Line 6 were amongst the first to create realistic‑sounding modelled guitar amps and effects. Does their latest offering keep them at the front of the pack?
DSP chips have evolved considerably since the original Line 6 Pod was launched, and the extra power available for the new Pod HD500 has provided the opportunity for the designers at Line 6 to refresh their range (Line 6 say there's up to 10 times more computing power in the top of the range new‑generation Pod than in the originals). The new HD series includes more detailed algorithms, and the company have added a huge number of 'stomp' and studio effects, as well incorporating a 48‑second looper that can be used pre‑ or post‑effects. Line 6 also say that the extra power allows them to make their amp models behave even more like the real thing, especially when you pull down the guitar volume to clean up the amp sound.
The HD series of Pods comes in three versions, the HD300, HD400 and HD500. Because stomp effects are routinely controlled by foot, the HD‑series Pods all come in a floor‑Pod pedal format, rather than the familiar red kidney shape, and they also include the ability to function as a two‑channel USB recording interface for your computer. I'll focus on the top‑of‑the‑range HD500 model here, but it's worth mentioning that the cheaper models are not cut down as much as you might think, so it's worth checking the Line 6 web site for details of the different models if you're planning a purchase.
When it comes to connectivity, the HD500 has it all. There's a quarter‑inch guitar input jack, a quarter‑inch aux input jack, a mini‑jack stereo input for MP3 players and a balanced XLR mic input with gain trim (but, alas, no phantom power). There's also a digital input for a Line 6 Variax Guitar, and MIDI connections (In and Out/Thru) on two DIN sockets. On the output side, there are two balanced XLRs for the left and right channels (which are duplicated on unbalanced quarter‑inch jacks), a stereo effects loop and a quarter‑inch stereo headphone jack.
A USB port enables connection to a computer — both for recording and playback, and for managing the Pod using the free Pod HD Edit software, which is downloadable from Line 6's web site. The unit also includes a new protocol called 'L6 Link' that allows compatible products to share information. A current example is the DT50 guitar amplifier, where changes made on the Pod are reflected in the DT50 amp settings, and vice versa.
Power comes from an included universal‑voltage adaptor with snap‑on connectors for all the standard international sockets. This is fair enough, but I really wish manufacturers would stop using flimsy cables and domestic connectors for such devices: they really don't fill me with confidence in a live setting, where a heavy‑duty cable and substantial locking connector would serve much better.
For recording, the HD500's internal sample rate is fixed at 48kHz, but an on‑board sample‑rate converter means that you can sync it to sample rates from 44.1kHz to 96kHz. The audio output is fixed at 24‑bit. Line 6's own driver software also allows for latency‑free monitoring, by mixing the processed sound from the Pod with the DAW return — a common approach in budget audio interfaces — so that you can hear the guitar sound with effects while recording but without suffering any latency delay other than the minuscule processing time of the Pod itself.
The designers have focused their expertise on perfecting 16 classic amp models, which cover all musical genres. As you'd expect, there's the usual nod towards the likes of Marshall, Vox and Fender, but there are also more boutique brands, such as Bogner and Dr Z. Everything is programmable, so that you can emulate the adjustments you might make to the actual hardware. In fact, in some cases you can take adjustments even further: the AC30TB model, for example, has three‑band EQ plus presence, compared with the single 'Tone' knob of the original hardware.
Realising that many guitarists just want to plug in and blast away, rather than be overwhelmed by tweakable options, Line 6 have also included a very large preset library. There are 512 preset slots, half of which are filled with factory sounds for you to try, and half of which are available for your new patches. (You can also overwrite or modify any of the factory sounds if you wish.)
There's the usual built‑in tuner, with an auto‑mute mode for silent tuning, and while Pods have always been generous with effects, this series also includes many effects from Line 6's M9 and M13 effects units. In addition to the more usual studio effects, there are also numerous processors that can be used to make guitars sound more synth‑like. A built‑in expression pedal controls wah, volume or pitch effects, and there's the option to plug in an additional expression pedal if you want more control.
You have the option to chain up to eight effects per patch, with several flexible routing options, though the system lets you know when you've run out of DSP if you max it out before then (some of the reverbs and sophisticated pitch‑shifters hog more than their share of DSP power).
The HD500 offers 12 footswitches, arranged in two rows. The lower‑right switch is used for tap tempo (to control delays or other time‑related effects), and brings up the tuner when pressed and held for a couple of seconds. A set of conventional amp control knobs, comprising Drive, Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, Volume and Master, allows fast adjustment of the selected amp model, and to the right of these knobs are three small slide‑switches for selecting the guitar input sensitivity (the 'Pad' setting is useful with hot humbuckers), line or amp levels for the quarter‑inch jack outputs, and ground lift for the XLR outputs. There's also a dedicated switch to put the unit into Looper mode (more in a moment).
All the main programming and tweaking is done using the LCD display and the controls clustered around it. These include four knobs below the display that control whatever functions are currently on-screen, and a rotary encoder, which scrolls through presets in the current 'Playlist' (a way to organise groups of patches). To the right of the display is a circular, four‑way cursor pad for navigating the screen, and associated 'enter' and 'move' push‑switches.
