Line 6 and digital modeling guitar systems are nearly synonymous. Line 6 did not evolve from solid state, or tube amps. The Line 6 story starts with digital guitar amps with unheard-of capability and ease of use from day one.  The first commercially successful digital guitar combo was the Line 6 AxSys 2×12. The following year (1998) the AX-2 replacement/upgrade came to market. It was an imposing piece of high-tech gear, with more LEDs and controls than Mr. Spock had access to on the USS Enterprise.

Learning off its capabilities was an exciting, and unbelievable time:

What did you say, sir? I don’t think I heard you right.  It’s a Tweed narrow panel Deluxe as well as a Black Face Deluxe, AC30, Plexi, JTM45, Dual Rectifier and Supro Thunderbolt, and a bunch more? It has a built in echoplex, and what else? Begging at look at the back, gave away no secrets. Only a coiled-up power cable, and speaker. No Tubes, no tape, and no magic wand or top hat and rabbit, either.

The now forever legendary and game changing Pod hit the market soon after. Just about anyone who was enjoying the digital home recording boom, or even wanted a better silent practice experience bought one. It may have been the most commonly seen single piece of gear of the times. People lined up for every accessory to come along with it. This may be the last piece of outboard gear I need! Even the Pods carry bag sold out in advance orders. The Po’ went anyplace your guitar did. It was 16 amps and 16 effects types in one small unit. In its day, it was simply unheard off.

A foot controller is an added advantage with any system with such flexibility, and Line 6 always offered something extra with its add-ons. A new term had to be coined. Line 6 made Floorboards. The only controllers compatible with Line 6 was a Line 6 device, connected with a telephone cable. The reward was not only a great user interface but specialized control, and extra features unlocked.

Line 6 has continued to grow, and improve, in its stand-alone amps (hardware), and newly indispensable software, like Amp-farm.  The Line 6 Vetta arrived in 2002, making the AX-2 look like a row boat next to the Q.E II. In 2019, the Line 6 experience remains much the same: Forward thinking ahead of the curve guitar tone solutions that work best as a complete set. Line 6 leaves out nothing you will need, and gives you more than you imagined.

Line 6 continues to improve in quantity of modeling, loudness/efficacy/cabinet, mic, and room simulators, as well keeping the learning curve, and user interface with the player user friendly and intuitive.

The real revolution in amps was happening in an ironically quieter setting. In the hands of the Guitar players, recording engineers and pro-level producers, never before was capturing the sound of expensive vintage and boutique amps cranked to the max, so easy to capture on record.

Along with the constantly improving combo amp catalog, smaller, more but huge in function devices like the guitar port, unlocked the potential of the home computer.

While the guitar playing world was getting acquainted with digital technology, two camps developed. The player looking for an extremely diverse all-inclusive stage amp and the player with writing, practicing, and recording in mind. Today, either path taken has led to the Line 6 Helix Systems.

As long as time marches on, it can never be said that anything is the last piece of tech you’ll ever need, but Helix is most certainly a milestone. Helix is a family of products that can be used with your existing amp, pedals, or multi-FX units, or as a complete replacement of every pre-amplified part of your rig(s).

Understanding Helix Devices

It’s important to know what the Helix is and how it works before rushing in, and assuming it’s just the latest and most powerful multi FX/Modeler from Line 6. We all know that each classic amp has its own unique tone, and fingerprint. The Player is surely the most notable part of any rig. The Guitar(s) chosen is obviously decisive in the tone you create. Sometimes, when our large guitar collection vastly outnumbers our amps, we almost forget that the amp is half of the total package, after the player. The Helix can be used with a standard guitar amp, but to unlock its full potential, Helix replaces the conventional guitar amp.  The mere though may send chills down the spine of any old school vintage amp purist, but not only should you not fear (Line 6 is not coming from your Vintage Fender Tweed deluxe as you sleep), but take a close look and see what you’ve been missing. Before we go on, Helix CAN be used with a conventional amp either with the 4 cable effects loop method, or right through the front door, like the worlds smartest stomp box.

