a lot of people like me who have come from a full looper situation and are looking to condense. So, for this piece I’m going to be talking about it from that angle only. From what I can see, the vast majority of YT demos are geared towards using it in stompbox mode, so I was struggling to find the way around using it my way. Also, worth noting I’ve not properly dived into the expression pedal element of it yet.

Once I had worked out what the hell was going on, I was able to navigate the thing much easier. The first issue I had with it was the difference between patches and snapshots. They should have been called “boards” and “patches”. You see, that’s what a patch is. You set up a ‘pedal board’ within the patch and then use the snapshots to change the what is on and what isn’t. Now, this caused me no end of problems initially, but when I got my head round it, it was easy. I just then had to work out from each virtual board which patches I can use as you only get four snapshots per ‘board’ (patch).  Why is this an issue you ask? Well, when you load a new ‘board’ up, the audio drops out for a split second. When you change between Snapshots, this does not happen.

The quality of the effects are generally really quite good, although with everything else that belongs in the modelling world, the whole thing is a retrospective view of the world of guitar effects. It’s crammed full of the classics, and being a tone snob within the industry who has played everything that Brian Wampler has made since 2010 and most of our competitors pedals, at times it was really disappointing. Compromises HAVE to be made when you go from a full board to one of these. This is NOT a unit for the cork sniffers who are well versed in the current trends in boutique level pedals. The compression is great if you want a vintage Ross style, or a SP Compressor, but if you are used to the Ego, or a Keeley, or an Origin Cali76, your bottom lip is going to drop when you play them. Same with the Klon model, it’s really accurate to the original, but if you’ve played any that have come after it – including the KTR – you’re going to be a fraction disappointed. The delays are great, even the tape emulator (but it ain’t no FTEv2), as are the reverbs – but at times it feels like they have made them to appeal to the guy in the store who is going to be demonstrating it so everything is kinda over the top, there is a distinct lack of subtlety within them. Unsurprisingly, the things I’ve not found a use for are the overdrives. I’m sorry Line6, but once you find the boutique level OD pedal for you, an accurate model of some of the older stuff just ain’t gonna cut it. I am an overdrive snob, which is probably why I have worked for Wampler for so long, so it was never going to work out well! Once you really get into OD’s properly, it’s not just the tone, you can actually feel the difference between all the boutique guys, Keeley’s feel different, JHS feel different… so, a digital recreation of a Boss SD-1 just isn’t going to hit the mark. Fortunately, Line6 have allowed you to have two external FX loops within so my beloved Paisley Drive Deluxe is still my main overdrive. For this run of gigs I’ve been using the Klon model in the HX, and using both side of the Paisley… however, as I only use the blue channel of the PaisleyDog as a solo boost, I am pretty certain that from here on in the Tumnus will be back on the board in the second loop and I’ll use the internal TS for boosting. Once you get used to that Tumnus feel and sound, a regular Klon model just isn’t going to cut it. I’m sorry to all you Klon purists out there, but I think it’s just better. I just wish there was a third loop so I could use the Mini Ego, but of all the compromises that I will have to make, the Tumnus and the PaisleyDog are above it on the list.

The one thing I am pretty well staggered was not included was a side chained noise gate. The effects are noisy, especially when you stack them up (in fact, the ‘same’ effects on this board has considerably more floor noise than my old board,) I’m pretty certain those big ol’ brains at Line6 could find a way of putting a noise gate in that reads when there is a signal coming from your guitar and then place the gate in a location you want (ideally, after the gain stages). All that floor noise will be gone in an instant even with the sensitivity set real low. 

So, what’s the verdict then? When we look into the specifics of what I wanted, it’s doing a grand job. I wanted to replace a lot of my board and my TB looper, and it’s done this. Is it an ‘all in one’ solution for everything? Not quite – but right now, it’s probably the closest I can get to it. The key thing to remember is that almost everything you want out of a massive board is going to be compromised when you scale down.


My old, big board (mostly for sale - under the Strymons are Tumnus, MiniHOF, Wireless receiver, dB+ and under the board is a Carl Martin ProPower 2. Since this was taken, the Mobius was replaced with the BOSS MD-500 and the TimeLine with a Source Audio Nemesis)...

