Bringing the Studio to the Stage! for guitarists

You may have noticed a theme, (that I myself didn’t notice till various manufacturers and friends at NAMM 2018 pointed it out to me) unifying my posts on social media, various forums and even this website lately:

The idea and desire to bring every bit of processing power, DSP, routing philosophy and switching functionality that we enjoy in the recording studio, to our onstage guitar setups.

These include:

  • Your ultimate signal chain you’d use on a mix, without regard to processing power, latency, frequency range and dynamic range response of the playback equipment or other limiting factors
  • Switching between these sounds with no gaps, dropouts, glitches, or delay
  • Controlling the internal parameters of these sounds in an intuitive way (auto engagement of wah pedals as a glaring example)
  • Having every dream rig you ever even imagined available at the touch of a footswitch
  • Being able to have both a perfect monitoring sound onstage as well as your ideal sound projected to the audience from the PA system

The Basics

The very basics of this system would be your guitar, whatever system would be handling the inputs and outputs and the DSP involved (be it a computer or multiFX pedal or modeling amp or mobile device, even your phone!), some way to control it (likely a pedalboard), and the ways to amplify this for monitoring and get it out to the PA system

Design Philosophy

Ideally, especially due to the inherent rule of Murphy’s law and the perceived and often justified unreliability of computer systems, I would like to have the simplest, most foolproof setup possible

My “One Wire iOS FRFR setup” article is a prime example

As wireless as possible would be nice, and I include power wires in this. If it can be battery powered by rechargables, so much the better

An example of one of the possible components would be my Wireless, Battery Powered FCB1010 article

Portability is another big factor. You don’t want to be THAT GUY that takes 20 minutes to set up and still sounds like crap. You don’t want to be that guy that every soundman puts on blast to his peers.

The Two Path Philosophy!

Central to this whole endeavour, is the Two Path Philosophy: In short, there will be an onstage monitoring path, in the role traditionally filled by the guitar amplifier, and a Front of House path, where your signal goes to the PA system. Depending on the actual hardware used, these two paths may need drastically different signals, for instance, a traditional guitar amplifier used for monitoring will want a signal without any speaker simulation on it, while the PA system will absolutely require a cabinet sound to be present. This is a HUGE consideration, and one that the Marketing Machine will ignore or lie about time and again.

If you are coming from an audio engineering background, you will doubtlessly be aware of the constant bombardment of snake oil salesmen, scammers and the nonstop attempt of the Marketing Machine to separate you from your money. I have to warn you, that the guitar world is even worse. Its a mix of the willfully ignorant and deliberately deceptive and finding real answers can be an exercise in tilting at windmills. Good luck, you have been warned.

The Components

Here are the basic components in some detail, some or most of these may or may not be combined into a single unit, so take this for what its worth

Guitar to Interface

This part could be as simple as a guitar cable to your interface. In my case, I usually have a wireless with the receiver velcro’d to my FRFR speaker, which also has electrical power, the interface and the DI velcro’d or hot glued to it.

Interface

The way to get your guitar signal into the DSP system. This will usually be a combination of analog to digital converters, digital to analog converters, some sort of interface topology for your computer or mobile device, like USB or Lightning, and hopefully some monitoring and control facilities, like output volume controls (don’t laugh, a lot of them don’t have this basic feature!).

If you are using a modeling combo or MultiFX pedalboard, this could also include the interface. Some of them also include the switching functionality. Some of them can also be used AS a computer/mobile device interface either instead of or even WITH the unit’s internal DSP. (Pod XT Live comes to mind, it has a MIDI controller built in for footswitching, a real ASIO interface over USB and a lot of internal DSP). Many of these devices have an interface for the computer over USB but their drivers and control software do not truly allow you to replace their internal chain (such as the Line 6 Firehawk and Line 6 Amplifi 150) sadly.

Standard 2 channel computer interfaces

In general (and this could change) most people will be looking at the standard 2 channel computer interface for this.

Considerations:

  • The most often picked models will have a DI input of some sort to minimize the amount of gear you need to carry. Again dealing with portability, the simpler the better!
  • This can seem small at this point, but can yield a big stick live, is whether or not the interface includes a hardware output volume knob
  • Direct monitoring: manufacturers of crappy drivers make all sorts of a big deal about this function, but its useless in our case. Any interface under consideration MUST be able to defeat the direct monitoring function, we definitely don’t want (in almost any case), the unprocessed guitar signal running out the outputs in parallel with the processed signal
  • Round Trip latency – This is usually the be all end all, though in real world testing, people are nowhere near as sensitive to reasonable latency as the Marketing Machine and forum trolls would have you believe. I made a Round Trip Latency chart with contributions from users around the world. This is a good resource to compare interfaces, and though it could be seen as a correlation/causation fallacy, I have found, almost without exception, that the faster drivers are more reliable and less resource hungry. Take that to the bank
  • Connectivity – Eeek, due to the competing standards of the FRFR systems’ inputs, and the adaptability issues you can run into with anything aside from XLR, this can be sketchy. For the most part you are going to see 1/4″ females for the output of these interfaces, though some will have XLR (yay! assuming your FRFR has XLR inputs) or unfortunately RCA. Some will only have an output on a stereo 1/4″ meant as a headphone output. Also check just which outputs the previously mention output volume knob controls, it may not be the one you were hoping for
  • Distortion – This can be another biggie. A lot of these interface choices absolutely cannot handle the output of hotter guitar pickups. Some distort in the analog realm, no matter where you set the input gain. Some go over 0dBFS even at the lowest gains, but do not appear to distort in the analog realm

