HELIX and Eleven Rack Enter the Octagon - Err... Padded Rectangle

Discussion in 'Digital & Modeling Gear' started by Steve Dallas, May 6, 2016.

  1. Steve Dallas

    Steve Dallas Member

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    In this thread, I will write detailed amp tone comparisons between my new Helix and old Eleven Rack. I have been through a LOT of modelers and have always favored the lowly 11R as an oft overlooked gem of a unit. It is a very good sounding modeler that feels great and is very easy to dial in. It is not without its limitations, though, and a new Helix arrived at my door about 3 weeks ago. There is a lot to like about the new hotness. How will it stand up to my old flame? We shall see in this thread, but only as it applies to amp tone.

    Each post will feature a comparison between the 2 units for an amp I actually own (and I own a LOT of amps), so I will be able to compare both to each other and to what I know of the real thing.

    I will test them with their built-in IRs and a sampling of external IRs from Ownhammer's V4 offerings. I intend to stay pretty close to their matching cabinets so as not to go too far into the weeds, however. OH IRs will be loaded directly into Helix's IR slots for testing. The 11R will be routed through a lightweight VST host (Cantabile) and into NadIR (set to highest resolution) for external IR testing. (NadIR is the most neutral sounding convolver plugin I have found.) I realize this is less than perfect, but it accommodates fast switching back and forth without introducing the weight of a full DAW to handle all the I/O and treat both signals exactly the same. Still, I think it is fair, since it demonstrates the strength of the Helix in its IR hosting and the weakness of the 11R in its need for an external solution.

    Both units are plugged into a BLA MOTU HD192 PCI424 interface in stereo using their XLR outputs. Monitoring through the PC is zero latency when possible, however when using external IRs with the 11R, latency is measured at a max of only 2.9ms.

    Monitoring will be accomplished using a pair of Yamaha HS80M 8" studio monitors supplemented by a Yamaha YST-SW305 2x8" subwoofer. These monitors can be described as a better sounding NS-10. In my experience, any mix that sounds good on these monitors will translate well to virtually any other monitoring system without the fatigue caused by the old NS-10s. My home studio's near field listening position is treated and tuned to be as flat as possible.

    The guitar will be plugged into a Lehle Dual A/B switcher to allow quick switching back and forth between modelers. This is a very transparent switcher that does not add any load to the pickups that I can measure or discern. I may use a variety of guitars, but they will be pretty standard and relate-able. The 3 guitar cords in use will be identical run-of-the-mill Fender cables. I have better cables, but I want to keep it real.

    Levels will be matched in MOTU's CueMix software and with a Radio Shack SPL meter for good measure.

    I hate to write this next part. I don't have any plans to record sound clips at this point. That will add a lot of time to the process, and I simply don't have that time. Written descriptions will have to suffice. Sorry.

    First up is the venerable Marshall JCM800. I will write it up some time tomorrow after having a hell of a good time with it last night.
     
    Last edited: May 7, 2016
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  2. Mullenski

    Mullenski Gold Supporting Member

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    Let the games begin!
     
  3. mojah

    mojah Member

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    No clips... I was looking forward to this thread till I came to that statement.
     
  4. Steve Dallas

    Steve Dallas Member

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    There may be some clips, but I'm not committing to it. I have a limited amount of time to do this stuff these days. And, I haven't played much in the past 3 years since the little accident was born, so I'm pretty rusty.
     
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  5. Dajbro

    Dajbro Member

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    Looking forward to it. I still like my 11R and am thinking about picking up a Helix to use live.
     
  6. Steve Dallas

    Steve Dallas Member

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    Marshall JCM800 Shootout

    Background

    I own early 80s vintage 50W and 100W examples of this head along with a 70s vintage 1960A 4x12 slant cabinet loaded with Celestion G12-65s. I imagine the 70s vintage speakers are tired, but they are undamaged and probably serve to mellow the tone a bit. The 50W naturally has more gain than the 100W, since the preamp is pushing pair of EL34s instead of a quad, and the B+ voltage is lower.

