Undoubtedly, this is a cool piece of kit. There are a plethora of inputs and outputs on the back and you can wire the simulated effects and amplifiers up basically however you want. The footswitches and expression pedal feel nice and solid as do the majority of the connections on the back: the power supply connector being the only exception. It would be nicer to have an integrated PSU and a chunky 3-pin PC-lead style socket rather than the current PC-laptop style two-conductor connection; that would also allow the main unit to be grounded, which is not currently the case.
Recording best-practice is to capture the “dry” signal straight from the guitar so that if you want to refine the effects later you can apply the refined effects to the original guitar track (commonly called re-amping). Of course the performer wants to hear the “wet” version as they play, so you need to manage that as well. You also want to record the wet output, particularly if it uses expression-pedal-controlled effects, so that you can use it if you don’t need to re-amp.
On the subject of re-amping the HD-500 can be extensively controlled by MIDI; I am hopeful that it also produces MIDI events for button presses and pedal-position-changes during performance. If it does not, it will be significantly harder to re-amp tracks which include such events. It will be some time before this is relevant to me, but I will try and remember to report back when I have found out.
The mechanism I am using requires that you have another audio interface with a S/PDIF coaxial input. Set the HD-500 S/PDIF output to dry, 48KHz; set the audio interface S/PDIF input to external sync; connect the two and you’re good to go. You can record the wet output digitally from the USB Audio interface component of the HD-500, or send it through a pair of D/A and A/D converters by connecting the unbalanced 1/4″ or balanced XLR outputs to your other audio interface and recording from there. I am currently using the latter method, because GarageBand is always happier using only one audio interface at a time. The HD-500 has two channels: I am using one to process the Variax modelled input and one to process the magnetic pickups of the JTV-69; this gives an interesting effect, somewhat similar to double-tracking a guitar part, if you play both back simultaneously.
The alternative if you don’t have any audio interface other than the HD-500 is to set up all your effects chains so that the A channel has the effects and amps on it, and the B channel is dry. You can then pan channel A hard left and channel B hard right to get two mono channels, one wet and one dry. Obviously this has several drawbacks: you can’t process two different inputs, you can’t use stereo effects, and you have to adjust every pre-set effects chain to create the dry bypass branch.
I haven’t performed with my setup yet, and it will be some months at least before I do so, because I am not yet a good enough guitarist.
You are only really interested in the wet signal when performing live. This is an excellent reason to use the S/PDIF interface to capture your dry signal rather than incorporating a dry channel in your effects chains: you don’t have to worry about the unwanted dry signal accidentally being played out live.
There are plenty of options for getting the sounds out of the HD-500 for live performance; which you use will depend on the inputs your amplifier or the venue’s PA system accept. The highest quality option for a guitar-amplifier connection is to use the Line 6 Link output to connect a DT-series amplifier; for other amplifiers you would likely use the unbalanced 1/4″ guitar-level connections. For a PA system connection or to connect to a non-guitar-amplifier you would use the S/PDIF connection set to wet for highest quality, the balanced XLR connections as second choice and finally the 1/4″ line-level connections.
Switching from one effect chain to another happens instantly, as does activating or deactivating effects within a chain which are configured to be toggled by a foot switch. If you are planning to switch effects in or out or switch from one chain to another in the middle of a song you need to be careful to match the volume levels before and after the switch: fortunately this is easy as the volumes of things are stored in the effects presets. It is probably worthwhile volume-matching between songs as well as within them.
Your presets are available in groups of 4, accessible by the A/B/C/D footswitches, so unless you need more distinct sounds than that for a single song your life on stage is going to be relatively easy. These groups of 4 are themselves grouped into set-lists of 16, although of course that probably covers more than 16 songs because you’re probably going to need less than one or two tones per song on average. There are 8 set-lists available, so if you have wound up needing to have different presets for live and studio use you should still have far more than you need for either purpose. Helpfully you can name everything however you like so as to be able to find it again later.
If you have a Variax, as I do, the HD-500 presets can dictate which guitar model and tuning is to be used, and they can completely override the switches and knobs on the guitar. You can also re-assign the tone and volume knobs on the guitar to allow the virtual knobs on one of the effects units to be tweaked from there mid-performance. Similarly the aforementioned DT-series amplifiers connected by Line 6 Link (I have the DT25 112) allow the HD-500 presets to dictate all of their parameters including amplifier class (A or AB), knob positions, valve type (pentode or triode), and negative feedback loop topology. Obviously the 10W class-A is quieter than the 25W class-AB so you need to factor that into your volume-matching efforts if that changes between presets you’re using. The DT amplifiers offer another option for recording or connection to a PA system: the cabinet-simulated direct output.