Here are some specific USB interfaces that are commonly seen for our purposes:

Shown also are the Round Trip Latency numbers at 512, 256, 128 and 64 samples. Yes, some can go lower, but that’s largely academic. A lot of the DSP we will be using has an RT CPU processing time around 2 milliseconds so anything under that could be irrelevant. It all depends on what you are doing with the signal

The Top Tier:

These are the three with really low RTL figures, and generally highest regarded (rightly or wrongly)

RME has long set the standard when it comes to drivers and performance, regardless of how much the Marketing Machine would love to replace them. Usually RME and MOTU are going neck and neck, but unfortunately, MOTU’s USB performance seems to trail far, far behind.  This model has XLR outs, MIDI, onboard meters, and a nice fat volume knob, It also has a not so nice, big, fat, 750 dollar price

This model comes highly recommended across reputable sources, though I haven’t tried it personally. It has MIDI, 1/4″ outs on separate jacks, and a big, fat, obvious volume knob. $250

This device’s RTL numbers justify its inclusion to this particular category. I haven’t tried one myself, and the amount of hype surrounding this company, and what sure seems to be Marketing Machine saturation has made me highly skeptical, but the numbers look good. Separate 1/4″ output jacks and a nice, big volume knob. $200

Commonly used models:

The ubiquitous Focusrite units really dominate this market. Forever locked in a war with Presonus over this particular chunk of the userbase, Focusrite’s commitment to user support really seems to help tip the scales in their favor. You will likely be able to find Focusrite products wherever you go and there are always deals online for bundles with these products, in case you need to add recording studio considerations to your purchase as well as the guitar stuff we are focused on here. The 2i2 has separate 1/4″ outs, while the Solo has RCA’s. Both have a nice volume knob and a switch to defeat the direct monitoring. $150 for the 212, $100 for the Solo. Where these seem to fall behind is the RTL at 256 samples, they definitely hold their own at 128. Definitely worth adding to the Focusrite offerings here is the 2i4, which brings MIDI I/O and balanced line outs on separate 1/4″ to the table, at $180

Yep, Behringer. The drivers for these two in particular are actually pretty good! I warn you in the strongest terms not to assume the same for other Behringer drivers. Many require you to use ASIO4All instead. Both units have separate 1/4″ outs and volume knobs, with the 204 adding MIDI I/O. While at extreme low latency settings the focusrite drivers are ahead, at 256 samples, the Behringer drivers pull ahead. $60 dollars for the 202 and $80 dollars for the 204

There are tons and tons of other USB interfaces out there, and if one really screams out at me, I’ll be sure to list it

iOS interfaces

You might well want to read my guide to iOS interfaces for some detail

Sonoma Wireworks StudioJack Mini/GuitarJack Stage – These are the gold standard in iOS interfaces at the moment. HEALTHY output levels, pristine sound quality, stable drivers, lightning powered, with actual stereo outputs, and pass through charging. SJM has stereo outs on a single 1/4″ TRS, while the GJS has separate 1/4″ outs. Unlike most of the rest, these units can handle the Dual Path Philosophy on 1/4″, which can be a real life saver. GuitarJack Stage adds switching and realtime parameter control over MIDI to the equation, plus an expression pedal input. StudioJack Mini goes for $150 while GuitjarJack Stage can be found for $300. iOS has a lot lot lot of limitations for our purposes, the Sonoma Wireworks interfaces certainly help as much as they can to get around them. There are other interfaces out there for iOS, but these two come extremely highly recommended. ASIO drivers let these interfaces double as USB computer interfaces for Windows and OSX as well.

IK Multimedia iRig HD2 – These are probably going to be the most common interfaces you’ll see and come at a decent price. The 1/4″ output is mono, though it does have stereo outs on 1/8″. No ASIO drivers, though it does work with extremely long latency with ASIO4All. $100

DSP System

The “computer” used for processing. Play your guitar thru your interface, interface sends a signal to the computer, the computer modifies your sounds, send it back out through the interface into the speakers for you and your audience to hear.

