Line6’s original POD unit has been wildly successful since its inception just a few short years ago and with good reason. Any guitarist can imagine the appeal of having a musical tool that can call up a variety of guitar tones instantly at the push of a few buttons and a twist of a few knobs. In fact, having this versatility in a small package made the original POD a mainstay for studio musicians and recording studios.
While a new loyal group of Line6 users embraced this digital modeling technology used in the original POD, some musicians were quick to judge negatively against the POD and modeling technology in general – even if they never had tried it in the first place! It is interesting that while we as musicians like to think of ourselves as individuals, we can also sometimes be "set in our ways" (how many of us play Strats, Pauls, and PRS’ or Marshall and Mesa Boogie amps in part because so-and-so does?) – and no debate has been stirred up with so much passion over recent years than the topic of "modeling vs. the real thing." It’s easy to see modeling-critics ripping apart these solutions, not only because they promise a plethora of the greatest tones according to how they are marketed, but also because they are simply new and perhaps threaten the status quo of how music is to be made and heard.
So where do I stand in this debate? I’m in an interesting space actually as I’m a hard-core lover of vintage tube amplifiers, but I’ll admit that they’re not without their faults and issues, especially if looking to buy one today. I also enjoy working on these amps so some of the love and enjoyment also comes from a different perspective – just like a person may enjoy his classic automobile – admittedly if I didn’t have any of the technical skill to maintain my amps, I’d admit that I’d likely be overly worried about issues of problems arising.
Additionally, while I enjoy my "old amps", having a tool that promises the great tones of many types and eras of amplifiers in one package is very exciting. Much of my time in the ‘80s was spent experimenting with virtually every processor, gizmo, pickup, amp and guitar that I could – all in the quest of tone. So having gone through all those years of trial and error and frustration -would I like to have a bunch of great amp and effect tones all in one small kidney-bean shaped unit? Sure thing! So let’s go explore the PODxt and see how it went…
Enter the PODxt
The Line6 PODxt is a significant update to the original POD in terms of features. Not only have a wealth of new models been added, but many of the classic effects boxes – from fuzzes, to delays, to Leslie speaker simulations – have all been included. On top of it all, even the models that have been transferred over from the original POD have been redone and updated.
The PODxt not only adds a large supply of models based on speakers and cabinets that can be mated with any of the amplifiers chosen, but it also models the final mixed sounds of various microphones that are placed on and/or off-axis in respect to the speaker. What the PODxt is designed to do is provide the complete spectrum of tone suitable for recording from where the guitar first enters the amplifier (or before it if you choose to employ the stomp box models) to the final recording mix.
The PODxt’s "AIR" feature has also been updated and has more specific settings for the final environment where the POD is used. Whether you’re looking for the optimum headphone output tone, or want to run it in front of a combo amplifier or direct into a PA, the PODxt allows you to make this change. It is for this reason why anyone seriously interested in the PODxt should really dive into the user guide so they don’t miss these details. Not only is it truly comprehensive, well-written, and indeed fun to read, if you miss some of the critical info about areas such as the AIR function and run the POD set in the wrong final application (e.g. running it in front of combo amplifier when in direct mode), you’ll likely be very disappointed by the final sound produced.
Last, but certainly not least, one of the biggest changes to come to the PODxt is the addition of a graphical interface that shows all the various amp and effects settings on screen. Unlike the older POD, the PODxt shows you instantly where you last left all of your dialed-in settings on a given model. This may not seem like such a big deal, but it is a huge benefit to the user to visually represent the bass, treble, drive and other settings on screen.
Amp Models and Presets
I was already well-versed in the use of Line6’s POD 2.0 and so I was looking forward to seeing how improved the PODxt would be. New models from Matchless, Vox, and Hiwatt, as well as some new variations on Marshalls are all here. The new models come courtesy of the digital signal processing technology found within Line6’s flagship Vetta modeling amplifier.
Some of the most notable of amplifier models featured within include the Hiwatt DR103, the famous amplifier used by Pete Townshend of The Who, as well as the "plexi" Marshall Super Lead but running on a Variac, the idea based on increasing the voltage of the amplifier (more on this in a moment) to change the tone and overall inspired by Edward Van Halen’s famously dubbed "brown sound" tone.