 


My new board, streamlined board of compromise...

 


And, for a more direct comparison, here is the case for my new board sitting atop of my old one (now for sale, please contact author lololz)! The actual case for my old board weighs 2lb less than my entire new board inc case!

 

Pros of using something like the HXFX...

  • SCRIBBLE SCRIPTS. The single most important thing on this. I can now troll myself every gig with ‘comedy’ names for my patches and snapshots. I particularly enjoy the fact I can insult our lights guy with a specific patch for his favourite part of his favourite song…. He always watches my feet as I kick that in, so the look on his face when there is an insult to him on that bit is priceless.
  • The vast majority of the effects are more than good enough, in fact some of them are outstanding (“muff”, intelligent harmonizer, TS, plate reverb, Script 90 phaser and Vibe in particular)
  • Ease of use. Despite what I say above, it’s easy to use, I’m just a luddite who wants everything to be so easy I don’t have to think about it.
  • It is without doubt outstanding value.

and the cons...

  • It draws 3A. That’s a huge power draw, hardly any supplies give that out and the wallwart is bloody huge. This will annoy me for ever!
  • No app? Come on Line6, you did it with the Firehawk. Do it on the HX as well.
  • On the flip side to one of the cons, some of the effects are disappointing. Most of the overdrives are dated, the gate needs updating, it needs a polyphonic pitch shifter (like the Digitech Drop), the chorus is good, but not as good as the BOSS MD-500 (better than the Mobius though)… some of them need to be calmed down (’63 Spring’ in particular).
  • A built-in wireless receiver would have been perfect.
  • It’s noisy. Really bloody noisy. Get a decent side chained gate in there! And get it in there now! 

At home, I think it will stay in the case. I have the Full Helix for recording and quiet play, and also ‘quite’ the collection of pedals and there is nothing like grabbing a pedal off the shelf and just loving what it does. But, for live, I’m the kind of person that wants it all set up, not change and be the same gig after gig after gig. In that case, it’s perfect. If you are a ‘set and leave it’ kind of player (whether that be at home or live) then this is for you. If you are a tweaker, it just won’t work quite so well. 

All in all, this has been an interesting experiment. Due to the physical limitations I have I will stick with it and enjoy every moment when I use it, because it's good, most of my old board is now up for sale. Is it ideal? Is it perfect? Nope, gear choices rarely are – it’s all about compromises and unless you want to take a board the size of a small village out with you, it will always be this way. But… it’s good enough for a pub band and good enough for my almost exacting ears. Without the option to put my favourite OD in there it would be a massive fail, as NOTHING works for me like the PaisleyDog does, but the rest of it is close enough. I just wish I could find a way of getting my Tumnus and Mini Ego in there as well… But, I may have a plan for that. I’m getting a slightly bigger board for Christmas… so, here I go again!

 

 



 

As you can expect, half my life appears to be talking to people that have a new pedal day. Often it’s on Social Media congratulating them, or maybe it’s after I’ve advised them what to buy, or in rare cases talking to them if something isn’t right or they don’t bond with it.

This week marked my first personal NGD in over a year. A Helix HX effects.

Before I give you my thoughts on it, I want to tell you why I’ve gone down this route as it appears to surprise a lot of people, but in reality, it’s just the next logical step for me. So, before I write about that, I want to write about the board that I am saying farewell too and the reasoning behind it.

When I started gigging again it was after a short 17 year hiatus from being in a regular band. I was nothing short of prolific in the 90’s and I got bored. I went from guitar, to bass, to live sound… because you know, I still wanted to gig, but I got bored and stopped doing it... I soon then went to University in a different country. Well, in Wales, but you know, that’s a different country. Four years after going to University I was the proud owner of a nice and shiny law degree and a copious amount of debt. A crippling amount in fact. I had just met the person who would go on to change my life and we got married, two kids arrived completing our family in the 4 years that followed. Because of this, my gear was sold so gigging was just out of the question.

