Line 6 Helix Guitar Multi-Effects Review
Line 6 has a lot of really great gear. I own (and have held) many different effects processors, amps, and guitars from Line 6’s catalogue.
I love the Spider amps, I love my Variax guitars. However, nothing has been more dreamy than the Helix. This board has provided me with nearly limitless power as a guitarist. What a beast this digital monster is!
First, the ports. Oh, the beautiful ports
For years guitarists have struggled with choosing which setup is ideal. Should they run their processor directly into the amp? Run the processor through the amp’s effects loop? How about direct to the PA system? Previous boards like the HD500x have had plenty of ports and lots of internal settings for whichever setup you plan on using. However, that still required tweaking from the inside. The Line 6 Helix arrived, and a new age was born. Whatever ports you need, and whichever setup you prefer, Helix does it perfectly.
Line 6 Helix Inputs, inputs, and more inputs
Sure, the Line 6 Helix has a great expression pedal. Suppose you have a couple of others you’d like to use. No problem! The Helix has ports for not 1 but 2 more pedals. Love your amp’s natural tone and distortion channels, or even reverb? Helix can plug into your amp’s control port and do precisely what your amps native footswitches do – switch channels, reverb, etc. This seamless integration is fantastic. Of course, you can plug your guitar into the guitar port. However, there’s also an auxiliary port which allows for anything else… like a second guitar, maybe a keyboard (yes, you can share this board with another instrumentalist, too!) If you’re like me, perhaps you have a guitar synthesizer like the Roland GR-55 that you’d like to run through the Helix. The aux port is perfect for this use. Wait, what if you want to run your mic through the Helix? Well, like the HD series, you can also plug into the Helix’s XLR input. Naturally, Line 6 wouldn’t leave their pride and joy out – the Variax! The Variax guitars can plug 1/4 inch into the guitar input, but alternately the Variax digital input will allow the Helix to “talk” directly to your guitar and control its internal settings. Outstanding!
Effects loop heaven
One of the complaints about old effects processors was that they never sounded quite as good as your old stompbox effects. The HD series came along and said to the user, “Hey, I have a built-in effects loop. Why not plug your favorite stomp box into my FX ports and then set it up anywhere in the chain through settings?” Great idea! Helix came along and said, “Would you care to use up to 4 of your favorite pedals?” Imagine the possibilities. The Helix is a beast on its own, but setting this monster up with 2 additional expression pedals AND 4 of your favorite external stomp boxes? Good lord! The world of custom tone will never be the same again.
Outputs, outputs, and even more outputs
Like its predecessors, the Helix has 2 XLR outputs and 2 quarter inch outputs. While I agree that live settings work best in mono, I have worked some fantastic magic using stereo settings live. More about that another time. The ever-popular headphone port is available, too. Just because it’s the flagship pro model made to deliver on stage doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy playing quietly at home. Also, for those of us using stereo effects and stereo in-ear monitoring systems, the headphone port offers ideal output to one’s in-ear mix for a nearly studio-recording quality experience during a live performance. Personally, I couldn’t ask for more than that for a live show. Line 6 included S/PDIF in/out along with their “Line 6 Link” port which allows full control of any modern Line 6 amp.
MIDI is an old-school system, but it’s still going strong. I use my guitar synthesizer but cherish my real estate in the front of the stage. The MIDI controls on the Helix allow me to leave my synth off stage and control it from the front via the Helix. This machine is indeed an all-in-one dream.
Unlike its decaffeinated junior buddy, the Firehawk FX processor, Helix does not have a native iOS app. Instead, it has desktop apps which are just as good. Sure, it’s not as spiffy as a touchscreen, but the app helps speed up productivity during large patch setups and related big projects. The Helix has a fantastic full-color large screen, but blowing that up to a laptop (or even desktop) computer size is even better.
One of my favorite of the Helix’s physical features is the power cable. With this unit, gone are the days of the proprietary power supplies and weak input ports. Remember that time you were gigging, and some drunk stepped on your power cable right at the port bending it over 45 degrees and nearly damaging the port itself while simultaneously rendering you offline for a minute or two while you tried to troubleshoot on the fly? Yeah, that was fun. The Helix uses a standard AC cable which is simple, and durable. In other words – it’s the ideal power source. (Why didn’t someone think of this sooner??)
Line 6 Helix: The interface
Full-color screen, CUSTOMIZABLE pedal labels, and even a separate volume control for headphones makes the Helix so user-friendly it’s actually a pleasure to sit and spend the time setting up patches. No more eye-strain and tension headaches. Each stomp switch can be customized with any name and any color. You can call a switch “distortion,” or name it after a song part like “chorus.” The possibilities are endless. This is my favorite new feature by far, no other processor that I’ve seen on the market has such a feature. I have had to use tape or even magnets to label switches in the past. Helix has solved this dilemma tenfold.
