Line 6 certainly started something with its Pod series of amp-modeling processors. Mainly, the company helped to rescue engineers from the drudgery of miking crusty old tube amps that hum and buzz and of spending hours dialing in guitar sounds. Now the kind folks at Line 6 have applied their modeling brains to the task of rendering vintage filter, modulation and delay effects (as well as a few new ones), providing you with the latest in rackmount wizardry.
JUST LOOK AT THESE THINGS
Somebody forgot to tell Line 6 that silver is the new black. But, hey, the fruity color schemes worked for Apple in '97, and the grape, lime and blueberry “iColors” of the Filter Pro, Echo Pro and Mod Pro, respectively, sure do spruce up a drab-looking rack with a bit of color. Controlwise, all three of the Studio Modelers are identical. They have input- and output-level adjustment, as well as bypass, MIDI or system access and Program Save buttons. A two-digit readout displays the current program number, and a knob lets you dial up the desired program (99 preset/user-defined). Each unit has 16 effects models, selected with the large rotary dial. A separate display tells you what parameter you are manipulating, as well as bpm, note or tempo in hertz. Two smaller knobs adjust effect depth and speed, and two additional dials — Tweak and Tweez — let you adjust additional parameters. Rounding out the front panel is a wet/dry mix control. All the knobs transmit MIDI information, making automation a simple matter from the MIDI portion of your sequencer. To make the Mods superuseful, the effects sync to MIDI Clock for tempo-based sounds.
The back panel includes balanced XLR and ¼-inch I/O jacks, and the left ¼-inch jack gives you a stereo signal if you use one of those TRS Y-cables commonly used for mixer inserts. You can also use the TRS jacks to chain the Mods together for some interesting processing. Check out the expression-pedal jack: Hook up a pedal, and you can control all sorts of functions, the coolest of which is the ability to glide between the “heel and toe” of a preset. MIDI I/O jacks allowing your Mods to talk to other devices are also present. However, conspicuously missing from this set of boxes that have both “Studio” and “Pro” in their titles is any form of digital I/O. Being that this is the 21st century and most $200 home stereos have digital I/O, that is a major design lapse.
Serving up models of echo and delay units from antiquity, the Echo Pro imitates old Roland/Boss, Echoplex, Maestro, Electro-Harmonix and the ultrarare Binson Echorec that was big in the '60s. Give the Model Select dial a spin, and you will find the makings of just about any kind of delay vibe you desire — digital, analog, tube, solid state, tape, ping-pong — the Echo Pro has them. In all honesty, my direct experience with old-school echo units is minimal. The few I have heard in person, I can't remember exactly what they sounded like. Keep in mind that I'm not a vintage snob with all the real and imagined obligatory sonic prejudices, but, soundwise, I thought the Echo Pro sounded quite good: It has plenty of lo-fi mud if you want it, and it's crystal clear when the situation dictates.
Truth be told, I like the more modern features that the Echo Pro has to offer. The loop-sampler preset (one minute of sample time, double that in Half-Speed mode) lets you overdub infinite layers of loops for some lovely ambient trips. You can reverse the loop, speed it up, slow it down and get all Robert Fripp on that ass. Have you ever swept the delay time on a stompbox while it was still repeating and gotten those great pitch-shift freak-outs? It sounds good but is somewhat hard to control for long. I had great results using an expression pedal to work the delay time on a vocal track, tweaking the pitch in real time for that chipmunk/Satan feel. An expression pedal is a good investment; it lets you work selected parameters with that God-given metronome otherwise known as your foot.
The Filter Pro is definitely the hardcore member of the Studio Modeler trio. Like the other Pros, Filter Pro offers vintage mimicry of the Musitronics Mu-Tron III envelope follower/auto wah — a crucial accessory for porn soundtracks and funk bands of the '70s. There is even a talk-box simulator with two vowel presets that give a tempo-synched, conversational flair to bass lines and pads. Moog and ARP modular-filter sections are covered with the Synth-o-Matic preset. When push comes to shove, a number of the filter models have enough low end to communicate with submarines, but they lack the ripping, squelchy top end of other filter modelers, not to mention the originals.
