Review: Line 6 Helix

At this year’s namm show, line 6 celebrated 20 years in the industry, and to illustrate the company’s proud history, they lined up pretty much every product they’ve come out with.
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At this year’s namm show, line 6 celebrated 20 years in the industry, and to illustrate the company’s proud history, they lined up pretty much every product they’ve come out with. It was a blast to look at game-changing pieces such as the original AxSys 212 amp, the POD, the green, blue, and purple stompboxes, and more. The culmination of all that tone-chasing brainpower can be found in the stunning creation you see before you: the Line 6 Helix ($1,499 street). Much more than a guitar processor, the Helix is more like the command center for all of your gigging and recording needs. If you’re willing to get to know the Helix, you will have an awe-inspiring amount of signal-routing and tone-shaping power and flexibility at your disposal.

Before we scratch the surface (and barely scratch the surface) of what Helix can do, let’s talk about what it looks like. It is absolutely one of the best-looking pieces of gear I’ve ever seen, with its brushed-aluminum top and courteously rounded edges. (No more slashing and gouging yourself on sharp right-angled metal corners—yay!) The big screen is easy to read while playing, as are the customizable readouts above the sturdy footswitches. Those switches up the cool factor even more by being ringed with LEDs that glow red in Preset mode, or any color of the rainbow when you’re in Stomp mode. Then there’s the expression pedal, which is the beefiest one I’ve ever seen and is decked out in non-skid grip tape that takes me back to my Skateboarder magazine days. Several multi-function knobs, a Joystick, a few buttons, and big level knobs for Volume and Phones round out the smart, clean design.

Now for the sounds. Helix sounds really, really good right out of the box. It comes loaded with a bunch of presets in Factory Setlist 1 that are refreshingly uneffected—just great, punchy, dynamic models of Deluxes, AC30s, plexi Marshalls, etc., with maybe a touch of wonderful- sounding reverb on them. These sounds provide an excellent way to get a sense of the heart and soul of the Helix, as opposed to the gaudy, overly effected patches that many processors put in your face. I called up the AC30 simulation and spent some time riffing on it. I then hit the Mode switch to go from Preset to Stomp mode, and I saw that my sweet AC30 tone had a fuzz, a boost, and an echo lurking bypassed in the background, just waiting to be engaged. I took turns kicking them in and out and realized that despite the Helix’s massive firepower, I could easily do an entire gig on just this one preset right here. Yes! If you’re not into menus, real-time control, parallel signal paths, and the like, you can stop reading right now and you should still totally check out the Helix. And, while I applaud Line 6 for leading with these beautifully dry patches, there are also a boatload of the super-wet, synth-y, filter-y freakout sounds that they’ve always been so great at, and those are an absolute fest.

If, on the other hand, you like to program, tweak, design sounds, and explore the tonal nuances of multiamp rigs and more complex signal routing, then you are in for quite a treat, because if you can dream it, the Helix can do it. I won’t try to explain exactly how you accomplish these feats—the manual and the superb tutorial videos can do that—but with a little digging and button pushing (and some happy accidents) I was able to take a Deluxe model with a delay and blend that with a Marshall with reverb. I called up a Park amp and could easily hear what a fuzz box sounded like in front of the amp or in a parallel loop. I moved delays before and after the amp, trem before or after reverb, in series or in parallel. Some sounds were more useful than others, but it was really interesting and thought provoking.

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Like any deep processor, it takes a second to learn the Helix’s language. Most of the buttons can perform more than one function and that can be confusing, but it’s also really powerful. I found it easy to call up a preset, mouse around to its various components with the Joystick, and screw around with said components by turning the Joystick’s knob. That allowed me to, say, audition a bunch of speakers without changing the amp or effects. Some of the buttons only do one thing and are really helpful, like Bypass and the very user-friendly Home and Amp buttons.

If this all makes you nervous—but you’re still reading—keep this in mind: You can learn a tremendous amount just by looking at the screen of a preset, because everything is right there in front of you. There are plenty of deeper parameters, sure, but you can easily click on, tweak, and move your amps, speakers, effects, and more. There is also an entire Setlist of presets called Templates, and those are key to getting started building your own tones, because you can see right on the screen how they’re constructed. Templates titled “TwoTones A-B,” “TwoTones Blend,” “Parallel,” “Serial,” and even “Guitar and Vocals” and “Wet-Dry- Wet Amps” can all give you a big head start when you’re trying to build sounds and route signals.

The Helix can also function as a 24-bit/96kHz audio interface for recording, with tons of ins and outs (including a mic input, allowing you to independently process and record guitar and vocals, as that preset of the same name suggests). It can feed guitar amps, FRFR (full range flat response) systems, and more. If you’ve gotten way into the Line 6 trip and also use their Variax or Stage- Source monitors, you’d be insane to use anything but the Helix, because the connectivity and flexibility it will afford you is amazing.

The debate about whether digital gear can truly do what tube amps and other analog gear can still rages, and that fervor is mostly a good thing. But I hope we can all agree that the most important consideration has always been and should forever be this: Does this sound good, feel good, and make me want to play something creative? The answers will obviously be as varied as the world of guitarists, but my answer to all of those questions is “yes.” I found the tones to be tactile, dynamic, and musical, and I instantly came up with lots of cool stuff to play, which—although unscientific—is my ultimate test. Line 6 introduced most of us to amp modeling 20 years ago and the Helix is proof that they are still heavy hitters in the game.

Kudos Beautiful design. Great-sounding amps and effects. Unreal flexibility.
Concerns Could be intimidating to some.