Kemper? Fractal? Helix? Which one should I buy? Or should I just stick with an amp?
I’ve seen these questions posted time and time again. Some of the posts can be quite funny especially when someone asks a Fractal user group whether they should buy a Kemper or a Helix. Any guesses on the answers?
I’ve owned all three. I have two of them right now, the Fractal AX 8 and the Helix.
Here are a few of my thoughts as I went down the rabbit hole of playing with modellers.
When I retired, I downsized a lot of gear. Given all of the travel I had planned for retirement, especially with the limited space in our 40-foot diesel motorcoach, I knew that it would be impractical to cart a large rig with me. I needed something smaller that I could use on a stage and in our coach and monitor with in-ears.
I did quite a bit of research and I thought that the Kemper would meet my requirements. But that unit proved to be almost as bulky as an amp and pedal board. In fact, as I spent more time with the Kemper, I kept adding back into the signal chain more gear. A booster here, a couple of overdrives there, some expression pedals to control effects, a few delay pedals, a tuner, a Kemper remote, and several cases to cart all of that stuff around.
I was also frustrated with Kemper’s user interface and the workflow.
I spent untold hours auditioning profiles, building out effects and working around the rather poor software platform.
It became apparent that I wasn’t getting the portability I wanted nor was I enjoying the experience of getting the Kemper to sound its best.
I sold it.
I then moved on to the Fractal AX8. And it was far more portable than the Kemper. The software was substantially better. And it was easy to get great sounds right out of the box.
I had to carry a couple of expression pedals. And I found the workflow, especially the onboard user interface, to be surprisingly primitive. I had to follow a strict protocol on the switches because there are no digital scribble strips on the unit. The screen is very difficult to read and the lack of DSP, for me, was too restrictive. I was constantly running out of CPU with the Fractal and I had to manage the presets accordingly by actively managing down the resolution of some of the effects blocks or creating complicated XY switches.
Then came the Helix.
I like it.
Great workflow. Very straightforward user interface design on the floor unit. The software is quite intuitive and the overall experience is markedly superior to either the Kemper or the Fractal.
For me, the Helix sounds best when paired with some good impulse responses. I have a number of IRs from providers like Ownhammer, Celestion, and Michael Britt. I purchased presets from Alex Strabala, Guitar For His Glory, and Worship Tutorials just to shorten my learning curve in terms of building out signal chains on the Helix.
One thing that I have learned from working with these modellers is that it is best to really simplify. The fact that you might have hundreds, or even thousands, of amp tones, is not a good thing. Find one or two amp tones that you like and build on those amp tones to dial in your sound.
There are simply way too many choices in these modellers and you can get lost in trying to find some secret ingredient to good tone. I know I did. So frustrating.
With the Helix, I quickly found a couple of go-to amps and IRs that I really loved and I have been very happy with how the unit sounds.
How does the Helix sound when compared to an amp or the Helix or the Fractal?
To quote Duke Ellington: if it sounds good, it is good.
The Helix sounds good, it has a great workflow and it is very portable. Whether another modeller or amp sounds “better” in a mix is a highly subjective call. All of them are now so close that it is best to select the one that inspires you to play.
This video is a great primer on how to approach solos on electric guitar. Might be helpful if you are just getting into this part of playing electric.
This was a surprisingly compelling video to watch and, I have to say, the result is pretty impressive.
A guitar, built out of pencils. 1,200 pencils.
Is it real? Yes.
Does it sound real? Of course it does.
Does it sound like an amp?
The duel can take many shapes and forms. Duelling solos, duelling guitars, duelling pianos, even duelling banjos.
But what if this isn’t a duel? What if it is just a platform to make music that sounds good?
First few days with the Helix have been wonderful. Love the workflow, and love the tones.
You can watch and listen to this video and draw your own conclusions about the role of amps versus modellers. Does the Helix sound like an amp? Or does it even matter anymore? Isn’t the point to create a good tone?
Most of the people commenting on the video below got it wrong. If we are at the stage where it becomes challenging to tell the difference, then modellers are more than good enough. I know which tone I preferred in the video and it happened to be the Helix. Yours might be the amp.
A new modelling platform — at least new for me — arrives later today. The Helix Line 6.
I opted for the floor model and not the Helix LT primarily because I needed the extra I/O that the floor provides.
I have been running a Fractal AX8 for the past year or so. The units from Kemper, Helix and Fractal are all capable of producing good tones and I have owned both Kemper and Fractal.
Helix has an advantage in workflow over the Kemper and the Fractal. The Kemper seems to have gone nowhere with respect to editing software and the Fractal’s software, while excellent, requires both a computer and the AX8 to work out tones effectively.
