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LINE 6 PODxt Live, Variax 300 and Variax Workbench (Mac/Win)

January 1, 2006
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On their own, the Line 6 PODxt Live processor and Variax 300 guitar are state-of-the-art modeling devices. Put them together, and you have a guitar, an amp, a cabinet, and effects modeling, as well as the ability to save and recall presets containing all of those model types. Add in Line 6's Variax Workbench software, and you can construct custom guitar models.

Those three products (sold separately), along with Line 6 Edit (Mac/Win) — the company's free editor/librarian software for the PODxt Live — give you unprecedented tonal control. Unless you're an analog purist who is opposed to modeling on principle, you'll appreciate the versatility of this combination of hardware devices and software.

FIG. 1: The PODxt Live is the first Pod to have footswitches and an expression pedal built-in. It can be connected digitally (using an RJ-45 cable) to a Variax, and it can also save Variax patch data with its presets.

Hot Rod Pod

Like the other Pods, the PODxt Live offers amp, effects, and speaker-cabinet modeling. EM covered the PODxt in its October 2003 issue, so I'll concentrate here on what's new in the PODxt Live.

One major change is that the PODxt Live has a built-in expression pedal and footswitches, making it more self-contained than previous Pods (see Fig. 1). As such, it's more convenient for live performance, without sacrificing any of its studio abilities.

The sleek-looking unit features a heavy-duty black-metal body with silver knobs and trim. The knobs control the usual Pod preamp parameters: Drive, Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, and Channel Volume. The sturdy metal expression pedal sits on the right side of the unit, and it defaults to controlling volume. A toe switch lets you access a programmable wah effect at any time.

The pedal can also be set to control any one of the Effect Tweak parameters, which include Delay Time, Reverb Mix, Compression Threshold, and so forth. Additionally, you can control those parameters with a second expression pedal (not included), which plugs into the pedal 2 input.

There are two rows of footswitches: the bottom row has six switches, and the top row has five. The top row features a Bank Up switch and on-off switches for the Amp, Stomp (stompbox), Mod (modulation), and Delay effects within each preset. The switch on the far right side of the bottom row lets you access the built-in tuner as well as tap in a tempo for the delay-based effects. (You can't sync those effects to an external host, which is a disadvantage in the studio.)

The rest of the bottom-row switches are dedicated to selecting presets (Line 6 refers to a preset as a Channel Memory). As many as 128 presets can be stored in the unit at one time. An infinite number can be stored in your computer using the free Line 6 Edit software.

A Channel Memory contains amp, speaker, and cabinet models of your choice, and any effects you've dialed in. Most impressively, each Channel Memory can also have a Variax guitar model and tone-knob setting saved with it. If you turn on the Variax option on the PODxt Live and connect it to a Variax using the optional RJ-45 cable ($20), each time you switch to a different Channel Memory, your Variax switches to the model you saved with it.

That feature is a huge advantage in a live-performance setting, because you can preset various guitar models with the amps, effects, and cabinets of your choice, and recall the combination with the footswitches. You can have your whole setlist programmed with all of those variables.

You can save tuning information in Variax custom models (constructed using the Variax Workbench software), so you can go from a song in standard tuning to a song in open-E, open-G, drop-D, or any tuning that you choose. Although the need for quick switches is not as acute in the studio as it is live, it's still handy to have your favorite guitar-amp-tuning combinations organized and ready to go.

Heading into Ports

From a sound-quality standpoint, the PODxt Live is the equal of the PODxt or PODxt Pro. All three have the same processing engine and a similar set of amp, effects, and cabinet models. If you want to invest a bit more money, you can expand the PODxt Live's model set with Line 6's Model Packs. The PODxt Live comes preinstalled with one of those packs, called FX Junkie (which adds 30 effects models). The other two packs, Metal Shop and Collector Classics, give you additional amp models and cost $49 each.

Rear panel I/O on the PODxt Live is extensive. You get a ¼-inch line input, a stereo pair of ¼-inch line outputs, and an -inch aux input (which is routed to the headphone output and the line outputs). A USB port lets you plug directly into your computer (Mac or PC) to output audio and send and receive patch and control information. You can also send and receive patch and control data using the unit's MIDI In and Out ports. The rear panel has the Cat-5 (Ethernet) port for connecting a Variax using the RJ-45 cable.

Editing sounds on the PODxt Live is straightforward, but it does require a lot of scrolling through menus. It's much easier to use the Line 6 Edit software, which makes all the parameters and models easy to tweak and save.