The Helix is one system broken down into a few different configurations, based on your needs.

Systems like Helix, Kemper and others may force us to coin a new term for “amp”. Digital simulations, or modeled amps refer to the Pre and Post amplified signal. The standard abbreviation for guitar combos or heads is Amp based on the power section alone, not the primary tone generating preamp amplifier and speaker systems as a whole. The guitarist has entered a world of never before possible combinations.

Function And Features Of Helix

Helix features 72-amp models, 37 speaker cabinet models, 16 cabinet mic simulations, and… ready?

192 pedal effects. Let that sink in a second. Ready? Ok. One single device offers more in one package, than most of the world’s best equipped studios, and Mega stores have on hand at any given time.

As a modern guitarist, we have seen multi-functional gear in the past, including 5 channel tube amps, cab simulators, and multi-effects in the past. A closer look is important to understand the difference.

Helix Systems tech is modeling reinvented. If the last time you played a modeling amp was back in the Flextone days, you are in for a surprise.  Not only are the sounds closer to the host amps, but the feel, and other quirky inconsistencies with more organic tube tech are present.  You can actually hear and feel tube rectifier sag, variable power level outlets, along with touch sensitivity, and volume control clean up. In short, the tone and feel of classic, expensive, rare, sometimes un-relabel and impossible to store amps under one roof amps are at your beck and call. The realism is remarkable, even to the most storied players, and seasoned collectors. Imagine all the possibilities at hand (or, more likely…foot) of pairing heads with cabinet sims and effects, in seldom, or never before used ways. What does a ’65 deluxe reverb sound like paired with a pair of AlNiCo blue speakers, famous for the sparkle in a vintage Jennings Vox AC/30? How about a Mesa Mark IV, matched up with a tweed Bassman’s screaming complement of 4x10s? You don’t need to be the Dr. Frankenstein of amps to find all the tones that you may require. Helix, is ready to tweak and store your 3 or 4 favorites, or make the many, many, sounds in your head (no, please continue to ignore the voices), come to life, with remarkable sound and feel.

Helix is laid out like a pedal board (something all guitar players understand). All your amp choices, amp settings, and cabinet pairing are laid out, along with you pedal effects, channel switching, and loops. Got a migraine yet? Don’t fear. It really is easy. Most players use only a few settings. This might be because in the past, it was not so easy to switch up amps, pedals of cabs with such ease. It may also be that you only require a few carefully selected tones. Helix doesn’t care. It gives you what you ask for, from a one-eyed Joe, to a ‘dammed if I know’.  Want ultra-gained out modern tone, in six degrees of saturation, and six different delays? Ok with Helix. Want a Sparkling clean 60’s Fender Twin, with an Echoplex for cleans and a 100-watt Plexi paired a 15-watt bluebell (without blowing the speaker cone into low orbit), for your lead tone? Hell, add a Klon up front! No prob. If you want a totally different set up for open mic night, or your cover band, Helix has you covered, fast and easy. Program at home, or just as easily adjust on the spot. You won’t ever need to bank-up from preset 12, to preset 82 for you sound, while band mates and audience members toss rotten fruit, while you hold up the show.

Quality of tone, ease of use, and more versatility than you’ll likely ever fully exploit, is the purpose and heart of Helix. Before the simple user interface is explored, the guitarist, and bassist should note that whatever sound is created and realized at home, or inn the studio, is instantly available in a live setting.

A powered speaker cabinet*, PA monitor, or even ear buds will allow you to hear yourself play, without blowing the roof of the ‘ole Chicken shack bar, house of worship, or theater that you are playing at.

