With the GuitarPort, Line 6 has invented a whole new category of product, one that combines a dedicated computer peripheral with a software engine (adapted from the company's Pod series) and an optional subscription-based service. The GuitarPort is a small, USB-based peripheral that lets Windows-based PC users plug in their guitars and record directly into a DAW while accessing various Line 6 amplifier and effects models. The algorithms use 32-bit floating-point processing, which means the sounds are actually higher resolution than what you get from Amp Farm and the Pod.
But what's really innovative is the jam-along playback feature. For $7.99 per month, GuitarPort owners can access the GuitarPort Web site, which provides a range of content including new amp models, loops, downloadable songs, and lessons taught by some pretty big guns of the guitar world, such as Scott Henderson and Steve Lukather. The songs include not only general tracks such as 12-bar blues, but you can also jam along with classic cuts from bands such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. Many of the songs were remixed from the original masters — sometimes by the original mix engineer — specifically for the GuitarPort project; others were recorded and mixed anew to sound like the originals. The lessons vary from song to song, but they typically include tablature and may also provide information about the guitar, amp, and effects used to record the original track, as well as tips about the player's style, specific techniques, and so forth.
PORT OF ENTRY
About the size of a PC trackball, the GuitarPort is made of high-impact plastic cast in Line 6's characteristic deep red. The bottom of the unit is covered in a nice, sticky rubber that keeps it from working its way across your computer desk.
The GuitarPort's control interface is very simple. There is a rotary, chicken-head-type knob that controls volume. That's it. Well, there's also an LED, which changes color to indicate that the unit is connected and to indicate that an input signal is present.
The unit has a single ¼-inch guitar input on its front surface. The back panel sports the USB interface, left and right unbalanced RCA outputs, an ⅛-inch stereo output (for headphones), and an ⅛-inch stereo input that goes to the computer's sound-card output (see Fig. 1). One thing to keep in mind is that this is a Windows-only application — and only certain flavors of Windows are supported, at that; Macintosh users are out of luck.
I had some initial problems getting the GuitarPort working on my aging Pentium II system. With the help of Line 6's excellent tech support, I was able to narrow the problem down to a faulty video card. I also learned that, on my computer, the GuitarPort was much more stable running under Windows 2000 Professional than Windows 98. (According to Line 6, the XP version is also now supported.) Once I ironed out the problems with my PC, I am happy to report that the GuitarPort software (and Web site) worked bug- and crash-free.
UNDER THE HATCH
The GuitarPort features 80 factory presets, which comprise amp models, cabinet models, and effects settings. The amp-modeling section includes ten amplifier simulations ranging from vintage to modern. Effects include compression, delay, chorus, flanger, tremolo, rotary speaker, and two kinds of reverb. Amp parameters vary, but typically you get drive, bass, middle, treble, presence, and overall volume. Some models also have a boost control, with a nifty onscreen patch cable that simulates the effect of jumpering two inputs at the same time (a common trick with certain vintage amps).
The amp models comprise three Fender-influenced models (1953 Wide Panel Deluxe, 1959 Tweed Bassman Classic, and 1964 Black Panel Deluxe Reverb), one Vox-a-like (1967 Brit Class A-30 Top Boost), two faux Marshalls (1968 Brit 50W Plexi and 1983 Brit 100W J-800), a pseudo — Roland Jazz Chorus (1987 Jazz 120), a Mesa/Boogie tribute (1994 California Rectified), a model by the name of Classic Fuzz, and an original model called the Line 6 Insane.
There are numerous cabinet models, any of which can be mixed and matched with any of the amplifier models. The cabinet models include three faux Fender models (1953 Wide Panel Deluxe, 1964 Black Panel Deluxe Reverb, and 1959 Tweed Bassman Classic), two faux Marshalls (1968 Brit Basketweave and 1978 Brit G-75), a Mesa/Boogie-influenced model (1996 Brit V-30S), a Vox-a-like (1967 Brit Class A-30 Top Boost), two Line 6 custom models, and a “no-speaker” model.
Effects include a compressor with five preset ratios; a delay with up to 3 seconds of delay (with delay-time, feedback, and level controls); a modulation section, which offers four types of modulation effects — chorus, flanger, tremolo, and rotary speaker (with up to 1 second of predelay, as well as speed, depth, and feedback controls); and a reverb section offering two kinds of reverb: spring reverb, which has level and dwell controls; and room reverb, which offers diffusion, density, tone, decay, and level controls.
The GuitarPort software has a neat onscreen tuner, which features a cool, vintage-looking analog meter to show pitch. It offers eight reference tunings for A, including, of course, A 440.
Another cool feature of the GuitarPort is an interactive “hum reducer,” which appears to sample the hum components of the particular guitar setup that you are using and cancel out the hum components. This worked so well that I found myself wishing it were available as a separate hardware box — it would sure come in handy.
The GuitarPort software is also capable of playing back audio tracks from a CD, a hard drive, or Line 6's GuitarPort Web site. Users can loop sections of tracks for jamming along and slow down sections to half speed (without changing the pitch) to help learn tough riffs.
TONE AND FEEL
I tested the GuitarPort using a Tom Anderson Stratocaster and a Renaissance Instruments five-string bass. I monitored on my Apple Design active speakers — a setup I imagine many users may have. I also listened using Sony Walkman-type headphones. For more critical listening, I patched the GuitarPort in to my Neotek IIIc console and monitored using either Fostex NF-1s or Urei 809s.
