The James Tyler Variax and POD HD—Tips on Getting Acoustic Sounds

If I could point to one topic that I seem to get asked about the most, relative to the video content that I make for Line 6, it would have to be the subject of “how to get the best acoustic guitar sound out of a James Tyler Variax.” Personal messages, emails and YouTube comments on certain videos I’ve done seem to hold this out as an area of great interest for some folks, so I figured it may be time to dish out some of my own thoughts on the matter.

The first variable to consider when playing any real acoustic guitar is the gauge of the strings. If you listen to an electric guitar strung with 008’s, and then listen to the same guitar strung with 011’s, it may not even sound like the same instrument. When the guitar is strung with 011’s, it should have more power and output than it does with smaller strings…not only that, the strings will also wiggle around less in the saddle, because there is more tension to hold them in place when strung at pitch. You may actually have less of some other desirable string attributes though—that great rubbery/glossy thing that strings can do when they are really slack, for instance—but in general the guitar will sound a tad bigger with bigger strings, to a point.

So it would make sense that the same logic would apply on an acoustic guitar, and it does. The bigger the string, the more tension it has and the more stable it is in the saddle, and that higher tension drives the wood top more—giving a larger sound.

Another variable to remember is that acoustic strings are nearly always bronze or brass, which sound completely different from nickel electric strings.

Remember that we are not triggering samples or any such thing with the James Tyler Variax. We’re dealing with resonances and decay, based upon the input signal of the piezo pickup in the bridge of the guitar. As such, the strings’ size, metal content and age really do matter.

So for acoustic sounds specifically, it may be helpful to think of playing a James Tyler Variax strung with 010’s like you’re playing a Martin® HD-28® acoustic guitar strung with 008’s. If you were to play a large dreadnaught acoustic strung with really tiny strings, it would take some adjustment: you couldn’t play it too hard, because the strings would be so small that they would run out of tension long before they ever started to “drive” the wooden top of the guitar.

This leads me to Factoids #1 and #2: I string all my JTV guitars with 011 strings, and I think about playing the acoustic sounds like I’m playing a dreadnaught acoustic guitar strung with 008’s, which means I play them LIGHTLY. And I mean REALLY lightly.

To be frank, this is where a lot of the battle for good JTV acoustic sounds is. When I play traditional electric sounds I beat the snazzle out of the guitar sometimes, but when I play the acoustic stuff I treat the instrument in a completely different way.

The next step is hearing it, and that requires a playback system.

The truth is that acoustic guitars sound rather terrible to me when they’re coming through electric guitar amps. You can try and minimize all of the preamp gain that an electric amp has, and you can roll off a bunch of the high frequencies to try and stop the sound from removing the enamel from your teeth, but the reality is that acoustic guitar playback systems need to be full range and 100% clean, 99.6% of the time.

Factoids #3 and #4: when I do the JTV acoustic thing, the guitar is connected via either 1/4-inch or VDI to a POD HD500X, POD HD500 or POD HD Pro, and there is no amp modeling turned on the acoustic sound ever. That also means that the acoustic sound doesn’t ever come out of a DT25 or DT50 amplifier, obviously. It either comes out of a StageSource L2 or StageSource L3 speaker, or goes direct to Pro Tools HDX or the FOH mixing console.

There are all sorts of ways that you could theoretically set up an acoustic patch in a POD HD, but before we get there we need a baseline example of the guitar itself.

The following short snippet is the acoustic model in pickup position 5, entirely unprocessed—it’s a blank patch in the POD HD Pro, out the XLR outputs to a pair of mic preamps, and then into Pro Tools HDX. That’s it:

So if you’re on the latest firmware for your James Tyler Variax, and you’re not able to get close to this sound with a blank patch in your POD HD, you’ve got some playing and setup work to do. Remember the three most important variables: I’m using size 11 strings, I’m using a sharp pick and my fingers at the same time, and I’m playing very lightly.

Once you’ve gotten the raw sound of the Variax acoustic models down, you can start shaping them. Here is a typical patch (available on my CustomTone profile):

There is very little going on: in front of the mixer you have an EQ taking out a little bit of 220Hz, a tube limiter after the mixer pulling down the transients a tiny bit, and a plate reverb at the end making things sound a little wider. There is no amp processing and no heavy-handed EQ. Here’s a snippet of this setting:

That’s it. That’s all you really need. The rest is learning to play as lightly as you possibly can, until you get the hang of how much you can bang on the guitar before the sound begins to get nasty.

Hopefully that helps some of you. If you’re interested in hearing a bit of acoustic playing with a signal chain this simple, you can check out the examples in this video:

Until next time,