Variax AC700 Review/Workbench Overview

This is an update from a review I did a while ago.  It includes more detail, some information on workbench and some mp3s.  It’s a LONG post, but hopefully it’ll help answer any questions you might have.

VariaxAc700Bk.jpg

In 2004, Line 6 heralded a new era in guitars with their new guitar line, the Variax. Previously they had released the Line 6 POD which emulated a number of different amplifiers through a process called modeling and put those controls in a kidney bean shaped device that fit in a gig bag. With the Variax line, they took this same concept and applied it to guitars – i.e. they answered the question, “what if we had a guitar that had a number of modeled characteristics of really iconic guitars and put them in 1 guitar?” The Variax AC700 took this same concept and applied it to acoustics. With Sweetwater offering a $400 price drop on the Black and Burst AC700 models – I thought It was time to give it a try, and see if I could get an instrument that would allow me to leave my Chappel acoustic at home.

Note:

Line 6 has currently ceased production on this guitar although you can still find the used on Craigslist or Ebay.

First impressions

I opened the box and the first thing I saw was a gig bag. Very good quality. Lots of padding and generous space for the cables.

The Variax has 2 outs on the instrument. 1 out is a VDI cable that interfaces directly with The POD x3 live/line 6 gear. The second out is a 1/4 inch out. The Vax requires power to model, so you either need to run batteries OR there is a DI box that you can use with a planet Waves cable that had XLR or 1/4′ out. DI box is high quality, and guitar came with the Planet Waves cable as well so that’s a definite plus.

A lot of people on the forums commented on how much they hated the neck, and how it didn’t feel like an acoustic – those were not the initial thoughts about mine when I got it. My initial thought was – “It’s heavier than I thought it would be”. Opening the gig bag, I discovered that the guitar was a solid body guitar with a fake sound hole, probably very similar to the Chet Atkins Nylon. Since the sound is all generated from piezos this made sense. The body is Mahagony with a Cedar top, but since mine is flat black – it’s impossible to guess at the material. The finish looked good, and I liked the inlays in the fretboard a lot as well.

The neck didn’t bother me. It’s also mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard. The profile is somewhere between an acoustic and an electric with a 17″ radius – it’s pretty flat. It’s a 25-1/2″ scale length, which means it’s the same as the other variaxs so if you like the electric you’ll like this. It has 24 frets and pretty clear access up to the 20th fret or so. The irony of my first 24 fret instrument being an acoustic is certainly not lost on me. It’s a nice touch, but if anything the extra 2 frets take up space I’d rather have open for for picking. The more important thing here is that the access to the other frets is great. Being able to play up to the 19 fret with no access issues is a major coup for the acoustic.

Setup was a little suspect. Anytime you buy a new guitar, you should plan on getting it set up by a professional. I took mine to a luthier friend in L.A. and got a new nut and a fret dressing which made a huge difference ion terms of playability.

By the way –  the guitar came with a plastic nut and bridge pins – Plastic nuts are a big sticking point for me – particularly on an instrument in this price range.

The bridge is an acoustic style bridge with individual piezos for each string. The bridge is set up so that the height is controlled by a couple of allen screws – which is a good idea. The only drag here is that the piezos are not adjustable so adjusting the physical intonation would be very tricky. Fortunately mine was set up just fine.

A brief side story:

When I got the guitar – one string was much quieter than the other strings. I went to the excellent Line 6 forums and found that on some of the models some of the piezos were bad. I called customer service – they recommended that I take it to a repair center. When I said that I was handy with a soldering iron – they mailed me a piezo. A 10 minute soldering job later and it was all set. A lot of other customer service centers could follow this example of how it should be done.

Before I explain the models, I need to explain some of the instrument controls:

The knob on the upper bout selects models – if you push it – it changes color and you can get preset tunings for each model.  You can edit these in workbench (more on that later).

Next to the knob are 3 sliders:

The top slider controls EQ – but does it in a very interesting way – the concept here is that the slider has two mic placements and by moving the slider you pan between the two sounds. A VERY cool idea – having said that additional EQ needs to come from another source. This is from the line 6 copy:

“The Variax Acoustic 700’s top slider (the one furthest away from you when you hold the guitar) allows you to alter the position of the modeled microphone. Here’s a simple way to remember how it works: As you move the slider closer to the soundhole (away from the Model Select knob), the Mic Position is also getting closer to the soundhole. Some of the instruments modeled in the Variax Acoustic 700 don’t have a soundhole, but the control will work similarly for these instruments. When the slider is close to the Model Select knob, the strings (and upper frequencies) are emphasized; when the slider is close to the soundhole, the body (and lower frequencies) are emphasized.”

Here’s how it sounds:

I’ll start with some fingerstyle (one thing to note is that the “Sweet spot” is actually right around the 24th fret.  That’s where all of these were performed.  All recordings were tracked straight into Logic with no additional EQ or processing using the USB out on the Pod X3.