PODxt Live doesn't have an effects loop, which might disappoint some users (especially live performers) who want to augment the Variax's effects with their own. According to Line 6, adding an effects loop would have driven up the price too much. The company recommends patching in any additional effects either before the unit's input or after its output.




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The ultimate direct recording tool, POD 2.0 is a must have for any guitarist.

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FIG. 2: The Variax 300 is the most affordable Variax to date. Despite its lower price, it contains all the same models as the other Variax electric guitars.

Very Variable

You can use any Variax with the PODxt Live, but the most affordable one is the Variax 300 (see Fig. 2). Despite its lower cost, it offers the same selection of guitar models as the other Variax electric guitars.

Like other Variax instruments, the 300 has no magnetic pickups, only a 6-element piezo pickup inside its bridge. The piezos convert the string vibrations into an electrical signal, which is then digitized and passed through the Variax's internal processing. You get a Cat-5 output for connecting the guitar digitally to a PODxt Live or a Vetta II amp and a ¼-inch analog output.

The 300 needs power to run, and Line 6 gives you several options. One is to power it using the included XPS Mini, a small plastic unit into which you plug a ¼-inch TRS cable from the Variax, and out of which comes a standard ¼-inch TS guitar output. (Unlike the XPS footswitch that comes with other Variax models, the XPS Mini has no XLR output.) You can also power the guitar with 6 AA batteries (in which case you can plug a standard guitar cable directly into the guitar) or from a PODxt Live or a Vetta II amp, connected through the guitar's digital connector.

The 300 is made of a tropical wood called agathis and has a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. It comes in black with a black pickguard or red with a white pickguard. It has a headstock that's reminiscent of, but not identical to, a Fender guitar. Generic, six-in-a-line sealed tuners do a good job of holding the guitar in tune.

The Variax 300 that was sent to me for this review had a small but noticeable setup glitch. Although its intonation was excellent, the B-string was set a bit too low to the frets, so it didn't sustain fully when played up high. It could easily be adjusted by a guitar tech, and it might have been an anomaly, but it did make me wonder how much attention is paid to the setups on these instruments.

That aside, Line 6's guitar designers have done a good job of maintaining consistency with the other Variax models. (I'm excluding the Variax 700 from that statement, because I've never played one.) The 300 feels similar to other Variax guitars, and it doesn't seem like a stripped-down or noticeably inferior model.

As with the other Variax guitars, the 300 features single volume and tone controls and a Strat-like, 5-way selector switch. Unlike on a conventional guitar, the switch doesn't change pickups; instead, it changes models. The models are grouped into 12 banks (10 factory and 2 user) and are accessed with the Model Select knob, which is located next to the tone control.

Electric models include a Firebird, a Gibson ES-335 semi-hollowbody, a 6- and a 12-string Rickenbacker, a Strat, several types of Gretch guitars, several Les Pauls, and several Telecasters. Acoustics include a Gibson J-200; a Martin D-28, a 0-18, and a D12-28; and a National Tricone resonator. Also included are a Coral electric sitar and a Gibson banjo, among others.

Space doesn't allow for a detailed description of each guitar model, but many of them, especially the electric ones, sound convincing. Although in a blind A/B comparison they would probably be distinguished from the originals, they capture the essence of the tone of many of the guitars emulated. I particularly liked the Tele, Strat, and Les Paul models. I was less impressed with the hollowbody electric models: the Gibson ES-175 and the Gibson Super 400.

There's no discernible difference in feel between a Variax and a conventional electric guitar. The acoustic and resonator-guitar models, however, don't feel completely realistic, especially when played with a flatpick. The attack and sustain seem unnatural (that is true for all the Variax guitars I've played). According to Line 6, that is the result of playing acoustic-instrument models on a solidbody electric instrument. The Variax, however, emulates the tonal essence of those acoustic and resonator guitars nicely.




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The ultimate direct recording tool, POD 2.0 is a must have for any guitarist.

With acclaimed Line 6 modeling and built-in studio quality effects, POD 2.0 delivers amazing vintage and modern guitar tones with ease.

Put It on the Bench

The third product in this combination is Variax Workbench software. In addition to a CD, you get a small plastic Ethernet-to-USB interface, which allows you to plug your Variax directly into your computer with the RJ-45 cable. If you have a PODxt Live that's connected to your computer using USB, you can plug into that instead and still access the Workbench application.

