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.

Why Are New Guitars So Expensive?

I was having a lazy Saturday trawling the internet and having a mooch around the Musicradar forums when someone posted this question online. A new Gibson Les Paul Stanard costs £2000+ list compared to the £1300 most people would have paid for one in the Noughties. Its an interesting issue as in Europe we are suddenly having to catch up to a reality that the American guitarists would have had to confront back in early 2009. Back then Fender issued a US retail price list with many prices up by at least 25-30%. At the time various blogs and forums lit up Stateside saying how on earth could they do that in a recession. Gibson shortly followed suit with price increases.

sTRAT

In the UK we’ve had it lucky until now, with most shops waiting to sell on their old stocks of guitars. Back in 2007 you could buy an American Standard Stratocaster in a solid colour for about £730.00 on the street. Nowadays it’d be £975.00 and probably just over a grand if it was a sunburst on Ash body model. Im looking at big dealers here with the ability to pass discounts onto the consumer. I imagine if you get it from where Aunt May rented you a Cello when you were 15 it’d be considerably more.

Its an interesting question. Imagine if your a global player like Fender or Gibson, you’d be able to buy your woodstocks/hardware etc based on an economies of scale model and pass that on to the consumer. However there are 3 other factors to consider.

1: Currency Markets – The Euro is in crisis but still way up against the £GBP as anyone whos retired to continental Europe on a British Pension will tell you, back in 2005 it was 68 pence to 1 Euro, now at the time of writing its 87 pence, but it was as high as 94 pence in 2009. A British retirees income in the Eurozone has virtually halved in the last 4 years. The Dollar too has risen which means importing a guitar from the US has gone up. Don’t mention the Yen…. its almost doubled in value in the last six years which means the once cheap grey import (but still constructionally superior) Fender J-Craft guitars (built for the Japanese domestic market) have become pretty much as expensive as a new American instrument in recent years. Back in 2005, you could get a used quality vintage reissue of a 62 Strat for about £275, aside from a 3 piece body instead of 2, they were pretty much the same quality of instrument and after import customs duty and delivery still have change from £500. Nowadays the same guitar costs £560+ according to Ishibashi guitars on Ebay, so delivery, VAT & duty will take that baby to well over £850.00 now.

2: Rising Prices – Oil is the big bastard here, so the cost of shipping around the world has increased considerably sine 2007. I don’t have any figures, but anyone who feels stung at the Petrol pumps will know what I mean.

3: Timber Sourcing – Again nothing official, but it does appear that the world is running out of wood. Theres a documentary coming out this year called Music Wood about the preservation of a forest of Spruce and the ongoing debate about the world running out of wood and the coming ecological crisis for guitarists. Gibsons Henry Juszkiewicz has been making noises in the press saying we are 10 years away from the wood running out. Gibson were raided in late 2010 by the FBI over unfounded accusations over purchases of illegal timber. CF Martin have been experimenting with using popular Gunstock laminate Stratabond as an alternative material to Mahogany for making necks (its warp resistant and far stronger and denser than mahogany). If you buy a £1500 Martin Guitar nowadays you simply will not get a Mahogany neck. Martin have been at the forefront of using alternative materials on acoustic guitars for a while now. Its likely that one of the big two electric makers will follow soon.

However!

In the middle of all this there is a theory that prices are actually being rigged by the guitar companies, US retailer Guitar Centre & the National Association of Music Merchants, there have been a couple of lawsuits filed in the US with such charges already.

This is an interesting theory because certain guitars are….well…. underpriced right now. In particular the Fender owned Charvel brand. A Charvel So Cal is basically a hotrodded to fuck Fender Stratocaster built in Japan, has Dimarzio Pickups, monster 6505 Dunlop Frets, a basic Floyd trem on an Alder body with a compound radius neck (the same kinda neck as the one on a £1200 American Deluxe Strat or Tele because Fender have decided to offer that tech on all new American Deluxe guitars as of 2010) it sells for £612.00 on the street in the UK. This is amazing bacause it has the same spec, pickups and hardware as the £1000+ US made Charvel So Cal, it even comes in an SKB case as opposed to the American guitars gigbag, the only difference is the country of origin and as you know I prefer Yuko’s standards of workmanship and fit and finish to Hank & Earl’s anyday.

