If you’ve found integrating multi‑effects units into your existing amp and pedalboard setup problematic, this unit could make life easier...
Line 6’s Helix is a one of the best solutions for those guitar players who want to replace their entire rig — amp included — with an all‑in‑one processor that can be DI’d, but many players still prefer to use a conventional amplifier. To address the needs of such guitarists, Line 6 have come up with HX Effects, which is based on the same audio engine as the Helix range of processors. The HX Effects is able to recreate a huge library of vintage and contemporary pedal‑style effects using component‑level modelling: the device packs in over 100 Helix effects, plus a number of M‑Series and other legacy effects that encompass the more obvious distortions, delays, reverbs, compressor/limiters, mod and pitch effects, but also includes synth‑style sounds, filters, EQs, wah wah, auto harmony, reverse effects and a looper.
The rear panel is impressively busy, playing host as it does to stereo pairs of input and output jacks, two loop sends and returns and two TRS Control jacks. (Mono in and/or mono out operation is supported.) Two external expression pedals can be connected at the same time, the default arrangement being that pedal one controls wah or pitch effects and pedal two the volume. However, if you don’t need external pedals, these jack sockets may instead be used for amp channel/reverb switching (more on that later).
Alongside the jacks are MIDI In and Out/Thru connectors, the USB socket and the power inlet. The manual stipulates that the USB port should be connected directly to a computer USB 2 or USB 3 port rather than to a hub — though I imagine that’s just a precaution, as I found that the editor software worked OK via a hub. Power is delivered to the HX Effects by a robust external PSU.
Firmware updates are loaded via USB and the free HX Edit software for Mac OS or Windows is already available — the software is similar in style to that for the Helix editor and allows the user to create routings, combine effects and save/restore patches, which include effects configurations and any external control, effects loop and switch settings. Up to 128 third‑party impulse responses of up to 2048 samples in length can be stored in the HX Effects and backed up in HX Editor. While that sample length is too short for reverb, it’s fine for things like acoustic guitar resonances, speaker/cabinet emulation and so forth.
The audio engine manages an impressive 123dB dynamic range. When switching effects the user can opt to preserve the delay and reverb tails, or to use a clean analogue bypass, which will cut that short. While first and foremost a guitar processor, the HX Effects’ input can be switched to a lower sensitivity, making it suitable for use with electronic keyboards and line‑level sources more generally.
The HX Effects is housed in a robust floor unit, which is as compact as possible without causing overcrowding. The top panel houses eight footswitches that are fitted with capacitive sensors and have Helix‑style coloured LED rings around the switches to indicate the type of effect that’s currently selected. Six illuminated LCD ‘scribble’ scrips above the leftmost group of six footswitches display large, readable patch names or editing information. The capacitive sensors are a neat touch: they allow you to put the unit on a desk when editing then just touch the switches, which really speeds up navigation. The operating system makes good use of this feature, as you can swap the position of two switches by touching both at the same time or touch and hold a switch to show all parameters in a row across the LCDs.
The control set looks deceptively simple, with one large knob and three smaller ones plus just half a dozen buttons. Those knobs are attached to rotary encoders and all include push switches, which makes navigating via the front panel pretty speedy, and as the displays come up with prompts to guide you to the next step when editing, you can actually get a long way without ever going near a manual. That said, while Line 6 have tried hard to make the control set as intuitive as possible, it’s still worth checking out the manual, as there are some less obvious double‑click and other shortcut options that can speed up proceedings. (If you need further help but hate reading, Line 6 have put a series of videos covering different aspects of the HX Effects on their web site: https://line6.com/meet‑hx‑effects).
Although the HX Effects includes some decent distortion and overdrive models, Line 6 are aware that most guitar players like to mix and match pedals to create their own custom sound, and to allow that, they’ve provided two switchable pedal loops. By default, these are independent mono loops, but they can be linked to make hooking up a single stereo pedal easy, if required. Connected pedals would normally be left permanently active and then be controlled by the HX Effects loop switching.
While the loop sends and returns are normally used to add an external pedal or two to the system, they can instead be used to split the Helix FX signal path into two parts, enabling one section to go before the amplifier input (as per a normal pedalboard) and the other section to run in the amplifier’s own effects loop. Using this so‑called four‑wire system means your drives and wahs can go before the amplifier while reverbs, delays and certain types of modulation effects can run, as usually intended, in the loop, after the point where any amplifier distortion has been dialled in. Other pedals may also be connected before and/or after the HX Effects, of course.
As I mentioned earlier, the two TRS expression‑pedal inputs can also be configured as two pairs of switched outputs, and in this mode they can be hooked up to an amplifier for channel switching, reverb on/off switching, and so forth. Thus, the HX Effects draws parallels with the Boss MS‑3 FX multi‑effects switcher, in terms of its ability to integrate with other performance devices and to function as a control hub for a wider effects rig. So this thing really can integrate very neatly into a traditional pedalboard and amp setup — certainly better than the majority of multi‑effects units.