    My approach to this shootout was to recreate recognizable hard rock tones from the 80s. I have a favorite set of settings that worked well for me in creating a tone that would work for early Slash with a Les Paul to Van Halen with a super Strat to Def Leppard with an Ibanez. Those settings are: Presence 10 Bass 10 Mid 3 Treble 7 Master 10 Preamp 10. The main variation on these settings is to simply turn down the bass when using the neck pickup on a Les Paul and/or dime the treble if I was having trouble cutting through in the mix.

    I set each modeler to the above settings and matched an internal cab as closely as I could. The 11R cab was the 4x12 Classic 30, which might be V30s, but could be H30s (the user guide just says 30W ceramic). The Helix cab was the Uber 4x12 V30. The mics I liked in both cases turned out to be the Senn 409.

    The only effect in the signal chain was a touch of medium plate reverb with the mix set very low (5%) to add a tiny bit of depth.

    The guitars I chose were a stock PRS SC245 and a Fender American Deluxe HSS with a Duncan Pearly Gates Plus bridge pickup and Fender Custom Shop 69 neck and middle pickups and RS Guitarworks electronic bits. The volume pot in the Strat is a 350K that actually measures 370K.

    I used the PC editors to set up both modelers. Both modelers had their input impedence control set to Auto.


    HELIX w/ Internal Cab

    It took about 3 minutes to create a new patch, add the amp, cab, and stereo reverb blocks, and set all their respective settings. I scrolled through all the mics and quickly settled on the 409 as the clearest sounding for my purpose and had my benchmark tone. How did it sound? Woofy, woolly, hairy, sizzly, and terrible in a really awesome way. In other words, it sounded almost EXACTLY like my real 50W, but with a lot more gain. To match the gain with my 50W, I had to turn the Preamp down from 10 to 3. That's not a complaint, just an observation. Otherwise, it sounded and felt almost exactly like the real thing. The bass frequencies were low and loose. I could make the low end play more nicely with different guitars and pickups by simply adjusting the Bass knob appropriately. The mids were smooth and woolly with some ghost notes and crossover distortion present. If you have heard the isolated tracks from Van Halen I, you know exactly what I am talking about. The highs were pure Marshall with a sizzle riding on top. This is not the same thing as the Line 6 fizzies. This is how the real amp sounds, and it can be augmented or tamed to a degree by certain speaker and mic choices.

    I played the amp with both guitars for about half an hour and ran through what I could remember of a typical set list from the 80s and had a heck of a good time doing it. Terrible awesome tone is a lot of fun, but in the back of my head, I was running down all the things I needed to do to shape the tone to make it usable in a recording or live band context.

    A parametric EQ block was added after the cabinet block. I shelved the bass at 80Hz to start, and the treble at 10K to start. Then I bumped the upper mids slightly with a wide Q and cut 200Hz moderately with a medium Q. I blindly moved the frequency centers around according to what my ears told me. In less than 5 minutes time, I had it. I don't actually remember all the EQ settings exactly. I'll have to look them up and edit the post later.

    In summary, I spent less than 10 minutes dialing in the tone and enjoyed myself immensely for 30 more minutes. I had no urge to tweak obsessively like I have with other modelers. The Helix sounds miles ahead of all the other Line 6 modelers I have owned and certainly deserves a place in the "Next Generation" family of technology. And, it FEELS right. I spent a lot of time fiddling with the volume knobs on my guitars trying to trip it up, and it behaved perfectly in every respect.

    In modeling the JCM800, it is clear that Line 6 chose accuracy over idealism and modeled it exactly as it is, but with quite a bit more gain on tap than what my example has. The model is 95% convincing and without any omissions or exceptions. I was and am impressed. The internal cab sounds good, but not great. It does sound like what I would expect a 4x12 loaded with V30s to sound like (with a little added cardboard), and the scrolling through the mic models did meet my expectations of how those mics all sound according to past experience with them--at least relative to each other. The cabs plus mics are usable and convincing, but fortunately Line 6 created a bunch of slots to give others an opportunity to improve on things with 3rd party IRs. Having said that, if I didn't know about 3rd party IRs, I could use what is built in and be happy.


