I wanted to share with you my my setup for using Helix Native as a live rig (band practice and gigging). This is my first post in this forum and the reason I wrote it, is because firstly I wanted to share my experiences with this new adventure and secondly maybe get in touch with other people who are thinking about going down the same road. I will first quickly say a few words about why I decided to try to make this work and then present my (current) setup. A quick spoiler: While I am not in any way claiming that my solution is the perfect one or my decisions were particularly smart (and I am happy for any kind of input and feedback) I am absolutely loving what I have achieved so far... Being so happy is in fact one of the main reasons why I am writing this, because maybe it makes some of you happy as well
Some background because some people might wonder why I am even doing this (and not just buy a Helix hardware unit for example). You can skip this and directly check out my setup below, if you are not interested
My L6 amp modeling journey has started around 2000 with POD2.0 and I have had numerous setups over time, going through tube amps and also trying direct into PA. For a very long time I was not happy with the sound of the direct PA solution and so I settled with running my PODs into Fender Amps. There I was very happy with the tone, even though there was always a Fender colour in it. I pretty much stuck to this solution until and including PODX3Live. When POD HD came out, I was intrigued by the solution of running it into the Line6 DT25 hybrid amp because it seemed the perfect combo of modeled pre-amps and tube power amp with adapting analogue circuitry. Unfortunately, this was somehow the setup I was the least happy with tone-wise. I don't know whether my expectations just grew over time or whether I was not tuning in the patches correctly but I have spent hours and hours reading forum entries, tutorials, the MeAmBobbo PodHD Guide (what an awesome guide!), etc. and still something always felt just a tiny bit off when I played. I somehow got used to it over the years, but there was always this itch in the back of my head leaving me slightly unsatisfied. I could go on a long time to try to explain my current understanding of what was wrong, but this would be a different post. Let's just say, I believe now that the true "ultimate" setup with Amp Modeling can only be going out directly to a PA. Anything else will always somehow compromise the vision of dialling in totally different amps, cabs and microphones. My problem so far was, that I never liked to tone of going direct to PA from a Modeller. UNTIL NOW .. what a dramatic story
I do not want to convince anyone here, or say that this will be true for other people, but for my ears, the helix is the first Modeller I run into the PA and immediately fell in love with. It felt so responsive, so deep, so diverse, so limitless... I knew that the time has come for me to ditch the tubes. So I started to look into options and right about that time I heard, that Helix Native is coming. While I was sceptical I was also very intrigued. This has been my absolute dream ever since I first laid my eyes on a POD: Just bring my computer and have the same sound anywhere I like, total flexibility, get rid of all this analogue machinery (except for the guitar) and free myself in the digital world. I know, I know... it will never be exactly the same sound... But still, it was my dream.
To give you some less irrational reasons, here is:
My Motivation: Why is using Helix Native live so great for me?
I am totally aware that this setup will not be for everyone, so after this long and boring story, here in short my reasons of why I will not look back:
- Modularity: I am a fan of having a modular system. The amp modeller is one module (could be split up as well, do not see any reason currently, but with my digital setup, I could combine it with other amp modellers or effect plugins). Other modules are the foot controller, the computer that runs the modeller, the audio interface... I like the following things about modularity: I am able to exchange the modules, if better options exist or something breaks. Depending on where I play I might not need all the modules (e.g. foot controller). I have more flexibility and control over the modules, for example, I can freely configure the foot controller to also control other elements in my setup (e.g. Mobius Looper).
- Size: As a direct consequence of modularity, I can leave the Floor-Board in my practice room and all I need to carry is the laptop, which I usually carry anyway, and the audio interface, if I don't have one in the practice room.
- Cost: I already have a good laptop and an audio interface, so... Also, if a better Helix Native will come out (or whatever the name will be), I will only have to pay upgrade costs for that part of my setup.
- Extensibility: Since the Helix will run in a VST Host I get limitless possibilities to further combine it with other Processing effects.
- Dependability: I know this is a matter of taste but I hugely prefer to make digital backups of my Laptop (which I do anyway) and bring a second laptop and audio interface for my gig (which I can borrow from a friend) than needing to constantly sync and backup my Helix hardware unit and organise two Helix units for a gig. If I have one Helix Unit and if it fails, I am out of options. If it gets stolen or I loose it, I will have to buy a new one (The same is true for the laptop, but the laptop is in a similar price range but does so much more). With Helix Native, I have more options to setup a more redundant and fail-safe system. I will only need to replace the module that failed.