Once I started down the path I am today with Wampler (and back in the music instrument industry again) the gear started to reaccumulate around me and I found myself being able to gig again (I had played some over the years, but it was using someone else’s gear). The only local band that I wanted to play with lost their guitar player (of 24 years) and they asked me, so I said “Hell yes!” My first gigs with the band had a simple rig. My beloved PRS Brent Mason-Polytune 2-Mini Ego-Tumnus-Dual Fusion-FTE-TC Mini HOF into a Fender BDri. It was small, simple and sounded great. But I wanted more.

Over the following couple of years, the board changed from a PT Nano 16 to a two-tier Temple board, Line6 G30 wireless, One Control OC-10 looper that had in it the following… Polytune 2, Tumnus, Paisley Deluxe, Strymon Mobius (split pre and post), Strymon TimeLine, TC Quintessence, TC MiMiQ, TC Mini HOF, Digitech Drop… the TimeLine was replaced by the Source Audio Nemesis and the Mobius by the BOSS MD-500… into the Fender BDri (used as a head) and a Quilter 101MR into a homemade 2x12” cab.

Yes, it got silly.

This is my thought process throughout this. Back in the 90’s I adopted modeling early on with the Roland GP100, into a Marshall 100/100 tube power amp into a 4x12, purely because I liked the control of it. At the touch of a midi footswitch button, I could change everything from the amps to various delays and modulations… It was awesome. But, the dirt/amp channels didn’t sound great. These days, I’m more than happy with my Wampler dirt section as they are so responsive to my touch and volume control, so all I need is a basic decent amp with a good clean sound and my dirt needs are covered… but boy do I love having custom mod and delay patches set up for songs. It gives it that extra bit of sheen I couldn’t get from something that wasn’t programmable. I 100% compromised on the tone and purity of the FTE for the TimeLine… that was improved with the Nemesis. The Mobius was a new addition as I didn’t have any mod before… and the MD-500 improved on that. So, that was my gear journey up to this point.

And now the reason for getting the HXFX.

Three years ago I did something rather nasty to my spine which resulted in me literally spending 6 months on my back. I couldn’t stand, walk or even sit down. Fortunately, my job is a “home working” position so I was able to do everything I needed to from my bed. Once I finally had the operation to put it right (which the surgeon said “You have the 1 in a 1000 version of this, the worse it can be”) I was back up and about again, ready to get out there… and I joined the band 2 months after. It was between then (Feb 2016) and now that the board grew to the silly state it is in now.

Then, the horrible thing happened… Two weeks ago I was lifting my board into the back of my car and my back screamed “NO” at me. It was, fortunately, a warning shot across the bows. For a couple of months, I had been suffering a tightening across the small of my back after gigs, but I put that down to being 45 and generally unfit but this was different. This was my back say “That’s enough Jay, sort your shit out mate, I can’t do this much longer”. With that, I had a decision to make. It’s obvious that I can’t keep carrying around this monster board so I needed something that will meet me in the middle. And then I discovered the Helix HXFX. So, I got one. The main thing that attracted me was the ease of use of programming it, I detest reading product manuals and this is easy to use as it’s all on the little screen things, so for a Luddite like myself, it’s perfect.

First Impressions… it’s great. There are a few things I’m compromising on in terms of tone using this, but I can live with them. You see, I’ve gone back to the PT Nano 16 again. So, it’s Line6 G30 receiver, into the Helix, Tumnus and Plexi Drive in the loops, out to a Black 65 and into the Quilter 101MR. It can do everything the other rig can do, almost identically, but weighs ¼ of my previous board. The Quilter weighs literally 1/50th of the BDri and with a Black ’65 in front of it set to zero gain makes it sound like the Fender, or close enough in a live pub band situation. I’ve gone from 4 painful trips back and forth to the car each way to doing it all in one go easily.

I’ll come back in a couple of weeks and give you the full rundown of how the rig stands in a live situation, but so far, it’s looking and sounding really good. The Helix HXFX has a lot of limitations and a couple of glitches I will need to work around, but I am confident I’ll find a way. Most importantly, it gives me loads of opportunity to talk to my friend Ross at Line6 who just LOVES it when I start to pick apart their product and say things like “Why does it do that, that’s a bit silly” and “we would have done this differently” as only industry friends can… it’s the simple pleasure of this job!