MultiFX combos and MultiFX pedalboards fall in this category, but for the most part, they are too limited on their own for our purposes here. We’re really looking at two platforms at this time: Desktop/Laptops running Windows and OSX or tablets running iOS.

iOS

Although it could be argued that iOS was really first to the party, and that the saturation of iDevices on the market means that apps and hardware would be plentiful and well evolved, in reality the iOS system is far, far behind the laptop offerings. While there is AudioUnits, sort of, there is no VST, or VST type system to route, process and modify audio between applications. InterAppAudio and AudioBus do actually perform some of these functions, but not in as meaningful a way as you would probably expect at this stage in time. Audio apps are not really developed with real world, onstage use in mind, and their lack of market knowledge really shows in many painful ways.

All that said, you might still be perfectly happy with what’s available out there.

Newer iPad models are certainly powerful enough to handle the processing you want to do.

Sadly, though they were so early to the market, Amplitube for iOS is a pathetic shell of its VST or standalone laptop version. You may find Tonestack as a decent approximation though (and it comes with some cool tricks of its own). Bias and BiasFX work almost the same as their standalone laptop versions do (minus the painful exclusion of Impulse Response loaders, though they will load amps made on the laptop with impulses baked in), though these two processes really benefit from the help of other VSTs and DAW’s internal routing to really make a complete package. There are a few IR loaders you can run inside AudioBus or IAA, but I found them to be far too sketchy for reliable use.

Both Tonestack and BiasFX have workarounds, although very limited, that can get them to Two Path outputs. Tonestack has a splitter and you can put a speaker cabinet on one path, while the other path can carry a signal with no speaker cabinet. For BiasFX, you can create one Amp with an IR built in for the PA path and another amp with the cabinet bypassed for the guitar amp signal. Recent versions of BiasAmp 2 may have an issue with this, I’ll keep this updated. The Bias Solutions require that you have Bias Amp desktop installed on your laptop or desktop. All of the Two Path issues require that you have an interface with stereo outs in order to implement the solutions, so keep that in mind.

Tonestack brings auto engage for the wah to the table, and FX ranging from usable to full on VST quality. Bias seems to have the same quality of amps, indistinguishable between the iOS and VST.

MIDI implementation across the iOS apps is not exactly something to be jumping for joy over. Again this really feels like a case of the creators not having to use these things live onstage themselves. While certainly workable, for the most part, these fall far, far short of even a 1990’s multiFX pedal system, which is a sad indictment on humanity indeed.

Personally, my iOS setup has Tonestack as the host app with Bias FX run inside it through IAA, as I just can’t quite get the Tonestack amps to sound the way I’d like

Switching System

Monitoring System

Front of House System

Example Systems

Line 6 Pod XT Live as interface and pedalboard

Testing the wah auto auto engage

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The Two Path Philosophy

TL;DR A guitar player needs to think about two paths. One going to a guitar amp, with speaker emulation off, the other going to a PA system, with speaker emulation on. What are some ways to deal with it?

Generally, a guitar player, on stage, has two primary signal paths to worry about;

  1.  The personal monitor path. Traditionally, the guitarists guitar rig, through a guitar amp, the very essence of “your sound”. What you will generally hear onstage at a smaller show, which you can turn up or move closer to to hear more of yourself. At a bigger show, this may be a feed taken in one form or another from your personal rig
  2. The Front Of House path. What the audience hears. At a small enough show, they may only be hearing your actual amp from #1 directly. At a larger show, the audience will mostly be hearing the PA system, which you will feed to the soundman either by micing your amp or various line output schemes.

#1 is usually, or traditionally a guitar amplifier of some kind. These tend to be narrow frequency range speakers, a number of 12″ speakers the vast majority of the time. For modelling systems like the Firehawk, the Axe FX, BIAS, The REAPER Live Pedalboard project, Headrush, all manner of old Digitech units, Boss, etc, you would feed this type of amplifier a full range signal, unmodified by any sort of speaker emulation, as the 12″ speaker in this rig will be doing all the speaker emulation the old fashioned way.

#2 Is where we usually get into trouble. In the dinosaur era, and still done by some Luddites today (or when a company makes an EXTREMELY boneheaded engineering mistake, like in the case of the Line 6 Amplifi 150, where they don’t stick a line output on a modelling amp), is to mic this rig and send the signal to the PA system. In modern times, we would normally take an “emulated output” from the rig and send that to the PA. This line output would necessarily need a speaker emulation of some sort, or you will just end up with a gross, fizzy mess.

