Justin Broadrick was not happy. “I was getting so fucking bored with mic placement and the Marshall amp. I got really disillusioned with it — to me, when I make records, I have to do it when I want to do it, and not this pocket of time that I have to cram everything into,” said the mastermind behind the now defunct industrial/metal pioneer Godflesh, and currently setting both the indie and heavy music worlds on fire with Jesu. “I spent time in the late ’80s and early ’90s going into studios, being forced to record in a certain amount of time, get the fuck out, come back, mix it, get the fuck out again, and then spend the next four years moaning about the record.”
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Justin Broadrick was not happy. “I was getting so fucking bored with mic placement and the Marshall amp. I got really disillusioned with it — to me, when I make records, I have to do it when I want to do it, and not this pocket of time that I have to cram everything into,” said the mastermind behind the now defunct industrial/metal pioneer Godflesh, and currently setting both the indie and heavy music worlds on fire with Jesu. “I spent time in the late ’80s and early ’90s going into studios, being forced to record in a certain amount of time, get the fuck out, come back, mix it, get the fuck out again, and then spend the next four years moaning about the record.”

“I’ve never banged my head so much against walls as with which mic to use and where to place it. I never worked it out. With Godflesh, it was like one day I could have the Marshall in the bathroom, with an SM 58 about three inches above the cone, and it would sound amazing, and I thought, ‘wow. That’s the tone I’m looking for.’ Shut down the studio, come back the following day, turn it all back on, nothing has moved whatsoever, and the tone is shit. And I’d just be like, ‘what is this all about? Did I not warm up the Marshall long enough? Is it this? Is it that?’ I was so fed up of going through the chain. There were so many Godflesh records that were made where, to be honest, I just put up with it. I got used to it being an approximation of what I wanted. Now I don’t have to put up with that anymore.”

So what’s Broadrick’s secret now? He started recording direct using Line 6’s POD, one of a few products out there that simulates (or, “models”) amps. Plug it in to your existing rig to make it sound like a famous amp of yore, or just go straight into your mixer for noiseless recording.

“It’s easier to record going direct,” said Jeff Loomis, guitarist of North American heavy band Nevermore. “You don’t have to deal with a mic, or dealing with sound bleeding through to other recordings. You can get a lot of good tones when you start dialing things in on the POD. As a matter of fact, aside from the POD, I’m using the Digitech GNX3. And a lot of people record direct, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. You can still get very good tones. It’s just that a lot of people also still prefer the old way.”

Indeed. Amp modelers are not a miracle problem solver to everyone’s recording frustrations. And, surprise surprise, there are just as many POD opponents as proponents.

“On any kind of heavy record, I cannot stand PODs, or Johnson J-Stations, or Amp Farm, or any other modeler,” said Ron Vento, owner of Nightsky Studios in Waldorf, Maryland, where every genre of music under the sun is recorded. “There’s nothing like putting a mic in front of a real cabinet, and cranking it up. You might get 80 percent of that sound out of a modeler, but putting a mic in front of a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier and letting it fly, to me, sounds unbelievable. I’ve never used an amp modeler on any album I’ve ever done, unless it was a fly-in, auxiliary guitar part. Any time we’re doing a heavy metal or rock record, we’re using real amps, and sometimes two or three real amps. We might use a Marshall JCM800; we might use a Soldano; we might use a VHT Pitbull, but you can bet they’re all real amps. Modelers are good live amps, because you can get a whole array of sounds out of them, but if you’re going into a studio, get the real head, or rent the real head, because it sounds better. Eighty percent of a Recto is not a Recto.”

Well, we had to find out for ourselves, so we got a POD xt Pro, a Bass POD xt Pro, and a Vetta II head (which essentially is a physical, solid state head with a POD built in) and cab, which we manipulated via an FBV Shortboard. All mic recordings were done with a single Shure SM57, and all DI recordings were done through Pro Tools LE.

Our first tests involved checking out various incarnations and simulations involving the ’01 California Treadplate, Line 6’s model of a 2001 Mesa-Boogie Dual Rectifier. We chose this because of how popular this amp is with guitarists who want a clear, meaty tone, and also because our pal Max Doyle of Bay Area group Walken happens to have an actual one, so we could see how the imitation stacked up against the real deal.

What we got surprised us.

