Aug 27, 2012
First of all, hello and welcome to a new part of the site! We’re rapidly expanding and welcoming some wonderful new contributors who will be writing columns on their respective areas of expertise – you can look forward to some luthier talk from one of NZ’s best guitar makers, studio talk with a couple of guys in the recording industry, some killer guitar lessons, and much, much more!! And not to forget, more fun gear reviews.
So… this is my column! I figured that since I am after all the eponymous originator of the site, I’d give myself a little bit of license to let my mind wander, and have a chat with you guys about the random music-related thoughts that go through my head on a daily basis.
I haven’t quite figured out what to call the column yet, though.
We’re no longer called Sonic Death Monkey. We’re on the verge of becoming Kathleen Turner Overdrive, but just for tonight, we are Barry Jive and his Uptown Five.
As I think about overhauling my amp rig once again, my mind turned to one of the longest running arguments on gear that has raged ever since a red kidney bean-shaped piece of gear said “Hey, you know what? We have all your fancy ass tube amps, and we put them all into this chip!”…
Modelling vs tubes
So, what is modelling? Helpful as always, Wiki tells us:
Standalone modelling devices such as the Line 6 POD digitize the input signal and use a DSP, a dedicated microprocessor, to process the signal with digital computation, attempting to achieve the sound of expensive professional amplifiers in a much less costly and more compact device.
The way I see it, modelling is, in a nutshell, a solution to the following problems:
- You want a wider variety of tones, but your wallet/wife/apartment/mum (pick one or more) prevents you from buying a whole lot of actual guitar amps.
- You want to be able to record music easily without fudging around with microphones and preamps and recording interfaces.
- You want to enjoy cranked amp tones, but don’t enjoy ruptured eardrums and angry neighbors.
- Doesn’t sound as good as the real thing.
- Doesn’t feel as good as the real thing.
- It costs so much less than my expensive boutique amp – therefore it HAS to be shit. Right??
Alright, you got me – I like modelling, and that’s the side of the fence I’ll be sitting on today.
Your digital cork lacks complex oaky flavour
We’ve come a long way since the first days of digital modelling. However, a basic fact remains – guitar players are essentially cavemen, and are suspicious of any new technology.
To their credit, metallers are usually early adopters of new tech, especially for modelling. This is because high gain amps like the Mesa Dual Rec rely largely on preamp gain to get their distinctive tone, and preamp modelling is something that companies like Line 6, Fractal, etc have gotten correct early on. In fact, it would not be remiss to state that they had that shit down.
However, it’s poweramp drive that no one seems to have quite conquered just yet. I’m talking about amps like the Vox AC30, Marshall Plexi and so on, where you need to turn them waaaay up loud so that the poweramp starts overdriving. This was something that eluded the early modellers, but I think they’re on their way to conquering even that!
Here’s my current pick from the modelling crowd: the Line 6 POD HD500.
Note: I’m going to start experimenting with affiliate links here. Two reasons:
- A convenient jumping off point to check out specs and details so I don’t have to elaborate on them too much.
- Helping to fund the site. I don’t expect you to buy that specific thing, but if you are planning to purchase something from, say, Amazon anyway – I’d really appreciate it if you clicked on the link and followed through to your item.
Feedback on this is welcome – if you don’t like it or find it overly intrusive, please say so. However, I won’t be posting affiliate links of products that I wouldn’t recommend, so hopefully it won’t be too bad!
A couple of reasons:
- Affordability: It’s a lot cheaper than alternatives like the Kemper Profiling Amp or the Fractal Axe-FX.
- Tone: The tones from the HD500 are hands down the BEST of all iterations of the POD, and I’ve played/owned various incarnations, going all the way back to the POD 2.0
- Touch responsiveness: A common complaint with modellers is that they don’t react or feel the same way as a real guitar amp would. Personally for me, the HD is about 90% there. It cleans up realistically whether you’re just rolling back your volume, playing a little softer or with your fingers, and so on.
- The new Plexi model: Best. Thing. Ever. It’s got a heap of the Plexi bark, and it’s so dynamic! I could happily play a whole gig just using this one model, gained up and rolling back for cleans. For me, this goes a long way towards proving that they’re finally “getting” poweramp modelling.
- Versatility: I use this to record straight to my computer, straight to the PA for band practice when I can’t be bothered with an amp, to my Marshall AFD100 as a “pedalboard” when I need more effects – you can use this for anything.