More current but equally obscure effect emulations include the Z. Vex Seek-Wah (a 16-step sequenced filter), which is augmented by Line 6 with controls for the number of steps in the sequence and real-time sound mutation with the optional expression pedal. Also present is a model called SpinCycle, based on a design by Craig Anderton, that works like alternating wah-wah pedals — one on the left channel and the other on the right. When one wah opens, the other closes. Play around with the Tweak and Tweez controls, and you will soon have the funkiest stereo-field movement in town. The Throbber preset seems to transform any signal into creepy moans, and like the other tempo-based effects, it really comes alive when you feed it a tempo.
Things really get ugly when you switch to the synth models. Filter Pro includes several guitar-synth re-creations from the days when guitar synths weren't quite ready for prime time, so to speak. In theory, you send an audio signal in (single notes — never chords), and the Filter Pro tracks the pitch and spits out a corresponding vintage synth tone. Even with as much anal-retentive attention to clean and accurate playing as I could muster, the results sounded like slightly tuneful hiccups. This is definitely the box to break out if you get a gig backing Yoko Ono. As with other effects whose results are just too ugly for human listening, you can fall back to that old Hail Mary play of production and run a drum loop through it.
After exploring the sonic psychedelic and torture capabilities of the Echo and Filter Pros, the Mod Pro might seem a little bit tame. Modeled after vintage Fender and Vox tremolo and vibrato circuits, the Mod Pro captures the sound of the originals quite nicely. You can dial up gobs of warm sounding throb — all tempo-synched, of course.
The Mod Pro also includes tons of chorus, phaser and flanger presets based on period pieces like the Univibe, Musitronics, MXR and Boss boxes. You can coax enough whirling, swooshy jet sounds to make a person feel seasick on land. Ring modulation is about as foul sounding as the Mod Pro gets, spitting out what sounds like Balinese heavy metal, and some cool auto-panning presets keep you guessing which speaker your track will come out of next. A shout-out has to go to the chorus model based on a Roland device called Dimension D. I've never heard the original, but it throws down the tastiest shimmer on everything I put through it. It made me think of what outboard gear might sound like in a recording studio in heaven.
The rotating speaker simulations do an okay job of suggesting the sounds of a Leslie speaker. They probably won't fool a grizzled Hammond or Leslie veteran who pays the price in chiropractic bills from lugging the real thing from bar to bar, but if you feed it a good Hammond patch from your synth, the result should be enough gospel-like to get a few listeners speaking in tongues. The truth is that capturing the nuance of a thrashed Leslie speaker with its belt and motor wheezing along and spinning a speaker horn is just a bit beyond the modeling technology of the day. It would be interesting if Line 6 had extended the modeling parameters beyond those of the original devices. I wonder what a Leslie with a nine-foot horn spinning at 15,000 rpm would sound like.
MODEL OF SUCCESS
All of the Studio Modelers are incredibly easy to use, with only the MIDI sync and expression pedal requiring any manual reference to setup. Speaking of the manuals, they are well-written and educational. Each model is compared to what it emulates when applicable, and even some historical information is included. After spending a short time with the Mod Pro's Analog Chorus, I was able to re-create the sound of my long-destroyed but not forgotten Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus pedal, which gets to the point of the Pros: They give you the ability to replace extremely spanked or just plain inoperable old stompboxes or to build an instant quiver of impossible-to-find vintage effects, all lovingly rendered with the latest technology.
At $700 bucks a pop, the Line 6 Pros are a bit rich for my blood. Still, they are a much cheaper route than trying to acquire all of the boxes they emulate. Line 6 does make guitar-pedal versions of these rackmount time machines that are about half the price, but they lack the MIDI tempo-sync function and program memory locations. If vintage effects are what you crave, Line 6 delivers.
Pros: Tons of vintage effects improbable to experience first-hand. Easy to use. MIDI and tempo-synched effects. Cool real-time control capabilities.
Cons: No digital I/O. Pricey.
Overall Rating: 4.5