Review: Line 6 Helix Native

A preview of a powerful amp-and effects-modeling plug-in
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A preview of a powerful amp-and effects-modeling plug-in
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Line 6 is so well-known for its pioneering amp-and-effects modeling hardware (e.g., POD, DL4) that it is sometimes forgotten that the company has been selling modeling software, such as POD Farm and Echo Farm, for decades. Its latest hardware modeler, Helix, has staked a claim on the rapidly expanding subset of guitarists who eschew combos, stacks, and pedalboards for a single multi-modeler to handle all of their onstage amp and effects needs.

Now, the DSP technology that drives the Helix hardware has been harnessed as a software plug-in: Helix Native. Although this plug-in was in the final stages of Beta testing when we got a sneak preview, Helix Native should be available to the public by the time this issue of Electronic Musician hits the stands. Here are some facts and first impressions.

THE SOFTWARE/HARDWARE NEXUS

Helix Native comes with more than 60 guitar and bass amplifiers, more than 30 interchangeable speaker cabinets, and more than 100 effects. The usual Fender, Marshall, Vox, and Hiwatt emulations are present, along with some popular boutique brands. The Helix HX Hybrid cabs purport to provide the same resolution and low-end accuracy as a 2048-point (or higher) impulse response, while using roughly the same DSP as a 1024-point IR. As with the Helix Floor and Rack processors, you can also load custom impulse responses, including third-party IRs (impulse responses).

Helix Native also includes 16 microphone models. Although you can vary a mic’s distance from the virtual speaker cabinet, you cannot shift its axis. (You can, of course, simulate an off-axis response to some extent by using the High Cut option.)

In fact, Helix Native contains the same set of amps, cabinets, and effects as the Helix hardware units, and it shares a similar user interface with the editor application for those hardware devices. This makes presets created in Helix Native transferable to any Helix hardware unit via the Helix editor.

Unlike IK Multimedia Am-plitube, Native Instruments Guitar Rig, or even Line 6’s own POD Farm plug-in, Helix Native eschews icons that graphically represent—however obliquely—the specific amps and effects being modeled, in favor of the minimal graphics of the hardware. Personally, I like the streamlined look it gives the GUI, but it does mean identifying the effect or amp being used in a chain and it requires clicking on a little block generically labeled Dly, Mod, Dist, and so forth. Also, in an effort to maintain transferability between hardware and software, you cannot drag amps and effects into the signal path: You must create a spot at the end of the chain, click on a selected effect and, once installed, drag the effect to the position you choose.

That said, Helix Native makes it easy, through drag and drop, to create multiple series and parallel signal paths. I was able to set up an AC30-based wet-wet-dry rig in just a few minutes. Once I created this rig, I could save it to an empty preset in one of Helix Native’s Set Lists.

Automation, at this point, is a little bit baroque, though it is not unlike other Amp modeling software. I installed the Helix Native plug-in on my guitar input track in Ableton Live. To control parameters through MIDI, either for a hardware controller or automation, I needed to click on the desired effect or amp, and then click its Automation/Controller Assign box. The good news is that Helix’s elegant GUI places it right there as an alternative to the parameter Edit box—no scrolling through drop-down menus or searching for hidden screens to find the page.

Once you click on that screen, however, there are drop-down menus involved. The first lets you choose the parameter you want to automate or control in real time. Once you have done that (I chose Level for an overdrive effect), another drop-down menu just below asks you to pick a Knob number; I chose Knob 1. Having completed that task, I could go into Ableton, choose Configure on the Helix plug-in, and when I move the Level slider in the Helix GUI, Ableton will recognize it as Knob 1.

I can then control the overdrive’s level with a hardware controller or automation. Though this may sound convoluted, it can all be done fairly quickly. Even better, once I choose Knob 1 to control Level, if I switch to a different overdrive model, it will already control that model’s level, as well. Line 6 is already working on a MIDI Learn function for Helix Native that will make all of this much easier.

PLAYABILITY

In the end, modeling software comes down to sound, and in the case of amp models, also feel. Unlike plugging a guitar cord into an actual amp, playing though an audio interface into a DAW hosting an amp-modeling plug-in requires judicious balancing of gain stages. Helix Native has an input level control that must be adjusted to work with the input level of the audio interface to provide the amp models with a signal that will cause them to react like the real thing.

