Building on Avid’s Eleven Rack technology, this new hardware amp modeller promises to combine great sound with ease of use.
The HeadRush Pedalboard is a feature-rich guitar amp, cab, mic and effects modelling floorboard and four-channel audio interface, and the first product in HeadRush’s range. The Pedalboard features, amongst other things, a looper — but don’t confuse it with Akai’s Headrush looper pedal; HeadRush and Akai may share the same owner (inMusic Brands), but the products are entirely unrelated! The Pedalboard’s Eleven HD Expanded DSP software is actually derived from another popular product: the Digidesign/Avid Eleven Rack amp modeller/effects processor and Pro Tools audio interface. As the ‘Expanded’ implies, however, this is not a straight port of that product’s software. Not only was the Eleven Rack code disassembled and reconstructed to fit the architecture of the Pedalboard’s quad-core DSP platform, but HeadRush also made tweaks to improve the sound, as well as adding new features and facilities, including new amp and effects models, and reverb tails which remain audible even when changing presets. I’m also told that Eleven Rack users are able to import their existing presets, which is a nice touch.
Physically, HeadRush’s Pedalboard is strikingly attractive, the front panel of its black steel body housing a central seven-inch full-colour touchscreen, with rotary controls on either side. Beneath this sit two rows of six footswitches, each having its own small alphanumeric monochrome OLED display and coloured identification LED. To the right of all of these, taking up almost the whole depth of the unit, sits the integrated expression pedal with its A/B display.
On the Pedalboard’s rear edge, you’ll find quarter-inch jack inputs for your guitar (TS) and an external expression pedal (TRS), plus an Aux input on a TRS mini-jack that allows you to connect your MP3 player, smartphone, tablet, computer or other source of choice. The Pedalboard’s main stereo/mono outputs are available on balanced XLRs and a pair of switchable amp/line-level quarter-inch TRS jacks. A single headphone output is also provided. Additional quarter-inch TRS jacks carry the Pedalboard’s balanced FX send/return loop. Like the main outputs this can be stereo or mono, and it can be switched between rackmount and stompbox I/O levels. In and Out/Thru MIDI sockets are provided, as is a USB connector that enables you to upload and download updates and to import and export ‘rigs’ (HeadRush-speak for presets), model presets (saved parameters), Setlists (collections of rigs) and third-party cabinet IRs (impulse responses), and also to connect the Pedalboard to your DAW as an audio interface.
The Pedalboard’s user manual is a mere 30 pages compared with the Eleven Rack’s 142, which might lead you to think that we’re looking at a massively dumbed-down unit — but nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, the shorter manual is testament to the power of the Pedalboard’s touchscreen-based user interface. Its drag-and-drop facility makes configuration, amp/cab/mic/effects selection and preset editing incredibly simple.
The 270 rigs are essentially chains built from the onboard emulations of 33 amps, 15 cabs, 10 mics and 42 stompboxes, effects and so on. A rig is made up of an input source, 11 amp/cab/effects slots and an output. A chain can be configured with all slots in series, or as one of two semi-parallel paths. One of these has three slots in series, splitting into two parallel paths of three slots, then two more slots in series, while the other has two slots in series followed by two parallel paths of four slots and three more in series. (The screens and diagrams make everything clear!) The parallel paths are recombined by the Pedalboard’s Mix function, which not only controls level and pan but also can delay either path relative to the other. All chain configurations run in stereo (unless you don’t use any stereo effects, don’t run in a split-path configuration and insert only one amp/cab).
Both the touchscreen and the encoder wheel allow you to assign any model to any empty slot in a rig, at which point a simple graphic representation appears. Using these two interfaces, you can easily delete, drag and drop or replace any model in any slot. Dragging one model on top of another swaps their positions in the chain. Models are categorised into Distortion, Dynamics/EQ, Modulation, Reverb/Delay and Expression (Volume, Wah and so on). Although the Pedalboard limits you to two instances of any one model or cab IR, there are several options in each category so you could, if you wanted to, cascade 11 distortion ‘pedals’ together. You also have the facility to save any parameter changes you make to a model as a new preset for that model.
Amp and/or cab models can go anywhere in the chain, and can be separated to allow other models to sit between them. One rather tasty feature is the facility, using an on-screen switch, to duplicate your chosen amp and/or cab without taking up any additional slots. Once you’ve done that, you can, if you wish, apply different settings to each, using the output volume controls of the cabinets to blend the results together. However, if you want to run two different amps and/or cabs in parallel you’ll need to use one of the semi-parallel paths.
Configuring inputs and outputs is another fairly simple process. The input source is a global parameter, and offers you a choice of the guitar input or the right-hand effects return (allowing you to put your favourite preamps and pedals in front of the Pedalboard) on a rig-by-rig basis. For me, this last choice makes the most sense since I’d want to organise rigs with the same input settings, amplification requirements and output configurations into master Setlists.
The output side is a bit more complicated, since there are three outputs (XLR, Amp/Line and Headphone) active simultaneously, and all or any of them can output either Rig or Alt(ernate) signals. The Rig signal is simply the signal at the output of a rig configuration, but the Alt signal can be taken from Rig Input, Amp Input (the default setting), Amp Output, Cab Input, Cab Output, IR Input, Amp 2 Input, Amp 2 Output, Cab 2 Input, Cab 2 Output or IR 2 Input — which should cover just about any eventuality.
