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Tips for better direct to PA sounds


Evil_Patrick
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After years of owning and using a Helix, and making all sorts of mistakes along the way, and learning from those mistakes, I'd like to share the following. This is not a "one size fits all":

 

Be sure to have the "big dial" output volume set at at least noon. Balance the output from patch to patch by either looking at the meters on the board channels, or using a dB meter in the room (if you have more than IEMs or headphones). Use the board gain to get the signal to just begin to touch yellow.

 

Early on, I was screwing up by having that big dial output volume set at about 9 o'clock. What that did was it cause me to set too much output in all of the individual blocks in the chain, and on the XLR outs, in order to get adequate volume out of the Helix. See, each block has its own output level and when you start jacking them all past 0 db, crap stacks up. The result can be digital "artifacts". This was not noticeable in my IEMs, or in stage monitors, but sounded really bad in the PA. It sounded like clipping, most notable on the cleaner sounds. Easy fix, but somewhat elusive. 

 

 The other big screw up that I had been doing was that I was putting a limiter in front of my amp models. This practice started years ago. I found that I could use the limiter to either under drive or overdrive what was going into the amp. But really the result of doing that is that you lose the dynamics that you can get out of how hard or quietly you play the guitar. I'm pretty sure I started doing that simply because of the amp models that I selected to begin working on patches. Sure, there might be songs that require that up front compressor sound, but I'm describing how to optimize sounds that don't. 

 

A lot has changed since that time. Most of what has changed was that I've found the time to deep-dive into almost all the available amp models. 

 

Another thing that changed was Line6's introduction of better amp models. In the early days, I was just too anxious to get going. I compromised with a "close enough". Lesson learned: if the amp model doesn't sound right initially, pick a different one! 

 

Take your time, but beware of this MOST IMPORTANT POINT; the guitar going into the front end makes a *world* of difference on the back end. IMHO, this makes more difference than almost anything else. I have a Variax, so I was able to quickly try all sorts of variations. Use the right guitar and the right pups. If you can't afford this luxury, at least pick the right pup.

 

 So, back to the earliest problem, by starting with the wrong amp model, and a lot of copy and paste later, and I had a real mess. If your 'template' sucks in any way, you'll be hosed as you use it for a starting point build for the next Patch.

 

At a crucial point, I meticulously removed the limiter from every single patch, and changed amp models, if needed. 

 

I also chose to put a compressor on the back side of the speaker sims, which is much more akin to the way that things would be done in the studio. This helps to ensure that the post signal never causes clipping on the mixer channel.

 

I went through every patch and set all blocks to zero at their individual outputs. I set the XLR outputs to zero. 

 

 I also added to every patch a 10 band graphic equalizer, post amp/speaker, and cut everything by about 3 dB from 500 Hz and lower. That's not the guitar's "space" in the mix. That eq makes things sound way better. 

 

 I was also screwing up by not using the master volume of the amp model to regulate the output of each preset and its Snapshots. Instead I was using the XLR output volume, which, like anything else in the Helix, you can set per each Snapshot in a preset. Due to the aforementioned issues, some of these output volumes at the XLR out were ridiculously high. That right there can cause clipping at the mixer. I now use the amp's Channel and Master to control the overall output levels. 

 

 I went through every single patch and used these improved techniques to balance the outputs to be just barely hitting yellow bars on the mixer. Only the lead breaks are allowed to go into the yellow bars solidly.

 

So, the right pup, straight to the right amp model, to a separate cab, to an IR, to a 10-band EQ, to a compressor (usually 4:1), to delay, to a verb, to the XLR. Set all blocks outputs to zero. Use the amp Master and Channel volumes to balance Patch/Snapshots to all the other Patch/Snapshots.

 

And a final tip; if the IR has a high cut, set it to 4K, and set the high cut on the speaker cab at 4K as well.

 

These are my lessons learned. Maybe they'll prevent you from stumbling like the drunk I parodied?

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I would also add to this, keep in mind the fact that the Helix does not like phantom power. No really, don't forget that $hit! Even though I had read about this issue many times on the forum, it still took a gig where my guitar sounded terrible for several songs until I remembered this issue, informed the soundman, and, sure enough, they had phantom on in my guitar channel. Turned it off and immediately the noise and crap sound went away. This can really ruin your performance and cause no small amount of angst for your soundperson (and maybe you too) who is probably tearing their hair out trying to figure out what is wrong.

