Modellers galore: Helix, Headrush and GT-1000
Over the past week I have had the opportunity to test the three main modellers in Europe against one another. The Amplifire and Fractal stuff is not included here for the simple reason that they are not available in guitar stores: Fractal only deals through a single distributor in Germany, and Atomic stuff quite simply seems to be unavailable here. That is a pity, as those are the modellers Leon Todd, who is probably one of the best Dino sources on this stuff, claim is the best for classic hard rock and heavy metal – but never mind that.
Originally I had planned to test out merely one thing, viz., the amp modelling. I had planned to test out Soldano and vintage Marshall sounds, with and without distortion boxes. I am of the opinion that quality multi-effects basically had the sound of time-based effects down 25–30 years ago, and that it would be shocking if any of these boxes could not deliver these. I also approached them as a convenience when playing live. I still prefer the sound of a living, breathing amp rig, but the places I might actually play are usually cramped enough as they are, and anything that can be removed from the stage, and simplify the whole rigging process, is a positive in my book. In this view, a lot of the discussions about the merits of the respective units (number of loadable IRs etc) to be largely irrelevant for how we would actually use them. The observations made do not pertain to, say, studio usage, as this is too far outside of my field for me to say anything, or to tone shaping on a very specific level. Each and every one of these units can create very different and unique tones, but most people here will be interested in a rather specific set of sounds, I suspect.
First thing first: Each of these units CAN work well as a convenient replacement for an amp, but only with some caveats. First of all, I have previously tried the Helix twice and been spectacularly underwhelmed by the tone. The first time around one of the reasons might have been that the firmware was completely new, and that the tones still needed to be tweaked (a lot of the early comments on the Helix's tone were far from positive, although it is hard to say how many of them came from Fractal fanbois). Both of these times, however, the board was plugged into a small mixer and a no-name PA speaker, which may not have given the most ideal perception of the tone. Now I got to try it into one of the new Headrush FRFR speakers, and it sounded a lot better. For these units to be convenient, however, one would need to be able to provide this experience by running it through the board. After all, if you need to carry specific speakers to get a good tone, that hardly helps you with downsizing. I will, for the sake of moving on, assume that it would be possible to recreate my good experience by running direct.
Regarding the sounds, I think all the units deliver decently. I did not expect any of them to make anything as articulate as a real Soldano, but as far as generic Marshally tones go, these should satisfy decently enough. To my ears, the Helix and Headrush both deliver equally well on this. If I had to give the edge to either, it would be to the Headrush, as the tones sounded a little rawer, and it also seemed to have a larger collection of different Marshalls to play with. The Helix and GT-1000 seem to provide possibilities for more tweaking, which is a good or a bad thing depending on one's outlook. I found that what you should do right away when starting to set up a patch is to make sure that the mic used on the cabinet is an SM57. This will get you into dino land the fastest, and to me, this provided the most pleasing treble response. I suspect that it will provide the best starting point for most dinos.
The GT-1000 I think is still a step behind the two others in modelling. I think most people will agree that this has never been Boss' forte, but they are getting better. This, I would say, is only one generation behind the other modellers on the market, rather than practically unusable, as I have found them in the past. In the YouTube videos I have seen it has appeared that this responded more like an actual amp, but I did not feel this when playing it. One still has to look out for a shrill treble that I have always found Boss units to have, but it is possible to tune this out. The GT has fewer amp models than the two other units, but I found that the models have more gain, so that you can probably coax more sounds out of each amp model. I would say that this is the unit you really need to try before you buy, just to make sure that you gel with the amp sounds. I should perhaps note that I went for a rather saturated distortion sound for the most part; think Sunset Strip rather than Led Zeppelin. I did try to dial back the gain a little, though, and they all seem to do this fairly well, with the GT again perhaps lagging slightly behind.
Beyond this, I think we have reached the point where all the leading units will be good enough for the gigs most of us play, and it might be more useful to look at how you plan to use the units when deciding which one to go for: they might sound pretty similar, but they are operated in entirely different ways. The Headrush might seem to be ahead here, as it is the only unit with a touchscreen. Unless I am missing something, the Headrush seems to be specializing in giving a "pedal board" experience, and this is also reflected in the interface. It has stereo capabilities, but these seem to be comparatively limited to the other units. Of the three units, it is definitely the one providing the best plug-and-play experience. The Helix, which operates with a small stick, felt primitive when used side-by-side with the Headrush, but also has an excellent interface: making patches from scratch is incredibly easy, considering the technology involved. There are more parameters in the Helix, which might be a good or a bad thing, but nothing like on the newest Axe FX. In general, it seems like the unit that can do the most different things.
I want to make a special case for the GT-1000, for the simple reason that the design of its interface has received so much attention. In this unit, the maximum number of effects are always present on the selection screen, and you quite simply have to turn these on and off as you see fit; you cannot remove them. This has made a lot of people go "WTF", but I think there is a case to be made for it: I suspect that the engineers did this to optimize processor usage, so as to make the most out of the capabilities of the unit. It is, I think, the unit with the most routing capabilities, as you can include as much as three A/B switches, which can also be used nested. This would, for instance, make it dead easy to include a guitar synth of several preamps doing different things in your rig. If the Headrush provides a convenient pedalboard experience, the GT-1000 provides a more advanced "rig" experience, which kind of makes me sad that it is not rather sold as a rack unit, and whether there should have been more than two effects loops on it. One thing I should have tested, but didn't, was time needed to switch between patches. If this is good enough, it might make some of the advantages of the GT-1000 in this field superfluous, but my impression is that the other units still experience delays when switching patches, so it might be that the comparatively convoluted interface of the GT-1000 manages to avoid this problem. Another thing that it seemed to me like the GT-1000 alone could do was to provide separate speaker simulation to line outs and jack outs, so that the same patches easily could be used with a more conventional amp and going direct to board.
My verdict? To the extent that I have any right to do so, I consider myself a rig rather than a pedalboard guitarist, and I really liked the switching flexibility of the GT-1000. If I had been convinced that the amp models in it were up to scratch, that would have been my choice. As it stands, I am not left entirely convinced, however, and I would need some more time with it to make sure that I could be truly happy with it. Accepting this caveat, I don't think you can go wrong with either unit, and ultimately one has to try which unit one likes the best, but with as much of a view of user interface and routing capabilities as anything: most pedalheads would probably find the Headrush the most pleasing to use, toneshapers the Helix, and rig fans the GT-1000. The Helix and Headrush also have reduced versions which might be of interest for those with relatively limited needs.
Post edited by Sirion on