Some thoughts after digging into the Pod HD 500x for a year
tl/dr: stick with it, you can get good results but you will have to dig for them, especially if you are new to modellers.
What I was looking for
First off, bedroom player. Low talent. Don't gig. Do jam and record with a friend. Low experience of actual amps and stompboxes. Been recording terrible songs on-and-off since teenage-hood, but getting back into guitar over the last couple of years after a long absence. That said, good aptitude with things digital and I do read manuals. Currently approaching the mid-century. Influences: delta blues, classic rock, dirty blues rock and goth/indie.
I bought the Pod HD 500x after buying a reissue Big Muff. I wanted to get a Black Keys kind of tone. After using the Big Muff once I starting watching Rig Rundowns and realising that there is a lot to finding your tone(s). I realised that I might be on the start of some epic quest to find what worked for me.
I started looking at pedal boards and pedals and power supplies and interconnects and then realised that I didn't want an expensive, buzzing mess of unreliable, unsightly and expensive pedals and interconnects when I didn't even know what sorts of tones I liked. I also wanted to be able to try different effects without having to go through the whole "which is the best Univibe, then buy it" loop. The idea of being able to just drop in a modelled effect with a few clicks really appealed. So, at that point I decided to go sim/multifx. I accepted there would be a compromise on "real tone" and on mojo. My thinking was that multifx would be neater and give me more experimental options.
I did look into setting up a purely-VST- based rig. I worked out that the cost of the attendant midi foot switches and an expression pedal was not massively different to the various modeller floorboards that are available. Add in the cost of the software itself and it would be even more expensive. The idea of a dedicated unit that did everything in one box was really appealing.
I looked into the various options. I should comment at this point that one of my guiding principles in life is not to be the guy with "all the gear, no idea". I don't want to have higher-end gear than I have knowledge and talent to use. I want to be able to fully exploit what I have, then move on if I outgrow. Because of that I discounted the Kemper and Helix-level products.
I settled on the Pod HD 500x as it gave me lots of effects, a software interface, a physically-robust floorboard, an expression pedal, a looper AND the ability to send midi from the stomps to control VSTs if I wanted. It seemed reasonably priced for all the flexibility. At the time the Pod Go was not available so don't take this post as a comparison with the Pod Go.
Starting with the Pod HD 500x
Initial impressions were ok when I flicked through the presets. I'd been warned that they were all over the top so wasn't expecting to use them. I was left with the impression of flexibility and a wide range of tones available.
As I dug in and started to try my own tones I did find it hard to get things right. There are many options. Not all sound good. They probably don't sound like the real thing in a lot of cases. My ear was uneducated. There is a lot of discussion on the internet but the nuggets are buried in a lot of subjectivity.
I found that downloads from Custom Tone were helpful as a way of seeing how other people had got their tones. Some worked straight away for me, others provided a base. Many sounded very off so I suppose they didn't match my equipment or taste. Another possibility is that the person had uploaded a tone that just wasn't very good.
Issue using HD500 tones, or uploaded tones that may have been re-labelled as 500x
Don't try HD500 tones on your 500X. You can drag and drop them into HDEdit, but it doesn't mean they are quite compatible. The format of the files is different and it can make your floorboard decide to lose all patches. I had this problem very early on. It was not a big deal for me as I simply performed a factory reset, but it worried me at the time. To deal with this, firstly, regularly back up your whole bundle in HD Edit. Secondly, if you really want to try a tone from a different model, then load it into HD Edit, examine it without sending to the hardware, then create your own duplicate from scratch. It doesn't take long and then you know you have a compatible patch.
Absence of Pod Farm HD and inability to reamp with Pod HD series
After some time I realised that you can't really re-amp with the Pod HD series. There are ways to do it, but they are awkward. This made me long for what is present in the earlier Pod series and the in HX series: a software version. The earlier Pods seemed to come with Pod Farm for free. The Helix hardware offers a heavy discount on the matching software, called Helix Native.
I really like the ability to just plug into my audio interface and record something, then tweak the tone later, with full recall. For some reason Line 6 didn't make a software companion for the HD series.
Epic search through almost every amp-sim software available
Realising this made me start to consider buying a third-party amp-sim/fx package. Sticking with Line 6 would make sense from a model-similarity point of view as I wanted to have some comparability between my recording and live tones. I was quite miffed at having to buy the models twice when this would not have happened with the previous Pod generation or the HX generation.
I tried most every ampsim/fx package and singular plugin available. I read many threads debating the merits and how to set them up. Some basic findings and conclusions I came to:
- All the ampsim/fx packages can sound fine in the mix, even the really old ones.
- The newer and more paid-for sims do sound a bit better than the older ones and the free ones, but there is not a huge amount in it when listening solo and less when in a mix.
- Some of the newer free sims are really excellent. You really can just go free if you need to. It would not be quite as satisfying as the paid packages, but you will be able to record stuff at a hobby level. The honestampsimreviews website was useful for finding free sims. I'd mention Amplitube 4 (the free starter), Mercuriall/Roxolder, Flextron and PSA from AXP, Ignite, Blue Cat and Kuassa as the ones I liked.
- The newish, cheaper modular packages end up costing you about $200 by the time you have bought a couple of amp sims and the usual pedals you would use - overdrive/distortion, compressor, reverb, delay. I loved Kuassa for Caliburn, Matchlock and their overdrive.
