Category: Music gear

Digidesign: Eleven Rack

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In May, 2008 gp looked at new amp modeling software from Avid‘s Digidesign brand with the Spinal Tap referencing name “Eleven.” We were suitably impressed: “Every model has a large helping of the sonic depth and complexity found in a high-quality amp,” and “Eleven has the least latency of any modeling software I have tested,” were just some of the raves from yours truly.

Yet Digidesign was not done; they have come up with an audio interface that removes any remaining latency, as well as offering those glorious amp tones to the live performer in a two-space hardware interface called Eleven Rack, which, with its solid, striking coppery orange and black housing, appears simultaneously business-like and fashionable. Each unit comes with a full version of Pro Tools LE 8.0.1; this is essential as this software version–available to all Pro Tools 8 users–allows access to the full menu of recording features in Eleven Rack. With its wealth of I/Os and its phantom powered XLR mic input, Eleven rack is a fully functional DAW interface, but more about this after we jump into the live aspect of this device.

Jacking into the Guitar Input and plugging a set of headphones into the Phones output, I powered up and was immediately impressed by the glowing amber pointer lights on the six hefty Control knobs. The large, easy to read LCD screen showed a page containing instant access to the current amplifier settings (you can choose various patch or “rig” display views as the default–a rig contains amps, effects, speakers, etc).

Pushing the Edit/Back switch enters the rig chain page. There, the Scroll knob to the screen’s right allowed me to choose which element in the chain to edit (effects, amps, cab, etc.). Once chosen, the SW1 switch accessed the control section for that element. The amber knob lights change to green when effects are chosen for editing. Whether editing amp or effect related parameters, the lights switch to red when the parameter is moved away from the preset default, changing back to amber or green when returned to the original setting.

Finished gaping at the light show, I put on the headphones and began checking out the presets. I was taken aback that the sounds were not as I remembered from the software review; they rather tended toward trebly–becoming fizzy and raspy when distorted. I was sure that it was not my headphones (Sony Professionals) but having experienced less than stellar headphone outs on other pieces of exceptional gear, I moved along to plugging Eleven Rack into an amp–in this case, an Orange Tiny Terror.

The rack offers two brilliantly placed amplifier outputs: one on the front panel for easy access to any amplifier input, and one on the back for easy access to an amp’s effects return in case you want to bypass the amp’s preamp section. This second output can also be used for employing two amps in stereo.

Eleven Rack has a wealth of output routing (see specs), so setting up the amp version required holding down the Edit/Back button and choosing the Output 1 option. I also chose the “Rig Out No Cab” option to remove the speaker cabinet and miking emulations. I kept the amplifiers and effects in line, though you can also switch off the amps and just use the effects. Let me say right here that all this scrolling, switching, paging and controlling is incredibly intuitive–I barely had to crack the manual. On the rare instances I needed help I found the documentation easy to understand.

Keeping the Tiny Terror set clean, I started checking out the effects and amp sims. Aha!–this is the Eleven sound I remember–rich, complex, and deep, with no raspiness or digital fizz. The character of each amp managed to come through despite the coloration of the Orange head. At no time did I feel like I was playing through emulations. Volume and pick attack felt like the real deal thanks to the True-Z guitar input, which automatically changes the input impedance to match whichever amp or effect is first in the chain. This is not a simulation but, rather, an actual analog switching of the impedance to match whichever vintage amp or effect your guitar is plugged into. You can also manually control the impedance of the True-Z input and set it to a value that suits your particular playing style.

Running into the effects return of an Egnater Rebel 30 head sounded even better, but made me long for global control over Eleven’s amp outputs (there is one for the XLR Main monitor outputs). Digidesign states that the wildly varying outputs of different amps reflect their actual volume, but in the absence of this global master, some leveling of presets would have been welcome for auditioning purposes. (Digidesign is considering this among several other control enhancements for future firmware updates).

