Some Thoughts On Modeling, Gear Acquisition And The POD HD500

The forums have been a flutter over the Fractal Audio announcement/release of a major upgrade to the Axe FX product line, the new Axe FX II.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the unit, The Axe FX is a high end modeler that emulates a number of amp tones and effects very well.

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From my second hand experience the pros are:

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  • it can sound really good – I need to emphasize that again as, “oh yeah it sounds good” gets glossed over easily.  I’ve heard people coax some mediocre tones from it as well – but the unit has the potential to sound pretty great.  The interesting thing is that while non Axe FX owners always nay-say the price, I’ve never heard an owner complaint about sound vs. value.

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The cons are:

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  • its expense (a fully outfitted Axe FX system (pre-version II Ultra) ran around $2,000 – with the proprietary midi board and an Atomic FR 50W active cab it would set you back about $3700 shipped).
  • it’s only available as a rack-mounted unit (so yes, there really is a use for that rack case your ADA MP-1 used to sit in!)
  • the midi controller is also high quality, but also expensive. (FYI -You can use other midi-controllers with the unit).  The comment here is more about the fact that none of the gear associated with the unit is what you could call inexpensive.

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As soon as the FXII was announced, a number of Ultra and Standards went up on eBay.  The fact that the re-sale value on Ebay is quite high ($1300-$1600 for an Ultra on Buy it Now) also speaks well to the quality of the unit.  I’m sure that the new model is a substantial improvement over the original (which are now phased out) – but how much better does it have to be?  The current world economy is helping some people keep cooler heads and realize that if they always liked the tone out of their current Ultra – that they’re probably still going to like it a year from now.  With that in mind, here’s a gear acquisition reminder:

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Cutting edge es MUY CARO!!

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The latest thing is always going to set you back financially.  To add insult to injury – you’re generally paying to be part of the learning curve.  Things break, things go wrong, things need updating and as someone on board for version 1, you will be part of that curve.   On the plus side, you’ll know the unit deeper than a lot of people and be able to coax things out of it easier.  Economically, it’s a simple question of how useful or necessary that skill set is to you.

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However, if you can hold back a little and wait out the initial rush.  You’ll see the products getting updated.  You’ll see other people having to tweak tones and work out solutions to problems. You’ll also see some people getting frustrated and selling their things at a great loss. I saw an Axe Standard on eBay for $800.  If I was in the market for one that price would be WAY more appealing than the $1700 they were originally getting for them.

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If you want something new it’s typically financially prudent if you can hold off.  (With used gear, it’s always – you snooze you lose – and it’s also generally the case with one offs, rare or discontinued items. One of my favorite sonic mangling pedals, the Digitech Space Station, was acquired from Guitar Center when Digitech discontinued them for $90.)

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POD HD500

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However, when I read about the recent substantial update to the POD HD line – my curiosity was piqued.  I had already mentioned the price versus performance differences between the POD Farm and the POD HD; but the ever increasing set up time of my POD Farm rig had me looking at the POD HD a lot closer recently.  The Pod Farm rig still completely makes sense to me for laptop gigs – where I’m sitting down at a table and sculpting sound – but the laptop with a live band thing started to  become an issue, not only live but also in setup time for rehearsal.

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There are probably a thousand pages with stats, clips, videos and MP3s of the POD HD.  So I’m going to spare you all of that.  You’ve already probably researched that to get here.  What I can offer are my impressions for using it live, and how I think it stacks up.

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Construction:

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This is a sturdy unit weighing in around 14 lbs due to the all-metal chassis.  It feels solid and  I have no doubts about it standing up to live use.  The switches are similar to the X3 or Shortboard MK II, but seem to be a little higher quality to me.   (I don’t have any quantifiable analysis so I might be imagining that – but they work well in any case).  The expression pedal on my unit is even smoother than my Shortboard MK II.  Some people have had problems with the pedal but mine was fine.  After I installed all of the updates, I did have to recalibrate it, but since then – I’ve had no issue with it.

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The display is very clear, and offers multiple viewing options, but I’d like to see a fully realized list option as well.  You can edit all of the parameters on the unit, but the HD EDIT program is so much more intuitive, you’ll probably gravitate to editing things on a computer.  That said, some parameters can only be edited on the unit itself (like the looper features), so you may want to get a little familiar with the on board controls as well.

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The HD 500 doesn’t have an off button – which is a little strange but manageable.  While the power cable is shorter than what I’m used to on a stand alone unit,  I’m guessing  that Line 6 planned on it being mounted to a pedal board and then  just plugged into a power strip.  This would also explain the elongated plug size as it looks like it’s designed to fit between other plugs on a power strip.

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In terms of ins and outs on the unit – the 500 is very similar to the X3, ¼ “, XLR and SPDIF outs, as well as midi connectivity and an RCA jack in for mp3 players/etc.  You can record with the USB – but I only use it to connect to edit so I can’t comment on recording direct with it.  I do find the connection time with my mac to be EXTREMELY slow – but it works fine once it’s connected.  The proprietary DT50 and the  variax connections are cool as well, but since I don’t have either right now, I can’t comment on them.