New to the PODxt as well are 60 built-in presets that utilize various combinations of modeled amplifiers and effects to help users dial in some particularly famous recorded tones. Four spaces are left empty for users to create and store their own presets. For the ones that Line6 includes, there are presets such as "Eruption" that emulates the Van Halen slow phased sweep and gainy Marshall tone running a Variac as employed on the first album. There are a host of others that are easily recognizable as to where their influences were derived, from the AC/DC-inspired "Highway to Hell", Eric Johnson "Cliffs of Dover", Dire Strait’s "Money for Nothin", and many others.
So how do these presets sound? I’d say the full gamut is covered in terms of accuracy as some of the settings, most notably, the higher gain style settings such as the Metallica inspired "Master of Puppets" preset sound very accurate, but some of the other settings are either a bit too processed with additional effects or the distortion tone doesn’t feel quite "on" (such as the VH inspired "Eruption" which had a fluid lead tone, but lacked the VH vibe whatsoever when doing rhythm chords or the Eric Johnson "Cliffs of Dover" which in itself was a good tone but one of the ones that was clearly overdone with reverb and delay). Some tones seemed to miss the mark for me completely (such as the AC/DC-inspired "Highway to Hell" – one of my all-time favorite Marshall/Gibson tones that just really disappointed me)).
All said, if you approach the PODxt with the idea that you’re going to find dead-on 100% accurate presets and tones true in every way to the original, well I’d say that you’d be expecting a quite a bit too much from the PODxt. You have to look at the unit with an open mind as to what it is – it is an attempt to model as closely as possible many of the tones one uses, but it’s something that won’t get 100% of modeled tones and shouldn’t be expected to – regardless of how something may be marketed or presented in an advertisement.
The types of guitars and pickups used of course will impact the final sound as well. For the testing, I used an assortment of guitars ranging from PAF-equipped Les Pauls, newer Stratocasters with original single-coil pickups, as well as other solid-body instruments with various active and passive pickups. I even used a guitar outfitted with the trusty Seymour Duncan custom-shop EVH-wind pickup that we reported on last year when we discovered its existence. An interesting note with the PODxt’s response to the various pickups and guitars – it seems less discerning over bringing out all the characters of the guitar type used when compared to how some amplifiers can really change tone when different guitars are used. That said, where it makes up for this is in its great sensitivity to the degrees of input voltage and gain differences between the guitars themselves.
Getting back to the idea of "perfect replication" of an amp, I can tell you that even the vintage amplifiers out there will vary in their tones and some will be considered the "good ones" for various reasons. For Marshalls, the 1967 100 watt Super Lead is a well-noted year and model not only because of the circuit used, but the output transformer had a larger core and gave a bigger sound that really breathed and brought out nice low end. Plate voltages on tube amps changed throughout the years as well. So with all those variances from the amps themselves, expecting a 100% model would again be a difficult stretch.
So what can I say about the amp choices modeled? For the most part, the tube amp choices that Line6 selected for modeling are known as the standards by which great tone is judged and all the obvious manufacturer choices are represented.
The Fender 4×10 bassman; various other tweed-era and "blackface" Fenders; Marshall’s ranging from the tube rectified JTM-45, to later plexi and JCM 800 models; Boogie Rectifiers and Soldano SLO high-gained beasts; Vox AC30 Top Boost and others influenced by the Vox such as the Matchless; Even some not-so-commonly thought of amps such as the Budda or the solid-state, but otherwise famous Roland JC-120 are all modeled here.
Line6 even had some fun with a "Plexi Variac" Marshall, one based on the infamous Marshall amp used by Edward Van Halen – Line6 bumped the voltages up to 140 volts on their actual Marshall that they modeled so you can get the "Marshall-about-to-blow-a-transformer" sound in the safety and comfort of your own home, studio, or stage. While Mr. Van Halen himself was known to tell a tall-tale or two about his specific use of the Variac, we’d like to see a version of the Plexi-Variac where the voltages are actually reduced to 90 volts – which is the trick Van Halen later revealed that really helped him get the "Brown Sound".
Now what about the TONE of the various models? The trend I noticed is that the high-gain sounds such as the Soldano SLO, Marshall JMP-1 and Mesa Boogie Rectifier produced the most accurate tones in the mix. I think some of this can be explained due to the fact that the harmonic complexity of these amps is quite a bit simpler to emulate since there is a lot of compression within that type of tone and there is also little or no use of power-tube distortion emphasized in these original designs as well. Moving to the Marshalls, Voxes, and Fenders that are designed for the "crank ‘em up" application to get the best tones with warm amounts of moderate overdrive, the PODxt does struggle at times.
