Physical modelling has always held out the best hope for producing realistic miked‑up amp tones from a DI processor, and many recording guitarists found their prayers answered when Line 6 launched the Pod. But does this new contender in the field have anything more to offer? Dave Lockwood gets physical with the J Station.
The J Station, from the Johnson Amplification arm of the Digitech Corporation, is a guitar recording preamplifier offering physically modelled simulations of guitar amps and speaker cabs in a compact desktop unit. It was Line 6's ground‑breaking Pod unit that was undoubtedly responsible for persuading many recording guitarists that physical modelling really could offer a radical improvement in realism compared to previous DI recording systems. The J Station unashamedly follows in the footsteps of the Pod in its format, but does actually have something different to offer in terms of its sound and user interface — the dedicated effects control panel, and the S/PDIF connector lurking unobtrusively round the back may well be enough to ensure that the rather visually understated grey/black J Station gets a fair hearing alongside its more eye‑catching rival.
The rotary controls, arrayed across the front of the wedge‑shapedhousing, are pretty standard: Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass, Level (which is programmable for each stored preset) and Master Volume. Amp model is selected by a dedicated rotary encoder, with an appropriate cabinet chosen by default (see 'Amp Models' box). The J Station's dedicated effects/processors control panel scores some points with those frustrated by the Pod's rather limited implementation in this area — the J Station allows independent access at all times to Compressor, Gate, Delay, Reverb and one real 'effect' from the following: Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Tremolo, Auto‑Wah, and Pitch Shift/Detune. The unit ships with 30 (10 banks of three) unerasable factory presets, with 30 user memory slots available. An onboard tuner completes the facilities.
Connection is via quarter‑inch jacks for the single input and main output pair, augmented by a stereo headphone jack and S/PDIF connector. Remote control options include a simple three‑way footswitch that just allows you to select from the presets within a single bank, the 'full works' remote in the form of the Johnson J8 foot controller, or MIDI. The 9V AC power supply is external, but of the altogether less annoying 'lump in the cable' type, and the provision of a power on/off switch on the unit itself means that, in a studio situation at least, the power connector will not need to be subjected to the strain of constant replugging. Build quality is generally fine, but the recessed control knobs really shouldn't wobble as much as they do — if you lobbed a J Station down a flight of stairs alongside a Pod you'd have to back the Pod to be the one still working at the bottom.
A dedicated editor program is available for download from the Johnson web site, although this is presently only for PC. In contrast to the Pod, however, the full functionality of the unit is still available using just the front‑panel controls. Fortunately for Mac users, all editable J Station parameters respond to MIDI continuous controllers, rather than SysEx, making it relatively simple to create your own editor within your preferred sequencing software. If this sounds altogether too much like rocket science to you, I shouldn't worry too much — shareware Mac editors will probably be appearing in the various sequencer user group forums before long.
The J Station is simplicity itself to use. The unit powers up with the last used preset active, and the Data rotary encoder beneath the two‑digit seven‑segment display can be used to select a new preset from either the user or factory set. Presets are active as soon as they are selected, with the amp model display matrix on the right of the control surface illuminating to reflect the current model in use. In the absence of motorised pots, the rotary control positions will initially be meaningless; moving any of the knobs, however, will update that control to its current real position and illuminate the Store button to indicate that you have an unsaved edit. The manual doesn't mention this but if, after recalling a preset, you rotate a control slowly through its full scale you can actually find the point where the Store light goes out (because the control's position matches the stored value) and thus effectively 'null' the controls one at a time to end up with an accurate portrayal of the preset's control positions without using the editing software. Tedious if you are doing the whole lot, I admit, but dead handy if you are only interested in one or two control settings within a patch. Saving is simply a matter of pressing the Store key, selecting the location you want to store the patch in with the Data encoder, and then pressing Store again.
The effects are well organised and surprisingly flexible given that a fair degree of multi‑functionality has inevitably had to be incorporated into the control interface. Editing is conceptually organised into different levels. The upper level offers quick and immediate access to the single most important parameter of each effect, while the 'Deep Level' editing allows more detailed tweaking (see box below). However, a number of Shift‑key or press‑and‑hold editing functions are also available. For example, you have a dedicated Comp switch to insert the compressor in the chain, which when pressed and held for two seconds allows you to adjust the compression ratio (expressed in arbitrary units, regrettably) via the data knob. Moreover, entering Shift mode before pressing and holding the Comp switch allows access to the compressor's output gain parameter. The Gate button responds similarly: press to bypass the noise gate, press and hold to adjust gating threshold and use Shift to set the attack time.
