Hands-On Review:Line 6 Amplifiers
Not your average amplifier
By James Nichols
How'd they do that? When demoing a Flextone III XL recently I asked myself that question more than once. From the start I loved the Flextone's clean, sophisticated looks and stripped-down controls that made it easy to dial in. When I plugged into the Flextone III XL for the first time, I was instantly struck by the rich and detailed sounds. They're not only accurate - they're expressive and amazingly warm too. From the roar of the Line 6 Chemical X model to the timeless chime of the Class A-30 model, there's a lot to love.
Considering the incredible number of sounds available, I was impressed by how easy it was to dial up tones. The knob layout on the Flextone III XL's control panel is very easy use. In fact, I was surprised by how much it looked like any other guitar combo with an effects section. It sounds decidedly different, however, thanks to the Models knob. It gives quick and painless access to 32 sweet amp models with 15 different cab selections. You can even set up four different presets to use as channels.
Then there are the direct outs, which destroy the notion that guitar tone only comes from a miked-up combo or half stack. Line 6's direct outs nail the sound of a miked cab right down to the speaker. Line 6 also includes a ton of effects culled from the MM4 and DL4 so you can pretty much dump your battery-devouring effects pedals. So I had to find out, just what exactly goes into making a Line 6 amp? How do they do it?
During my research I discovered a lot. And after all the smoke cleared, it was obvious that Line 6 makes some of the finest amps around. They put more effort, time, and science behind each of their models than some manufacturers put behind an entire product line. What's not to love about that?
Amps, amps, and more amps
Line 6 is always on the lookout for killer vintage amps, digging through tons of them to find the ones they'll use for their models. They keep in touch with a lot of touring guitarists and bassists they trust to deliver reliable tips on the hot gear they and other people are using. Plus, Line 6 has a staff full of guitar junkies. Most of them are players who obsess about all the same stuff we obsess about, but mainly the individual sounds, tones, and feels of different amps drive them. And who better to build your amp than a fellow tone-obsessed musician? They go through a very in-depth and exacting process to create each amp model, trying to replicate every audible nuance of the original.
The modeling process starts once Line 6 has found a prime example of an amp to model. With the consistency of modern amplifier construction, this is less of an issue, but with vintage amps, it's vital. Since they were all handmade with point-to-point wiring, there are a lot of inconsistencies and the sound of the amps can vary wildly from one to another, even within the same batch. You can even change the sound of an old point-to-point amp by simply moving the wiring back and forth on the board. There's also the interplay of the various components in the amp to consider, which effects the sound even on the "good" units. Line 6 keeps a couple of tech gurus on hand to keep the selected amps running in tip-top condition.
And then they do what any guitarist with a killer amp sitting around would do. They play 'em. Over and over. Sound engineers, product managers, recording techs - all the pertinent people involved - get their hands on it. They find out what's good, what's bad, where the sweet spot is, how the speakers affect the sound, etc. - until they know the amp inside out.
Once everyone feels like they've explored the amp and figured out what's brilliant and what's broken, it's off to Line 6's state-of-the-art, custom-built tracking room. There the amp will be recorded six ways from Sunday as they seek to capture its authentic vibe. Line 6 doesn't just look at a schematic or sample an amp once and call it good. They analyze the amp both sonically and physically. They obsess over every detail from the good to the bad to - yes - the ugly.
Even the most prized and treasured vintage amp has its foibles, usually due to the use of inexpensive and aged components. The early manufacturers were concerned with building good equipment, but were just as concerned with price points, profit margins, and selling more amps. These shortcomings in the amp circuit are part of their charm, appeal, and tonal character, so to be completely accurate, Line 6 emulates these aspects as well.
In its recording room Line 6 has amassed an awesome collection of microphones, mic preamps, EQs, computers, and other gear they use to record the amps. They capture every nuance of the amplifier by taking recordings with multiple microphones at multiple angles and distances. The output from each of these sessions is thoroughly analyzed by the sound engineers and turned into amp models using a mathematical process called convolution.
Heavyweight title fight
But that's not the end of the story, folks. There's still the ultimate test to stand for any Line 6 amp model: it has to go toe-to-toe with the original amp. Setting the two side by side the Line 6 crew compare the two in their stock form, then route them through their doppelganger's cabinet and various other cabinets. They're submitting it to the ultimate test: the human ear. It has to sound right and feel right to the guitar player because, above all, a guitar player is the ultimate judge, not a computer program. More tweaks are done after this to align the amp even more closely with the musicality guitar players expect from the original. To this date, Line 6 has exhaustively examined about 85 guitar amps and 30 bass amps.
Then the models are ready to be put into one of Line 6's award-winning amps, which also have some special features. Most solid-state guitar amps come with a hi-fi or live sound power circuit designed to be flat and colorless. This is good for your stereo, but bad for guitar tone. Line 6 redesigned the power section that goes into their amps to respond like guitar amps. They also include niceties such as custom-designed Celestion speakers and all the I/O you'll need to hook up all your gear.
These amps give you killer sounds, innovative-yet-refined features, and award-winning effects, all in one package created by guitarists. Being a guitar player is good; and with Line 6, it's getting better all the time.