Out of the box – I put a “parlor” model (based on a Martin size 5 “Parlor”) through an acoustic setting in my Line 6 Pod:

The first mp3s are excerpts of a solo finger style piece of mine that’s currently untitled.  55 refers to the bpm.  If you play each mp3 – you can hear the timbral difference is the virtual mic placement.

Parlor mic far left 55

Parlor mic far right 55

Parlor mic middle 55

Next some flatpicking.  This was something I improvised in a vaguely celtic/bluegrass that I might flush out into a Dan Crary Style flatpicking tune but for now here are 3 more excerpts.  These also use the Parlor – which isn’t my favorite guitar for flatpicking – but this gives you a full tonal sense of this setting.

Parlor mic far left 120

Parlor mic far right 120

Parlor mic middle 120

Finally for now – here’s an excerpt from another original song of mine, “The Kake Song” that features 2 handed tapping.

Parlor far left 140

Parlor far right 140

Parlor mic middle 140

The middle slider controls volume.

The bottom slider controls onboard compression. You can control the amount here but that’s the only parameter of control.  A good idea but I prefer outboard compression instead.

What is notably absent is an onboard tuner. I guess the concept here is that if you’re using a POD that you use the tuner on the POD. If you’re going direct into a PA or an amp – bring a tuner.

There are alternate modes for the sliders as well that control a virtual capo and some preset tunings. The virtual capo is a nice touch for detuned items – but I prefer a physical capo to capo up.

One thing about the different tunings to work around is that the guitar maintains standard pitch and alters the output pitch through pitch shifting. In other words – if the can hear the unplugged sound of the physical string over the pitch shifted modified string it can throw you. I like headphone to block it out. Live, I would just crank the monitor a bit.

Workbench

Line 6 sells a products called Workbench which is a software/hardware component to modify settings on variax guitars. It’s $99 for the hardware and the cd, BUT if you have a pod with a variax port, then the software is a free download for registered users. Workbench is pretty much a mandatory item if you use this product. With it you can store body models and customize your own tunings. It’s very intuitive to use and is a much better interface than trying to just use the various knob combinations on the guitar.

So you need to have the instrument hooked up through USB to a computer to get Workbench to boot (this is either done through a line 6 USB enabled device like a POD or a piece of hardware that ships with the Workbench CD if you order it.

Once you get workbench up and running, you select a model and then get brought to a screen that looks like this:

 

 

I’ll start with some basics.  The left hand side of the screen gives you a visual of the body type.  On the electric models you can move pickup placements around here and get a lot a tonal variance.  On the acoustics – it’s more of a one trick pony for the actual guitar.  A really nice feature for future updates would be if you could vary the material (different top or sides) or fingerboard (ebony or rosewood) all subtle differences – but that’s where a lot of tonal magic lies.

The right hand side of the screen will give you more of the tonal variance that may help you.  First, you’ll notice the Studio/Live switch – according to Line 6 (some detailed information here) the studio mode includes room reflections on the guitar output.  It is a noticeable timbral shift.  Trim and Compression will affect the instrument output volume and mic will help tweak the instrument tone.

For some of you – the real reason to use workbench will be the parameter at the bottom of the screen.  What is represented here is a virtual capo.  Enabling the capo allows you to pitch shift any string up or down and octave.  If you want to change a preset tuning this is the easiest place to do it.  Honestly – you will hear aliasing and artifacts at anything more than a step and a half, but – if you’re going for altered textures (i.e. non traditional acoustic tones – that could work for you).  Personally – being able to set the guitar up in 2 sets of 1/2 step clusters was pretty amazing.  Another caveat here is that while the body is still a solid body guitar – unless you are wearing good noise canceling headphones – you will probably hear the standard tuned guitar and the pitch shifted guitar at the same time.  When you’re playing with a band – I doubt you’d hear it but if you’re playing solo acoustic somewhere it could be an issue.

Related to the pitch shifting is the mix and detune functions.  You not only mix the strings (i.e. pitch shift certain stings like a 12 string and have other notes stay unaffected, but you can intonate strings in cents!  That could be HUGE in getting alt tunings more in tune to your liking.  There are some really good work bench posts on the Vettaville site here and a specific tutorial on Harmomic Open Tuning here.

Another nice feature is that you can adjust individual string volumes!  This is a really great feature if you need to quiet certain strings or make other strings pop in volume.

To get there,  under the “Editor” menu, look  for “String Volume Setup”  You’ll see something that looks like this:

Simply drag the sliders to the level you want and click ok.  Line 6 offers this observation as well (from the above mentioned link.

“As a side note, it’s normal for many guitars to have volumes that differ from string to string. One example of this would be guitars with combination of a fairly small fretboard radius and pickups with non-staggered polepieces. It can also happen with guitars that have peaks in body resonance at or near the fundamental or one of the lower harmonics of a specific note.”