The amp modeling, effects, etc. are nearly perfect. Line 6 really hit the nail on the head with this arsenal. My only complaint would be the same one that has been there for years with any company — We can’t stand dealing with these general or made up names for the amps and stompboxes that are modeled in these units. For once I’d love to see the names customizable, so we can (on a personal level) bypass the silly names that the copyright laws have forced companies like Line 6 to use. Still, ridiculous names or not, the sound is outstanding.
The compressors are smooth, rich, and just what the doctor ordered. The amps come in 3 options: Full amp simulation, amp head only, and preamp versions. What’s more, Line 6 developed and included (via firmware upgrade) the ability to throw in an IR block. What’s that, you say? Well, imagine for a moment that someone magically recorded the sound of your favorite guitar, cabinet, amp, etc. and turned it into a digital plugin stomp-box type of effect. IR is precisely that in a nutshell. Through the magic of IR, the Line 6 Helix can genuinely duplicate Marshall and Mesa amps, acoustic guitars, and even nylon string classical guitars. I’ve plugged my Peavey Wolfgang guitars into the Helix and made them sound like Segovia. Can you imagine? That’s NOT what Eddie Van Halen had in mind when he patented those guitars of his, but Line 6 had a dream for any guitar on the market, and that dream came true.
My favourite features…
Snapshots have been used on digital PA mixers, and quite successfully. Line 6 said, “Y’know what? We need this on our gear. Let’s do it!” A snapshot saves a clone of your favorite patch with just adjustments to the parameters. In other words, you don’t need to make a whole new patch or assign control to anything. You can press a button that’s been set to a snapshot of settings, and they all come on instantly without any lag or hiccup. For example:
You’re set up with a chain like this:
Noise gate –> Compressor –> Distortion –> Amp –> post-compressor –> Delay –> Reverb
During rhythm, you use no distortion or delay, but during that big solo, you need that stuff on. Instead of a separate patch, or separate controls to boost those effects, snapshots offers the chance to have a clone of your patch with those settings on. Since it’s not a new patch but rather a modification of your core patch, there isn’t an ounce of a break when you press the button. One press and you’re ready to go – seamlessly.
As Steve Jobs said back in his day with the ol’ Apple…
“One last thing…”
Trails. What are trails? A kind of new idea in effects processors that I think everyone needs to employ. Of course, trails are pointless without snapshot ability. These two features go hand in hand. So what are trails? Well, picture this…
You’re playing clean on the verse. You activate a snapshot for the chorus which flips on distortion. Now you’re dirty and powerful and rocking out that chorus. We heard this stuff for years on songs like Bringing on the Heartbreak by Def Leppard. (Readers, you may have noticed by now that I have a wee Leppard fetish.) The clean verse, the heavy chorus. During the live version, the solo is even more intense. So suppose you want the same intensity. You click to snapshot two, and now your delay is active. Your solo sounds amazing. However, the solo ends abruptly in the song and drops out into a clean section like a reprise of the intro or a final verse. The abrupt change from snapshot two back to the original clean sound seems awkward and unnatural. The studio recording featured extra overlapping tracks which created such a gorgeous effect coming out of the solo. You want this effect live!
Trails do exactly that. Turning on trails in settings like reverb and delay will work some awesome magic. When you come out of your solo, that final note will remain pure to tone (distortion and all) and echo through the delay and reverb right behind your clean channel’s interruption back into the last verse of the song. In other words, your listeners will think there’s another guitar hiding up on stage somewhere. With minimal warming up, you can get used to this setup very quickly. It’s a natural feeling and actually takes the stress away from previous experiences of rushing from one note to the next.
As usual, creativity is everything. Features like IR tones, trails, and snapshots open the doors of creativity so wide the wall itself may as well have been blown out.
I can honestly say I’ve mastered setting up the Line 6 Helix. I love it too much. It’s true, complex devices like these call for a particular type of musical mind. Some people will always prefer a knob-based system of individual technicolor stomp boxes strapped to a large board. This new digital age of virtual effects chains isn’t for everyone. For those of us that love it, however, I highly recommend the Line 6 Helix for the power-user type professional.
The Line 6 Helix comes in both floor and rack versions, too.
Have a Line 6 Helix and need help with your rig, patches, or setup? Drop me a line, let me see if I can help you. I love a good challenge, and I feel confident that anything is possible with this unit. Cheers.
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