    Eleven Rack w/ Internal Cab


    Setting up the patch in the 11R took about the same amount of time as before. I started with the exact same settings as I had started with in the Helix. I scrolled through the mics on the cabinet and went back and forth between the 409 (more presence) and 414 (rounder) before setting it to 409 to be consistent with what I set up in the Helix. How did it sound? Surprisingly, it sounded almost exactly like the Helix did after I EQ'd it. The tone was very usable and would sit in a mix very well with just a little bit of post tweaking. I felt like the 11R's JCM800 model must be based on the 100W version, as it has a lot more headroom and a little extra midrange clarity like my real amp.

    After level-matching it to the Helix as perfectly as possible, I jammed on it for about 20 minutes until fatigue set in. I needed to fix that.

    In my experience, the cabinet models in the 11R, when used with higher gain amps, accentuate 2 to 4 annoying frequencies that spoil the sound. The fix is straightforward and pretty quick once you have done it a few times. The way to solve it is to simply find the offending frequencies and notch them out. I recorded a rhythm clip that included open chords and full barre chords in Sonar. I set the clip to loop and added a para EQ to the effects bus. I set each band to a very narrow Q and 0 gain. Then I maxed the gain on one band and dragged it across the frequency spectrum until I found an offensive frequency, which will have an aliased, grating, grinding, or whistling sound. Once a frequency was identified, I notched it and moved on to the next band until there were no more to be found. The entire process took about 5 minutes. Once I had the para EQ settings in Sonar, I added a para EQ block after the cabinet in the 11R and copied the settings over. Problem solved. At that point, I had a smooth, polished tone that I would have been happy to play for hours. (Note: these frequencies are often the same from patch to patch of the same genre, so you can save the para EQ settings as a preset and apply it to a new patch with very little adjustment needed.)

    In summary, I again spent less than 10 minutes dialing in a great 80s hard rock tone that was a pleasure to play. And again, I did not have any urge to tweak it beyond what I would do with the real amp. The 11R is ancient by today's standards, but it still hangs in there as a perfectly relevant device in this test. Its main advantages (beyond its awesome orange color) are how good it FEELS and how easy it is to dial in great tone. Guitarists like me who want to turn a few knobs and get to the playing part are well-served by this modeler. In truth, it probably only sounds 90% as good as the top of the line modelers on the market, but there is a huge segment of guitar players who are not even capable of hearing that last 10% or might decide the cost of admission is too high to justify it. It is limited by its platform at this point, but is still very good at what it does. Did I mention it FEELS great?

    Digidesign's approach to modeling appears to be to create an idealized version of an amp (or this one, at least) that is ready to sit in a mix without much additional tweaking. There was no looseness or woofiness to the bass frequencies. The mids were smooth and accentuated in all the right places without the accompanying wool and ghosting. The top end sounded like a Marshall with taming techniques already applied. It sounded like what I wish my real amp would sound like without having to do all the work. It's too bad its cabinet models are such an Achilles heel, and it's really too bad it doesn't directly support 3rd party IRs, because using them eliminates the need to notch out offensive frequencies.


    HELIX w/ Ownhammer IRs

    Helix's built-in IRs are pretty good and pretty consistent according to my expectations. But how does it sound with good 3rd party IRs? For this test, I selected the V30 speaker set in the Marshall Checkerboard cab from the V4 collection to best approximate the built-in cabs I was using in both modelers. To make things as easy as possible, I loaded 7 IRs from the Quick Start folder and worked my way through them. I immediately noted all of the OH IRs sounded darker than the internal IR I was using. The OH1 IR came the closest to what I wanted to hear and was selected to be the baseline. I set up a footswitch configuration on Helix that would A/B a 2048 sample IR block with the built in cab block and proceeded to compare what I was hearing from them. This is all subjective and hard to describe, but the difference is there. Surprisingly, the two cabinets sounded pretty similar. (Ain't technology great!) The OH IR sounded slightly more "present" and like it included more information. Some would call it 3D vs. 2D, but the difference is more subtle. Given the choice between the two, I would definitely choose the OH IR, although I would dive into the deep folders to find one with a more defined high end. It made an already great sounding unit even better by adding complexity to the sound. The fact that I can load it and use it seamlessly forever is a great feature, obviously. Note that the para EQ block I created to tame the beast was still needed and is simply a "consequence" of Line 6's [perfectly legitimate] design choices.