The modulation/pitch‑shift effects group has a single switch to step through the seven options on the list and a single rotary control to set the level of the chosen effect. Entering Shift mode repurposes this pot to set the speed of the modulation effects, the degree of detune in the pitch effect or the sensitivity parameter of the Auto‑Wah. Deep Level editing allows this group to be deployed before or after the amp modelling stage. The single Delay pot controls this effect's level, or in Shift mode adjusts feedback (regeneration) round the delay line, with an adjacent tap tempo button to set the delay time (up to three seconds). The dedicated Reverb control governs only reverb level, with reverb type, diffusion, density and decay time reserved for Deep Level editing mode.
The J Station's S/PDIF digital output makes for a very convenient hook‑up to soundcards and recording workstations which often have only a limited number of analogue inputs. One particularly neat trick is the option to record a dry (post‑gate) signal via the S/PDIF output whilst monitoring with effects via the analogue outputs. Output, which can be adjusted in level via the Utility mode, is dithered down to 16‑bit and proved faultless in use. There are pros and cons to using a digital connection in this type of application. On the plus side you avoid unnecessary A‑D/D‑A conversion and can be sure that your signal will never clip the input stage of the recording device. On the other hand, you can't use any of your nice analogue outboard during recording, and I for one would have reservations about making a unit like the J Station the master clock source for a recording system. Other useful Utility options include mono or stereo output and the ability to globally disable the speaker emulation when using the J Station with a standard guitar amp.
As a confirmed valve‑amp user and also seemingly one of the few people in the world who was not at all convinced about the sound of the Pod, I approached the J Station with a certain amount of scepticism. And if you audition the J Station solely via the factory presets, you may well, like me, come to the initial conclusion that there is little here to get excited about. But I urge you to persist, for this unit has hidden talents — hidden, apparently, beneath the very efforts of the factory programmers to display its abilities. To hear what the J Station is really capable of just dial up the Blackface Twin model, set Gain to max, Treble and Bass to 12 o'clock, Mid to 9 o'clock, set up the compressor with a ratio of 5 (around 4:1) and threshold of around 10 (‑40dB) to make the guitar feel like it has a bit of air moving around it, and finally add a small dash of reverb — I recommend the Club or Studio setting — just to put the hint of a real environment around the sound and... voilà: a 'pushed' clean valve amp actually modelled quite convincingly!
'That sound' — the one where you can't really hear the distortion, just the warmth and glassy ring — has always been the Holy Grail for DI preamp users. Let's face it, even before the modelling generation of processors, plenty of boxes did an acceptable heavily distorted sound, but none of them came within a mile of doing a good 'clean' valve‑amp sound. This unassuming little unit makes a serious effort at it though, and does it really rather well. The dynamic behaviour is particularly impressive — dig in hard and the sound responds appropriately, back off the volume control and something new happens, not just a quieter, less distorted version of what was happening when it was being driven hard. The J Station's 24‑bit A‑D converter obviously makes a difference here, as an electric guitar pickup's potential dynamic range comfortably exceeds that of a 16‑bit converter. The top end is generally more open than that of the Pod on all comparable amp models and yet there is appreciably less background noise. The onboard gate is actually quite benign, but you can certainly get away without it on all but the most high‑gain sounds, if you share my aversion to using one whilst playing.
Other highlights in the tonal palette include a Boogie Rectifier sound that doesn't have so much inherent filth and bottom‑end that it can only be used for Metallica riffs, as well as, for once, a Marshall that doesn't have too much mid‑range crackle. There are some duffers too — the Boat Back and Flat Top acoustic simulations are a waste of space, as usual, and the 'Boutique' model, presumably meant to simulate a small class A amp like a Matchless, really doesn't have any of the requisite qualities at all, to my ears — there's actually a rather nice model purporting to be a Hiwatt that sounds far more like a Matchless to me!
