Line 6 Variax and Vetta II

Is this the ultimate studio guitar rig?
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Is this the ultimate studio guitar rig?

When I was doing session work in New York, one of my least fond memories (aside from the alcoholic C& singer trying for a comeback) involved carting gear to the studio. You never knew exactly what the producer would want, so you had to be prepared.

Times have certainly changed; the Variax guitar models other guitar sounds, from acoustic to electric, putting what Line 6 calls “an entire guitar collection in a single instrument.” So what does all this mean to recording guitarists (especially with the release of the Vetta II amp, which fits the Variax like a glove)? Frankly, a lot — starting with the fact that your guitar can stay in the digital domain until it comes out of your speakers.

Variax comes in a sturdy gig bag, with two pouches for holding strings and the included power supply and XPS footswitch. The footswitch has inputs for the Variax and power supply, and 1/4" and XLR audio outputs. Mercifully, there are no weird cables tethering the Variax to reality (unless you decide to do a direct digital feed into the Vetta II, as described later), just a stereo cable that connects to the footswitch to carry both audio and power.

You can patch the Variax into an amp or wireless pack using a regular mono cable if you power the Variax with six AA batteries (good for about 12 hours of continuous operation), accessible through a trap door in the rear of the guitar.

In emergencies, a 9V battery will give an hour or two of juice.

The guitar is an upper-class Korean double-cutaway type. Will it replace my PRS? No. But it’s stylish, comfortable, has tasteful chrome-plated hardware, and boasts a very playable neck. The axe supplied for review had a satiny black finish (nice);

other choices are red and sunburst. Once you adjust the action to your liking, it feels downright good.

Variax uses piezo transducers for each string, not pickups, so you can hold the Variax next to monitors, magnetic fields, transformers, or fluorescent lights, and you’ll hear . . . nothing. No buzz, no hum, no noise. The strings don’t decay into crud, but into quiet. Very cool.

The signals generated by the transducers aren’t converted into MIDI, but processed using DSP. As a result, any playing technique that causes a string to vibrate is fair game, and will be faithfully reproduced without any significant delay.

The Variax definitely has its own sound quality. Remember the first time you played a standard guitar through a high-impedance direct box and got to hear everything your pickups were putting out? The Variax takes that one step further by eliminating all the garbage that makes its way into pickups. There’s a cleanliness, transparency, and definition for all the modeled guitars that is truly a joy.

There are four controls: volume, tone, “pickup selector,” and model. The volume knob taper changes to reflect that of the guitar being modeled, and sometimes the tonal effect changes too. The tone control again matches the instrument but for the Acoustic and Reso models, you’ll hear various filtering effects that simulate what happens when you vary mic placement.

The Model Select knob has 12 positions. Ten choose different models, with variations selected by the “pickup switch.” The variation may be a pickup change, or an entirely different type of guitar. The remaining two positions are custom banks for storing your own favorite models, accessible by the pickup selector. This is easy to do, and you can also choose whether the Tone control setting will be saved with a particular sound.

The sidebar (left) shows the available guitar models in the Variax. Having played quite a few of the original guitars, I think I’m qualified to comment.

At first, I was taken aback by the subtlety of the differences between certain models. But that’s because I’m not used to thinking of just the guitar — I think of a Tele through a Twin Reverb, or a Les Paul through a Marshall. Feeding the Variax into the Vetta II and adding processing put a magnifying glass on the differences. With some overdrive, the Tele did its “sparkle” thing, while the Les Paul gave that chunkier sound. And I must admit, physically speaking, Strats have always felt a little too “beefy” for my tastes, so it was great to be able to get that kind of sound from a lighter guitar.

I was pleasantly surprised by the acoustic models. Granted, they sound like an acoustic going through a pickup, but when mixed into a track I bet few listeners would realize it wasn’t the “real deal.” As a plus there are no miking hassles, and you won’t pick up control noise if that’s where you like to record.

The 12-string electrics were okay, but the octave sound is not as defined as the real thing. A little compression with a hint of distortion improved matters considerably. However, the Martin and Guild acoustic 12-strings gave a pretty convincing tone right out of the box.

