There cannot be anything more controversial and polarizing in the world of muso gear than guitar modelers slash digital amp simulators – as plugins certainly but as hardware… Words cannot express the heated debates between the younger generation and the mass dissension prevalent in the ranks of old school players who grew up noodling through ‘real gear’.
One thing that cannot be argued about however, is the convenience factor. When you take all things in to account, hardware modelers are insanely attractive, even to old-heads who are starting to realize that you don’t need to pack enormously heavy amps, pedal boards and 4×12 cabs into the AMC Gremlin to get to your next gig – no, today you can fit an entire rig into your backpack.
“Again, convenience factor for home-pros is through the roof with the added flexibility of a floor-based controller“
But the guitar life isn’t 100% based in gigging and shows. These days a great many music producers and beatmakers are creating high end recordings and productions from their own studios and the may be guitar-centric in their skillset or use session players on the regular. With this in mind, the ideal form factor for a studio (even a modest one) is not necessarily a floor based unit. This is where the beauty of the Line6 Helix Rack comes in, providing legitimate convenience for home-pros with it’s 3RU form. Add to that the flexibility of an optional, floor-based controller and you have the basis of a very comfortable setup with a minimal footprint. Before we speak on the subject of tone though, let’s look at the Helix Rack itself.
As with all Line 6 products, the Helix Rack and foot controller are beautifully and seductively packaged. Much more notable, however, is the quality of the products themselves. The Helix Rack, in particular, is astoundingly well put together. The unit is weighty at almost 10lbs thanks to it’s über solid construction, with the brushed black front panel giving it a stealthy, professional look. Every switch, button and encoder wheel on the front of the rack feels solid, providing genuine, tactile functionality, which is one of the areas in which the Helix really excels. The foot controller, thankfully, feels just like all Line 6’s floor units. Reassuringly solid with exactly the right spacing between the dual rows of switches with both the surrounding color rings and scribble strips providing excellent visibility and feedback.
“Every switch, button and encoder wheel on the front of the rack feels solid, providing genuine, tactile functionality, which is one of the areas in which the Helix really excels.“
Of course, the most visually arresting part of the Helix Rack’s slick design is the 800×480 pixel, full color, LCD screen. Before we go any further, let me just say this is not a touch screen. However, thanks to the incredibly intuitive menu system and the plethora of super solid encoder knobs and dual-axis joystick you quickly forget that perceived inconvenience. Back to that menu system though. The Helix is incredibly easy to get to grips with, largely thanks to the brilliantly thought out menus and well conceived preset lists. I was able to connect to the computer with the supplied USB cable, (selecting the Helix as the input device in my DAW’s preferences), plug in a guitar and start playing immediately.
The Helix is User Friendly In All Aspects (above)
This makes for a great first impression and is ample encouragement to start exploring the immense capabilities of the Helix. It begins with some cursory adjustments to the current patch – easily done by using the right hand encoder/joystick to navigate to a preset in the browser. Once selected a quick push brings up the editable contents of that patch, which are known as ‘Blocks’. To select one you can jog left or right, selecting the ‘Block’ to adjust. The editable parameters of each Block will then appear above the six encoders.
“The Helix is incredibly easy to get to grips with, largely thanks to the brilliantly thought out menus and well conceived preset lists.“
Excellent Tuner Is Very Easy To Use (above)
Most likely, the first thing you’re going to use on the Helix is the tuner. There has been a lot of reckless chat on the Intrawebs regarding the performance of the Helix tuner. Well we at APN do not support the trash talk one bit. In fact, we love the built in tuner. The visual feedback from the large, 6.2″ screen is really excellent with the software guiding you swiftly to a result that’s always accurate – depending of course on your guitar’s intonation.
Access to the Tuner comes by simply holding the Tap/Tuner button and holding it briefly. When you’re done, just press again and you’ll default back to the previous screen. The same button doubles up with Tap Tempo functionality – very useful for setting delays and other time based effects. A solid tip is to set up your delays in note divisions and not the classic milliseconds (push encoder to switch) – this should save a lot of head scratching and face palming. It’s also worth noting that you can set the Global tempo under Global Settings in the menu.
“The same button doubles up with Tap Tempo functionality – very useful for setting delays and other time based effects.”
Bountifully Stocked Effects Are Second to None On The Helix (above)
At the heart of the Helix Rack lies a dual DSP modeling engine and after last year’s 2.82 firmware update the available tone options are pretty astounding. 62 Amp models, 37 Cabs, 16 microphones and some 104 effects. Line 6 have to be given credit for the incomparably diverse nature and high quality of the on board effects. With 15 well labelled menus to choose from plus Stereo, Mono and Legacy options within each of those menus, things remain just on the right side of overload.