I found the amplifier models to be reasonably accurate in terms of overall tone, but not quite as good when it came to the “feel” factor. Of course, this phenomenon is by no means unique to the GuitarPort — many, if not most, modeling devices suffer from this problem to some degree.
Latency is one culprit that can give guitar-modeling devices a feel that's less than realistic. Fortunately, latency is not a big problem with the GuitarPort, thanks to the GuitarPort driver, which includes a control panel that allows you to control the amount of latency in the system. The objective is to arrive at the setting that offers the best trade-off between low latency and stable operation of the software (freedom from audio glitches and pops).
No, the real culprit appears to be something more subtle. The more I hear digital amp, microphone, and preamp simulations, the more I am convinced there are other, intangible elements the engineers have not yet learned to model. That said, the GuitarPort is certainly capable of producing some pleasing tones — and some that are nasty as heck, too — as long as you are not expecting the world of it. I especially liked the '64 Black Panel 'Lux Reverb, which felt the most like a real amplifier. The '83 Brit 100 J-800, in contrast, was quite a bit more restrained than the real thing (I should know — there's one sitting in my tracking room as I write this).
The chorus is very nice sounding, with a good sense of width. The spring reverb sounds a bit strange, mainly because it seems to lack the organic quality of a real spring. On the other hand, the room reverb can be massaged to sound great. The effects as a group are pretty good, though I have to wonder why there aren't more available — for example, an octave-divider, auto-wah, envelope filter, and so on. After all, more code is all that's required.
The presets are a strong point of the GuitarPort. They offer the user a wide palette of sounds to choose from and cover an impressive range of musical styles.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of the GuitarPort product is the optional online community (GuitarPort Online), which offers a wealth of music, lessons, and information to download. The file format is MP3, which makes for fast downloads, but of course means less-than-CD quality. For jamming along, though — the main purpose of the GuitarPort — the sound is more than adequate.
The lessons differ from song to song. Jimi Hendrix's “Crosstown Traffic,” for example, offers some interesting tidbits of information about the song, and there is an option to select a GuitarPort preset (that is a part of the downloaded file) to get one a little closer to the correct tone for the song. Though some of the GuitarPort Online downloadable tracks include tablature, that particular example does not. Almost all of the downloadable tracks are available in different versions, typically with and without guitar tracks. You have to download each version you want to use — there are no solo and mute controls, which would have been nice (though it probably would have required unwieldy file sizes). The sans-guitar versions provide a space that you can fill in with your own noodling, which is another nice feature.
The Web site provides many different styles of downloadable tracks. “Inna Di Murrows” was a reggae loop I downloaded. On the whole, it nailed the electronic-reggae sound, albeit slightly stiffly.
One of the cooler clips I came across was called “Lukather will KICK YOUR ASS!” No kidding. It was just one super-fast guitar riff that came complete with both standard notation and tablature. That was one occasion when the half-speed playback came in very handy!
Another convenient feature of GuitarPort Online is file preview, which allows you to preview a low-bandwidth file while downloading another (full-bandwidth) file. That should come in especially handy for dial-up connection users.
The GuitarPort is not only the least expensive way to get your hands on some Line 6 amp and effects models, but it also offers a fun, educational, and sometimes quite challenging experience for students of electric guitar seeking to extend their chops by learning specific songs, riffs, and solos — that is, as long as you don't mind shelling out $7.99 a month for the optional GuitarPort Online subscription. Sonically, the models are equal to or better than what the company's Pod offers, and though the downloadable files online aren't quite CD quality, they're certainly good enough for jamming along with.
My biggest reservation about GuitarPort Online is that when you discontinue your subscription, you no longer have access to the material you have already downloaded. But according to Line 6, this approach was necessary due to licensing requirements from the music publishers — evidently, it wouldn't be fair to the artists if you could access the files in perpetuity.
Richard Alan Salzis a producer, engineer, and composer living in Southern Vermont.
Minimum System Requirements
Pentium II/400 MHz; 128 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/2000/ME/XP; 40 MB hard-disk space; USB port; Direct Sound/MME-compatible recording software (for recording only)
Preset Effects/Filter Patches80Amp Models10Effect Types8 (compression, delay, chorus, flanger, rotary speaker, tremolo, spring reverb, hall reverb)Analog Inputs(1) unbalanced ¼" mono; (1) ⅛" stereo (sound card)Analog Outputs(2) unbalanced RCA L/R; (1) ᛏ" headphoneOther I/OUSB portSampling Rate44.1, 48 kHz (automatically selected)Bit Rate16, 24 (automatically selected)Frequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz (±1 dB)Signal-to-Noise Ratio103 dBIncluded SoftwareGuitarPort application, support documents, DirectX 8, Internet Explorer 6Dimensions5.5" (W) × 5.5" (L) × 1.0" (D)Weight1.44 lb.
guitar amp and effects modeler/instructional device
FEATURES3.5EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY3.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Entertaining. Educational. Inexpensive way to get Line 6 amp models for use in DAW recording. Good for learning specific songs, riffs, and solos. Integrated guitar tuner. Integrated digital looper with a half-speed playback option.
CONS: Somewhat disappointing reverbs. Limited number of effects models. No Macintosh support. Monthly fee for online access to GuitarPort Online.