Combo Amps compatible with The Two Path Philosophy on their own

Blackstar TVP 260 (can also function as a powered FRFR)

Fender Mustang III v2 – sort of

Pedalboards compatible with The Two Path Philosophy on their own

Line 6 HD500X – Seems to be able to do this by using a dual amp path. You’d give up a bit of DSP, but certainly looks doable

Line 6 Helix/Helix LT – This unit seems to be designed with this particular setup in mind, and actually seems to offer a few different ways to skin this cat

Standalone software compatible with The Two Path Philosophy

Tonestack (iOS) – Not exactly seemingly designed with this in mind, but there are ways to trick it into working

Bias FX (iPad, Windows, OSX[I think]) – With its dual path you can work it, though you will be giving up some abilities

Line 6 Firehawk FX Review

As usual, I start with the caveat, that I happily acknowledge that the Marketing Machine already has piles of reviews out there that tell you the things they want you to hear. They usually don’t tell you the things you actually need to know. My experience in the industry has shown time and again where so many “reviews” are tied to paid ads, or in the worst cases, actually paid for. I’ll try and give you, the rest of the story.

I really don’t think, as usual, that I need to repeat all the descriptions and explanations given by all the existing glowing reviews out there, so if you find that I’m missing lots of key points, know that they are available in many other sources. Again, I will try and focus on things that the average guitar player will need to know about using this thing on stage. Things like variax ports or whatever, you can read about elsewhere.

Right off the bat, for the TL;DR, I have to say that you need to be 100% aware, no matter what else is said, that this unit CANNOT, on its own, be used for live use in the way that most would assume (going to a guitar amp onstage for monitoring and to the PA system simultaneously while carrying the proper signals). Again, this is NOT a dual path unit. There are some potential workarounds, but if this was your goal, you can stop reading, in its current form, it cannot do this.

So what is this thing? A multiFX pedalboard for guitars, offering the usual pile of presets and bank switching. Plug your guitar in, send the outputs to your amp or PA or recording system

Firehawk FX has an onboard expression pedal and a port for another expression pedal, a USB port, two 1/4″ outs, two XLRm outs, Stereo headphone outs on 1/4″, and a stereo FX Loop (that, through software, can be moved to different places in the signal chain!)

There is a top panel feature here that I think bears worthy of special mention, as its absence in so many other devices leads to no end of usage problems – an actual output volume knob! Yes, it seems like a basic feature, and those who are used to my normal posts in the field of studio engineering will be like “well duh”…but I kid you not, this is rare enough an inclusion that I really must praise and thank Line 6 for adding it (often, even their, other devices don’t have this). This volume can be pushed to change the volume of the guitar path vs the aux path and can be pushed to a third state which modifies “Channel Volume”

The onboard expression pedal can be assigned to wahs, volume, whammy (and this works rather well, an effect that often fails on other devices in the Firehawk’s class), and feels like it tracks very well to me. However, it is EXTREMELY hard to switch….Maybe not as hard as the Pod XT Live, but I don’t think most people will be able to engage this while sitting down. I’m looking into mods for this problem ASAP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update: Gluing a little washer to the top of the switch made this nice and comfortable and easy to switch. Be sure to calibrate your expression pedal after doing this!

Here’s a video another Firehawk FX user made to deal with the problem

How does it sound?

The sounds, in general, sound great to me. I was quickly able to find amps, cabs, and fx that I wanted, and really didn’t feel like I was missing anything basic, in terms of individual FX (except, holy mother of a sonless goat, EQ!!! EQ, I kid you not!), though as a system, there definitely felt like some missing FX or functions.

I read a lot about how much people hated the cabinets, but once I was able to hook up to some analyzers for some apples to apples comparisons, I found the cabinets very decent indeed, and wouldn’t even want to bother with impulses, except for a GLARING set of MAJOR usability problems caused by the cabinet location being tied to the amplifier effect block. Getting to these comparisons was difficult, as the actual USB interface is not the fully featured setup in the POD units I have tried or the Line 6 standalone audio interfaces, but the crappy one that the Amplifi uses. It is reasonably fast, I’ll see if I can get some numbers for my Round Trip Latency Roundup

 

 

 

 

 

Firehawk FX’s Vintage 30 cab vs my Celestion V30 impulse. The speaker cabinet sounds on this unit will definitely NOT be the thing holding you back

Once plugged into an FRFR system (I tried the Blackstar TVP260, my recording interface setup and an Alto TS-210, and various other amps, including Mustang 3v2, SWR Workingman, and Amplif 150), and I know how many Line 6 tone haters there are out there, but for me at least, it sounds BEAUTIFUL. Using two computers, a loop and some analyzer programs, I was quickly able to get a distortion sound similar to my favorite custom Bias 5150/V30 combo and really, really wonderful clean sounds. Really. Extremely impressed and overjoyed. I know there’s tons of people who hate these sounds, but whatever. I couldn’t be happier with these tones (unless I had to use them onstage in real life, but that’s not the sounds’ fault, its the functionality)

Some problem areas are that the EQ is in a fixed position and cannot be placed between the amp and cabinet, nor in front of the amp. There is no other true EQ FX block available (though there is a fixed boost and tone effect that may be able to do what you want). This is kind of sad, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t get perfectly good sounds out of it anyway. The fixed compressor is post amplifier, which can be extremely problematic, as its gain can only go UP from unity, precluding its use as a channel volume (more on this later), but there are other compressors available, though I’m not sure if a single one of them has a threshold control (come on!). The wah is in a fixed position which may or may not bother people…It was kind of a bummer in front of the tube screamer, but given the plethora of wah choices, you could still get some cool sounds out of it.