2.82 Firmware update is painless (left)
“…after last year’s 2.82 firmware update the tone options are pretty astounding.“
Most notable of these effects are the Delays and Echos which come in multiple flavors. There’s plenty of modernistic swag available but my personal favorites are the vintage styles like the 2290’esque Ducking Delay, Tube Echo, Vintage Swell, Bucket Brigade and on and on. It’s no surprise though, when you consider that Line 6 was at the forefront of developers digitally emulating these effects some 20 years ago. Remember the classic and much desired Echo Farm? (See our Echo Farm 3.0 review here).
Tactile Control Is Universally Excellent (above)
Preset Surfing Is Highly Educational (above)
Of course, as a working producer it’s important to have a multitude of solid jump off points when it comes to tone and what will fit correctly in the track. Which brings us to the, not insubstantial, list of presets that dominate the menu of the Helix Rack. I dived straight in and started exploring and to be honest I felt very comfortable with the sheer amount of usable material residing in the Helix, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Clean tones are the pinnacle of the Helix’ strength, for me personally. There are a great many inspirational presets and it would be ridiculous to try and list them all. Basically speaking though, there’s something fresh for almost any genre of track. After finding a good fit, you can of course push forward into ultimate nerd-dom by tweaking the ‘Blocks’ and even importing your own Impulse Responses via the modest but effective Desktop App, HX Edit.
For rock and metal though, you have to get a little more scientific. There are some really, really good crunch and blues type presets but full gain rhythm and lead tones are extremely complex to model and though Helix exhibits some pretty slammin’ presets it’s not the ‘shooting fish in a barrel slam dunk’ that you’ll find with the ‘clean’ palate. There is such an enormous amount of subjectivity and personal preference when it comes to high gain tones that any real discourse is largely academic.
Sound Design Is Extremely Good on Helix (above)
I say this because if you decide to tweak out an existing preset or build your own from scratch and you have a really good idea of the different elements that comprise the sound you’re after, you will almost certainly have great success – especially considering the enormous range of mic models, cabs, impulse responses and effects available. To simplify, clean tones are easy, distortion tones are hard. So be prepared to really learn the capabilities of the Helix in order to find ‘that‘ dream-tone because just like everything else worth having, you’re going to need to put the work in to get the perfect result for your sensibilities and
style. I happened upon the Brown Sugar preset (yes, that Brown Sugar) during my first foray with the Line 6 and it stuck with me. For me it’s one of those ‘Jump Off’ points (I mentioned earlier) for my productions. A super solid, easily mixable, minimal crunch tone that feels great to play, inspires the guitarist and floats perfectly, even in a dense mix. No surprises that it was used for the two note chords in our demo track. The point of the track is not to show case the length and breadth of the Helix’ capabilities – rather to show producers how great the factory sound design is and how well the right tone will sit in the correct place in your track.
Color Rings make organizing and remembering presets easy (above)
Setup is a cinch as the Helix Rack comes very well equipped for studio duties. As mentioned earlier it is connectable via a standard USB cable – at which point your DAW will recognize it as a 24-bit/96kHz audio interface with eight inputs and eight outputs. This means that come recording time you can switch your DAW input to the Helix whilst still outputting through your normal interface or, you can use the Helix for both in and out. Your preference but a very important detail as it can certainly economize the setup of a new home studio. For outputs you can record directly out using the XLR’s but there are also a plethora of other options including S/PIDF, AES/EBU and 1/4″.
“Setup is a cinch as the Helix Rack comes very well equipped for studio duties.”
Scribble Strips Are Fully Customizable (above)
The solid but perfectly sized foot controller connects via a single CAT5 cable to the Rack unit. It’s weighty but that’s what you want. My only real disappointment with the entire package is the lack of volume / wah / expression control. Of course, there are three inputs for such pedals on the rear. When adding a wah wah or pitch bend block in your preset it will automatically route itself to the first one whilst a volume or pan block will auto-route to the second. Very smart.
“The solid but perfectly sized foot controller connects via a single CAT5 cable to the Rack unit. It’s weighty but that’s what you want.”
I’ve never really been a pedal board, mass effects kind of player. As it stands I always want handles on my sound after it’s in the DAW. With Helix though, the abundance of high quality effects makes it worth the time tweaking a little before you commit a performance to disk and can actually simplify the mixing process enormously. Combine this with the studio friendly and environment appropriate form factor, including the fact that it’s a 3RU size which I
think plays an important part in the Helix’ usability, despite plaintive cries from elsewhere claiming it should be a 2RU. With a price of $1499.99 it’s a pretty incredible value when compared to the slippery slope of traditional gear. For one and a half bands you’re literally purchasing an entire room full of gear that you can record directly to disk with no alarm inducing noise for your neighbors. I’d say the Helix is a must have for a Home Pro set-up.
“With Helix though, the abundance of high quality effects makes it worth the time tweaking a little before you commit a performance to disk.”
- Beautiful build quality
- Intuitive Operation
- Enormous Flexibility
- No expression pedal on footswitch