In Looper mode, seven of the footswitches function as dedicated controls and are labelled in gold: Undo, Play Once, Pre/Post, Rec/Overdub, Play/Stop, Half Speed and Reverse. When you first hit Record, the loop starts recording; hit it again, and you'll be overdubbing. The expression pedal can perform different functions, which are indicated by LEDs. You can also add a second, external expression pedal.
The HD500's preset sounds range from straightforward classic amps with a dash of reverb to Edge‑style delay extravaganzas and pseudo‑synth washes and basses. However, most presets are designed to show off the abilities of the device, which, of course, means that most of them are too over‑the‑top for everyday use.
Fortunately, editing isn't difficult. One approach that worked well for me was to find a preset close to my needs and change the amp and effect models to suit. I could also re-order the effects and place stomp effects before the amp, of course, but I wasn't able to put two amps in series in the same chain. The Dual Tones Playlist should provide all the starting points you need for either processing two separate inputs or setting up a dual‑amp rig.
The different display modes make things still more intuitive. One offers a graphical representation of the amp and effects chain; another shows the four selectable patches in the current bank; and a third mode takes the form of a giant patch‑number display, which would be useful when on stage. From the view showing the signal chain, you can use the cursor to locate the blocks of interest, and change them or adjust them using the knobs below the screen.
The effects menu is simply vast — if we were to print all of it, the sidebar would look like an extract from the Yellow Pages! There are seemingly endless variations on overdrive, delay, wah and modulation, as well as rotary speakers, octave generators, pitch‑shifters, smart harmony generators and emulations of many classic stomp pedals. There are also processors designed to produce synth‑like sounds, including a pseudo-string module, a slow envelope‑attack module and a wide range of both natural and mechanical reverbs.
While editing from the front panel is straightforward, the free editing software makes it even easier, as you can see and adjust multiple parameters at the same time. The left of the page (see screenshot above) shows the patches in the currently selected playlist, with a graphical representation of the amp and effects chain at the top of the screen. The remaining area can be switched to focus on editing Effects, Amps, Mixer or Set Lists, the last of which includes the provision to re‑order patches using a simple drag‑and‑drop procedure. In the Mixer window, you can balance the two patches of a dual processing chain, assign controllers to effect parameters, and allocate up to eight of the footswitches as effect bypass controls. This is also where you set up the Variax input if you happen to be using a Variax guitar. Using this feature, you can force the Variax to switch guitar models when you change presets or allow it to remain independent. When I downloaded this software, I was helpfully greeted by a firmware update, which took only a couple of minutes to install.
I tested the HD500's audio interface functionality using Apple Logic Pro, in which the Pod showed up as a two‑channel interface. The source selection is done on the Pod itself so I set channel one to microphone, bypassed all processing and amp models and checked the recording quality. It turned out to be very clean, with plenty of mic gain on hand for vocals. This was fine for dynamic mics, but the lack of phantom power meant that I wasn't able to use the capacitor mics (other than tube mics that have their own power supply) I'd typically use on vocals.
When it comes to the subjective sound of the amp models, description is always difficult, because everyone looks for something different in an amp. Still, it's worth mentioning that, compared with earlier Pods, I felt the HD500 responded more naturally when the guitar volume control was wound down to clean up the sound. The general character of the amp models is similar to the way it's always been (at least in the case of the common amp types, with which I'm familiar), but they do feel more responsive when playing, and the choice of modelled mics and on‑ or off‑axis positioning gives plenty of tonal variation, as does the ability to add in a variable amount of room reflections.
Naturally, users will want to compare the results with those of software amp modellers too, including Line 6's own PodFarm. I like the simplicity of PodFarm, and it's perfectly adequate for most purposes, but the HD500 feels far more responsive, and has a real sense of presence that should please those who play with more dynamic control. I'd say that the amp modelling is in the same league (at least subjectively) as IK Multimedia's Amplitube, but the effects section offers the same kind of familiar‑meets‑weird range of choices and routing options as NI's Guitar Rig. In general, the effects are first-class, with only the pitch-shifters sounding a little less than pristine.
As an all‑in‑one device for the guitar player wanting something that can be used at gigs as well as in the studio, as both a recording and MIDI interface and sound processor, the Pod HD500 (or one of its scaled‑down siblings) is hard to beat, not least because it allows the guitar player, singer or other musician using the Pod to hear the fully processed guitar sound while overdubbing, with no added latency.
The main hardware rivals to Line 6's Pod range come from Digitech, Boss, Zoom and Vox. Each has its own character, and they vary in their level of sophistication regarding effects choice and routing. In terms of feature set, software solutions are probably more comparable: NI's Guitar Rig, IK Multimedia's Amplitube, Peavey's Revalver III and Avid's Eleven are all worth consideration, as is Softube's Vintage Amp Room, which makes up for a lack of effects and processors in the quality of the few amp and cab models it provides.