Line 6 Variax Acoustic 700

September 1, 2004

When Line 6 debuted the original Variax digital-modeling solidbody, players and industry vets alike were shocked by the guitar’s ability to mimic a roomful of classic instruments. With the Variax Acoustic 700 ($1,679 retail/$1,199 street)—a guitar dedicated to replicating purely acoustic tones—Line 6 has come up with a new winner. In fact, given its ability to electronically generate altered and open tunings—and provide virtual capoing—the VA offers even more tricks than its electric-oriented predecessor.

Designed to look like a steel-string acoustic—at least from afar—the Korean-made VA is actually a thin, chambered solidbody with an oval soundhole and acoustic-style pin bridge. With the heft of a Les Paul, the VA has a laminated mahogany body, a laminated cedar top, a smooth gloss finish, and clean top binding and purfling. Its mahogany neck has an inviting, round profile, a scarfed headstock with a sculpted volute, and a headstock-accessed trussrod. On their way to the smooth turning, sealed tuners, the strings flare just enough to keep them from rattling in the synthetic nut, but not enough to cause binding in their slots. The rosewood fretboard sports 22 medium frets—which are well cut, shaped, and polished—as well as a fretboard extension that offers 24-fret access on the first and second strings.

The thick rosewood bridge supports a compensated, height-adjustable saddle with a piezo pickup under each string. The guitar’s controls—a model selection knob and three sliders—are located along the side of the upper bout. The VA has two outs: a standard 1/4" jack and a RJ45 jack. Though not currently implemented, the RJ45 jack will provide a digital I/O for Line 6 amps and gear. The 1/4" jack accepts either a regular mono guitar chord or a stereo TRS cable. The latter, when plugged into the VA’s wall-wart-powered XPS footswitch (included), supplies the necessary juice to run the onboard electronics. Equipped with 1/4" and XLR outs, the XPS works like a direct box, letting you connect the VA to amps, mixers, pedalboards, or recording gear. There are two compartments around back. Covered with a quick-release metal door, one holds six optional AA batteries. These provide an alternative power source in case an XPS isn’t handy. The second compartment houses the VA’s circuit board and sundry electronics.

The test VA arrived perfectly set up with a low action, a whisker of fretboard relief, and superbly radiused strings at the nut and saddle. Strung with light-gauge acoustic strings, the VA plays like butter, and Line 6 says that even lighter-gauge electric sets can be used on the VA with little effect on intonation. Thanks to the swooping cutaway, you can easily reach the upper frets, and, with its compensated saddles, the VA intonates sweetly wherever you roam. The guitar feels solid and holds its tuning exceptionally well.

The VA is equipped with 16 factory models, including a 1951 D’Angelico New Yorker, a 1946 Martin 000-2, a 1951 Gibson SJ-200, a 1937 Dobro Model 27, a 1973 Guild F412, and a 1933 Selmer Maccaferri. (There’s also a banjo, a sitar, and a shamisen.) A continuously rotating knob lets you access these sounds one at a time, and a strategically placed LED illuminates the name of the currently active model.

Three sliders let you control volume and timbre. The Volume slider operates as expected, but the other two deserve special attention. Line 6 engineers used two mics when sampling each instrument, and the Mic Position slider lets you pan between these two sources. This is a slick—and natural sounding—alternative to traditional tone controls. Using this slider, you can move between a virtual distant mic (for stringy, airy timbres) and a close mic (to emphasize body resonance and soundhole warmth). Because the VA is so feedback resistant—even at crushing stage volumes—you don’t need the notch filters, frequency cut/boost controls, or phase switch that are essential when amplifying real acoustic guitars. The remaining Compression slider operates a virtual compressor, and it lets you move from no effect to full-on squash.

Armed with only these simple controls you could gig and record quite happily. The models are fat and detailed, the electronics are quiet, and, surprisingly, the cellophane aura of piezo pickups is less evident than on a typical flat-top equipped with a saddle transducer.

Some impressions: The Django-style Selmer has the crisp attack and midrange bark that says “Gypsy jazz.” There’s a reassuring thunk at the start of each note in the classical model. The Stella 12-string has the warm, boxy qualities that make it so endearing. I swear I can hear the cone flexing on the metal-body resonator model—especially when playing slide. Each model has its own appealing details, and you can control the texture and punch very effectively with the Mic and Compression sliders, as well as picking dynamics.

But there’s more. Pushing the Model knob calls up a customized version of each factory preset. These can be pre-programmed altered and open tunings provided by Line 6, or creations of your own. That’s right—you can virtually retune each string by as much as an octave down or a fifth up. The VA comes with open-E, open-D, open-G (both guitar and high Dobro), open-A, dropped D, and DADGAD tunings—even a Charlie Hunter-inspired “two plus four” bass/guitar setup. In the two 12-string models, you can adjust the amount of detuning between the string pairs, or even dial in a high-strung Nashville tuning. Not only that, but you can slap a virtual capo (including a “minus” capo) on any model in standard tuning. It’s fairly easy to set up and store your own wacko creations, although the multi-function operation of the knob and sliders is bound to bamboozle those not familiar with programming digital gadgets.

The VA’s retuning capabilities are undeniably cool, but there are two caveats. Most significant is the need to have the virtually retuned strings cranked loud enough to mask the acoustic sound of the real strings. Onstage, that’s not likely to be an issue. In the studio, however, I found that when tracking with semi-open headphones, I’d hear both the real and virtual sounds, which was confusing. You can circumvent this by jacking the volume and using sealed headphones, but, hey, be careful of your hearing.

The second issue cannot be circumvented. On any virtually retuned string, there’s a subtle delay induced by the pitch-shifting process. This is not a Line 6 failing—you find the same DSP lag in rackmount digital processors. It takes a nanosecond to recalculate the incoming frequency, and there’s no way around it. How much will this latency bug you? I found it noticeable, but, onstage, when you’re trying to retune from standard to open G, a heckler in the front row is even more distracting. If you consider the convenience of push-button retuning in that light, a hint of hesitation may not be such a big deal.

My only other concerns are the lack of an onboard tuner on a digital guitar—I can’t help but find that odd—and the very short wires that clip to the internal battery pack. Yanking on them to unclip the pack and fill it with AA cells was nerve wracking.

The Variax Acoustic represents a stellar mix of technology and musical utility. While a single instrument can’t replace the physical sensation of playing a jumbo flat-top, a squareneck resonator, or an old archtop strung with La Bella flat-wounds, the Variax Acoustic is an amazing sonic chameleon. With minimum fuss, you gain access to an array of inspiring tones that you can use without apology onstage or in the studio. If you’re a soloist bent on refining the subtleties of one particular voice, you’ll probably want to stick with a boutique instrument and not get distracted by the world of emulation. If, however, you work with a palette of tones—dragging around a handful of guitars in different tunings wherever you play—you should give this groundbreaking

6-string a chance to reveal its inner beauty.

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