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Managing expectations for current Pod users:

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First – and this is important – there is no upgrade path from old models to new models.  There’s no tonal equivalency between old patches and new.  Furthermore, I would argue that if you expect this unit to sound exactly like your favorite X3 patch, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

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One thing to remember in the non-modeled world is that any amp is, by and large, a one trick pony.  I played a 5150 combo once with a nice dirty tone and one of the most useless clean tone’s I’ve ever heard.  As someone who put substantial energy into trying, it’s useless to attempt to make a Marshall sound like a Fender twin (or vice versa).  So even people who don’t model – and get the bunk of their tones with pedals of one type or another – end up compromising when it comes to tone.  If you’re playing through a Fender you might get a Marshall-ish tone, but it’s not going to stack up side by side to a Marshall going through a 4×12.  In managing my own expectations the my goal eventually shifted to getting a useable tone  (in this case with a Marshall as a bench mark).  If your expectation with modeling is that it’s going to sound exactly like a Bogner through your $100 practice amp – you’re going to be disappointed.

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Having said that, this unit has some really good sounds.  A lot of the tricks that I developed to get around limitations in the X3, or Pod Farm are actually not necessary in the HD because the base amp sounds are that much better.

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  • Plan on being patient.  There are more useful presets on the HD than I found on either Pod Farm or the X3, but that’s still not saying much.  There are some good patches out there and a number of good online tips. Glen DeLaune’s site is a great place to start for dirty and clean tones.  He also has a you tube channel with a number of clips that can help setting up patches as well.
  • Even with good patches, you should plan on sitting down and tweaking things to taste and then tweaking for other contexts.  My headphones are largely useless in helping me get a tone that works with my amp, so I have to plan on a couple of different tonal contexts.  But honestly, while I can record direct – the tone from my amp is the only one I’m really concerned with here.
  • Save Often!!  None of the patches take up a lot of memory – so save multiple tweaks of each patch that way you can go back over time and find alternate versions of patches if you need them.

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Second – the tones between units aren’t compatible.  The Pod HD 300 or 400 tones won’t import into the 500 directly.  That does seem a little myopic to me – but the good news is that you can download the HD edits for any of the units and run them without hardware.  When I found a HD 400 Plexi patch I liked – I just downloaded it, opened it up in the HD 400 Edit and then just manually copied the patch elements into the 500 for tweaking.

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Third – the volume and wah assignments aren’t automatic and are counter intuitive to me on a number of patches.  Having said that, they’re not that difficult to set up.  One thing I did was to save a patch with all my routing up and then build other patches around that set up to save time.

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Fourth – The DSP issue.  I think that some real world tests should have been done to make sure that the POD could handle any configuration of effects in the 8 slots they have.  There’s a great PDF (Thanks Fester2k!!) that shows how the models and FX use DSP.  Some are just more hoggish than others.  The particle verb sounds great – but you’re going to have to compromise some things if you want more than one in the chain.

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Fifth – The signal chain is very flexible (and the new GUI for editing is slick).  The expression pedal being used as a straight volume pedal takes up an FX slot – BUT if you assign the expression pedal to an amp volume parameter you can control the volume with no hits to the number of FX slots.  I suppose you could assign the expression pedal to a sweepable tone control on the amp for a makeshift wah, but since neither of these effects use a lot of DSP  for most people it won’t be an issue.

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A neat trick I grabbed from the Gear net forums is that you can use the FX send as a volume boost by just plugging a ¼“ cable into the FX send/receive and boosting the level on the FX Send.  This is a good trick for Pad or FX heavy sounds without an amp to boost the signal and can also work as a clean solo boost.

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Amps:

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In the POD HD series, a lot has been made about the smaller number of amps.  Personally, I only use 4-5 amps in POD Farm anyway so the number isn’t an issue if the quality is there, and by and large I think it is.  The fenders sound really good to my ears, and you can even push them to get them to break up like a real Fender would.  The Gibson is cool and the Vox and Supro are nice touches as well.

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In terms of distortion, I find that a number of the amps break up in a musical way and react to picking dynamics much more so than the X3 or POD Farm.  I can clean up some of the Marshall models by rolling the volume back and then punch it to distort at full bore.  VERY COOL.   The JCM 800 works really well for me live.  The park does some nice things as well as the J45.  A lot of people rave about the Dr Z…I haven’t gotten it do do what I want – but it’s a cool addition.  For metal (and metalish variations) – the mesa works really well.  The sound just cuts through everything.  The Line 6 Elektrik model can get comically over the top as well.

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There are some nice contrasts between the pre-amp only models and the actual full amp versions.  One BIG benefit to the full amp models is the ability to tweak Master, Sag, Hum, Bias, and Bias eXcursion.  Particularly on the distorted models, being able to adjust the Master and Sag make tone adjustments that range from subtle to blatant.  The downside is using some models of the full amps will cause a spike in DSP use and may make the overload screen pop up.  Line 6 did a streaming video with some GREAT information on all of these parameters (tech talk starts around 24:00).