Once I had the levels adjusted to the proper proportions, the dynamic response of the Helix amps proved remarkably realistic. Set to a slightly crunchy amount of gain, the models cleaned up nicely with lighter picking attack or by lowering the guitar volume. This allows the kind of expressive playing one gets from a real tube amp.

The amp’s sound and feel can be tailored to your taste through a set of controls that goes beyond the Bass, Mid, Treble, and Presence found on the surface of many amps. Lowering the Sag value offers a tighter response, whereas higher values provide more touch dynamics and sustain. Theoretically, Hum and Ripple adjust how much heater hum and AC ripple interacts with your tone, respectively. Not being an amp tech, I don’t know exactly what that means but I could detect little or no effect beyond a slight warble when both were on 10. Bias changes the bias of the power tubes, with lower values creating Class AB bias, whereas at maximum, the amp is operating in Class A. Bias X determines how the power amp reacts when pushed hard; a low setting produces a tighter feel, while a higher one provides more tube compression. This parameter is interactive with the Drive and Master settings. All these effects are subtle at less than extreme settings.

Most players just want an amp that sounds great out of the box. For example, the Bogner sounded good out of the gate, as did the clean Fender sounds. A couple of the amps—the Marshall JM and Plexi models and the Vox Essex 30, in particular—needed a fair amount of tweaking before they began to inspire me. Often it was just a matter of adjusting the previously mentioned gain stages and some tone twiddling, others required a different mic and/or some high or low cut at the cabinet miking stage to remove an unpleasant high end. While we are on mics, I am pretty sure a C414 condenser should have more high-end sparkle than an SM57 dynamic microphone, not less.

Though Line 6 pioneered amp modeling with its Axis series, it is effects like the ubiquitous DL4 delay/looper and, more recently, the M Series of hardware processors that put the Line 6 stamp on the music-gear world. Thus, it came as no surprise that the effects in Helix Native sound uniformly excellent.

Classics of each type are accurately modeled, although some of the industry stalwarts are conspicuous by their absence. The Dyna Comp is modeled, but not the Boss CS-2 or-3. The SD-1, Centaur, OCD, Tube Driver, and Rat are here, but the TS-9 is missing. Instead we have the Kowloon Walled Bunny overdrive, which admittedly shows Line 6’s ability to get down in the weeds with its accurate emulations of germanium, silicon, and LED components interacting in various combinations.

Legendary effects such as the Fuzz Face, Boss CE-1 chorus, Echoplex, Big Muff and Memory Man are honored, but Helix Native also nods to modern sounds with a very cool Bitcrusher option and a Harmony Delay, as well as Octo and Particle Verbs.

In fact, Helix Native goes beyond classic guitar tones into the world of modular synthesis with a three-oscillator synth and a three-tone note generator. Combining those with the many of the other lush modulation, delay, and reverb models, and a slew of boutique and modded pedal simulations might make Helix Native well worth the price of admission for the effects alone.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Helix Native lets you configure your own signal path—amps, cabinets, mics and effects—and use it on your computer or transfer it to one of Line 6’s Helix hardware processors.

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Keep in mind that the version that we were given for this review was a pre-release version, and there are possible changes to come. But if you are a fan of Line 6’s Helix hardware, Helix Native software will make jumping back and forth between live and recording relatively seamless, as you can easily transfer sounds created in the studio to the stage, and vice versa. Even if you are not on the Line 6 hardware bandwagon, you may find Helix Native a welcome addition to the field of software amp-and-effects modelers.

Moreover, Line 6 didn’t create Helix Native just for guitarists. The developer says this plug-in was designed for anyone who is looking to create new and unique sounds—from producers, DJs and engineers to sound designers and composers working in film, TV, or video games.

STRENGTHS
Plenty of amp, cab and mic models. Deep editing. Presets can be shared with Helix hardware devices. Loads custom impulse responses. Discount pricing for registered owners of Helix hardware and select Line 6 software.

LIMITATIONS
Some common effects models missing. No drag-and-drop configuring.

$399
line6.com

Michael Ross is a writer/musician/producer living in Nashville. Check out his blog, guitarmoderne.com.