 

Best solution is probably to always use phantom power blocker(s) like the ones recommended by @Musiclaw in the topic below.  You can still run into mixers where they can't run/remove phantom power on a per channel basis. 'Course if you are like me and don't always get the "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" thing right the first or even the second time around... The instant the soundperson informs you that everyone else in the band's rig is working perfectly, and you, oh bringer of curses and vexation, have the only channel(s) that is noisy and terrible, the first thing to get them to check is if phantom is on in your channel(s).  

 

Btw, barring all the usual suspects, for example bad cables, connection, or a failing mixer channel; if you are using a monitor on stage via 1/4inch, and that sounds fine, but FOH is crud, suspect phantom power. Also, beware the strawman, remember the phantom, when you hear your soundperson present all manner of well-intentioned but wildly incorrect guesses, e.g. "your output level must be the problem".

 

 

 

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I've been through a number of approaches over the last 7 years to get my direct to PA tone consistent and gain staged appropriately, but nothing like what you went through.  I think everything came together for me much more quickly once I disengaged the Helix volume knob from my XLR output and set my output to Mic signal level.  From there I can gain stage my presets easily using a combination of amp channel volume and output block level neither of which will affect my tone.  I only use the amp master volume if I'm interested in getting the tone change it offers to the patch, but that's still going to be normalized via the amp channel volume or output block volume.  With my gain/trim knob on my mixing board channel set to noon I simply target a consistent signal level of 0db on my mixer channel with a few peaks above that.  That signal can then be adjusted at the gig using the channel's gain/trim knob if necessary.

I personally never use any global settings on the Helix as that opens the possibility of being affected by someone at the board applying an RTA process to correct for room EQ, which would affect my global settings.  If the room acoustics are affecting me, they're affecting all channels, so that's something I leave for the sound crew to address.

As far as high cuts, that all depends on the preset and the guitar I'm using.  Generally I always have a final parametric EQ in my signal chain which is where I make final adjustments.  Most commonly my high cuts are in the range of 8k to 10k depending on the guitar, the amp and the style of the preset.  That's also where I make any final adjustments such as a 4.2k cut with Strats or Teles to remove some twanginess.  The VAST majority of my core tone adjustments come from my configuration of the cab/IR and which mics and placements I use.  If I ever find myself trying to adjust EQ too much I generally go back to the cab and mic models and that normally addresses it.

The one thing that seemed odd to me was how you could achieve a good sound through the mains but it was off in your monitors, but that depends a lot on your monitors or in ears I guess.  Since I use high end stage monitors that could just as easily be used as mains, I never have any problems getting an accurate representation of what the mains sound like to the audience.  The mix may be different in the monitors from the mains, but tone is pretty much consistent.

As far as phantom power, I always carry a phantom power blocker with me just in case, but I've never really had the need to use it as that's something that can typically be taken care of on the mixing board.

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Some more recent "lessons learned" from me:

 

1. Most important lesson is to have the same consistent sound through all your presets.  E.g. don't use a Marshall in one preset, then a Vox in another preset.  In theory it may work, in practice, every amp/cab/mic positioning will lead to a difference in sound and EQ, and will introduce volume jumps.  It happens every single time.  Every PA behaves differently, so if you sound check using a Marshall amp, then Vox amp may sound like garbage. 

 

Having all these options is great for the studio, but live that's a different story.  It's always helpful to have do a sound check with your main sound, where all throughout your set, the same main sound will be heard with some variations. 

 

Some things can only be fine-tuned with a big PA.  For example, I finally tweaked an acoustic sim sound to my liking.  Guess what... I only successfully tuned it when I did a sound check and the sound guy helped me. 

 

2. Add a 10-band EQ block to your presets with all settings flat, when you are not sure about some new untested sound.  Enable it for a snapshot you are unsure about, and just leave it there as a placeholder to possibly adjust during sound check. 

 

Back to my acoustic guitar example... at home it sounded great, but on stage during sound check it was too boomy and unusable.  So since I had an EQ block that was enabled in the "acoustic" snapshot, I was able to quickly notch out some bad frequencies.  This EQ block was only enabled in that one snapshot, so the changes to the EQ only applied to the acoustic sound.  We tested the sound at loud volume, A/B'ed between my acoustic and electric sound and called it done.  Absolutely no way I could have done this adjustment at home or even at the rehearsal space. 

 

Then I took the same exact settings and applied them to the rest of my 2 presets that used the same sound. 

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On 9/21/2022 at 5:53 AM, DunedinDragon said:

...  I think everything came together for me much more quickly once I disengaged the Helix volume knob from my XLR output and set my output to Mic signal level.  ...