Designing an effect
The HD-500 includes a 48-second looper which you can obviously use to give you a nice backing track when you are performing live. For my purposes so far, it has been most useful for designing effects chains: play something representative into the looper, and replay it on loop as you adjust the effects and amp chain.
Line 6 supply a program called Pod HD 500 Edit which allows you to edit effects chains from your PC or Mac connected by USB. This beats sitting on the floor for setting up the effects chain and, of course, allows you to save presets to your computer so that you don’t have your only copy on the Pod. It is easier, however, to adjust the parameters of each effect/amp using the knobs on the HD-500 than using the GUI. Happily the GUI updates are instantaneous and so are the physical controls, and you can use both together quite effectively.
Sounding authentic when you know what was used…
I wanted to emulate the sound for the opening riff of Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, so that is what I have based this part of my review on.
For the Satisfaction riff there is plenty of TV footage and other documentary evidence to work from, so getting the right guitar/effects/amplifier/cabinet was relatively easy. Happily, the Variax and HD-500 includes models based on all of the components Keith Richards used for this track. What you won’t find in any of those sources is the settings for each component:
It’s a Telecaster, but which pickup(s) are being used and what is the tone knob position?
It’s a Maestro Fuzz Tone distortion effect, but where should the (5) knobs be positioned?
It looks like a Fender Tweed Bassman Amp, but where should the (12) knobs be positioned?
It looks like a Fender Tweed Bassman 4×10 Cabinet, but which microphone was used to pick up the sounds?
The only thing to do then is to loop the riff and edit the effects/amp chain until the final result sounds correct. Best to use headphones to avoid annoying your wife. It took me about 20 minutes to get to a sound I am happy with.
…and when you don’t
Getting to a specific sound you have in mind if you don’t know anything about how it was produced is even more difficult: there are a plethora of modelled guitars, effects units, amplifiers, cabinets and microphones available but unless/until you have learnt what difference each of them makes to the tone and can imagine what the combinations will sound like it is a daunting prospect. I have 55 tonal options from the JTV-69. There are over 100 effects units, 22 amplifiers, 12 cabinets and 9 microphones in the HD-500. So even using limiting myself to one effect at a time there are over 13 million combinations there, and that’s without touching any of the knobs on anything. I think the way to go is to pick the guitar, effects and so forth based initially on the genre and era of what you are trying to match then iteratively refine the settings and only swap a component for another from the same family when you can’t get to where you need to be.
I gave serious consideration to the alternatives before buying the HD-500. Here is a brief run-down of what else I considered.
Software solutions – MainStage/GarageBand/Logic Pro
- Latency: it turns out that the minuscule (17ms) latency between playing a note and hearing the sound is extremely off-putting. I could reduce this to 7ms by reducing buffer sizes but that gave me the kind of problems you get when buffers are too small.
- Control: changing a setting means you need to take your hands off the instrument and use the mouse/touchpad/keyboard to do things. MainStage lets you bind MIDI controls to the adjustable settings, so I could have solved this problem with a MIDI foot controller: they are ~£200 and the workflow looks a bit awkward, so this was unattractive.
- You need to have a Mac with you to play anything: this is no problem in the studio but looks a bit crappy if you’re performing live as any cynical punters will think you’ve just pressed “play”.
Pod HD Desktop “Kidney Bean”
The Pod HD Desktop was a contender: it is more compact and portable than the HD-500 and a fair bit cheaper with almost all the same features. Unfortunately one of the features it is missing is the VDI input which allows you to make presets which adjust and are adjusted-by the Variax guitar; another is the Line 6 Link connection to control the DT-amplifiers. The other problem is that, as with the software options, you need to use your hands to change anything or buy an add-on set of foot controls for ~£250 which puts the price above that of the HD-500.
Pod HD-300 HD-400
If I didn’t have a Variax (and wasn’t going to get one) I would probably have gone with the HD-300. It’s significantly cheaper than the HD Desktop or the -500, includes the foot controls, and is only missing a few of the more advanced features and connectors from its -500 cousin. For me the -400 isn’t better-enough than the -300 or cheaper-enough than the -500 to make much sense for anyone.
Pod HD Pro
So at first the Pod HD Pro looks to be a more-expensive repackaging of the HD-500 to which you need to add a foot switch system, and to some extent that seems to be a fair characterisation. However, it does have a few advantages:
- The hand-operated knobs are more convenient to reach than they are on the floor with the HD-500
- It has a digital S/PDIF input which allows for more convenient and accurate re-amping later in production
I felt that these benefits were not desirable enough to pay another ~£500 for them (price difference plus foot control cost); if I were a professional recording guitarist, or producer of guitarists, I am certain that I would feel differently.