Hands-On Review:Direct Hits


 

Line 6 Pod Pro & Bass Pod and Johnson J-Station digital modeling/direct recording units
by Tom Beaujour

 

While the record industry worries that digital technologies like MP3 audio will eventually send artists and labels to the poorhouse, there is an altogether different digital revolution occurring behind the music. This one, however, threatens to send the owners of highfalutin recording studios to the proverbial breadlines.

 

Just as major labels, distributors and bricks-and-mortar retailers once had a stranglehold on the music industry, professional recording studios were once the gatekeepers of great guitar and bass tone. Then, a little over a year ago, Line 6 introduced the Pod, a kidney-shaped direct-recording device that allowed players on limited budgets to replicate the coveted sounds of top-shelf new and vintage amps via digital modeling technology. For the first time, players could achieve on their own what had previously required a battalion of engineers, amp techs and temperamental gear.

 

Since then, digital modeling has become all the rage in the guitar community. This month, we’ll look at three new entries in the digital modeling competition: Johnson Amplification’s J-Station and the two latest entries from Line 6, the Bass Pod and the ultra-fancy, rackmountable Pod Pro. We tested all three units by plugging them directly into an Alesis Studio 32 mixing board feeding two Mackie HR824 powered studio monitors. Let it be known: the revolution may not be televised, but it sure won’t be amplified.

 

Line 6 Pod Pro


Like its little brother, the Pod Pro features 32 distinct amp models, a complement of 15 effects or effect combinations and 15 speaker cabinet models that can be used with any amplifier setting. The Pro, however, adds a wealth of useful features that let it function readily in a much wider range of situations. These include a line/guitar input selector that allows the unit to accept the hotter signals generated by keyboards and drum machines; stereo XLR outputs for real-world mixing boards; a stereo effects loop; digital AES-EBU and S-PDIF outputs for hard-drive recordists; and an external digital clock input that allows the Pod Pro to be synched to units like DigiDesign’s Pro Tools and Yamaha’s O2R mixer.

 

Ironically, among the Pod Pro’s best features is one that allows you to record an unprocessed signal. This is especially useful if you want to re-amp a previously recorded guitar track, record a “dry” guitar signal alongside a processed track or delay the decision to choose a particular amp, cab or effect setting until the mixdown stage. Simply patch the Pod Pro’s unprocessed guitar output to your mixer and record your track. When you want to process the signal, route it back into the Pod Pro via the unit’s line-level input. The Pod Pro also lets you hear the sound of your effected guitar as you track, even while the dry signal is being recorded.

 

Of course, the Pod Pro’s sounds were as good as those of its diminutive counterpart. The Marshalls roared and the Boogies rumbled. The tweed emulations were furry and toothy, while the blackface tones were tight and honky. And the Vox AC30 Top Boost emulation sounded positively huge, especially when routed through a virtual Marshall “basketweave” 4x12 cabinet with modeled Greenback speakers.

 

Although we’ve focused on the Pod Pro as a recording device, it can also be used in live performance applications. In “live” mode, the cabinet modeling feature is disabled and the unit can be connected to a power amp and speakers. Combine that with Line 6’s sturdy and well laid-out (though optional) floorboard, and the Pod Pro can serve as the centerpiece of a killer rack-based live rig.

 

LINE 6 Bass Pod

 

While guitar players are infamous for being finicky about their tone, bass players are equally obsessed with the nuances of their sound, and with good reason. Bass amps are a nightmare to mic properly and tend to produce hideous standing waves and peaks when cranked to performance levels in studio situations. While it’s always been easy to get an acceptable bass sound with a direct box, “acceptable” really doesn’t cut it where music and art are concerned.

 

 

Which is why the Bass Pod is a must-have for recording sessions. Not only is this unit truly stupendous, it may exceed its guitar counterpart in its reproduction of classic tones. In less time than it took to tune our 1965 Precision Bass, we dialed in a glorious sound with the Bass Pod. The Flip Top setting (modeled after a vintage Ampeg B-15) was warm, detailed and soulful, while the Rock Classic (an ersatz Ampeg SVT) kicked like the hammer of the gods. The Sub Dub preset was a reggae player’s delight and provided ample low-end for even the most booty-shakin’ of dance tracks.

 

Even more impressive than the amp models was the Bass Pod’s arsenal of effects, many of which would make a welcome addition to the guitar Pod. The MXR flanger emulations swooshed majestically, and the Fuzz Box models—particularly those that simulate an Electro-Harmonix Hog’s Foot and the Pro Co Rat Pedal—were as nasty as we wanted them. The Bass Pod also features a D.I. out, so that you can track a dry signal as well as your groovy, effected one.

 

Johnson J-Station

 

As a challenger to the Pod Dynasty, Johnson’s J-Station is a worthy contender. Outfitted in basic black, and made in the U.S.A., it boasts construction somewhat sturdier than the Line 6’s Malaysian assembly. Although slightly less intuitive to master than the Pod, the J-Station provides a host of features not available on other devices of its size. These include three bass amp models, a built-in pitch-shifter effect and an S/PDIF digital output that can either output a stereo effected signal or a dry signal that can be processed at a later stage in the recording process.

 

 

The unit’s effects (delay, tremolo, rotary, chorus, flange, pitch/detune, phaser, reverb and auto-wah) have a depth of tweakability not found on other units. For starters, the noise gate’s sensitivity is adjustable (a godsend for players who don’t play full bore all the time), as are the diffusion and density parameters of the 12 reverb settings. The four delays are also adjustable to within an inch of their lives.

 

In addition to having enhanced features worthy of a rack unit twice its size, the J-Station delivers exemplary amplifier tones that have none of the low-end looseness or overbearing midrange of other amp modelers. The 10 cabinet emulations are absolutely on-point, and the BlackFace setting (based on a 1965 Fender Twin Reverb) takes the prize as the most dynamic and lifelike amp re-creation we’ve heard yet.

 

The Bottom Line


Both the Pod Pro and J-Station delivered unparalleled tones with a host of perks. In terms of routing flexibility and intuitive design, the Pod Pro can’t be beat, while the J-Station will appeal to those who need total control over the character of their effects or for whom portability is a must. The Bass Pod, however, is an undisputed champion, one that will be difficult to beat.