 

This ^^^^^!  Definitely has been my experience as well, 100%. Seems obvious but it would be difficult to overemphasize how helpful this is for live performance. If you are not running your Helix this way for live sound, here are the benefits:

  1. You are running a balanced XLR connection to FOH for better noise rejection over longer runs.  Obvious but worth mentioning.
  2. Mic level output generally provides a much less hot, more manageable signal level to the mixer. This prevents the soundperson from having to set the gain/trim down all the way or add a pad (if the mixer offers one) just to keep you out of the red. It also tends to translate to fewer extreme spikes on your mixer channel.
  3. Disengaging the XLR output from the main volume knob means the XLR output is digitally at "unity" = all the way up. This provides a much more consistent level to the soundman with excellent S/N ratio. Critically, this also allows you to use your main volume knob to tweak the volume of your stage monitor from the Helix to your heart's content without impacting the FOH. Another benefit of feeding this consistent signal at mic level rather than line (certainly if you are connected as most typically are, via a mic preamp input on the mixer) is that the PA tends to be much more forgiving of level differences between presets. Not that you shouldn't level them with each other as best as possible prior to a performance. Mic or line level though, the main point is, although you want your output level healthy, if it is too hot, the differences between levels in presets can get very exaggerated.

Generally, and unsurprisingly, the more predictable and suitable for mixing I make the signal I am providing to FOH, the better the sound is that the soundperson delivers. I also want to take a moment to recognize the occasions where I have gotten a particularly talented soundperson who seems to be able to take my guitar tone to another level. Those folks are gems to be acknowledged and hired again for future performances.

 

 

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I like the lessons learned approach of this thread....  First, let me say there really is no WRONG way to do things IF you like what you are getting.  That said, there are a few things from the OP that I wanted to point out.  And please forgive me if you know this already, not intending to throw shade on anything, just trying to help because a lot of you guys helped me!

 

1.  Big volume knob:  you are definitely correct that you need to give it more signal.  I monitor my sound using powercabs through the l6link so I have the knob set to digital.  this was a trick I read that really helped.  It sends a constant full signal to the 1/4 and xlr outs, so if you use one of those to go to FOH, the sound guy is getting a strong signal that really doesn't vary (except for changes between presets, if some are really loud or soft).  You can also set this to control the 1/4 or xlr depending on what you send to FOH.  So you have a strong signal to FOH and you can use the knob to control your monitor level.

 

2. Gain staging (setting the output level of each block in your presets):  Again, you are correct that you can easily cause digital clipping when over using the output of the individual blocks.  Not only does more output from the blocks change the sound, (overdriving the blocks down the line) but it quickly causes digital clipping.  I found that I only up some blocks like chorus or mod effects because they seem to get quieter when i turn them on.  and I never add more than 2-3db.

 

3. EQ at the end of the chain:  I do that as well.  I use it to cut the lows (around 90 to 100) and the highs (4.5 - 8).  this has helped me with the fizz (high cuts) and the flubbyness(low cuts).  I've recently found that changing the mic, adding distance (2 to 3.5inch) also helps with the flubbyness (too much base mud when dirty).  It's interesting that you cut everything from 500h down by 7db.  I would think that that would kill to much of the guitar sound, but I will try it., maybe that will also help the flubbyness.  on some amps, turning the master down will also help with the flubby problem.

 

4.  Guitar/pup and amp/speaker/ir type:  yes, very much!  I play a tele and a les paul and found I have to make changes to the presets for each.  I'm playing around with the best way to handle my setlists... do I separate the setlists by guitar (then I have to bend down to change set lists when I change guitars) or mix them all together (then I have more button mashing :))... oh the horror :)  The different amps/speakers/ir's also (of course) make a difference.  I have not messed with IR's cause I'm happy with the cabs... or I should say cab.  the only cab I have found that sounds "natural" (?) is the ampeg 1x15.  I use it on every preset.  I have tried all of the cab's but they all have a digital, metal (not metal music, but metal) sound to me.  But I am very happy with 1x15 for all amps.  (now that I'm writing this, that is probably another reason for the flub)

 

5.  Preset leveling:  I found that for me, always using the channel volume to level between presets is the best.  It is the only (that and a gain block at the end of the chain, or upping the output block in the preset) that does not change the tone.  They say the Gain changes the preamp distortion and the Master changes the power amp distortion.  It took me some time to play with that to see what that really means.  it was time well worth it.  the nice sweet preamp distortion at low levels get lost with a band.  the master gives it more body and a smoother breakup at louder volumes.