I know that this does not come for free. There are more cables - common, it's not that bad Modularity also means that for each module you have tons of options and it will take time to read into these options and make decisions and set them up. But for me personally, it was totally worth it. And maybe the next section will save some time for others who dream of the same advantages like me. So finally:
Guitar: well, not relevant here but I play a Godin Montreal and I love it
Audio Interface: I have a RME Babyface Pro, which supposedly provides great quality at a reasonable price and to my ears it sounds great through the PA system. The instrument input impedance is slightly lower than normal for guitar amps or effects but I cannot hear any problem and plugin in guitars is one officially mentioned application scenario for the Babyface Pro so I trust that the RME guys know what they are doing. I also really like the software mixer that comes with the Babyface Pro. As with the Helix hardware units (discussed at length in many forums) listening to your guitar through headphones is a thing one has to get used to. It will never sound the same as listening to your sound through a high power PA system. But I read a lot about this and by now I am pretty convinced that this is just the way it is and there is nothing you can do about it. Headphones are not high powered amps + loudspeakers in a room. If you plan on practicing a lot with headphones, get decent headphones (there are other threads on this topic) but be aware that it will never sound the same as through a PA.
PC: I have a Mac Book Pro with El Capitan from 2010 (quite old) and no problems so far. You can read a lot that SSD Disks are important but I don't really get why? This is definitely true for recording, since there, you save your audio to the disk and the disk is one of the slowest things on your computer. But for live use, I think RAM and Processor speed are way more important. I don't have a SSD and I only have 4GB RAM and so far no problems. I have never looked into this but I think, if you buy a decent laptop today, it will have more performance than the helix units anyway, so this should not be a limiting factor.
VST Host: I have evaluated various options and I have found that for my application the Live Professor by audioström is by far the best VST Host. It provides exactly what I need but nothing more. It is easy to learn and has a nice user interface. The most important thing that it brings to the table that some others don't, is that you can safe the entire Helix Native plugin state as a "snapshot" in Live Professor itself. This is crucial currently because Helix Native does (at the point of this writing) not support snapshots or preset changes through MIDI or automation. That means that in Live Professor, I only have one Helix Live instance with one preset active. Once I configured that preset with Amps and effects to my liking, I safe this current state as a snapshot in Live Professor. Live Professor lets me switch between these snapshots seamlessly and I can create Setlists for my concerts that correctly activate the snapshots I need for each song. This in turn can then be mapped to MIDI controls so I can use my MIDI floorboard to switch through my snapshots, each snapshot corresponding to a different amp and effects configuration in Helix Native. You can also map MIDI controls to turn Effects in Helix Native on and off or to control Knobs of Amps etc. Live Professor even supports VST3 and it runs both on Mac and PC, another big plus for me, which should not surprise you since I like to stay flexible. If I ever feel like switching from Mac to PC, I don't want to switch my entire setup.
Other Effects: I do a lot of live looping and now I can use the Mobius Looper. I use the standalone version because unfortunately for now, Mobius has still only a 32bit version. This works for me, I simply use the RME Mixer to loopback the output signal of Live Professor back into Mobius and do the looping at the end of the signal chain, which is where I want to have it anyways. If you are interested in live looping, do check out Mobius it is absolutely awesome and offers more than any hardware looper unit I know. Again, another great advantage of using a Laptop and a modular setup.
Floorboard: I use the classical Behringer FCB1010 to control the Setlist in Live Professor, the volume in Helix Native and the track volumes and controls of the Mobius looper. Maybe I will add another expression pedal or even another midi board in the future to have even more control options, but for now I am already super happy with this setup. Especially the looper is a big step up from the limited looping options and controller freedom I had with the looper that was built into my PodHD.
PA: We have a Yamaha PA in our practice room and I don't even know the exact type but I don't think that it is a particularly expensive one. I truly think that this is one of the advantages of Amp modelling becoming better and better and it will get less and less important of which particular PA system you use as long as it has a decent FRFR. You can fine-tune the sound by EQing for the particular PA and room, but the general sound and feel that I heard so far was always pleasing me. As I said above, this was not the case in the early years of Amp modelling and I think we have definitely transitioned into a time, where tube amps will fade out, as analogue cameras have faded out the last couple of years. At least for me, I think I will never switch back to hardware units and amps from here on out.
This was it, thanks for reading. I am curious whether someone even cares but as I said: I was so happy about my new setup that I simply had to write this down. And if someone gets inspired to try a similar setup or shares some thought about his own setup, even better.