Given my earlier comments on the Yen, I do not understand how Fender UK can price them so low. The Japanese made 62 reissue Telecaster, is also another steal at around the £685.00 mark. Given that pre recession they sold for £599.00, there doesn’t seem to be much of an increase there. If you wanted to import a Fender J Craft Richie Kotzen Telecaster now you’d barely get change from £1600, yet that guitar was about £980 pre recession and thats if you can find one. Could it simply be that technicalities and currencies aside, that we are paying simply the price the market will bear?

Ibanez introduced the RG Premier range this year a series of Prestige like guitars built in Korea instead of Japan. The J-Craft Prestige guitars have risen sharply with many models coming in at the £ 2 grand mark. So how come Fender can build a Charvel in Japan and price it lower than a Mexican made Strat?

Its not all doom and gloom for all of us. As anyone whos read the popular get rich word of mouth book “Rich Dad Poor Dad” knows, what we are seeing behind the scenes in this recession is the transference of income from the lower middle classes to the wealthy. Guitarist Magazine are sponsoring a Fender Custom Shop event in Bath in October, it’ll be a £65 a ticket canapes and wine affair with a talk by some Fender bigwigs and a chance to play some Custom Shop guitars including the relic (specially pre beaten up for the investment banker) Fenders ( sorry I don’t buy into all this pre aged relic stuff) but with an average price tag of £2.5K, talk of fiddling while Rome burns I wonder if Tony Blair will attend or does he (like his holidays) get his guitars for free?

The Lost Art of Rock Guitar in the United Kingdom

Back to the Future?

I saw something very amusing in the WH Smiths at Paddington Station recently. Future Publications has just released a book and DVD in Newsagents called “Play Guitar Now – Metal” which despite its title is actually a very concise look at all the popular Rock guitar techniques of the 1980′s. Tapping, Sweep picking, Alternate picking, Legato Runs, Riffs, Solo’s, Modes and Scales are all included. It was clearly aimed at young guitarists, but featured the work of players who’s heyday was well before they were even born (Im talking the 1970′s and 80′s). Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Lynch, Vai, hell it even namechecked fusion god Al Di Meola….. I was so shocked at this I almost spat my Costa Coffee over a disgruntled commuter when I saw it.

Having bought the DVD I found it was a concise and very well presented selection of all the popular guitar techniques I aspired to learn as a nipper (and eventually did). But back then there was no internet and most tuition tapes and videos were pretty thin on the ground), I had to listen to my Vinyl over and over again and actually work this stuff out for myself, it took a long time to learn it and even longer to integrate it into my playing style. The idea that someone in 1986 when I was working this stuff out by ear would show all this to me….slowly and concisely would have been like a gift from the gods themselves.

The DVD is presented by Martin Goulding who is an exeptional player and teacher and makes a lot of information approachable and digestable. But I find it amazing there is a demand for this stuff at all. Perhaps we are being lied to.

If you were to only accept the narrow word of our Media Elite, you would think no one had any interest in such music, but clearly they have. As someone who’s playing style essentially fuses Classic Rock melodicism and fire with post punk’s icy texturalism and space I’ve always found myself something of an outsider compared to the players I saw in other bands at gigs both back in the 90′s and even now. I remember a guy coming up to me in a rehearsal room in Nottingham in 2005 and asking me about what guitarists had influenced me. I was really shocked, flattered and even bemused when this young 22 year old started feverishly writing down names like Alex Lifeson, Van Halen, John McGeoch, George Lynch, John Sykes and Neal Schon as I dictated notes and reccomended albums to him.

I blame the UK’s Media for this sorry state of affairs, successive UK Television, Radio and Magazine people have tried to pretend that Rock music with guitar solo’s and riffs does not exist…..no matter how many albums or concert tickets are sold. For example Journeys “Don’t Stop Believing” was on every best of AOR and American Rock complilation album released in the UK when I was a young lad. But according to the Guardian newspaper, no one in the UK knew the song existed until the TV series Glee. This is an out an out fucking lie.

I find this Stalinist-ist rewriting of history most sinister. Even Allan Yentobs BBC series on the history of the guitar also dismissed Hard Rock and Metal Music as some sort of curious American footnote, when its actually the driver and prime mover that influences the Guitar industry at every level. Something Yentob would have known if he’d actually bothered to look in a guitar shop and talked to some guitarists rather than pursuing his own agenda.

Meanwhile various careerist indie bands have chased the tail of whatever was credible from this month to the next and the result is the most lacklustre period in British Music ever. One only has to scan the musicians classifieds on Gumtree and Join My Band.com to see the same boring as fuck influences listed and repeated over and over again. Oasis/Kings of Leon/Coldplay yawn.