The Reso guitars include Dobro, Coral Sitar, Danelectro 3021 with “lipstick” pickups, banjo, and the 1928 National Tricone, a truly strange bird. The sitar really came to life with a little compression — this is as close as you’re going to get to the real thing. Even the sympathetic strings are modeled, with the amount set by the tone control.

Of course, the very idea of modeling is controversial, as Line 6 found out when they introduced the Pod. But putting snob appeal and one-upmanship aside, I think any rational person would agree that the Variax packs a wealth of eminently useful models, sounds great, and is fun to play. Many sounds emulate the source instruments to an astonishingly high — often indistinguishable — degree.

And a funny thing happens after you play the Variax for a while: The idea of it being a modeling guitar sort of drops by the wayside. You end up choosing sounds because of their musical usefulness, and apply processing to bring out the best of them. You stop thinking “Hey, this sounds like a Tele” and instead think “This is a great sound.” After the novelty wears off, you’re left not so much with a modeling guitar, but with a musical instrument. Judged by those standards, the Variax is a home run, and a versatile performer in the studio.

The Vetta II combo I reviewed (the head is forthcoming) isn’t totally new territory, as it’s a superset of two PodXTs in an open-back cabinet with dual 12" speakers. However, it includes all 73 amp models found in Line 6 products, adds some synth-like textures, a lot more control, and allows combining the two channels in various novel ways. (Note that a free software update can bring any older Vetta up to Vetta II specs, while a hardware board to allow a direct Variax connection costs $99.)

There are analog and digital stereo direct outs, and the support for 24-bit/96 kHz is welcome. Tone-wise, the two-channel architecture opens up exceptional stereo possibilities; you can lock controls to vary the same parameter on both amps with one knob twist, which also preserves relative levels between the controls. And it’s ideal for re-amping — record the straight out digitally, while miking the speakers and/or recording the processed direct outs.

You can save Variax settings within a channel, so that calling up a preset also calls up the appropriate guitar. However, note that this requires connecting a multiconductor cable (which also feeds the Variax’s digital out to the Vetta) into a second jack on the Variax, in place of the 1/4" cable. In a pinch, you can use a standard RJ-45 cable, although it won’t have the locking feature of the cable supplied with the Vetta II.

There are tons of effects — 53 “stompbox” effects, of which any three can go into any of three positions in the signal chain, as well as more “studio” types of effects (tremolo, gate, compressor, and EQ). Re-routable (i.e., you can change the order) post-amp effects include pitch shift, modulation, delay, and reverb, as well as the effects loop. As with the PodXT, there are six mic models for simulating amp miking when going direct.

But the “guitar synth” effects are a real ear-opener. They also use DSP processing, and range from beautiful to just plain weird. Unfortunately, they require single-note lines. They’re still fun, though, and things become more interesting when you get the FBV floor controller (with its 18 switches, display, and two expression pedals) into the act, and start swelling synth lines in behind some vintage amp effect. (By the way, don’t sell the FBV short; even though we don’t have the space to go into much detail, it’s useful and greatly simplifies onstage control.)

Finally, Vetta II addresses a PodXT limitation: You can insert the volume pedal before everything, after the stompboxes, after the amp/cab but before the re-routable post effects, or at the end of the entire signal chain.

Okay, together the Vetta II, Variax, and FBV list for almost 4,400 smackers. Even though you’ll pay much less than list, that’s still not cheap. But it’s a first-class guitar rig, and if you can afford to fly first class, you’ll get more than a drink on takeoff, slightly better food, and a wider seat: You’ll have an amp system that re-defines “flexibility,” a guitar that re-creates some of the most desirable guitar sounds of all time, an all-digital signal path, freedom from interference, and a clarity of tone that you simply cannot believe until you’ve heard it. It’s truly a vision of 21st century guitar.

However, this vision is probably not for everyone, just as even in this age of digital audio some still prefer vinyl. But the Variax/Vetta II isn’t necessarily designed to replace what’s gone before; it charts a path for the future that respects tradition, but discovers new realms. As someone who ditched guitar amps onstage decades ago in favor of keyboard amps to get better fidelity, and uses direct boxes in the studio (followed by processing) for more clarity of sound, this is exactly what I’ve been seeking. I’m not selling my PRS, but now it has a bunch of new friends.