The J Station has bass amps and cabs too — only three, admittedly, but well worth having if you're a recording guitarist who plays his own bass parts. Again, the presets do not do them justice, yet if you just use the basic amp model with a bit of compression you have a pretty decent starting point for a respectable recorded bass sound. J Station is also designed to be software upgradable via MIDI, allowing new models to be incorporated as they are developed.
The J Station's effects are mostly workmanlike, with just a couple that stand out: the chorus is fine, certainly for guitar use, the flanger and phaser are strong too, if you like that sort of thing, while the rotary cab is rather weak. Pitch‑shifting is no worse than on a typical multi‑effects unit, which is to say pretty poor really. Detune is tonally usable, but won't allow simultaneous up and down microshifts, which is of course precisely what most people want to do with a detuning effect. The compressor is a bit of a star — transparent and easy to set up, it makes an excellent job of helping the amp models to feel loud without discernible squashing. Dial in something a bit more heavy‑handed and you've got that classic tight '80s studio sound that works so well with a clean Strat.
The reverbs are a mixed bunch. The big spaces — Hall, Church, Arena — inevitably lack the density and smoothness of a high‑quality dedicated processor, but the small spaces are really rather good. The Club and Studio settings make a great job of adding realism and scale to the amps, if used with subtlety. Then there's the springs. Now, I'd be the first to accept that a good spring reverb can do nice things for a guitar, and there's a triple‑spring 14‑incher here that's not too bad at all. But why would I want a seven‑inch, or a highly accurate model of the uniquely irritating noise that a spring reverb makes when it gets over‑excited? Convincing, certainly, but convincing in the same way that wiring a battery across my teeth might be convincing of the effect of accidentally chewing a bit of stray tin foil!
I'm sure there are few guitar players who would argue with me in asserting that nothing can beat the feeling of standing in front of an amplifier, playing at a level sufficient to overcome the normal energy‑loss characteristics of the instrument. The guitar feels far more responsive, almost 'alive', and a whole range
of nuances and playing techniques become available that are simply not possible under any other circumstances. Most home studios, however, have neither the necessary sound isolation nor domestic tolerance to allow that ideal to be realised, and the runaway success of the Pod stands as clear testimony to both the demand for a reasonably authentic‑sounding DI recording preamp and a willingness to accept the compromises involved.
To my ears, the sound of the current generation of physical modelling devices from the likes of Roland, Yamaha and Line 6 has always fallen just too far short of the qualities that I look for in a guitar sound to warrant serious consideration. The technology, however, was always going to get better. The only questions were 'How much better?' and 'How soon?' Fortunately, for some recording guitarists at least, the answers will be 'Good enough' and 'Right now!' Confirmed techno‑sceptic and valve advocate that I am, the J Station offers something that I could (and will) use for DI recording. It is the first unit of its genre that I find actually a pleasure to play through and which inspires me to carry on playing just for the fun of it in the same way that a good valve amp does. Whatever my reservations about the J Station's build quality and cosmetics, it is the sound that counts in the end, and this unit does enough in that area to persuade at least one very demanding user.
Deep Level editing on the J Station is not exactly friendly, but I'm more inclined to view it as a bonus that the facility is there at all. Pressing and holding Shift takes you into Deep Level mode and transforms the Effect Type and Tap‑It keys to cursor buttons, allowing you to scroll through 40 parameters identified only by number — you'll have to keep the manual handy, as there's otherwise no indication of what each number refers to. Having found the parameter you want, you rotate the Data knob to achieve the desired value for the parameter. The entire parameter set can be accessed here, including everything you can get at via higher levels of editing, but the key additions are cabinet type, delay mode and reverb type. Here is a list of the available parameters:
- 0: Compressor on/off.
- 1: Comp threshold (‑50 to 0dB).
- 2: Comp ratio (1.1:1 to infinity:1).
- 3: Comp output gain (0 to 30dB).
- 4: Comp bypass frequency (50Hz to full range).
- 5‑8: Wah parameters.
- 9: Amp model.
- 10‑14: Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass, Level.
- 15: Cabinet type (see box).
- 16: Gate on/off.
- 17: Gate attack time.
- 18: Gate threshold.
- 19‑25: Effects on/off, type, level, speed/pitch, depth/detune, regeneration, position (pre/post amp model).
- 26‑31: Delay on/off, type (mono, analogue, stereo, analogue stereo), level, coarse delay time, fine delay time, feedback.
