About a month in with helix. I thought I would post a few observations about gigging Helix and Powercab in the real world as it might help others. I bet my journey is pretty typical. Gigging for real humans not touring pros.
My Goal: was to replace my Friedman mini dirty Shirley and pedal board ; Friedman board, volume pedal, wah, full tone 69, muff, Timmy, KOT, phase 90, flint, delay, EQ, boost, other odds and ends depending on the day. Replaced with helix and power cab +. I use the Helix as a rig. One amp. One amp setting and pedals. Just like I would with my tube gear. A very simple setup.
who: I play guitar and sing in a local bar band. I am not a pro. We play rock / country / blues / originals it’s a bar band. We gig locally around nor cal. I need a country tone, rock tone, solo tones for each, wah, phaser and univibe, reverb, trem, delay. I “try” to ride the volume to get the sounds I want from clean to scream. Friedman was good at this. Before that I had a nace, Goodsell super 17, 68 vibrolux, Princeton, Drri, magnatone, kemper, played others as well. They all worked. People liked the tones. i sound like me.
Why Change: the pedal board was big and heavy, The amps are heavy. Tubes fail. Inevitably some chord would fail and it took forever to find the problem and most importantly IT WAS HARD TO DIAL IN THE RIGHT VOLUME vs Feel. Also the tone seemed to change around for no apparent reason (probably volume).
Volume is king: the most important factor in tone is volume. Getting the right feel of an amp requires volume. The right volume, I was told once by a local pro (world class), is louder and cleaner than you think. It’s completely true. for me anyway. At a certain volume the amp cuts better, is more alive , I am lighter on the strings. There is more sensitivity to picking and guitar volume. Sustain is better, natural compression... It’s just better.
Helix day one fail: I first Watched videos then dialed in a tone I thought sounded good at a decent volume and went to practice. JTM 45 , replicated my pedal board, used the Jason S template, what could go wrong. In a band context it fell apart. Fizzy on top, weird mid range, caved in when gained up, one dimensional clean. Band mates said it sucked. Not good. What I failed to do was use a reference tone and because of that I had way to much gain (from dialing in at low volume). I wanted to return it.
I went back and set up helix and Friedman side by side at gig levels and tried to tone match. I was unsuccessful in matching the tone. However, what I ended up with was in some ways better and in some ways worse but it was workable It sounded good . Imagine getting a new amp. Amps are Never exactly the same. Then, I had the same pro twist the eq settings and it got better. Use the looper functionality for this. The take away, eventually, was that helix amp and effects sounded good at the gigs. like a real rig. Not the same rig, but a good rig with its own sound. It’s a completely usable platform. A Very good sounding platform. An almost perfectly flexible platform.
the process that worked for me:
I started over. To begin: pick an amp you like or one close to what you are using. For me jtm 45 = dirty Shirley and i used the cream back and or green back speaker models in the power cab to replace my 1/12 greenback. Dial in amp and cab at the loudest gig volume you would use. I set mine at light crunch then roll back guitar volume for cleaner tones. Keep your EQ cuts in one place so you are not chasing your tail. I got them to sound like cousins. Note I can crank the master on the jtm higher than I can the dirty Shirley and this actually makes the helix “ feel better “ in some ways. It’s more like a cooking amp. Some tones were not as good. As of this instant I could not quite produce the same shimmer in the clean tones. Is that tubes ? I don’t know. I will get better cleans over time as i learn more about helix. Also changing the mic, speaker cab , eq made more of a difference than the last 5% of shimmer. At a gig, that difference is completely gone, lost, not important. Dirt: about once every 10 gigs I would luck upon a pedal, amp, volume, band, room, setting that was magic. That perfect wailing guitar. Mostly I got good rock tones out of my equipment. With the helix I have not gotten that magic 30 seconds of tone yet, however, it’s better than my average tone was before ALL THE TIME. this is due to the volume flexibility you get with modelers. Also the “Amps” are cranked and take boosts more predictably and better than a real amp on 4. Volume related again.
tips: 1) don’t digitally clip the amp. Pay attention to volume matching
2) dial it all in at gig volume 3) the boosts into a cooking amp give very usable rock tones. Keep the gain lowish. Like in real life the Timmy is a great tone shaper. Sadly, I can’t make the fuzz tones work yet. Maybe with more time. 4) dial in a darker tone than you think you need. Volume will fix that in a band mix. 5) cut frequencies as much as you can versus boosting. 6) spend time on the upper mids and higher lows. 250, 450, 700 -800 range. These are prone to sound wrong if not given eq love.
6) on a dark stage the line six icon lines up with the guitar input! I just saved you an hour over your lifetime.
powercab: lots of times we don’t mic guitar amps. Only vocals into PA. These are 60-100 person clubs/ bars. Just like a real amp we set the levels and play. Power cab sounds like a loud 1/12. It’s a 1/12. Is it beamy, boxy bla bla, well compared to a 4x12 yes it is. Compared to a 1/12 it’s a great 1/12. It is louder than a dlx reverb, about the same as my vibrolux in volume. It’s more than 20 watts less than 50. Loud enough to do a bar gig un-miced with a loud rock drummer doing 70s rock. I have used frfr -raw, cream, green and cream back ir. All work well. Also 100% of your tone can be clean headroom, if you want. So that’s twice the DLX in clean volume.
Benefits: no chords and cables, lighter and more compact than my pedalboard, visible on stage, GREAT volume control, fantastic interface, simple and practical at a gig. Easy to “mic” , run a cable to the pa, Easy to set up, enough practical volume to do any bar gig un-miced. Consistently sounds the same every time. Easy to get special effects if desired with no increase in size or complexity. Sounds like a tube rig in a mix and is much more flexible and consistent. reliable (so far). Cover band nirvana. And GREAT volume control.
Have I heard better tone. Yes. Have I had better tone. Yes for a few moments here and there. Are some individual dirt pedals better , more magical...yes. Do i miss Fuzz? yes. Does any of the above carry any meaning in the context of gigging in a rock band in clubs and bars: no.
summary: Helix can sound bad. Helix is a great tool and is amazingly flexible. If it sounds bad it’s probably you. Helix can sound very good. EQ Time spent is good time spent. Have one EQ location if possible. Volume control is important for mortal bands and helix is awesome for that. Power cab is a great 1/12. Helix + power cab works very well as a gigging solution in the real world. It’s sooooooo easy once you get a core tone.
I looked around for real world gigging reviews of helix and power cab and there was not a lot. I hope this encourages people to try out helix in the wild. It’s a really powerful and fun tool.
good luck and good music.