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Kemper? Fractal? Helix?

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.

A lot.

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.

3rd Power Amp Pack for Kemper

I had been waiting for this profile pack from 3rd Power to get released. Ordered it today. Should have some fun playing tonight.

More details about the amp pack here.

And a video with Michael Britt and Jamie Scott. Michael Britt is the standard for Kemper Profiles.

Kemper Profiler Setup

There are somewhere north of 700 rigs in my Kemper.

So many amp tones. So little time.

I went searching on the web to focus the search for tones down to a more manageable list. Most of the time, I am playing in a church situation which calls for a certain type of sound similar to what you might hear from the Edge (guitarist for U2).

I seem to be settling on a few rigs:

I have been building up my performances on a song by song basis using the internal effects of the Kemper for things like compression, boost, overdrive, delays, reverbs. I noticed that some players take some different approaches to build their performances.

The Simple Approach

One size fits all. One performance patch only for the Kemper with a set of basic sounds. Could look like this:

  • Clean: dotted 8th delay, Tubescreamer, Rotary, compression
  • Dirty: dotted 8th delay, boost, tremolo, compression
  • Swells: delay, autoswell
  • Shimmer: delay
  • Solo: boost, distortion

With this approach, the effects are switchable in and out. The Kemper Remote tap tempo with its built-in beat detector is quite impressive so no need to program in tempos for the delays.

My Approach

Every song gets its own performance. Each performance patch is divided up into as many as five tones, or rigs (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo). I have built up about 40 songs so far. I’ll definitely have another 40 or so added to the list of performances by the end of the year. For the upcoming Celebrate Christmas event, I will have about 25 songs.

I like the simple approach. One and done.

I use my approach because I like to craft the tones for each song. Discovering how the amp profiles might work for a song and going through the effects capabilities, particularly the new delay engine, does take time. It also forces me to learn a lot about the Kemper unit which is a surprisingly deep system.

And a surprisingly good sounding system.

The I Can’t Get Over Analog Approach

Pick one amp tone for the Kemper and only one. After all, you can only play one amp in the real world. And drag that big pedalboard along because everyone will hear how much better the digital profile will sound with all of that analog goodness coming from the pedals.

In a way, I do like this approach because it is much easier to stomp on pedals than to program the effects in the Kemper. I find that I have to scroll through dozens and dozens of effects to get to certain sounds, like the delay sounds, and then audition each one until I find one that works. Counterintuitive to just reaching out to a pedal, turning it on and rotating a few knobs.

I’m also working with Kemper’s Rig Manager on a computer and although it might be fine for setting up rigs, it lacks functionality big time to assign effects for a performance. Right now I am spending a lot of time setting up the effects chain through the Kemper whereas a pedalboard would be all set and ready to go.

With time, I should get faster with the effects chain.

 

Kemper Profiler Rack

 

I ordered a Kemper PowerRack last week along with the Kemper Remote. These products should come in sometime over the next few weeks.

I’ve been looking at modellers and profilers over the past several months. Lorraine and I are starting to get ready for retirement in this machine:

We will be spending at least half the year, if not longer, travelling around in our coach during our early retirement years. And I won’t be able to take my amps with me.

Not enough space.

However, I can profile all of my current amps and carry them with me in the Kemper. I can also select some great amp profiles from Michael Britt.

The performance of the Kemper, although not 100 percent of a tube amp, is close enough for me. The convenience and portability of the Kemper is an obvious strength. The ability to mimic and store some great amp profiles is an obvious strength. Having all sorts of choices when it comes to playback volumes and playback sources is an obvious strength.

I’ll start working with the Kemper for some of my live dates. I’ll probably still use my pedalboards although I am going to try to work the unit as is with amp profiles and effects.

When we travel, I hope to use the Kemper as an all-in-one solution for practice, rehearsal, recording and any live work that I will be doing. I’ll probably pair the unit with a set of in-ears for my live work.

And I guess I will enter the digital age of guitar playing.

Reluctantly.