- 32‑37: Reverb on/off, type (Club, Studio, Bathroom, Plate, Soundstage, Garage, Hall, Church, Arena, 2‑spring 7‑inch, 2‑spring 14‑inch, 3‑spring 14‑inch, Rattle & Boing), level, diffusion, density, decay.
- 38: Master level.
- 39: Volume pedal.
- 0: 'J Crunch'. Based on the Johnson Millennium.
- 1: 'J Solo'. Based on the Johnson Millennium.
- 2: 'J Clean'. Based on the Johnson Millennium.
- 3: 'Boutique'. Based on a Matchless DC30.
- 4: 'Rectified'. Based on a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier.
- 5: 'Brit Stack'. Based on a Marshall JCM900.
- 6: 'Brit Combo'. Based on a '63 Class A Vox AC30 Top Boost.
- 7: 'Black Face'. Based on a '65 Fender Twin.
- 8: 'Boat Back (acoustic)'. If Ovations really sounded like this nobody would ever have used one.
- 9: 'Flat Top (acoustic)'. Hmmm...
- 10: 'Hot Rod'. Based on a Mesa/Boogie MkIIC.
- 11: 'Tweed'. Based on a '57 Fender Deluxe.
- 12: 'Blues'. A 'dynamic blues setting', apparently.
- 13: 'Fuzz'. A '60s fuzz tone.
- 14: 'Modern (bass)'. Based on an SWR.
- 15: 'British (bass)'. Based on a Trace Elliot.
- 16: 'Rock (bass)'. Based on an Ampeg SVT.
- 17: 'More A1'. Based on a Hiwatt Custom 50.
- 18: 'More A2'. Based on a '78 Marshall Master Volume.
- 0: No Cabinet.
- 1: 'Brit 4 x 12'. Based on a Marshall 1960A with 75W Celestions.
- 2: 'Johnson 412V'. Based on a Johnson 4 x 12 loaded with Vintage 30 Celestions.
- 3: 'Fane 4 x 12'. Based on a Hiwatt SE4123 with Fane speakers.
- 4: 'Johnson 2 x 12'. Based on a Johnson open‑back cab with Vintage 30 Celestions.
- 5: 'American 2 x 12'. Based on a Fender Twin.
- 6: 'Jennings Blue 2 x 12'. Based on a '63 Vox AC30.
- 7: 'Tweed 1 x 12'. Based on a Fender Deluxe.
- 8: 'Blonde 2 x 12'. Based on a Fender Bassman.
- 9: 'Bass 2 x 10 w/Tweeter'. Based on an SWR 4 x 10 with tweeter.
- 10: 'Folded Horn 1 x 18'. Based on an Acoustic 360.
- 11: 'Flexi Bass'. Based on an Ampeg Portaflex.
I've been recording with a Pod since they first came out and have had time to become acquainted with both its strengths and weaknesses. As the J Station is clearly aimed at the same market, I was intrigued to see how the two compared. You can argue about the highly subjective nature of overdriven amp sounds without ever reaching a definitive conclusion, and as usual you need to tweak the presets on both machines to come up with something that suits both your guitar and your playing style. Having done that, however, I think both units sound extremely good, albeit a little different in character, and I'd happily record with either.
When it comes to cleaner sounds though, the difference is more marked, and whilst I believe it is hard to say which one most closely resembles the real thing, I much preferred the sound and the dynamic feel of the J Station. The Pod has a very coloured, somewhat restricted clean sound reminiscent of miking a small combo, while the J station is more open and glassy. It also feels more responsive to play and seems to go along with whatever you're trying to do, whereas the Pod always seems to be putting up a bit of a fight. Again, it could be argued that if you want certain '60s amp tones, the Pod might actually do it more accurately, but if you're more into Dire Straits than Herman's Hermits, the J Station definitely does a better job.
- Convincing clean valve amp sounds as well as distorted ones.
- Well‑organised effects section.
- Digital output.
- Some bass amp models included.
- Wobbly knobs don't inspire confidence in build quality.
- Some 'acoustic guitar' models included.
If you record guitar and the sound of the Pod just doesn't quite do it for you, maybe this is what you are looking for. Not as 'cute' as the Pod, not as well built, but currently the only DI recording unit that comes anywhere near 'that sound'. For some players, the J Station will be worth the asking price for the Blackface model alone!