Well, it might not have been so surprising to find out that miking the Vetta gave a superior sound in terms of crunch, bite, warmth, and presence than recording direct, but the direct recording wasn’t bad at all. The DI signal was a bit thin and muddy, but it wasn’t something we’d turn our noses up at if we were in a bind.

“There is that extra 10 percent that you can get out of the guitar amp, if you work at it,” said Andy Sneap, metal producer extraordinaire, from his Backstage Studios in England. “I don’t think amp modelers are the do all and end all. They are a way to get a good, workable tone very fast. At the end of the day, it is an imitation of something. I was a bit dubious about the whole amp modeler side of things. I had never really heard them sound that good, until the Pod xt Pro came out. I’m actually really impressed with it. I still wouldn’t put it above a good amp with an SM57, and a good cab with Vintage 30s. But if you’re in a position where you can’t make a lot of noise, or you’re recording at home, the Pod xt Pro is definitely the way to go. I’ve got programs like Amplitude and Amp Farm, and I haven’t found any of them that sound as good as that POD, but then again I haven’t found anything that sounds as good as a Peavey 5150 or a Boogie with a SM57 in the right place.”

So we tried tricking our Peavey VTX MX 120 watt head and Celestion speaker cabinet into thinking it was a Dual Rectifier by plugging in the POD xt Pro. Sure enough, it sounded better than DI (but not as good as the Vetta rig). Were we lucky that all our initial mic placements yielded good results?

Legendary frontman and composer King Diamond, who’s been recording rhythm guitars exclusively with POD for years now, related his frustrations with recording cabinets for albums.

“Miking up . . . God, man . . . you have so much trouble all the time. When you record, you have to have it so loud. And the mics still have a hard time picking it up. I remember how we spent days [on it], and still weren’t satisfied: putting one between the speakers; in front of the speakers; angling in different . . . trying to find some combination that finally worked. You have so many variables. Any, ANY change to the mic placement — you move it a hair — and the sound changes. Of course, it depends on how meticulous you are about the sound. Me, I like it to remain the same throughout the whole album.”

So what’s our big surprise, you ask?

The Rectifier that sounded the worst was in fact the actual Rectifier, which was played through the very same cabinet we ran our Peavey faker through. Well, it sounded oookaaayyy, but the Vetta’s imitation blew it away (our Peavey “fake” was also much better). There is an important detail to be noted, though, that we didn’t use any effects or pedals on any of the amps, so what we got was the head’s pure, innate sound.

This is a crucial point for people who don’t have all the money in the world. You see, Line 6’s stuff comes loaded with all manner of models of pedals, effects, delays, and so on. . . . Now, our actual Boss MT-2 Metal Zone pedal sounded better than Vetta or POD’s Metal Z model, but the big picture remains the same. This becomes especially brutally clear when you consider that the Line 6 Vetta head is exactly the same price as the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier ($1,699), but you’d end up having to spend much more in terms of auxiliary equipment with the “Recto” in order to get it to sound the way you want it. Meanwhile, the Vetta and POD come pre-loaded with all that stuff. And the fact that for much less than you’d spend for a top of the line amp, you could buy a POD xt Pro ($699) to boost the performance of your existing rig, not to mention vastly improve the quality of your DI recordings, makes investing in this product powerfully compelling. And do you think that you could just beef up your tone by plugging in your Boss pedal into the DI chain? Just try it and see what happens.

“[The POD] is quite convincing,” Sneap said. “I think if you were a guitarist doing complex stuff and needed 10 different tones, it could work for you quite well. But when you put the real thing side by side with the imitation . . . it’s close, it’s real close, and I think you’re getting real value for money with these units, but if you want the actual real deal, there’s only one way to get it. I’m not putting the units down. I use them and like them: If you need something particular in a mix, like a Box AC 30, there’s no point in going out to a store to get one just for that.”

So how are people whose careers are based as much on the sound of their music as the music itself, people like Justin Broadrick, recording direct, and still getting people to rave about their guitar tones? For that answer, you have to look a little more closely.