The original Eleven software didn’t include any effects. The array added here all sound very good, but is restricted to the basics–no Whammy pedals or ring modulators. If you miss your Moogerfooger, you can just load it into the effects loop and place it anywhere you like in the chain. I plugged in an Electro-Harmonix POG 2 and it sounded right at home. Of course when used in recording there is a wide array of Pro Tools effects plug-ins available.

A series of buttons on the face avails instant access to distortion, modulation, reverb parameters and the best delay pedal. The FX1 and 2 buttons go directly to the parameters of the effects chosen for those chain slots. You can repeat only the modulation effects in the FX1 and 2 slots, and/or add compressor and graphic EQ effects. You can therefore load your chain with two flangers or two choruses, but are only allowed one type of distortion pedal at a time–no running one 808 sim into another, or into a fuzz.

An expression pedal input allows control of either of the two wah models, the volume pedal within a particular rig, or the overall rig volume. It can also be set to change up to four effect parameters at once. I had fun shortening the length of the Tape Delay while increasing the feedback for some cool runaway repeat effects.

So far our Eleven Rack is a terrific sounding and feeling multi-effects processor/modeler, but where this Digidesign product comes into its own is in recording. It is recognized as a USB 2.0 audio interface by most DAWs, but as of this writing, to use all of its recording features you need the included Pro Tools LE. (Most features will work in Pro-Tools HD and M-Powered but not USB audio).

One of these features is the Eleven Rack control menu, which allows easy access to rigs, drag and drop arranging of effects, etc. The hardware is so simple to navigate you probably won’t miss the computer control function if you don’t use Pro Tools, but a feature you might miss is the way Eleven Rack can embed all the patch parameters in an audio track. This allows effortless recall of the exact sound used in tracking for punch ins performed hours, days, or months later. Cool! Also, only in LE will Eleven Rack’s reamping capabilities allow you to send a recorded mono dry guitar signal out of your computer through USB, for modification by the rack’s modeling effects and then back in to another stereo track, or out through the Eleven’s amp outputs to actual amps, miked in the studio.

Eleven Rack set up without problems and performed flawlessly to specs in all regards, whether live, or as a versatile recording interface with Ableton Live, or into Pro Tools LE. It sounded amazing through real amps or monitored through the unit’s Mains outputs while recording beautiful tones into a DAW.

Regardless of which recording software you use, by powering complex algorithms with its own DSP and allowing direct monitoring off of the hardware, Eleven Rack solves two of the major problems of software amp modeling–CPU usage, and latency. In doing so, Eleven Rack offers more than a wealth of great sounds, it makes modeling easier to use and more inspiring to play than ever.

Line 6 M13 & Rocktron Utopia pedals

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Last year, i set up a near-perfect pedalboard with all my favorite analog stompboxes. I say “near perfect” because the massive board turned out to be bigger than most of the stages I was standing upon, and I hate being cramped when I play. Of course, there are some excellent integrated pedalboards available from Boss, DigiTech, Rocktron, Vox, Zoom, and others–and I’ve used most of them with stellar results–but I wanted to try something a little different at a recent opening slot for Beck’s half-sister, Alyssa Suede, at San Francisco’s Beale Street.

Line 6 must have been reading my mind (hey, get outta there!). The company’s M13 Stompbox Modeler ($699 retail/S499 street) looks like an expensive custom pedalboard, but its footprint is smaller than even a Wii Fit floor controller. The true-bypass multieffects unit includes 86 different stompbox models, a 28-second looper, tap tempo, an onboard tuner, MIDI In/Out, two expression-pedal inputs, an assignable effects loop, and 1/4″ stereo I/O.