    Eleven Rack w/ Ownhammer IRs

    Eleven Rack owners have long complained about the built-in IRs and have begged Digi / Avid to give us IR slots for years. The team said it was technically feasible, but development on the product ended before it could be done. That has left us doing it the hard way. In my case, I mostly record with my 11R, so I just turn off the cab block and post effects and do everything after the amp in my DAW. Some people use an Epsi or Torpedo Cab in the loop and live with the limitations and/or MIDI programming needed to make it work. Others aggressively use para EQ blocks to make the cabs behave. It is what it is, and it's a shame that the cab IRs have limited such an otherwise great product to the degree that they have.

    Running the 11R through the same IR selected for the Helix yielded results that were not surprising to me. It completely eliminated the need for the para EQ block I had inserted after the cabinet block. It allowed this great sounding modeler show what it is really capable of producing and was the last little element needed to call what I had a finished tone. I have been using the 11R this way for years, so it merely confirmed what I already knew. External IRs put the 11R in the big leagues for the types of music I play.


    HELIX vs. Eleven Rack

    The following statement is not an exaggeration. By the time I finished tweaking and was running both modelers through the same IR, I frequently lost track of which one I was playing at any given time. The only notable difference was the 11R had a slightly more forward sounding presence in the midrange, but it was subtle and quickly forgotten. I could EQ that into the Helix if I wanted to. Both modelers felt and sounded great. Both exhibited excellent touch sensitivity. Both are very good at emulating most aspects of the actual amp. Both were a joy to run down memory lane. The Helix patch still sounded a little raw and rude compared to the polished 11R sound, but that was also subtle and not necessarily a bad thing.

    The tone stacks in both units behave very much like the real thing and very much like each other. Apart from the Preamp knob, twiddling the knobs had the exact same results in terms of range and behavior from Helix to 11R to real amps.

    Ease of dialing in a tone was pretty similar with internal cabs, but the 11R is easier with external cabs.

    Picking a winner based on sound alone is hard to do. As a complete package, Helix easily wins. Assuming the use of 3rd party IRs, and assuming you like Digi / Avid's idea of ready-to-print sound, 11R wins simply due to ease of use. Helix wins if perfect accuracy against the real thing is your most important criterion. After the limited amount of work I did to make them both ready to track, Helix wins overall sound quality by a nose, as very careful listening revealed subtle overtones and layers of complexity not heard in the 11R.

    [I may come back and edit this if I think of anything else worth sharing, but this is what I have for now.]

    The Matchless DC-30 is next.
     
    Last edited: May 9, 2016
  7. Aurotonal

    Aurotonal Member

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    It's a good read, always been a bit interested in the 11, and I understand the no clips policy, but without them I'm left thinking you've just compared a Marshall sound, notoriously popular as a means to market modellers/software for its ubiquity and I have to think ability to camouflage things, on one device you've familiarised yourself with over years against one that's relatively new to you. Still a good read thanks.
     
  8. Axe-Man

    Axe-Man Member

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    I've always wondered about the 11R with good IR's as I always thought highly of it.

    Now I have a Torpedo Live, I have been considering a second hand 11R as an all in one option. Cheap and great tones; simple to dial in; enough FX for me personally.
     
  9. B Money

    B Money Member

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    well written, thanks for taking the time. I'd be interested in your thoughts regarding the 50 watt Plexi model in the 11R, which is one of my favorites.
     
  10. Hellbound

    Hellbound Member

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    This is great stuff. So impressed you are doing this and documenting your journey. Looking forward to your next port of call
     

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