The Harmonizer:

I love harmonizers. They do an amazing job of exposing the strengths and weaknesses of a design, and can really show off a coders chops. By their very nature they can take a lot of processing time, CPU use, or both. In testing of plugins and processes, we often think of these as “latency generators”. If a developer messes up signal path considerations, harmonizers make them stand out like a sore thumb.

When I say “harmonizer” I don’t refer to what the Marketing Machine calls harmonizers, I call those “chromatic pitch shifters”. To me a harmonizer asks for an interval and a key, and keeps those notes in the legal range of the key you specify.

Ideally, a harmonizer will receive its pitch detector from the guitar’s input. Often this will be filtered for more accurate detection. The harmonizer’s actual audio input will be whatever the regular chain presents to it and it will apply its magic based on the value the pitch detector reads. A lot like sidechaining a bass guitar compressor from a kick drum input on the detector. Often, one of the best sounding ways to do this is to split the signal at the harmonizer before any amplifier so that the dry input goes to one  amplifier and the pitch shifted output goes to another amplifier. If the shift is done after the amp (and worse if the detection is done after the amp), all of the artefacts generated by the amp will be shifted as well, resulting in “chipmunk-ization”, really goofy high frequency sounds akin to the “space monkeys” problem with early mp3 CODECs.

The Firehawk feature the Smart Harmony block, similar (not sure if its exactly the same or not) to the HD500X and the Helix. This is a true harmonizer, asking for both interval and key. Due to the Firehawk’s single path nature, the Harmonizer has to go AFTER the amplifier (you could put it before the amp, but then you’d just end up with a muddy chord, as both the original and the harmonized note would go into it at the same time). However, this works way better than you might expect! Tracking is excellent! Of course the nasty upshifted artefacts from the amplifier will be there, and honestly, don’t play very nice with that same area from the original pitch’s amplifier output signal.

The way this is normally dealt with, is to put the harmonizer between the amplifier output and the cabinet input, as the cabinet’s natural low pass filtering effect will deal nicely with a lot of this….not as good as putting the harmonizer before the amp, but still pretty good

Unfortunately, effects blocks cannot be placed between the amplifier and speaker cabinet blocks in the Firehawk. As bad as this is for the harmonizer, it leads to far worse usability problems for a product claimed by so many Marketing Machine “reviews” as being meant for live use. No matter, another way to deal with this is an EQ placed after the harmonizer. This leads to a very unfortunate dulling effect, but a harmonizer patch is by definition pretty effected anyway, so often it will be ok.

Unfortunately, yet again, the EQ block cannot be moved. Its position is after the Amplifier/Cabinet block. As far as I can tell there is no other EQ block on the Firehawk. No I’m not kidding, you have been warned.

You really have a few choices left, none of them very good: You can turn down the highs before the harmonizer. The amplifier has an EQ. The EQ can be low passed. This really results in a weirdly dull sound, but can be ok-ish. Sort of. I have had some OK usage by using the HD Hall Reverb and turning everything to 0%, setting the mix to 100% and then turning the tone control down till its happy.

As bad as this layout design is, I still was able to get a decent harmony, certainly far better than modelling pedalboards of the 1990’s (yeah, 20 years….I don’t know whether to rejoice or cry, but in actuality the price of this thing, around 400 bucks, in today’s dollars, is far, far, far less comparatively, than the 300-500 dollar devices of its type when gas was a dollar a gallon and 500 bucks could buy you a clapped out, beater muscle car. In all honesty, it tracks better, faster and with less artifacts than our old Eventide H3000’s did (yeah I said it).

There is a potential solution, though it will add to complexity and drastically decrease portability, I’ll put a bit more about this below

Dual Path Problems and Output Modes Joke:

I don’t want to go into this much here, as it would be preaching to the choir, but for clarity’s sake: Generally, a guitar player, on stage, has two primary signal paths to worry about;

  1.  The personal monitor path. Traditionally, the guitarists guitar rig, through a guitar amp, the very essence of “my sound”. What you will generally hear onstage at a smaller show, which you can turn up or move closer to to hear more of yourself. At a bigger show, this may be a feed taken in one form or another from your personal rig
  2. The Front Of House path. What the audience hears. At a small enough show, they may only be hearing your actual amp from #1 directly. At a larger show, the audience will mostly be hearing the PA system, which you will feed to the soundman either by micing your amp or various line output schemes.