In addition, Roktron’s compact Utopia series Guitar Wah ($139 retail/S99 street) and Volume/Expression ($109 retail/$79 street) pedals allowed me to incorporate two more of my essential effects into the system without significantly devouring added real estate. Another benefit was portability. I stuffed the M13, its AC power adapter, and all my guitar cables into a conventional messenger bag, and placed the very lightweight Utopia pedals in the front pocket of my guitar’s gig bag (along with the set lists, a roll of gaffer’s tape, and my guitar strap). In fact, my entire rig–a Prestige Musidan hollowbody, an Egnater Rebel-20 head and Rebel-112X cabinet, and the M13/Rocktron setup–was so streamlined that I was plugged in and ready to rock before the preceding band’s drums were offstage, and, after the set, I was packed up and tipping back a cherry cola at the bar within five minutes. Of course, getting your rig on and off stage faster than the Flash means little if the time you’re spending on stage is ruined by crap-sounding gear. Happily, I was a happy camper.

LINE 6 M13

Satisfying my military-bred sense of order, the M13’s effect models are divided into color-coded LEDs that match the finishes on the company’s four Modeler pedals: a green screen designates delays, blue is for modulation, yellow is for distortion/compression, and purple is for filter effects, while the best reverb pedal based on the Verbzilla pedal is illuminated by orange. If you’ve ever accidentally stepped on the wrong pedal in mid gig, and then turned yourself into a spastic buffalo while trying to quickly find and kill the jet flanger, this simple organizational method will keep you off the anxiety meds. You can run up to four effects simultaneously from an easy-to-grok pedalboard arranged into four channels With three different pedal options per channel. Three dual-function switches let you construct effects chains (called Scenes), enter tap tempo, control the looper, call up the tuner, and access system setup options. It’s all your choice whether to run the M13 as a “dumb” board of 12 separate on/off pedals, program it for a series of Scenes with multiple effects, or switch between the two modes. Tweaking on the fly is a gas, because the M13’s auto-save function instantly remembers every parameter adjustment. (If you suffer from buyer’s remorse, you can select manual save.) Everything about this unit is delightfully butt simple–as long as you download the M13 Advanced Guide (line6.com). At press time, the basic manual included with the unit omitted some essential data on programming Scenes and other operations.

Anyone familiar with the Line 6 Modeler series (DL4 Delay, MM4 Modulation, FM4 Filter, and DM4 Distortion) will know the score on the M13’s sonic muscle. Every effect sounds good, and the limited, stompbox-style parameters still offer enough options for refining the basic tones to your taste. Initially, I wasn’t thrilled with the clang-y coldness of some of the distortion sounds–I’d been using some boutique pedals for a while–but when I heard recordings of the gigs I played with the M13, the roar was pretty awesome. The distortions, fuzzes, and overdrives cut right through the band mix and drove rhythm parts and solos with absolutely raging timbres. I wasn’t really a looping guy, but the M13’s easy-to-use looper let me improvise a spacey, layered intro for a song without incident, so now I’m kind of hooked. Throughout ten club gigs, I always found the M13 to be a portable genius box that added to my tonal palette without damning me to programming pressures, sweating over multiple cables and connections, or otherwise making me crazy.

ROCKTRON UTOPIA PEDALS

I’m never without a best volume pedal and a wah, so I was jazzed that the Utopias arrived at the GP offices the same time as the M13, as the light and compact pedals were perfect matches for the uber-portable M13 rig. Of course, there can be a compromise when utilizing lightweight materials, and, in the case of the Utopias, the trade off is pedals that feel a bit squishy. Under fire, however, any wobbles are negligible, and I was always able to perform smooth volume swells and precise wah manipulations.

The expression function of the Volume/Expression mated well with the M13, and, although I didn’t employ this utility at gigs, studio tests confirmed that parameter control was fast and flawless. In addition, the volume function has enough range to be perfect for subtle silence-to-scream swells, pedal-steel effects, and rapid on/off chopping. The Guitar Wah has a wide bandwidth, which makes it easy to perform vocal-esque yowls, low-end burps, old.school funk chicka-chicka, and Mick Ronson-style midrange accents and tone shaping. I’m a long-time fan of some classic wahs, but, in action with a loud rock band, the Guitar Wah sounded as good as any wah I’ve used onstage.