by Craig Anderton
Before the internet, 75% of this review would have to have been dedicated to facts & figures: How many amp models, what kind of I/O, which effects are included, and the like. But Line 6—always one of the more internet-savvy companies—has relieved me of that obligation because you can find all that info, as well as various manuals (quick start, advanced, and software), at the web site given above.
What they don’t give you, though, is analysis and reactions to what these facts and figures mean...so they haven’t put me out of a job yet! As someone who has followed the Life of POD since the days of the red kidney bean, as well as gotten into other Line 6 guitar gear including the Vetta, Variax, and POD Farm plug-ins, I was very curious to check out the HD generation. Let’s face it, Line 6 has gotten a lot of mileage out of the original POD technology, but it’s been due for an update. And here it is.
The answer is “yes.” Although the HD500 has the look and feel (and rugged construction) of stage gear, Line 6 clearly has its sights set on the studio as well: Check out the balanced outs (not exactly something you’d plug into a Fender Twin), S/PDIF out, USB, and editing software.
The rear panel is richly endowed with I/O (click to enlarge).
But there’s an element about using POD HD in the studio that’s a little more subtle, yet important in terms of playing experience. Line 6 has always placed a premium on minimizing latency, principally through their ToneDirect Monitoring, although the ultimate in low latency is to get your sound outside of the computer and feed it in as audio (either analog, or through the USB interface aspect)—forget about plug-ins.
As guitarists, we’re used to hearing a sound when we hit a string; while it’s possible to get acclimated to latency, playing without latency is more gratifying. Of course, if you feed in a processed signal, you sacrifice the option to modify it later—or do you?
The S/PDIF out can provide many functions, one of which is providing a second, dry signal to your DAW of choice. Also note inputs for the Variax, physical MIDI in/out connectors, USB port, and the L6 Link option (described later; click to enlarge).
Actually, the HD500 has a S/PDIF out that can carry the dry guitar signal. So, you can play through the HD500 and listen to what you’re doing without latency, but as a safety net, record the S/PDIF out into a different track. If you decide you really liked what you played but you chose the wrong sound, no problem; re-amp with the dry track, or process it with plug-ins. Obviously, latency is an issue with anything that goes throught a computer, but as with ToneDirect monitoring, Line 6 has come up with a clever way of dealing with this issue.
“Trim switches” make it easy to handle studio and stage situations (click to enlarge).
The studio/stage accommodation is reflected in other features: The effects loop can drive guitar level or studio/line-level processors, and there are three “trim switches” to accommodate various scenarios—guitar input pad on/off, XLR ground lift or normal, and 1/4” output switchable between line level and amp level. Even the display does double duty. In the studio, although using the free Editor software is more efficient for extensive editing, for a quick tweak the display can show you which effects are in play so you can adjust them. But there are also display options for performance, like showing which effects or presets (your choice) are assigned to which footswitches—and there’s even a “big user view” that shows the currently-selected preset in the largest letters/numbers possible.
A while back when the Great Recession started kicking in, I wrote a roundup in EQ magazine on gear that was equally at home onstage or in the studio, on the assumption that it was more necessary than ever to pinch pennies where possible. The article was extremely well-received, and had the HD500 been around at the time, it would have occupied a place of honor in the text.
There are two cautions, though: To use the USB capabilities in the studio, your computer needs to have a USB 2.0 port—USB 1.1 will not do the job. If you don’t have a suitable port, you can likely add a USB 2.0 card to gain the required port. Don’t think you can get away with using a USB hub; like most devices that make heavier demands than something simple like a mouse or keyboard, the HD500 wants to commune directly with your computer—no middleman allowed.
Also, if you use a PPC Mac—sorry, all software for the HD series is for Intel Mac only. Line 6 figures it doesn’t make sense to support platforms that Apple no longer supports, although on the plus side, Line 6 does support OS X up to and including Mountain Lion, and also plans to support the next Apple OS, Hello Kitty (okay, I was kidding about that last one). Windows fans can use any OS from XP onward, including 64-bit versions of Vista and 7, but not Windows 98SE or ME. Trust me on this one: Line 6 is doing you a favor by forcing you to upgrade from 98SE or ME. I installed the software on an Intel Mac running OS 10.5.8; it's currently running 10.6.8.
Like other recent Line 6 products, the HD500 includes two parallel effects chains.
This picture shows the display and programming section. Note that there are two parallel effects chains in the display (click to enlarge).
I consider this extremely important, as one of the main reasons for going virtual is being to create setups that would be difficult, or impossible, to implement in the “real world.” Being able to have separate amps and cabs for the left and right channels in a stereo field can make for vastly richer, more interesting tones. But getting back to the live performance aspect, it’s also possible to route separate signals through the two chains (for example, route the mic input through one, and your guitar through the other)—good news for singer/songwriters playing out at the local watering hole, where space is at a premium.
Here’s what Line 6 says on their web site: “Colorful clean tones that sparkle and sing with dizzying levels of detail. Dial back your guitar volume to get sweet-spot breakup from warm, earthy crunch tones. Line 6 HD amp models feel, behave and sound like no others. They contain up to 10 times more amplifier DNA than our previous modeling for a playing experience that can only be described as HD.”
Normally, I’d say that’s a copy writer with a nasty case of Florid Prose disease. But start playing through the HD 500, and there’s no doubt that Line 6 has upped their modeling ante. The tones are definitely more detailed, but more importantly, you can indeed dial back your guitar volume and get articulated breakup. If you’ve played lots of amp sims, you know that one true test of “ampness” is how the sim handles the clean-to-dirty transition; previously Line 6 did this adequately, but not as well as the better computer-based programs. With the HD500, they’ve now reached parity.