Naturally, everything has its weaknesses. Some real, and some possibly perceived…?
Let’s talk about a few of them. I’m going to pick out some quotes from a guy on one of my guitar forums who talked about the HD500 recently, because that was what actually sparked off this train of thought for me.
mr sooty wrote:
The whole time I had this I was using headphones. I’ve read that it doesn’t sound great through headphones, so this may have tainted my opinion of it. There’s also the issue of tone. Maybe it’s just my headphones (I’ve recently got some rather nice ATM50’s), but to my ear, as good as these things are, there’s always this brittle kinda ‘digitalness’. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it never quite sounds right to me.
Therein lies the problem. Does ANYthing sound good through headphones? The HD’s full signal chain models the signal of a miked up cabinet – if you ran your sweet tube amp through one mic to a desk, and sat in another room playing it through headphones, I daresay it wouldn’t really sound that good either.
As most people say, the presets are pretty average. I had much more success starting from scratch.
This is 100% true. Ditch the presets and start from scratch. Build up a virtual rig like you would a real one – start with the amp, then choose a cabinet and mic, then start adding effects.
Operating these things is always rather fiddly, and you definitelty want to read the manual! I found by far the easiest way of editing patches was through the computer software.
I gotta disagree here. To set up extreme effects chains? Sure, it might be a bit daunting. But to setup a basic, good sounding “amp tone”? It’s a piece of cake. They’ve actually put in dedicated EQ, gain, presence etc knobs this time, so you adjust it just like you would an amp.
I would like to tell you how bad the 5E3 model sounded, but there’s no 5E3. What? No classic 50’s Fender Deluxe? Nope. Not included sorry.
Well… the idea behind the HD series is to focus on doing a smaller number of amp models really well, rather than having 200 half-baked models, as some of the previous PODs did (X3, looking at you). I’d rather have that, and to their credit Line 6 have been really good about releasing free updates as new models become available – to date they’ve added the Plexi, a bass amp, and some other stuff I can’t remember, as well as Soldano/5150 models and more in the pipeline.
So… I think the conclusion at this point, personally, is that some people just aren’t right for modelling. Also, you should probably adjust your expectations accordingly if you want to use one – it’s never going to sound like a half stack in your ears, if it’s really just coming from a tiny earbud. In your ears.
Put that in your ears
By now you’re thinking, man that guy talks a lot of game, but has he proven that the HD (and in context of this article, modellers in general) don’t suck?
As always, I’m an advocate for deciding for yourself. Most of the guitar reviews on the site have been done with an HD500, and I usually make a point of testing how well the guitar/amp combination react to volume dynamics.
Additionally, here are a few snippets of music I’ve made with the HD500. Feel free to have a listen, make a judgement, and let me know whether you think it’s good, bad, or really bad!
I did say that while poweramp modelling is getting close, I don’t feel that it’s quite there yet.
As usual, Line 6 is there on the forefront of things bringing new, innovative technology to the masses, at pretty affordable prices!
I’m talking about the Line 6 DT series of amplifiers. Realizing that people aren’t quite 100% happy with poweramp modelling, they’ve partnered with Reinhold Bogner to design a true tube poweramp which takes input from modelled HD preamps. It even changes power Class (A or AB), negative feedback loop settings and pentode/triode power stuff on the fly depending on which amp model you’re using.
It sounds awesome. But does it sound awesome? On my recent trip down to Christchurch to see Slash, I chucked an Audix i5 in my backpack and went to an old friend’s place to find out, using his DT50 head! Additionally, I now have a DT25 head to try out as well…
Make sure you check back soon for the review!
The way forward
I see a couple of things that will happen with guitar amplification as technology marches forward, tell me whether you agree or not:
- 100% modelling: This is happening even as we speak – the Axe-FX purports to model entire circuits, which you can then fine tune or change component values to, in effect, virtually modify or design a whole new amp.
- Tube amps get smarter: Cleverer electronic power scaling has already proven its worth in offerings such as the Marshall AFD100 and YJM100, allowing you to get cranked tones at sensible volumes. I’d like to see a modular concept (similar to Randall’s semi-successful attempt) come back as well. Versatility fights back!
- The lines between the two just get more blurred: Imagine an amp fuelled by meticulously detailed preamp models, fed into a true tube poweramp, but also incorporating power scaling so that you can get true poweramp overdrive at reasonable volumes. This I would like to see.
So what’s your experience/position on the modelling vs tubes debate?