Outside of perhaps the Metal scene, the guitar has been reduced to the most uninspiring of voices, now lowered in the mix to such an extend in popular music one can harly hear it above the drums, no wonder the ukelele is popular again ( it is that “pick it up and can’t play but I have a cool haircut so I must be an artist” amateurism that has been a desease feeding on British Music since Punk).

I really hope lots of young guys and girls get into the techniques shown in this magazine, but I also hope they grow beyond them, mix them up with other things and in time find their own voices and that however those voices come out they are not drowned out by the Marxist scumbags of the UK Media who are killing off both art and aspiration in British Life.

Blackstar HT Dual Distortion

HT Dual

When Blackstar first debuted its product line in 2007, it was made up of several valve based Distortion pedals and a “Boutique” amplifier line. Since then the range has grown to a range of proffessional amps and also a mass market affordable series.

Blackstar are an interesting company started up by 4 very key ex Marshall amp employees, 2 designers and 2 marketeers. With start up costs running just too high to build a UK factory the range is all made by an OEM in Korea and quality controlled in the UK.

I tried a series One 45 watt 2 x 12 combo recently and was mighty impressed, but the product that has gotten the most acclaim from guitarists so far seems to be the HT Dual Distortion.

The HT Dual to me is a very interesting design, about the size of a housebrick. It has a small and compact footprint. So it would fit neatly on most peoples pedalboards. Looking at the design its clearly influenced by several other pedals, notably the Original Mk 1 Marshall “Guvnor” pedal which was solid state and the valve based Mesa Boogie V Twin. The 2 footswitchable distortions are set up for either a classic gain/clean boost setting on channel 1, or a heavily saturated modern drive on Channel 2. So running through a clean amp, this device effectivly gives you 3 channels to play with.

guv'nor mk 1

V Twin

I mention the single channel Guv’nor as the Uk made originals had probably one of the best EQ sections of any distortion pedal ever made, while the now defunt Boogie V Twin offers 2 footswitchable valve driven distortions in one box making it more akin to a pre-amp than a fuzzbox.

The HT Dual runs a single 12AX7 valve at 300v in push pull which means it actually responds like the front end of a valve guitar amp. There are 2 stacked pots at each end for gain and volume. Then a master 3 band EQ and Blackstars own patent pending ISF control. The ISF control reminds me of a little bit of the filter control of a Pro Co RAT.

RAT 2

ISF is basically a fine tune tone filter that allows you to move between the tonal characteristics of an American (6L6 tubes) or British (EL34 tubes) sounding guitar amp. So anti-clockwise we are in Mesa Boogie/Fender territory, so the low end gets tighter and the highs more brittle turn the dial clockwise and it fattens up and sofens up for a smoother Orange/Marshall JCM type tone.

This all might sound like snake oil at first but it does actually seem to work, with the gain up and the midrange cut on ch2, I turned the ISF hard left and got a pretty good “George Lynch” type tone, like the one on Dokkens ‘Back for the Attack’. Blackstar themselves have marketed the amps as being able to give the guitarist the “sound in their head”. After a little adjustment to the EQ and with the ISF at 11 O Clock, I found my own preferences quite easily. It doesn’t really imitate other amps, more that it just gives you a greater choice of finding your own sound.

As Blackstar claim this is more like a valve amp than a fuzzbox I decided to run a Keeley modded Boss SD-1 into the front of channel 1, this gave me a rich sustaining creamy high gain sound with loads of expression and was easily as good as overdriving the front end of my usual Marshall.

After a short time with this pedal I’d found usable tones I was really enjoying myself just playing. I can see it replacing the front end of my rig and enabling me to have everything back on the board, which means I’ll have no more amp footswitches and fx loop cables running back and forth. This will (hopefully) equate to less possibilities for things to go wrong. That in turn means I can go to a simpler amp and perhaps something more lightweight.

I can see other uses too. If you were a guitarist running into a multi FX unit like a BOSS GT series or Line 6 Pod Floor FX, this could mean access to much higher quality set of natrualistic distortions at a very reasonable price, theres even a flat line out for home recording.

The best part of this pedal though is the price, At £169.00 RRP its about half of its nearest credible competitors. Im talking the Koch Pedaltone (too expensive & way too big), Radial Plexitone ( despite the endorsers I’ve tried it and its too overrated by far) & finally the Hughes and Kettner Tubeman. (I’ve used the tubeman extensively and the Blackstar has the edge for both tone and ease of use).