#1 is usually, or traditionally a guitar amplifier of some kind. These tend to be narrow frequency range speakers, a number of 12″ speakers the vast majority of the time. For modelling systems like the Firehawk, the Axe FX, BIAS, The REAPER Live Pedalboard project, Headrush, all manner of old Digitech units, Boss, etc, you would feed this type of amplifier a full range signal, unmodified by any sort of speaker emulation, as the 12″ speaker in this rig will be doing all the speaker emulation the old fashioned way.

#2 Is where we usually get into trouble. In the dinosaur era, and still done by some Luddites today (or when a company makes an EXTREMELY boneheaded engineering mistake, like in the case of the Line 6 Amplifi 150, where they don’t stick a line output on a modelling amp), is to mic this rig and send the signal to the PA system. In modern times, we would normally take an “emulated output” from the rig and send that to the PA. This line output would necessarily need a speaker emulation of some sort, or you will just end up with a gross, fizzy mess.

TL;DR A guitar player needs to think about two paths. One going to a guitar amp, with speaker emulation off, the other going to a PA system, with speaker emulation on.

Back to the Firehawk. Unlike most properly targeted devices of this type, you can only pick one of these. But it gets weirder.

Unlike most IMproperly targeted devices of this sort, the speaker emulation, if present in a particular Firehawk patch, is ALWAYS present in the Firehawk’s outputs.

With most devices of this sort, you have an “amp output mode” which bypasses the speaker emulation and a “recording emulation mode” (or some similar name) with the speaker emulation on.

The Firehawk has these modes, in name at least, but both contain the speaker emulation. Seriously.

You can’t just compromise, hit the amp switch, and have all the cabinets off so you can plug into a guitar amp. You would have to duplicate any patch you want to use and chose “no cab” in each of them. Or deal with a crappy signal in your onstage monitoring with the speaker emulation on, or far, far, far worse, use the emulation off and torture the hell out of your audience.

To be clear, unlike with most modellers, you CANNOT simply switch modes from line to amp and expect the signal your guitar amp would want. Either mode WILL ALWAYS run through the cabinet emulator, if you have a cabinet emulator on that patch

Ideally, you would be running this thing into an FRFR speaker and bypass the entire issue, and revel in the glorious and beautiful sounds that the Firehawk is capable of. In the real world though, most people are going to have combos, and the normal use of this thing would be to plug into the FX return of that combo. If you are really lucky, speaker emulation will follow the FX return in that amp’s signal path and everyone will live happily ever after.

I have an alternate solution, possibly. You could stick an impulse response loader of some sort into the FX loop. The pre impulse signal could be fed to a regular guitar amp and the post impulse signal could be fed to the PA. Of course, you are taking an extra set of A/D D/A hits here, but its probably worth it.

One option looks to be the Mooer Radar pedal. http://www.mooeraudio.com/?product/201709227917.html

This device claims to let you load your own impulses.

There are other options available, including running impulses in your iPad. Not that I’m necessarily advocating this as it may adversely affect reliability, latency, convenience, etc.

I’m not 100% sure how the FX loop works in the Friehawk, like if its true stereo, or if it mutes the send when the loop is off, so I’m not 100% sure how exactly I would wire this, but it should certainly be doable. The movable and switchable FX loop in the Firehawk is actually a wonderful thing. Kudos line 6!

Per preset/channel/patch volume woes:

There is no master patch volume. Again, there is NO MASTER PATCH VOLUME SETTING

Not that this is the only device/app/plugin with this problem, but it is a nasty issue to contend with.

There is what Line 6 calls a “Channel Volume”. This happens in the Amplifier block. As mentioned above, the unmovable compressor block (as distinguished from the movable drive/dynamics block) isn’t movable, so any change you make to “Channel Volume” will effectively change the effect of your compressor threshold. Worse, the unmovable compressor block only has positive gain, so can’t be turned down to make up for a volume boost at the “Channel Volume” control.

The editor:

My actual first meeting with the Firehawk was a few years ago, attempting to program a friend’s Firehawk 1500. At the time, the editor had so many connectivity problems, requiring constantly retyping username and password information, it just became a frustrating joke of a mess and soon the unit went back to sweetwater for good.

If you are used to VST’s or most multiFX units from the 1990’s and beyond, the editor is pretty bad. No direct entry (not that they are the only ones guilty of this, but come on, NO DIRECT ENTRY??? ), no fine tune….yeah, you have been warned, NO FINE TUNE, no Mac or Windows editor, you are on bluetooth for this, good luck!

Connection to be fair, is much better than it was two years ago. It often connects. Not often enough or fast enough, to trust at a real show, so make sure your programming is done ahead of time. Once it connects it usually stays connected.

The steps required to do basic tasks, like moving a preset can feel pretty silly, and its habit of making duplicates if you aren’t careful can be infuriating. If you are used to professional rack devices or VST’s, you are in for some pain, but if you are used to iOS apps, its kind of par for the course.