“I quite often put the signal head of the POD into a big Avalon vacuum tube compressor,” Broadrick said. “It warms up the signal and boosts the frequencies, and it sounds like it’s got multiple pre-amps on it. I also use one of the larger JoeMeek compressors. Putting those in a chain with the POD gives me so much more control over the tone than I ever had with miking up a Marshall. And it works mainly because the compression is so awesome sounding, and the EQs are so warm and very clean. It also takes away a lot of the cheap nastiness in the mid-range . . . as much as I like the POD, it still has a lot of the problems that I get with the Marshall, oddly enough. My big problem with the POD is that the sound is thin. But I’ve found that once I’ve got it into the Avalon or a lot of Waves plug-ins, I’m boosting it up to around 150–200Hz, and then I’m adding more compression to contain that, and then I’m adding a limiter . . . I’m doing a lot, but I still think the basic tone is great, and nine times out of 10 it’s better than fumbling around with a Marshall and a mic for like, three weeks or so. I want the clarity of digital, but the warmth of analog. And the tubes of the Avalon give that to me. The JoeMeek is valve; on the computer I’m using valve emulation as well, like the PSP Warmer. Another thing I use is a TL Audio Power Electric Equalizer. I put signals in that as well to find the right top end. Chasing sounds is a day to day thing with me; I’m never 100 percent happy.”

Translation: THOUSANDS of dollars in equipment to make the POD sound killer DI.

King Diamond’s story is a little different, and much more basic: “I have two PODs. I have one of the very first ones — right when they came out — and it sounds very different from the newer one (I use that one to run vocals through on stage). The old one I have has a very unique sound. Some of the other guys in the band have PODs, too, but they sound very different from the one I have, you know. I can tell you that their PODs, I would not use to record. They don’t have that warm sound that mine has. They sound like digital processors. Even if you set them exactly the same, the newer PODs cannot be made to have the warm, natural sound that mine has. It’s pretty strange. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the first ones and it has higher quality components in it. I don’t know. The [newer ones] have a little bit of digitalized top-end treble that I don’t like.”

Now, the Bass POD is a different beast entirely. Overall, we loved the results we got from it — far better than the output of the guitar POD. We’re not alone. Alex Webster, bassist for platinum-selling death metal band Cannibal Corpse, had this to say about his modeling experience.

“An important point about digital modeling is you don’t need very much recording skill to get great results. With my extremely modest home studio (which is composed of a Compaq laptop, a Pro Tools Mbox, and a Line 6 Bass Pod XT), I have been able to lay down basic bass guitar tracks for an upcoming album I’ve been working on (with Ron Jarzombek of Spastic Ink and Chris Adler of Lamb of God). And the sounds I’ve been getting with the POD are as good as or better than many miked sounds I’ve gotten in the past in professional studios.”

“The POD’s Ampeg styled setting (Classic Rock) is what I’ve been using, and it’s so much like the real thing that I have to wonder what I’m going to do for Cannibal’s next full length record. Chances are we’ll record a POD channel and a couple of channels of different mics on my Ampeg SVT rig, and see which one sounds the best. I’m actually hoping the miked channels sound better, because damn, it just shouldn’t be this easy to get a great sound. I don’t think I’m mentally prepared to completely give up on cranking ‘the refrigerator’ in the studio just yet!”

The reason for this clear distinction in results probably lies in the fact that most bass players aren’t distorting their sound. In fact, when recording bass, it’s often a great idea to record one DI track whilst miking the cabinet, giving you clarity to go along with low-end. With the POD, the direct sound is that much better, and you’ll still get the physical push of the sound waves against your microphone. But recording all DI through POD seems to yield much more satisfying results than with guitars, especially if you want heavy distortion and crunch out of your six-string.

But of course the POD isn’t only for heavy worshippers. Line 6 has tried to cater to a maximum of guitarist’s styles, which ironically can make amp modelers seem a bit more endlessly useful than they really are. You see, for all the multitude of effects and models that are at your disposal, you’ll probably end up using only a handful.

“It’s really funny that there are like eight million different sounds in the POD,” Broadrick said, “but I only use a few. All my sounds are contained within one bank: A, B, C, and D. And all I do is modify them. Frankly, [having so many sounds to choose from and only having four useful ones] is ridiculous. But I think that if you know what you’re looking for in particular, inevitably this is what’s going to happen.”

“People often think that you press a pre-set patch (on the POD) and everybody sounds the same. And a lot of people that I’ve talked to — even musicians that I’ve worked with — as soon as I mention that I’m using a POD and recording DI, they go, ‘oh, my God. . . .’ Do you know what I mean? Like, it’s horrific. And then they listen to it, and they’re like, ‘shit, that sounds like it’s coming out of the amp.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah. . . .’”