Although the included 16VAC adaptor looks a bit flimsy, at this price I’ll forgive them and buy a spare.

8/10

SwapMeet!

With the recession firmly biting in the United Kingdom. The used market for guitar equipment has taken quite a pounding. If you’ve had a spare grand lying around recently, you’ve had your pic of some sweet secondhand private sale deals.

As commodities and fuel prices have risen. The price of new guitars however has leapt up to a point where I cannot see how some dealers will be able to continue.

A good example of this is Fenders new Mexican made Roadworn player series priced with an RRP of around a grand new (although most big dealers sell em for just shy of £800), but when a mid range instrument is selling for nearly £1K, you know the worlds in trouble.

Meanwhile as redundancy and casualisation looms and people try to control their household budgets, a plethora of high dollar guitars are hitting the used market at very very reasonable prices. So the near grand you’d spank on a brand new Mexican…ahem… “relic”… Fender would buy you a lot more used guitar for your money… Im talking American Deluxe Stratocasters, Yamaha SG1000′s, Gibson Les Paul Classics, PRS Standard 24′s etc etc. If you spend another £150 or so then your talking PRS McCartys ( A boxfresh Mk2 McCarty Std went for £1100 on Ebay recently) and even the odd Les Paul Standard as well.

Its a buyers market for sure. However thats not good. Most of us will want to upgrade and make changes to our equipment from time to time. So the idea that everything we own is devalued considerably is not great, especially if you have a larger collection of instruments.

A good alternative however is the Swap Meet. Lots of musicians are now advertising their equipment with not only a price, but the line “Will exchange for XXXXXXXXXXX” sometimes advertisers are even asking ” Will exchange for WHY – What Have You” as a way of seeing how far their unwanted item will take them.

I recently tried out this process. When I went to see Rush recently at Birmingham NEC. My brother started telling me he wanted to offload his rarely played Gibson Les Paul Standard and buy a PRS McCarty, he was thinking of swapping guitars rather than selling one and buying the other.

2002 McCarty

As I had bought a very nice used PRS McCarty some 4 months ago, I guess I was number one for his first refusal. As much as I liked my PRS, I was missing a Les Paul since I sold my LP Classic 1960 in 2007. Id bought the McCarty on a whim thinking it was a bargain, and much as I liked it. I was missing owning something with more low end prescence and grunt.

LP 2001

The following week we spent a day at his house trying out both guitars and seeing how we felt. My brother has a dislike for neck binding which means his Gibson Les Paul Studio is played far more than his Standard.

From my point of view, I knew the complete History of his LP Standard, my brother had bought it from new in 2001 it was the best of 4 we had tried that week and I knew he had played it minimally compared to his main guitars (a hideous flip flop teal LP Studio and his 62 Jap Strat-another guitar I’d once owned), so condition wise it was much cleaner than my already gigged and slightly dinged PRS McCarty. However my brother had fallen in love with the PRS’ playability and construction. He wanted it, more so than I to be honest.

For me the decision was harder. I loved both guitars, while I thought perhaps the Gibson had the edge on tone for hard rock, the PRS was far more articulate on cleaner tones and the coil taps actually worked. Something dawned on me…

As Gibsons Quality Control has always, and will always be….patchy (Charles Sharr Murrays recent column in Guitarist mag about his mates Gibson J 200′s faulty pickup system and Gibsons incompetent aftercare seems to bear this out). I suspect it’ll take me a while to find another Les Paul this well made. Meanwhile as PRS have the consistency of build other makers would kill for. I know that at some point I could always buy another used McCarty and not spend decades looking for one that was put together properly.

So as both instruments were of similar value we just swapped guitars. We put in a gentlemans agreement of 28 days that if one of us wanted to cancel the deal, they could do so without question. But in the end 1 month on both of us are happy.

So far this experience has been a positive one and Im wondering if I’ll be looking to swap rather than sell stuff in the future. I would suggest sometimes these things can be difficult. Most of us have fallen in love with an instrument only to fall out of love sometime later. Plus theres always fakes and charlatans around every corner of both Ebay and the classified ads.

However if you stick to relatives or just your Muso mates or their mates, this is probably a foolproof way of getting new kit without all the stresses of dealing with haggling and accurate descriptions.

I’d reccomend it.