Line 6 M5: The Worlds First Multi Purpose Single Stompbox

Modelling Technology is a very weird carrot to chew on, in the conservative world of most guitarists, change can be a dirty word.

Line 6 launched the first modelling amp in 1996. They were shortly followed by others such as Johnson (an amp tech arm of Digitech), then veteran amp firms like Vox, Fender and Hughes & Kettner all followed.

Computer Modeling in simple terms attempts to recreate the unique characteristics of say a guitar, synth, stompbox or amplifier. Early Line 6 products used digital modeling to emulate the signature tone of a guitar amp/speaker combination. Some of these models were more successful than others. Line 6′s breakthrough product was the POD, a simple pre amp processor that arrived just as cheap home recording on computers took off. The red kidney bean gave good enough tones for most applications and in the compressed environment of digital audio, nuances didnt seem to matter. Also it had a USB interface so recording in a hurry was made far simpler. POD and its Pro Tools plug in software cousin “Amp Farm” made it over to countless hit records. But in a live environment with a loud drummer, many felt the PODs sounds just didn’t cut the mustard live.

pod

Modelling Amplifiers are an interesting case in point. In the early 2000 Fender and Hughes & Kettner both launched premium end guitar amps for the pro guitarist. The Fender Cybertwin and the H&K Zentera. But by and large guitarists saw them as nothing more than sophisticated (and fiddly to use) multi FX platforms coupled to transistor power amps and stayed away. Fender Cybertwins probably have the highest depreciation of any guitar amp ever made. A Fender Cybertwin 2 combo was just shy of £2000 retail at its launch, now you can pick one up in the classifieds for around the £350.00 mark. H&K’s Zentera was endorsed by none other than Rush’s Alex Lifeson, he toured the amps, although they were secondary devices to his main valve powered H&K Triamp rig, but by 2007 he’d moved onto the all singing Switchblade valve amps. The H&K Switchblade advertising in US guitar magazines declared modelling amps dead.

The latest modelling amps launched by Line 6 and Marshall feature a valve power stage behind the software preamps, and again the pro guitarists are largely staying away. The accepted wisdom seems to be that the amps of the future will likely be hybrids with a mixture of modeling, valve and mosfet transistor technology. But no one seems to have made this package into a Classic product with the staying power of a JCM800…yet.

line 6 dl4

While Modeling technology has somewhat struggled in the amp market, with regard to effects pedals, its become highly successful. Perhaps the one classic stompbox of the last decade is the Line 6 Delay Modeler DL-4. If you watch many gigs or see live music on TV, you’ll see these curious green boxes on the pedalboards of most touring guitarists in many or any genres. The reason for the DL-4 and to some extent its modelling tech siblings (MM-4= Modulation/DM-4= Distortion, less successful perhaps/FM-4= Filter) is a combination of sound quality, functionality and price. I myself bought a DL-4 back in 2000 and its been with me ever since as my primary delay unit. Even the hotrodders like Robert Keeley and newer guns like Cubist and Drasp (whats with these fucking Americans has everyone gotta sound like a Rapper????) have gotten in on the action. Robert Keeley does some audio modifications for a cleaner tone while the others offer built in expression pedal mods and extra preset functionality as well as new LEDs and a respray.

drasp built DL4

Which brings us back to the Line 6 M5. What you get here is a pedal in a steel chassis with 6 dials and 2 footswitches, dimensions wise its about the same as a Big muff, so not too small, but not massive either. Theres stereo In//Out and also a socket for an expression pedal as well as Midi In/out too.

Line 6 M5

Looks wise the M5 is the little brother to the Line 6 multi FX units M13 and M9, but while these units all offer Line 6′s FX modeling technology on a programmable unit offering combinations of effects. The M5′s shtick is that it only offers ONE effect at a time, no combinations, just one flange or chorus, delay, reverb or Leslie simulation.

At first this idea seems quite mad, but then you learn that it can have 24 different individual presets selected from 100 different effects in and it soon makes sense. Most people do not have infinite amounts of space on a pedalboard. My own used to consist of a few evergreen classics (tuner, 2 delays, overdrive & wah wah and my amps channel switcher. Even with modest amounts of effects, its possible to run out of room very quickly (The American guitar magazines call this “real estate”). The M5′s genius is that its simple to use and the effects are all pretty high quality. What if you need an MXR phase 90 for the intro to one song, or a Boss Chorus for just an intro to another ??????….the M5 really is a simple, but clever idea. It has true bypass, but I didn’t detect any tone sucking issues in the context of my board.

The manual and the user guide to the M5′s models are well written and highly readable, giving you the starting platform for each of its 100 effects.


Sounds

Within a couple of hours use Id programmed up a very nice “Portishead” style tremelo effect, plus a few filter and chorus effects as well as a couple of Edge style rythmic 450ms delays. Soundwise these simulations (models) are a generation beyond the DL-4/MM-4 type sounds so some fx seem to work better than others. I actually found I could tweak one of the delay presets slightly better to my taste on my 11 year old war torn DL-4 than on the M5, despite the DL-4 having no display. Im not sure why I preferred the sound on the older unit, it could be a change in software, EPROM chip or just my ears. But aside from this one sound it was an amazing unit. The digital display is pretty clear to read. Although naming presets is slightly fiddly if your in a hurry.

There are various compression and distortion type effects on offer, but as most people will be using this unit as a substitute for a modulation/delay or reverb unit I didn’t explore these in detail. Also Ive yet to see any guitarist convincingly use the gold Line 6 DM-4 Distortion modeler beyond the U2 wannabees of the Christian Rock set, who essentially need various artificial sounding overdrives..

Switching
Basically the footswitch left control is FX on/off, the right footswitch is tap/tempo for delay. Push both together and you go into preset mode and use the two pedals to scroll up and down to get to your choice. Pushing both again takes you out of preset mode and into the unit being a single function pedal. The top left dial is push downb to save functions and scroll through, wheras the other buttons just affect values.

This has become easier over time and Im now confident that I could gig this unit without any issue.

Conclusion
Pricewise this has to be a brilliant buy. With most single use pedals coming in at well over £100 these days. At £169 street this seems very good value. If I hadn’t have bought this unit I was looking at a TC Electronics Chorus/Flanger+ costing £80 more in its own right.

The only downside I see in terms of use is the power supply issue ( Its 9v-DC at 500MA), if you’ve already got a Line 6 modeller on your board then these milliamp hungry units will give you problems powering both on the average generic multi purpose FX power supply. Voodoo Labs do make a few different units, but until the fabled (and still delayed by tech issues) Voodoo Labs ‘Digital’ Power Supply (Designed for high drain devices like Eventide Timefactor/Line 6 Stompboxes/ TC Nova pedals) hits the market you may have to do with the supplied PSU. Im tempted to investigate the GigRigs Generator system, but again always check with a tech before you plug anything third party in or you’ll fuck your warranty. Line 6 are pretty arsey about you using their PSU only so please please please buyer beware.

Im not sure the M5 will achieve the modern classic status of the Line 6 DL-4 Delay Modeler, but in terms of useability, functionality, simplicity and price. Its a clear winner and a very clever piece of design. Most people will already own a selection of favourite stompboxes, this unit just plugs the gaps in your sonic palette and does so very well.

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