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Cabinets and Mics:

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The biggest complaint people on the forums would like to address is that they can’t upload their own IRs to use with the amps.  You can bypass the cabs and mikes on the 500 and if I were recording direct in the studio, I might be looking more in this option.   But since I’m looking at more of an all-in-one option, and running all of these into my atomic,  I think a number of the cabs sound fine for my purposes.  Being able to load IR’s would be nice but would also put a substantial tax on the processor – and I’d rather have things running the way that they are.  That being said, I’m not always happy with what I hear through headphones – but I run the patches studio direct into my Atomic and some of the amp/mic combinations work really well.

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FX:

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It is pretty easy to max out the processor, but some of the Fx sound really good.  Most people on the forums would like additional options for drives, gates, etc.  and I suspect we’ll see more of those over time.  In the meantime, you can certainly get useable sounds out of the Fx/amp combination pretty quickly.  There are certain sounds on Pod Farm I REALLY wanted to get out of this unit that I just can’t.  The Fx are too different and I run out of DSP too quickly.  Having said that, I have some Fx patches on this unit I can’t get out of my Pod Farm – even with all the other sounds.  So it’s a fair trade off to me.  You’re limited to DSP power but you can run multiple instances of pedals as well.  A good thing in my book.   The expression pedal can be routed to any fx parameters as well, so for example you could go from a dry clean sound to an ambient one just by fading in the verbs, delays or whatever other effects you have on the pedal.

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Looper:

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The looper was one of the things that excited me the most about this unit.  It doesn’t have anything near the complexity of something like SooperLooper, but is functional for stacking loops.  It does have some eq and recording volume options for loop recording that help with the stacking options.  A big part of what I do with looping involves bringing loops in and out of the mix with what I’m playing but since there’s no editable parameter for loop volume (i.e. being able to use an expression pedal to adjust wet/dry volume levels of the loop volume); it’s something that I can’t really use too much right now.  Hopefully this will get addressed in a future update (along with allowing the external ¼” expression pedal jack to be routed to a 3rd expression pedal just to control loop levels).

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On the stock setting, the switches convert their functions to looper parameters (record/overdub, start/stop, 1/2 speed, reverse, etc).  So if you’re using the bottom row of switches to bank through sounds and  want to switch tones on a loop, you’ll have to turn the looper switch off (the loop will keep running), and then switch from there.  This also means that you have to turn the loop switch back on to turn the looper off.
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The looper has 2 modes, post and pre.  In post, it records the entire signal chain.  Generally, this is probably the setting you want to use.  In the pre-mode the looper records the dry signal, and processes it through what ever patches you are switching between.   Having said that, by using the looper in the pre mode, you can loop a riff and then switch it between patches or tweak the sound of a patch without having to play it endlessly.

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The only other drag I can think of right now is that none of the looper parameters can be edited in the current HD edit.  It would be nice to have a global feature on the edit that also included a parameter for the looper.

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Using it with the Atomic:

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This is where I think this unit really shines.  On POD Farm, there were a number of factors that I had to use to determine how the unit would sound.  Most of the distortions only sounded useable to me at 96k (which put a huge tax on the system), and even then patches at low volume and higher volume often reacted completely differently.  Sounds that sounded good at an apartment level sounded like crap at stage volume in a club and vice versa.  With the POD HD, everything evened out more live.  I turned it up at the club and really had very little tweaking from bedroom volumes.  Additionally, no one really noticed the lack of the laptop sonically, so it was a big victory there.  I used it with the 18 watt Atomic for the last Rough Hewn Trio gig, and never had to turn the master volume past 12 o’clock.

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The comparison?

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I’ve read a lot about people comparing this to the Axe fx.  There probably is no comparision.  It doesn’t matter to me much anyways as an Axe Fx II is out of my price range right now.

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In terms of the POD HD:

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  • if you’re trying to cop a specific tone – you might not be happy with any modeler.
  • there are no acoustic sims on the current version.  I’m sure that that’s going to get updated in a future release – but for right now – it’s very much of an electric guitar processor.
  • If you try to go to Guitar Center and play the floor model with stock sounds, you’re probably going to be underwhelmed.


  • If you want a musical tone (and have some patience) there’s plenty that can be squeezed out of this box.
  • You can check the line 6 page – but huge the differences between this and the 400 or the 300 are substantial.  If you need the looper and/or a lot of fx – spend the extra money on the 500.

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I’ve never used pervious firmware versions of the POD HD but everything that I’ve read  has said that this update was substantial.  I can’t help but think that not only is this unit going to get better firmware updates (and more models of everything perhaps) – but that the Pod Farm HD version is going to be pretty much untouchable.

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Accessories:

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The Pod doesn’t come with a gig bag or case, so you’ll need some way to carry it.  I have a gator gig bag I used for the Pod X3, that fits the unit.   The pedal board option is more enticing, but good quality boards are expensive.  Rondo Music has an inexpensive flight case that would fit the unit.  But it’s still probably going to set you back at least $100 with tax and S/H.

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Lately, I’m been more inclined to mount it, the power supply and all of the cables on pedal board and spend the extra buck on something like this and just be able to carry everything in one bag.  You could probably get something similar at a thrift store for $10-$20 and then be able to take it on a plane with you as well.

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Thanks for reading.

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-SC

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GEAR

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