Each of up to 128 presets can run up to nine simultaneous Blocks — a Block can be an effects pedal emulation, a volume pedal, a looper, or an Impulse Response. If you combine the more DSP‑heavy Blocks the total count may be less, and as you approach the limit, the operating system hides any choices that would take you over the limit. Except for the limit of one 2048‑sample impulse response or two 1024‑sample impulse responses, you can deploy effects without any restriction other than the DSP capability. There are also nodes for splitting or combining signals, but these don’t eat into the total Block count.
As with the Helix, there are several ways to connect the effects, including splitting the chain at any point and then putting different Blocks in the two branches. Branches may also be summed in stereo. When editing, the routing is shown graphically on the lower three LCD displays, with up to three Blocks shown per window. The controls may then be used to re‑order the Blocks if required.
A preset saves the Blocks, their routing configuration, any footswitch and controller assignments, Command Centre messages and the loop‑switching status. Controllers, such as an optional expression pedal or external MIDI source, allow real‑time continuous control, and presets can also send MIDI data to control external MIDI devices. External MIDI control is set up via the Command Centre menu and controller assignments via the Controller Assign menu. If you press and hold a parameter knob, the HX Effects switches to the Controller Assign menu for that particular parameter. There’s also a useful Learn feature, in which pressing the Learn switch and then moving the connected controller or external MIDI control source maps them for you automatically.
It’s also worth mentioning snapshots, which are depicted by a camera icon in the LCD window. A snapshot is essentially a different combination of parameter settings within the same preset, the benefit being that you can switch from one snapshot to another — without the pause experienced while the CPU loads a new preset.
In Edit mode there are separate menus for Controller Assign, Command Centre, and Global Settings, and the Home button will get you out of trouble if you forget the way back. The largest knob switches the HX Effects from Stomp footswitch to Block selection mode, in which pressing the knob opens a menu of effect model types and beyond that, specific models. The three smaller knobs can then be used to adjust parameters for the Block shown in the currently selected LCD strip — and if more than three knobs are needed, the additional controls are arranged as pages.
In Stomp mode, the footswitches’ capacitive sensors can be used instead of pressing the switches — again, useful for desktop use. The Mode/Edit/Exit footswitch at the right‑hand end of the upper row of switches toggles between Stomp and Preset footswitch modes. This follows the familiar paradigm of allowing the switches to select either from one of four complete presets in the current bank or turning individual effects on and off. The two left‑most buttons are used for bank selection when in Preset mode. As there are only six switches available in Stomp mode, you have to decide which effects you want them to control if your patch includes more than six effects (they default to the first six).
Holding down the Mode button for longer than one second brings up Pedal Edit mode, which enables effects to be edited directly from the footswitches as you continue playing the guitar, so that you can hear the results in real time. Pressing Mode again exits the Pedal Edit mode or, if the looper is running, exits the looper.
The right‑most switch on the lower row of switches doubles as a tap tempo or tuner on/off switch. Tapping in the usual way sets the bpm for both delays and relevant modulation effects. The note value based on that tempo can be dialled in for the effects or, alternatively, the time can be set in milliseconds. Holding the switch down brings up the tuner, which has a very clear and precise display. Various shortcuts to these editing options are detailed in the manual, so while most of the time you can easily get where you want by instinct, I feel duty bound to reiterate that a flick through the manual will often reveal a more streamlined way of working.
The Action button to the right of the knobs allows for the copying of effects and also gives the user the option to customise the footswitch LED colour and LCD label. The Left/Right buttons below the Action button enable navigation.
Line 6 have always made great effects but they’ve also improved considerably over the years, and with such a wide range from which to choose here, there’s very little you can’t achieve using the onboard effects alone. You may still prefer your own analogue overdrives for the more subtle sounds, but overall the drive pedal emulations really are very believable. As well as the expected modulation effects, there’s a nice, authentic‑sounding Vibratone and a couple of rotary speakers modelled after the Leslie 122 and 145. As with previous Line 6 offerings, I found the somewhat rough polyphonic pitch‑shifting to be the weakest area in the HX Effects, and while some of the monophonic pitch effects and pseudo‑synth sounds are more impressive, you have to take care to play monophonically and cleanly to avoid glitches.
All in all then, this is an impressive and versatile box of tricks that will suit guitarists and keyboardists alike and could also play a role as a line‑level studio processor. The sounds on offer are plentiful and, for the most part, very good. The user interface is to be commended for its use of colour and individual LCD windows, though for deep editing the full software editor package would make life even easier. And there are plenty of thoughtful features, such as those capacitive sensors for easy desktop use, and the ability to function as an amp channel/reverb switcher. As a stand‑alone multi‑effects unit or as a rig control centre, then, the HX Effects ticks all the right boxes, delivering a generous effects count at a very realistic price.
The Boss MS‑3 is probably the most cost‑effective alternative, and it has a slightly smaller footprint. Also consider the Fractal FX8 MkII and the forthcoming Boss GT‑1000, which also includes amp modelling, arguably making it more comparable with the Helix. Of course, the Helix itself would be another option...