Controlling Helix

Don’t fear! Helix Floor has over 20 controls, but so does your Dual Rectifier or TSL-100, not to mention the 40 something controls on the front panel of the fantastic Mesa MK V. Helix has a 6.5-inch bright LCD display, to help you visualize your rig. Everything else works like gear the average player is already accustomed to using. Choose from one, two, or a sets worth of amp/cab/effects, and tweak controls just like an old school stomp box.  Touch sensitive foot controls allow you to make adjustments fast and easy.  Tap the corresponding footswitch, and and turn up the gain, or turn down the delay, or even switch amps with the expression pedal. Hell, you don’t even have to stop playing. Line 6 touts that any player will have complete access and understanding of 90% of Helixes nearly unfathomable dexterity, within the first 5 minutes of using it. Should you choose to use any analog stop boxes, you can integrate and control them with Helix Floor. With 4 effects loops, 2 XLR outputs, 2 ¼ inch outputs, MIDI, USB, S/PIDF on the back panel, connectivity to live/studio consoles, MAC/PC, passive and active speaker cabs, anything is possible.  Line 6 even adds outputs for two extra expression pedals, input for passive or active guitar or bass, and Variax.  The old school ground/polarity switch? Yup, it’s got one of those too.

The Line 6 Helix Floorboard is the Flagship of the Helix systems. It’s built like a tank, down to the expression pedals. This is not a plastic toy. Helix is a tour worthy pro-level complete tone solution.  If you prefer, a rack mounted version, (Helix Rack) with optional Floor board (Helix control) can be set on top of a speaker cab, or tucked away in the studio.

Helix System Options

Helix Floor and Helix Rack are designed as complete systems. In order to make the most of the carefully modeled tones, its best to work with a power section that will not color the tone. Of course, the choice is yours. Line 6 offers the *Powercab series of full range powered cabinets, specifically tailored for use with complete modeling solutions, like Helix, up to the 2×12+ 500 watt powered monster.

The Helix family covers the Rack and floor versions, as well as Helix LT, for a slightly abbreviated version of the lager unit. The tones and sound quality are the same, without the complete set of switching options that may be overkill for some players needs. It’s also a little smaller, and lighter.

Helix HX Stomp is a tiny wonder.  77 amps models, 37 cab sims, 200 effects, jammed into a tiny 7-inch-wide box. 3 touch sensitive Helix foot switches, allow for 126 preset tones. Taking up the space of about two MXR style stomp boxes, the HX stomp can be a small pedalboard footprint, or replace your bulky rig entirely. Like Its big brother Helix Floor, it can be run with the 4-cable system, or right into your amps input. Yup, it has MIDI, USB, Headphone, and traditional ¼ inch jacks.  Try and fit 300 amps, cabs, and effects into the pouch of your gig bag, without Helix HX stomp.

Not everyone wants to give up their entire amp collection, but still would love to take part in the flexibility, and nearly unlimited effects offered by Helix.  The HX Effects is for the player that wants a nearly unlimited range of pedal effects, without the amp and speaker models included. The same Helix definition and realism is present in Helix FX. Every analog quirk and flutter duplicated, and it’s as easy to adjust as your old stomp box. If you want to keep your beloved 1972 Foxx Tone Machine and priceless Italian made Clyde McCoy wah employed, simply route it through one of HX Effects two effects loops.  Choose from and edit over 100 different effects. Run up to 9 effects simultaneously, all controlled by 6 of the same kind of touch sensitive, foot controls the top line Helix floor provides. If you want to create ambient sound-scapes, or have 6 versions of one pedal on tap, you are in. Run it simple, or route it 9 ways to Sunday. The same kind of on the fly editing, bright LED readouts, and connectivity options will keep you busy being creative, instead of busy trying to figure out where you are.

Helix systems massive and near endless tones, and capabilities allow the most subtle tweaks, to 180-degree turnaround in sounds. You can spend hours seeking untried combinations, or mere seconds adjusting for an un-pleasant backline surprise.  Line 6 even has purpose-built gig bags for on-the-go to the studio, club date, house of worship, or even to avoid the tattered old tuck and roll one trick pony at open mic night.  All the tone you love is only as far away as Helix, and your imagination. Why not always be at your best?

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.