The software, which runs on Mac OS 10.3 and higher and Windows XP and 2000, has a similar interface to that of Line 6 Edit, but its model-transfer functions are initially confusing. The onboard help feature was not particularly helpful, so it took some experimenting until I got the hang of how to transfer models back and forth between the computer and the Variax.

FIG. 3: Variax Workbench software allows you to construct your own custom guitar models and transfer them to your Variax''s internal memory.

Model editing is straightforward and a heck of a lot of fun (see Fig. 3). You get to set up custom guitar models by mixing and matching the various body types, instrum ent types, pickups, pickup positioning, and controls that are used in the Variax guitar models. It's fun to be able to put, say, Tele pickups on a Rickenbacker or Les Paul pickups on a Strat. If you have time to experiment, you can come up with some unusual combinations.

The most useful aspect of the software is its custom-tuning feature (see Web Clip 1). It lets you set up guitar models with any alternate tuning imaginable. You can choose tunings from a menu of presets that includes standards such as drop-D and open-E, and more obscure variations like C6/A7 Hawaiian and F#9. If you can't find the tuning that you want on the list, you can design your own by dragging note icons on a virtual fretboard.

The Variax's virtual tuning capabilities save you time and allow you to avoid breaking strings, which can happen when physically retuning a guitar. There is one drawback: the tuning happens digitally inside the Variax's processor, so you can still hear the unamplified acoustic sound of the guitar's strings — at their original pitches — at the same time you're hearing the alternately tuned notes. The result can be distracting unless you're wearing headphones or you have your monitors (or guitar amp) turned up loud enough so that you hear only the processed sound.

Once you have your custom models put together, you can dump them into one of the Variax's custom banks (or override one of the factory banks), and then recall the sounds from the Model Selector knob on the Variax. You can also recall the sounds by saving the model as part of a PODxt Live patch and then switching to it.

All in One

The combination of the PODxt Live, a Variax, and Variax Workbench software is a potent one. If you opt for the Variax 300, the price of the three products combined is just under $1,400 (list). It's no small sum, but it's certainly a reasonable price considering the power and unprecedented level of tonal control provided.


Mike Levine is a senior editor of EM.

VARIAX 300 SPECIFICATIONS
Audio Output ¼" TRS guitar
Digital Output proprietary Cat-5
Pickups piezo, in bridge
Body agathis
Neck maple with rosewood fingerboard
Frets 22 medium profile
Scale Length 25.5"
Power (6) AA batteries, AC with XPS Mini footswitch, or from PODxt Live or Vetta II
Weight 7.5 lbs.

PODxt LIVE SPECIFICATIONS
Analog Inputs (1) ¼" TRS guitar, ⅛" stereo aux
Analog Outputs (2) ¼" TS unbalanced,
(1) ¼" TRS headphone
Control Inputs (1) ¼" TS expression pedal
Digital I/O (1) USB, (1) proprietary Cat-5 input
MIDI In, Out/Thru
Bit Depth/Sampling Rate 24-bit, 44.1/48 kHz (exposed via USB)
Maximum Output Level +20 dBu
Dynamic Range >90 dB
Presets 128
Amp/Cabinet/Mic/Effect Models 36/24/4/80
Presets 128
Dimensions 18" (W) × 2" (H) × 8"(D)
Weight 10.75 lbs.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

LINE 6
PODxt Live

modeling processor
$559.99

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4

PROS: Built-in footswitches and expression pedal. PODxt Live presets contain Variax guitar models in addition to amp, cabinet, and effects models.

CONS: You can't sync the PODxt Live's delay-based effects to external tempos.

MANUFACTURER

Line 6
www.line6.com

PRODUCT SUMMARY

LINE 6
Variax 300

modeling guitar
$699.99

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 3.5

PROS: Variax 300 offers virtually the same functionality as its higher-priced siblings.

CONS: Review instrument had incorrectly set up B-string. Acoustic sound of strings at original pitches distracting when using alternate tunings. XPS Mini has no XLR output.

MANUFACTURER

Line 6
www.line6.com

PRODUCT SUMMARY

LINE 6
Variax Workbench

editor/librarian software and Variax
USB interface
$139.99

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4

PROS: Allows you to design custom guitar models and save them with alternate tunings.

CONS: Model-transfer procedure is not intuitive.

MANUFACTURER

Line 6
www.line6.com




Enter now for your chance to win!
The ultimate direct recording tool, POD 2.0 is a must have for any guitarist.

With acclaimed Line 6 modeling and built-in studio quality effects, POD 2.0 delivers amazing vintage and modern guitar tones with ease.

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