The Models

These are the models that are available on the guitar:

Martin size 5 “Parlor”
Martin 000-18
Martin D-28
Gibson J-45
Gibson J-200
Selmer-Maccaferri
D’Angelico New Yorker
Nylon String Classical
Guild F412 12-String
Stella 12-String
National Style O
Wood body Dobro
Gibson Mastertone Banjo
Mandocello
Japanese Shamisen
Traditional Indian Sitar

Generally, I find that different guitars sound better for different things. For example I like fingerpicking on the parlor – but like the J-45 for flatpicking.

This brings up another tweaking issue as well as I really dislike the banjo sound with a flatpick, but can use it fingerstyle.  Banjos usually don’t sound great with a single flatpick anyway – so this could be a non-issue.

Beyond the question of – does the 12 string sound just like a 12 string (the answer here is no), is the question of would I want to use it in a band with other instruments? And the answer there is I think it gets by. Compared to bringing another guitar and trying to keep all 12 strings in tune – it makes me happy.  It has the vibe of a 12 string and would probably sit well in band mix.

And that’s really the point of this guitar, to allow a lot of flexibility. Do you want to switch to DADGAD tuning in the middle of a tune? No problem. Want to switch from a Martin to a banjo to a 12 string for each section of a song. No problem.

For the most part this is really a live vs. a studio instrument – and in that context,  I think it shines.  But I think that this would even be usable in some recording contexts.  For my purposes – living in a noisy apartment building where having a quiet space to mic an acoustic and get through a take without extraneous noise – this things is a godsend.  Would I use this over a vintage Martin in a pro studio?  No.  Would I use this to track a take at home while sonic chaos is going on all around me?  Absolutely.

Having said that, it’s important to acknowledge what may be an issue for some players:

String Muting

One things that will be problematic for some people is the issue of string muting.  On the Line 6 Variax forums there’s a lot of talk about the issues with string muting regarding the electrics – but as this is a piezo based pickup system, the isn’t going to sound like string muting on a regular guitar.

Case in point:  Here is the sound of an Al Dimeola style lick in A Dorian. First it’s played with no muting, and then with string muting LOGIC string mute 140.  Definitely not Friday Night in San Francisco.  Some tweaking with compression and EQ might help with this – but I haven’t had much luck so far. If this is a major component of your style this might be an issue – but if you’re willing to work around it, there are a lot of other things here.

It does handle regular flatpicking fairly well though –  here is a post involving acoustic sweep picking that was recorded with the Variax.

The electic variax has undergone  a transformation in the forthcoming Tyler Variax with substantially more processing power, hopefully the acoustic will get a revision as well.

Likes:

This is a well constructed guitar with a tremendous amount of tonal flexibility.  Parlor, 000, D-28, and J-45 models sound really good.  I like the inclusion of the oddball instruments like the Shamisen and mandocello, also like the  gypsy jazz guitar and the nylon (but suspect that they probably sound better on the nylon string Variax 300).  This guitar won’t do everything – but it may save you 2-3 gig bags of guitars at your next gig.  Workbench is a truly revolutionary idea and the alternate tuning features are cool.  12 strings and virtual capos are really good ideas.

Dislikes:

In terms of the build – the body size is a little too small for me (I’d like more of a dreadnaught sized body as well).  Also, a plastic nut and pins on a high end instrument sounds like a little thing – but a guitar is a bunch of little things all put together.  String muting may be an issue for some people.  Sitar sound has a high pitch overtone that makes it unusable for me.   The banjo doesn’t seem as well executed as some of the other models. While I like the idea of the 12 string – it’s okay for strumming but doesn’t hold up on the single note level for me.

Would like (Wish List):

On the electric variax you can virtually move between various pickups body and placement options. I’d love it if I could combine a J-200 and a shamisen for example. Just as the Pod X3 has 2 rigs at once, having 2 guitars at once would be cool…

Multiple body sizes.

More models.

I’d love modeled material that you could never make a guitar out of – like stone or glass or paper. It would be nice to “build” guitars that you couldn’t feasible make in the real world.

It would be nice if you could control some other modeled aspects in Workbench – i.e. top back and side material, fingerboard material, sound hole size and placement, etc.

Final thoughts:

I don’t know if paying the extra $400 for a a natural finish ( I notice that Sweetwater doesn’t even have that model listed anymore) is worth it but for this is a lot of guitar for the money.  I’m going to be doing some studio experiments so see if I can get the tones a little closer – but for demos or backing tracks this guitar is definitely

Recommended!

2 thoughts on “Variax AC700 Review/Workbench Overview

    • Hi Steven,

      Sorry! I wrote this article 7 years ago and haven’t had the guitar in probably 5 years – so I don’t remember the old workbench system well.. If I remember correctly – and I have I have no idea if I do – there were a few empty user slots on the model dial that you could save them to. I believe workbench allowed you to save backup files to the desktop as well.

      You can log onto the Line 6 site and they should have legacy user guides that would answer that for you.

      I hope that helps!

      -SC

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