- The older all-in amp-sim packages like Pod Farm and Guitar Rig offer a lot of options but are somewhat overpriced given that they don't offer current technology. I would likely have bought Pod Farm (Platinum as I want the range of models) if it was discounted more. Both of these seem around $200 by the time you have carefully bought the right package on sale.
- It is not particularly well-published, but Helix (including Native) incorporates legacy models which seem to cover the HD series models. So the elusive, non-existent Pod Farm HD could be achieved at some expense with Helix Native and the use of the Legacy models.
- TIP: Getting the right level for your audio interface is not necessarily the same as getting the right level for your VST amp-sim (or any plugin I supposed). On your audio interface you want to set the gain as high as you can whilst leaving headroom to prevent your audio interface digitally clipping your input (so leave plenty of head room). Once you are in your DAW, your plugin will often offer an input level knob (often with a meter). Sometimes the documentation even tells you what range it is expecting. Set this appropriately as it makes a big difference to how the plugin reacts. Line 6 plugins give a good indications.
In the end, all of this messing around and A/Bing different sims taught me a lot about modellers and how to optimise them. It caused me to read up a lot more about real-life mics, mic placement, speakers, cabinets and room sounds. Lol, I even read up on the history of the Celestion factory. This kind of thing is useful to be able to understand what the modellers mean when they talk about Greenbacks and Blackbacks. This knowledge and ear-education translated directly back to the Pod HD 500x, so I now get much better results with the Pod and am more confident using it. I don't slavishly choose "Greenback" because that is what someone's Rig Rundown says. I'm ok to choose Blackback, or a more modern cabinet as I know what it means.
The Pod HD audio drivers will blue-screen some modern Windows PCs. You see many posts about this. I have a couple of Win 10 desktop PCs I have tried the POD HD 500X on. One is older and never bluescreens. My newer one - which is the one I want to use - does bluescreen. It does it less if I use one of the USB 2 ports. Easiest workaround seems to be to just run from the 1/4inch outs into an audio interface if you have one (I do), but the quality does seem noticeably better on the USB interface.
I wish Line 6 would create a solution for this issue. Although the Pod HD series is old, it is still a current product.
So where have I ended up after a year of use?
I like the Pod HD500x. It does what I bought it for - gives me lots of effects models and amp models, together with stomp-box-style foot switches and an expression pedal.
I'm miffed that it does not have a software companion as the older and newer generations do. I will likely buy Helix Native when it is on sale sometime, but it pains me that I'm buying the models twice.
The USB connectivity issue irks me. I will tinker a little more with some of the "downgrade your USB connection" options, but I do wish Line 6 would characterise this issue and issue a fix or workarounds so I don't have to spend the time.
All the learning I did with other plugin options translated directly back to the Pod HD 500x and I can go straight to the models and effects I like to get the tone I am after, or something workable enough. As such, the need for reamping and the software companion is actually reducing.
I've moved away from the concept of "Clapton used a JTM-45 on Bluesbreakers, therefore I have to use a JTM-45 model in the Pod" to trying different amp models and fx models to get a sound I like. For example, I'm enjoying the Soldano models in the Pod. I've never heard a Soldano in real life and the tones I like tend to be on the Marshall / HiWatt /Orange side. For whatever reason the Soldano models are sounding good to me.
When I create a new tone now I do what the guides suggest. I start with a blank tone and add an amp. I adjust it so I like it, including adjusting the cab and mic options. You can sometimes get where you want to be with just an amp/cab model. Then I add distortion pedal(s) up front if I want/need and delays and reverbs after the amp model. You can double up if you want more subtlety / richness. I'm happy with what I am getting. I'm feeling enabled by, not limited by, the Pod.
I love the integrated looper. Yes, it is basic, but it is good for getting ideas, noodling/practice and testing tones. TIP: move the looper to the front of the chain while tweaking tones. That way you don't have to keep replaying. TIP: Put the looper in half-speed mode before you record and you get twice the recording length. I presume there is a reduction in quality.
Oh, the Line 6 model gallery is a joy as it shows you the original equipment that the model is based on. Then you can go and read about the history and use of that particular amp/pedal. You can see videos demonstrations of the real thing and listen to records on which it was used. Fun and educational. The knowledge translates really well into your use of the models in the Pod.
Falling in love with my real amp
I have a little practice amp that I bought 20 years ago. It's a Peavey Rage 158. We are not talking about a monster or classic amp here. I used to think it was awful, but it isn't. I was that I didn't know how to adjust the controls for a good sound as my ear was so poor. I suppose my playing has improved a bit too.
Now I really like the clean and mildly-overdriven sounds from that little (loud!) amp. When I put the Pod in front if it I now have a ton of effects I can use. I like it!
POD HD 500x is very flexible for the money. It does take time to get the most out of it, and there are some limitations. The journey will be a rewarding experience if you have the patience.
Oh yes... trust your ears. It really is true. actually, let me add an edit: Develop your ears a bit by listening to lots of different things and then trust them.
Appendix: Random nuggets
All the Pod HD series sound the same. They have different form-factors and the newer ones will run more effects and have more in-built models, but sound is essentially the same.
Fuzz pedals like to go first.
The Output Modes on the Pod are a bit crude but they do the job.
I really wish there was a clipping indicator as you can clip things internally in the chain and not always realise.
Headphones don't sound like speakers. I need to work on that.