There is some ability to edit on the unit itself, and it actually offers fine tuning this way, but you can’t edit on the unit without first disconnecting from the bluetooth editor. No I’m not kidding.

As a USB Audio Interface:

Like many, most or possibly all of these devices, the Firehawk features a USB interface both to, and from the computer, with real ASIO drivers. Line 6 has been doing USB ASIO for a LONG time. They may not be the fastest, but they are relatively stable compared to the rest of the field. I don’t have round trip latency numbers yet, but I plan on updating that ASAP, possibly today, so check back here if you are interested.

Round trip latency for the Firehawk comes in at a horrific 15.442 miliseconds at 64 samples. No I’m not joking….seriously

At 128 samples, the Firehawk FX comes in at a ridiculous 24.33 miliseconds! Compare that to the Pod XT Live, which I believe was made in 2009, which does 128 samples at 17.893 miliseconds.

Unfortunately, unlike a lot of the other Line 6 drivers, such as any of the interface only devices, or the Pod XT Live, there is no way in the drivers to select the uneffected direct input. If you are planning on recording through this unit, you could turn off all of the fx blocks to get a DI in, but then you’d lose that particular sound for monitoring.

Worse yet, again unlike the interface only devices and again unlike the Pod XT Live, you CANNOT break the connection from the front panel input to the output jacks of the Firehawk through the drivers if you want any signal to reach the computer. Similar to the seemingly same driver used in the Amplifi 150, you are stuck with the amp and fx sounds at the outputs. You can return sounds from the computer in parallel (and there may be some great uses for this) but the original sound will always be there.

If you were planning on using the Firehawk as the interface and pedalboard for a computer based guitar rack setup, forget it.

In Conclusion:

This unit sounds fantastic to my ears. It really wasn’t hard to get sounds I was genuinely thrilled with. Its lack of a true dual path, its crappy editor definitely limit its usefulness, but given an FRFR setup, and sensible thought to programming before a gig, this can be an amazing unit.

Be sure you are 100% aware of the actual issues with the Firehawk FX (and not just the glowing “reviews” from the Marketing Machine) and if it still makes sense to you, I think you will find that you paid a LOT LOT LOT less for this thing than you really should have. An amazing value for those who it fits.

Pros:

Sounds great! (to me at least, FU Glenn)

Lots of tonal possibilities

Wah

REAL key based Harmonizer

USB interface with ASIO drivers (some SERIOUS limitations on its functionality, but decently quick for sure)

Decently fast preset switching (when it isn’t bugged out or connected to the editor)

Both 1/4″ and XLR outs

REAL master volume control

Cons:

EXTREMELY poor documentation, including all of the very basics. Expect to do a lot of Googling if you want specific answers about basic functions

No dual mode for onstage use – If you have cabinet emulation on, it WILL end up both in the amp path and the PA path

Editor is smartphone/tablet only – lots of connection issues, no fine tuning, very convoluted steps to do simple, basic processes

Cabinet is tied to amp, no way to place FX between amp and cabinet

Fixed signal flow for some elements. Some elements are freely movable, some are partially movable and cannot move to logical places in the routing, some can’t move at all and are placed in the path right where you would really not like to have them

No auto engage for the wah

Wah/Volume switch is extremely hard to engage, probably impossible for most people to engage when sitting

No per preset volume – there is one named “channel volume”, but as this happens in the signal chain before the unmovable compressor and other possible nonlinear elements, you can’t always use this for setting the preset or patch volume

Very un-intuitive and limited editing from the unit itself

Speaker Cabinets, if present on the preset, are on and will show up at all outputs no matter what the output mode

Line 6 Amplifi 150 Review

As usual, I start with the caveat, that I happily acknowledge that the Marketing Machine already has piles of reviews out there that tell you the things they want you to hear. They usually don’t tell you the things you actually need to know. My experience in the industry has shown time and again where so many “reviews” are tied to paid ads, or in the worst cases, actually paid for. I’ll try and give you, the rest of the story.

I really don’t think, as usual, that I need to repeat all the descriptions and explanations given by all the existing glowing reviews out there, so if you find that I’m missing lots of key points, know that they are available in many other sources.

In this particular case, the Marketing Machine did you, the consumer a HORRIBLE wrong, by almost unanimously neglecting to point out some key, showstopping problems, especially in light of how they described it as to directly quote one particularly egregiously inept review “fine gigging amp”

What is it?

On the surface, it appears to be a powered FRFR cabinet (but not really…more later), with bluetooth connectivity and Line 6 Amps and FX built in, claiming 150 watts, in a very manageable package

How does it sound?

Initially, Horrible. Muddy, gross, nasty. No matter how much you may hate Line 6 products (FU Glenn), this is nothing like any of the rest of them. It is the proverbial wet blanket.