 

6.  Volume when creating/tweaking/leveling presets:  this makes a huge difference.  Thanks to you guys, I've learned about the Fletcher Munson principle where basically the bass and highs get much louder when the volume goes up.  this means that a preset that may sound middie with not much bass or highs, could be perfect at live playing levels.  So it is best, if possible to use playing level volumes when tweaking.  That is not always possible, but if you do it for one preset, you can the sort of judge your other presets at lower levels to sound like the one you know sounds good later.  I believe eventually your ear will adapt and this will not be that much of a problem.  There are some people that have created an eq block that boosts the highs and lows to a point and they use that when creating presets at lower levels.  then they turn it off or delete it playing live.  

 

7. Tweaking/Reading/Experimenting:  You guys have been great in helping me learn.  Just keep tweaking and learning, oh yeah, and don't forget to play sometime as well!

 

 

 

 

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Keep in mind that there are those of us who play in cover bands. Hey it's a dirty job but somebody's gotta do it! The type of music and level of diversity can quite possibly mean that there's no choice other than picking different amps to be able to replicate different genres.  One song might be a drop D tuning grinding along, followed by the next song being an acoustic guitar.

 

 I have found that the Mandarin Rocker is pretty good at cleaning up or getting quite dirty. So I have been trying to consistently stick to that amp as much as possible. But a good acoustic guitar sound takes a really weird combination of blocks, and the Mandarin Rocker isn't optimal. And there are even rocking songs that all of a sudden switch to that acoustic sound in the middle.

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I don't think it just applies to cover bands.  It's not unusual to have different amps and setting even for original songs.  The settings in my experienced are more based on the style and overall sound of the song including the kind of guitar used for a given song.  That's why so many big named bands used so many different amps and setups in the studio.  Just ask someone like Joe Walsh.  The same general sound but adjusted to the feel of the song.

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Guitar players usually have the knowledge of how to get a good sound from their pedals & amps. What many don't understand are the stages "after the amp" - which are critical to getting good tones when going direct to FOH/Monitors. 

 

The most important is the one many take for granted (ie: never explore) and that is MIC choice, positioning and distance.

  • Every mic sounds different, choosing the right one for your sound can make or break a tone.
  • Increasing distance opens more "space & dimension" to the sound and depending on the mic, low end may be reduced due to the proximity effect. 
  • Sadly, positioning is not yet an option on the Helix which leads to (IMO) unnecessary EQ tricks.  Rather than reach for extreme "high cuts", I apply the TILT EQ after the cab and slide the tilt back toward the dark position until I reach the desired warmth I am looking for. The result is very similar to moving the MIC from the center of a speaker toward the edge of the speaker. 

 

Good sound techs almost always have an HPF (Low Cut) applied to a guitar strip.  Some boards are fixed at 80, some at 120, some are variable. I just apply my own low cut on all my presets. It won't do harm if the tech also does it, but it can save the day when a tech doesn't. 

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On 9/21/2022 at 2:23 AM, Evil_Patrick said:

I also chose to put a compressor on the back side of the speaker sims, which is much more akin to the way that things would be done in the studio. This helps to ensure that the post signal never causes clipping on the mixer channel.

 

I can not second that. It's also usually not done that way in the studio (usually compressors are added during mixing, but very often guitars don't need any). Most guitar signals, especially ones with just the slightest bit of overdrive/sag, are already compressed a lot, there's usually no need to add some further compression as something you'd generally do (quite obviously, as a specialized soundshaping tool it's all fine).

Add to this that adding a compressor after the amp section will cause the channel volume to not work linearily anymore as higher amp volumes will cause the compressor to work. As a result, balancing patch volumes won't be as easy anymore.

 

On 9/21/2022 at 2:23 AM, Evil_Patrick said:

I now use the amp's Channel and Master to control the overall output levels.

 

On a technical note: The amp's Master Volume is a sound shaping tool. It's forcing the (virtual) power amp to work harder, hence causing compression/sag/drive. For overall level control, the Channel Volume parameter is the one to reach for.

On 9/21/2022 at 2:23 AM, Evil_Patrick said:

I also added to every patch a 10 band graphic equalizer, post amp/speaker, and cut everything by about 3 dB from 500 Hz and lower.

 

Can't exactly agree on that, either. Sure, unless you're going for some low end chugging, the very low ends can (and possibly should) be somewhat cut. But we're rather talking 100 (or maybe 200) Hz here. Somewhere between 300-500 Hz you're in a frequency range good to give your sounds some "vocal" qualities. Quite important for some patches, especially clean(-ish) leads. I would never apply cuts in that range as a general thing.