The lack of scribble strips on the Fractal AX8 is a bit of an issue for me. Probably the bigger issue though is the lack of DSP on the Fractal AX8. I am constantly bumping into the limits of the DSP with only 6 to 8 blocks active.
I spent untold hours previewing profiles on the Kemper. I spent hundreds of dollars on commercial profiles trying to find that sound on the Kemper. I found the unit to be overly difficult in terms of the workflow and I was spending hours tweaking presets for songs.
For me, I need a portable, do everything rig for travelling. One that I can quickly pull some good tones together without needing to use a computer.
Kemper and Fractal might have a slight edge in tone with their platforms but in the context of a mix, I doubt that very many listeners would be that discerning.
I have been using Helix Native with my Pro Tools rig so I have a very good sense as to how the Helix floor will sound relative to the Kemper and Fractal and I have already worked through a lot of the tweaking that is necessary on the Helix to produce a good tone.
I am looking forward to getting some presets going over the weekend.
A new year awaits.
Improving your guitar skills may be on your list of objectives for the year.
When I started playing, which was before the Internet, it was challenging to find a good guitar teacher and to find resources to help me improve my skills quickly and efficiently.
The online world offers so many resources for guitarists. There really is very little reason to remain stagnant. Passion and commitment. That is all it takes to get better at pretty much anything in life.
I had not come across Claus Levin before nor had I visited the Guitar Mastery website.
I am going to try a couple of his courses and see what they are like. There are some soloing techniques that look interesting to me and may give my improvisation skills a bit of a kick in 2019.
This was the video that connected me to the Guitar Mastery website. Claus is a uniquely persuasive communicator and a great player.
My guitar rig from a couple of years back. Guitars, amps and pedals galore.
Reverb recently published their list of the best selling pedals of 2018. I would take the list as it is. An attempt to summarize new and used sales of pedals. It might be representative of the overall market or it might not. For example, there are no BOSS pedals on this list and I suspect they are still selling large numbers of pedals.
Here is their overall bestseller list:
- TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb
- TC Electronic Ditto Looper
- MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay
- Fulltone OCD
- Xotic SP Compressor
- TC Electronic PolyTune 2 Mini
- TC Electronic Flashback Delay & Looper
- Keeley Compressor Plus
- Electro-Harmonix Op Amp Big Muff Pi Reissue
- Electro-Harmonix Canyon
- Xotic EP Booster
- Electro-Harmonix Soul Food Transparent Overdrive
- Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff Pi Reissue
- Strymon TimeLine Delay
- Strymon BigSky Reverb
I have owned 8 of the 15 pedals on this list. I guess I should be buying a few new ones now.
Electro-Harmonix is still knocking it out of the park with the Canyon, Soul Food and Big Muff.
Sweetwater did an interview with Mike Matthews, founder and CEO of Electro-Harmonix. Fun to watch as Matthews is definitely a bit of a unique character. And I learned a few things about the company that I did not know (e.g., they own a Russian tube factory, they went bankrupt, they still assemble and quality check in the United States).
Getting the low end right in a mix is challenging especially if you are listening in a compromised sound field. There are tactics that you can use to get the low end of a mix to fit well into the bigger picture. iZotope posted seven tips for the mixing the low end.
At some point, every engineer has had difficulty taming the beast that is low end. Why? Multiple factors are involved. For one, imperfect rooms treat low-end information imperfectly—and many rooms are imperfect. Another factor compounding the issue is monitoring, especially in project studios; nearfield monitors, often utilized in home-based mixing rooms, tend to taper off below a bass-hound’s favorite frequencies; subwoofers are untenable in certain situations (ones involving neighbors, often); and cans tend to over-exaggerate the lows, leading to a cure that might be worse than the disease.
The third factor is experience, or a lack thereof. Yes, it takes time to learn how to identify low-end issues, to tell them apart from your room and monitoring issues, and to find practical, actionable solutions.
If you are running into some issues with the low end, give these tips a try especially tips 1, 5 and 7. I use those all the time.
iZotope makes the following observation in their post:
Stephen King once gave some particularly apt advice on receiving writerly feedback. To summarize, he said that if you hand out a story to a bunch of readers, and they all give back different, conflicting critiques, discard it all. However, if they all gave back the same critique, you need to address that one issue.
The post goes on to suggest that you listen back to your mixes on a variety of monitors. Good advice but they did not emphasize the importance of getting others to listen to your mixes. I always get the artist and a few trusted ears to give me feedback on mixes. If there are problems with the low end, they will no doubt come up in their review.