Upon further testing and forum searches, it turns out that the path from the guitar input to the speaker outs, does not use the FRFR system, just the 12″ speaker. This means all those included tones, and any tones you make on similar devices, are running a model of a 12″ speaker cabinet, THROUGH an actual 12″ speaker. If you’ve ever accidentally left a modeler in recording output mode when plugged into a 12″ speaker, you know what I’m talking about.

Turning off the speaker cabinet emulations makes this thing sound like a pretty decent amp, similar to a Spider. The cleans don’t get the benefit of a full FRFR, so they still sound like a wet blanket, or maybe you could call it “vintage jazz clean”. It has lots of really good effects, though not really any way to control them without buying a Line 6 FBV

The only way to use this as an FRFR is to plug into the 1/8″ Aux input on the back. The Aux is at an EXTREMELY low volume, so if you were planning on using this as an FRFR for your modelling pedal or computer, you may be in for some serious grief. The unreliability and necessarily adapted nature of the 1/8″ connector makes this a hassle anyway.

Makes you wonder how all these “reviews” missed this, but it gets WAY worse.

There is no line out on this thing. Good job reviewers! What a “fine gigging amp”.

I need to say this again so you have been thoroughly warned.

THERE IS NO LINE OUT

There is a headphone out, but plugging into it mutes the speakers.

This means that the beautiful amp and FX models have no way to be shown in any real part of their glory, as there is no real way to send them to the FRFR system.

But hey, you get a whopping four different tones you can select from the top panel.

The editor:

If you are used to VST’s or most multiFX units from the 1990’s and beyond, the editor is pretty bad. No direct entry (not that they are the only ones guilty of this, but come on, NO DIRECT ENTRY??? ), no fine tune….yeah, you have been warned, NO FINE TUNE, no Mac or Windows editor, you are on bluetooth for this, good luck!

It often connects. Not often enough or fast enough, to trust at a real show, so make sure your programming is done ahead of time. Once it connects it often stays connected.

The steps required to do basic tasks, like moving a preset can feel pretty silly, and its habit of making duplicates if you aren’t careful can be infuriating. If you are used to professional rack devices or VST’s, you are in for some pain, but if you are used to iOS apps, its kind of par for the course.

There no real ability to edit on the unit itself, just some basic amp controls

As a USB Audio Interface:

Like many, most or possibly all of these devices, the Amplifi 150 features a USB interface both to, and from the computer, with real ASIO drivers. Line 6 has been doing USB ASIO for a LONG time. They may not be the fastest, but they are relatively stable compared to the rest of the field.

I’m betting it shares the same driver as the Firehawk FX

Round trip latency for the Firehawk comes in at a horrific 15.442 miliseconds at 64 samples. No I’m not joking….seriously

At 128 samples, the Firehawk FX comes in at a ridiculous 24.33 miliseconds! Compare that to the Pod XT Live, which I believe was made in 2009, which does 128 samples at 17.893 miliseconds.

Unfortunately, unlike a lot of the other Line 6 drivers, such as any of the interface only devices, or the Pod XT Live, there is no way in the drivers to select the uneffected direct input. If you are planning on recording through this unit, you could turn off all of the fx blocks to get a DI in, but then you’d lose that particular sound for monitoring.

Worse yet, again unlike the interface only devices and again unlike the Pod XT Live, you CANNOTbreak the connection from the front panel input to the speakers of the Amplifi through the drivers if you want any signal to reach the computer. You are stuck with the amp and fx sounds at the outputs. You can return sounds from the computer in parallel (and there may be some great uses for this) but the original sound will always be there.

If you were planning on using the Amplifi as the interface and stage amplifier for a computer based guitar rack setup, forget it.

In Use:

THERE IS NO LINE OUT

In Conclusion:

This could have been a revolutionary, groundbreaking device. Given a Line out, better drivers, and access to the FRFR system, this could have been a modeller’s paradise, seriously.

What really, really kills me about these horrid Marketing Machine “reviews” is that they encourage companies to keep making boneheaded mistakes. The truth hurts, but the truth can set you free. Without enabling from mercenary “reviewers”, Line 6 would have had to go back to the drawing board and give us what this thing really could have been.

It does make an excellent bluetooth music player for your iPad, but there are much smaller and cheaper devices to do this.

I wouldn’t buy this thing unless there are some really specific things it does that you want. Without a Line out, this thing is either a home jamming device or a doorstop.

THERE IS NO LINE OUT

Pros:

Good sounding amp models and FX

It can make your guitar louder

Four potentially drastically different sounds at the touch of a button

Cons:

No FX Loop

THERE IS NO LINE OUT

Only real FRFR is on 1/8″

No Physical MIDI inputs for control

Extremely limited hardware control (though the iPad editor is usable, if extremely unreliable)