Two of my favorite companies to deal with for software updates are Line 6 and Native Instruments, because both have updating applications that make life easier (it wasn’t always this way; both companies had birthing pains with their updating apps, but those bugs have long since been squashed). Once you’ve installed drivers so that the HD500 can communicate with your computer, the Line 6 Monkey software can query the gear, find out what it needs, download it, and install it. How about that.
The editing software greatly simplifies editing the effects chain and other parameters (click to enlarge).
The software is a straightforward editor/librarian that greatly simplifies patch creation and storage. However, unlike (for example) the editor/librarian programs from Korg and Yamaha that let you use their synths as VST plug-ins, this capability is not included. Maybe next rev...on the other hand, an outstanding feature is that the editor/librarian can remain active while recording, so you can tweak and record without having to open and close programs. Another cool feature is that unlike some software that requires having the target device connected, this isn’t necessary if you want to, for example, tweak preset orders or set lists without needing to hear the unit in action.
Here's the page that lets you edit amp settings. The drop-down menu shows the list of available amps (click to enlarge).
The Librarian page manages presets, bundles, and set lists (click to enlarge).
As a librarian, you can work on the level of individual patches, Set Lists of 64 patches per list, or Bundles of eight Set Lists and all their Presets.
There are quite a few hits. For starters, the interface is obvious. I had no problem doing front panel editing, effects selection, using the looper with its 48 (!) seconds of memory, and much more without looking at the manual. And when I did look at the manual, I found out there were more details that aren’t as obvious.
However, I was not as enamored of the front panel ergonomics. The knobs below the display for setting parameters can be difficult to adjust without blocking a good view of the display. The best workaround for me was to use my left hand to adjust knobs 1 and 3 (from left to right), and my right hand for knobs 2 and 4. This becomes more difficult if you wear a thumbpick (which I do, but I recognize I’m in the minority).
The amp knobs are handy for making quick tweaks, but be careful not to brush up against an adjacent knob accidentally (click to enlarge).
I also had a bit of a problem with the Amp knobs, but I need to explain why. When you call up a preset where a control’s physical position doesn’t match its programmed value, you have two main ways to deal with this. You can turn the knob past the stored value, at which point it “catches” the value and the knob takes over; or the value can simply “jump” to the current knob position as soon as you move the knob. Neither solution is perfect (the ideal solution is motorized faders, which are out of the question with a unit at this price point). The catch option guarantees a smooth transition, but takes longer to hit the value you want, and you can’t make a sudden change. The jump method—which the HD500 uses—lets you go instantly to the desired position, but the transition will not be smooth if the knob’s physical position is very different from the internal value.
As the knobs are close together for my comparatively big hands (I’m 6’1”), if I hit an adjacent knob accidentally, it jumps to the current knob position. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, because often, the programmed value and physical position aren’t that far off—but when there is a big difference, an awkward jump is the result.
However, this is getting somewhat picky because the front panel controls are more about quick tweaks than serious programming, which is the domain of the very user-friendly (and transparently obvious) editing software.
A big hit, though, is that the footswitches make for excellent targets. I often find footswitches too close together, but not so here. The footswitches require a positive step, so if you brush against another one accidentally, no problem.
Short of dealing with King Kong, the pedal can probably handle whatever you can dish out (click to enlarge).
The pedal isn’t some dinky plastic thing optimized for the feet of a 5-year-old, but a substantial pedal with smooth action. And if you’re not too careful with your feet, a raised bar protects the display and its related knobs if you miss the upper left footswitches.
Other tasty features include a Variax input (you can store the Variax settings with a preset, or not) and the L6 Link connection, which ties the HD500 to the DT-series amps co-designed with Bogner (DT25, DT50, and variants). There’s more info on the Line 6 site (in particular a video tutorial and an article on system basics), but it essentially allows for bi-directional communication between up to four DT-family amps. As just one example, if you call up a particular amp model on the HD500, the DT amp will reconfigure itself in the analog domain, automatically, to reflect the characteristics of the chosen amp. I also like that the effects loop for external processors can insert in place of any of the eight available FX blocks, even if one of them is in a parallel configuration.
There’s no question that this is a next generation device, but it’s not completely divorced from the past; you’ll recognize many of the effects, as well as the “Line 6 way of life”—the dual chains, selection of mics and mic positions, and so on. There’s obviously much more than we can cover here, but by all means, take a look at the manual if you’re in the market for an HD500. It will tell you what you need to know.
Top view of the HD500 (click to enlarge).
In my opinion, it’s the more refined amp modeling that’s the major difference between the HD series and what came before. However, there is a caution: A lot of the presets seem intended to show off what the unit can do, and some are very complex and not particularly useful from a musical standpoint—although they’re probably pretty impressive in a music store showroom. I found many immensely satisfying sounds by stripping a preset down to amp with a carefully selected cabinet and mic, along with maybe EQ and one other effect. Sometimes less really can be more, although if you want to go crazy nuts, you can do that too.
Also remember that it’s highly unlikely the presets were programmed with someone who uses the same guitar, playing style, pick, and string gauge as you do. After reviewing Line 6 gear since the original POD, I’ve pretty much figured out that I need to pull back a bit on the drive before deciding whether a preset is going to work for me or not. A little tweaking can make the difference between a preset that you’d pass by, or one that sounds phenomenal for what you do.
Given the double-duty usage for stage and studio, the value is also spot on. Overall, Line 6 has stepped up to the plate with a next-gen modeler that retains what people liked about previous devices, adds more features, increases the level of detail, and maintains sanity in the pricing. In other words...they’ve done it again.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.