You might think that controlling the HeadRush Pedalboard would be a Herculean task, and so it probably was for its software designers. However, we users have to hand not only the encoder and touchscreen, but also at our feet those two rows of six switches with their OLED screens and coloured LEDs, and an expression pedal (or two). The footswitches can be switched between four Views. The first View is Stomp, in which the middle block of eight switches can be assigned to select up to eight of the 11 possible models in the selected rig. The outer-left pair step up and down through all the available rigs or, if a Setlist is in use, through the rigs contained within it. The upper switch in the outer right pair activates and deactivates the Looper function, whilst its lower counterpart can be used to either set a Tap Tempo or to engage the Pedalboard’s onboard tuner.
In the Rig View, the outer right switches stay in their Looper and Tap/Tuner modes, the outer left pair step upwards and downwards through eight-rig banks, whilst the eight central switches select between individual rigs. The Hybrid View retains the same outer switching options as the Rig View, but in this case the top four switches select between four rigs, whilst the bottom four switch up to four models in the active rig. Finally, the Setlist View uses the outer left pairing to switch through banks of eight Setlists, selecting between them with the centre eight. In this view, somewhat strangely, the remaining two right-hand switches seem to have no function.
Finally, there’s the Looper, with its 20-minute record time spread across one loop with up to 100 layers. In addition to the expected record, overdub, insert (drops in on the last recorded layer), peel (undo) and reverse (play and record) functions, you can also halve or double both loop length and/or playback speed.
When first switched on, the HeadRush Pedalboard will produce usable, convincing emulations of thinly disguised classic amps, cabs, mics and effects without you needing to do any editing whatsoever. For best results, though, you’ll have to dig into all the available parameters and tailor its emulations, in exactly the same way that you have to work with the controls of a real amp, cab and stompboxes to reach your personal choice of sound and playing feel.
For its amp models, the Pedalboard allows you to adjust the parameters found on the original amp’s front panel, and offers no deeper editing. Although cabinet adjustments are limited to amplifier gain, choice of mic placed on- or off-axis, speaker breakup and output gain, the facility to load third-party IRs can bypass this limitation.
As with the amp models, the adjustments available on the stompbox emulations are also tied to their originals’ controls. However, the Digidesign/Avid-made models usually offer more options, so these can prove extremely useful alternatives when you’re trying to get a sound just right.
The Pedalboard’s looper is quick and easy to use but, for the life of me, I can’t understand why, when you can record a loop through the right-hand effects input, you can’t record through the Aux input. My other frustration is that although you can use and modify a different rig for each layer, the Pedalboard can only record and hold one loop at a time. That strikes me as a bit of a waste of its 20-minute record time, since I can’t think of any need for a 12-second, 100-layer loop! I wonder if that’s something a firmware update might address?
There’s better news from the Pedalboard’s Hands-Free mode, which takes over from the three parameter controls to the right of the touchscreen. Holding down a model’s footswitch for one second puts up to six of its parameters on the top row of footswitches. Selecting any one of these parameters brings its current value onto the touchscreen in large, very visible characters.
It’s worth noting that, at the time of writing, moving the expression pedal changes the value instantly, which means that, if the expression pedal is fully toe-down when you call up a parameter value of -60dB, it could go to +12dB instantaneously if you so much as twitch. I suspect this could be easily addressed in a firmware update, and HeadRush say their development team have noted this issue, so hopefully it will be resolved soon. That little glitch aside, the Pedalboard’s two expression pedals, A and B, are very powerful tools for controlling continuous parameters. If no external (B) expression pedal is connected, a toe-press switches the onboard (A) pedal over to B. The pedals are assigned on a rig-by-rig basis and have two possible modes: Classic gives you control over a single parameter, while Advanced allows you to control up to four parameters simultaneously.
As you’d expect these days, connecting the Pedalboard to both Mac and Windows computers over USB went without a hitch. As a USB audio interface, the Pedalboard sends four channels to your DAW at up to 24-bit/96kHz: the left and right main outputs with full rig processing and two copies of the clean guitar input signal. It returns three signals: your DAW’s left and right outputs, which are sent directly to the Pedalboard’s main outputs, and the clean guitar reamp signal, which is sent through the selected rig and back to your DAW.
Thought of as an updated Eleven Rack in a floorboard format, the HeadRush Pedalboard will make a lot of sense to many guitarists. Its eminently usable emulations sound good, and the ‘real-world’ number of parameter adjustments on each model makes for an easy learning curve — any electric guitarist will be able to get to grips with this device quite quickly. Whilst it lacks the deeper layers of fine-tuning that some of its competitors offer, that won’t be an issue for many people, and it is certainly one of the better-sounding amp/cab processors out there, offering a good range of relatively authentic emulations.
The touchscreen interface is a killer feature that makes the Pedalboard a pleasure to operate, as it turns many complex setup and configuration operations into quite simple tasks. However, once the unit is on the floor, the footswitches and expression pedal come to the fore, and make using the Pedalboard quick and intuitive in both live and recording situations.
If, like me, you’re a tweakhead who’ll happily spend a lot of time diving into and microscopically adjusting the more esoteric aspects of an amp emulation, then possibly the Pedalboard isn’t going to be your ideal choice. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for familiar controls and the immediacy of a touchscreen interface, without compromising on sound, then the HeadRush Pedalboard could be exactly what you’re looking for.
Line 6 wrote the book on guitar amp and effects modellers, and their Helix and Helix LT come into consideration, as do the Fractal AX8 and the Atomic Amplifire 12. If you’re a Pro Tools user, you might also think about the Eleven Rack. But none of these units offer the HeadRush’s 20-minute loop time, so you’d also have to budget for an external loop pedal to make them comparable. They also don’t sport the Pedalboard’s touchscreen.