Quite obviously, that also depends on the kind of cab/IR you're using, so in case there's too much of that "vocal" quality, go ahead and trim it away, but otherwise, at least for me that's a pretty important range to shape the character of many guitar tones.

 

 

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This thread is a good one. If you distill all the learnings here, you will be most of the way there when going direct to a PA.

 

As mentioned already, the one thing that helped me immensely was settling on one amp and cab (or IR) that sounded the best with a single guitar, and that would provide good cleans, ODs, and leads using no other blocks. I then shape all of my presets (adding blocks as needed) based on that one amp. It gives me a signature sound, and makes it a lot easier to dial in tones, and saves a ton of time dinking around with too many variables. (If you're doing cover tunes, however, it's beneficial to use different amps to match the songs.)

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I agree about the cover band and different amp thing... and I appreciate skill (yes skill) to totally mimic a song!   However, personally, I much rather see/hear a band give their version of a song rather than a jukebox rendition of it.  I realize I am probably in minority, but that is just me.  So using the one (or just a few) amps that lets you create YOUR signature sound is great!  and it is interesting how that sound interprets the song.....  

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Re: Cover Bands and whatever "authentic sounds" (or the possible need for them)

 

Fwiw, I'm making my living playing mostly "corporate gigs" since around 30 years by now. This includes all kinds of things, more or less Top 40 stuff, sideman work for somewhat halfway wellknown singers, musical stuff, even some tribute acts.

And not even once (!) in all these years have I been asked to replicate any specific sounds nor has anybody ever complained about the sounds I was coming up with. The most I've been asked for soundwise was some playing request such as "drive /w tremolo" on a musical sheet. Otherwise, people have always been happy with what I'd come up with on my own - and I never cared for authenticity at all. Others do so even less (apart from some corksniffer guitarists). Heck, most MDs I worked with wouldn't even get the difference between a single coil and a humbucker as long as the sound was clean, halfdriven or fully driven enough to suit the music.

 

What I'm saying is: Authentic sounds might be important for us, the players. For pretty much anyone else, they aren't.

 

Having said that, in the 3 years of gigging with a Helix, I have only used one single patch per gig (different patches for different gigs, but I never even once used more than one per show).

 

And fwiw, FOH folks love it, believe me! They're often getting quite mad if you're coming up with totally different patches for each tune. Live playing isn't a studio recording - and unless you're a big act, trying to replicate studio tones isn't making much sense, either.

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On 10/1/2022 at 4:11 PM, DunedinDragon said:

I don't think it just applies to cover bands.  It's not unusual to have different amps and setting even for original songs.  The settings in my experienced are more based on the style and overall sound of the song including the kind of guitar used for a given song.  That's why so many big named bands used so many different amps and setups in the studio.  Just ask someone like Joe Walsh.  The same general sound but adjusted to the feel of the song.

 

I'm with you on this. I play in a couple of bands. Both bands do covers and originals. I do have a few presets that are general one-size-fits-all go-to selections, always at the ready if I need them. I also have plenty of presets that have the amp and effects that best suit the tune, whether it is a cover or an original, and they can make a HUGE difference in the impact a tune has on the audience.

 

Particularly in the case of iconic covers with unique tones or guitar parts, recreating them has an especially gratifying effect on the audience (and my band, who also get inspired by a great tone, and find it helps them get in the zone for that song). Getting the right tone for a tune, combined with snapshots to help nail the different parts in the arrangement, helps to not only play the tune better with the right feel, but is definitely noticed and appreciated by the audience. I do have big respect for players who can not only deliver on the soul and intent of a challenging solo or rhythm but also make it their own, so it is not necessarily about doing a carbon copy, just like the recording. Putting your own spin on things is not limited to just the execution of the parts; you can modify the tone as well and can capture the spirit of the cover or original, but with your own unique take.

 

My levels/EQ between tunes with very different presets have generally not been a problem at FOH. If you are a player who prefers just one great sound, by all means go for it, nothing wrong with that approach, especially for certain music genres (Blues leaps to mind, even though there can be great tonal variance between Blues tunes). However, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from employing a larger tapestry of sounds live, using different amps/cabs/effects, if that is your preference. It can absolutely work, and I have been doing it for years. I do agree that it is common sense that the wider your palette of tones is, the more you increase your odds of impacting FOH in terms of volume and EQ differences from preset to preset. Has not been a problem for me though.

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