Listening carefully to the PODxt, you can begin to hear how each model can be heard as being very similar in its attack and tone based on the amount of gain you dial in. There is a bit of a high-end frequency emphasis in the tone within the PODxt that is unique onto itself and comes out clearly through all the models, especially as you increase your attack to the strings. This particular effect or tone inherent in the PODxt makes for a very crystalline-sounding clean tone. In fact, the clean tones are quite notable and sound good to my ears. Crank up the gain and go into high-gain territory and the tones through the Soldano, Marshall, etc. can be dialed in to sound the same tone-wise if you set the gain to a similar "matched" level. But this applies to the medium-gained tones as well. For example, I took the Vox AC30 TB model and set it for medium gain, then moved to the Marshall JCM 800 model and reduced the gain to sonically match the Vox and the two amps literally sounded identical in tone and response. I tried this experiment even with the Fender blackface Deluxe Reverb model and achieved the same result.
This is the weak-point in the PODxt and of modeling amps in general that I’ve played to date. Each "model" will have different starting and ending points as to how much bass, mids, treble, and gain it will have, but when set relative to each other, they aren’t as distinguishable as they perhaps should be. In the high-gain and clean arenas, I find the tones are pleasing. In the areas of using moderate gain, for classic rock to bluesy type of work for example, the PODxt doesn’t exhibit the warmth needed to fully do justice to those amps named that it models.
Still, while it took a bit of tweaking, I was still able to get a fairly decent overdriven Vox AC30 tone, though the early Marshall models left something to be desired for my tastes, especially again when doing rhythm or chord work. The clean tones throughout were nice – Voxes produced some of their classic chime and Fenders were consistently nice. The Roland JC120 was also well represented here. The big disappointment to me for clean tone was the Hiwatt DR103 model. A true Hiwatt has a wonderful sweep of tone when using the controls. It is also a naturally "big" sound with loads of headroom. The bass control on a real Hiwatt adds a lot of thumpy bass while the highs and presence controls are also very responsive. Not quite so on the Hiwatt model in here, though in all fairness, the "cranked up" Hiwatt tone a la Pete Townshend of The Who can be fun to play through and sounded good.
Line6 makes this area quite a bit of fun as you’re given the option of playing any of the included available cabinets through any of the available amplifiers. You could match a 2 x 12 Fender cabinet to a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier or put a Marshall through a single 8 inch speaker if you cared to.
The results are fairly easy to predict. The more speaker cones you have modeled and that you are using, the wider of the frequency response you’ll get. Moving over to specific cabinets however such as the various 4 x 12s, each one is modeled with an e.q. curve typical of the speaker, so while any 4 x 12 in general will have a wider frequency response compared to a single 8 inch speaker, the use of the 4 x 12 version of the G12T75 Marshall/Celestion cab model will sound more mid-scooped than the same cab loaded with G12M Greenbacks.
I found the cabinet models quite helpful as I often deviated from the "stock" configurations that Line6 provides and was pleased with the changed results.
Another very interesting area as the PODxt provides four microphone configurations and positions with the final results going out as the final output. I like this idea very much because these are the "ears" of the PODxt and the best way I believe to finalize the sound.
Think about it this way. Plug and play through your guitar and amplifier as you normally would. Now move to one side of your amp and continue playing. Now sit down on the floor so your head is directly in the way of your guitar and amp and play. Notice how each position sounds different? This is a result of phase changes, so the idea that Line6 had to model a particular set of microphones is a nice way to ensure some consistency in how they go about modeling a particular given amp.
The PODxt provides a number of types of microphones, from the standard SM-57, with the option of positioning on or off-axis, to a dual SM-57 microphone setup, to a dynamic and even a condenser setup.
The area of effects within the POD is very interesting. Classic models of an MXR Phase 90, Univibe, Tube Screamer, Rat distortion, EH Big Muff Fuzz, Leslie speaker, tube tape echo, analog and digital delay, are all represented within the PODxt. Quite a treasure trove of options to play with!
Like the amps modeled, the effects within are also graphically represented with on screen rotary knobs and other helpful displays.
In general, the most impressive models were those of the time-delay based effects, including the Boss/Roland CE-1 Chorus as well as the Boss DM-2 analog delay. The analog delay’s signal degeneration with each repeat was quite impressive and nicely done. The Phase 90 had a wonderful swirling phase effect and the Univibe was quite colorful.
The distortion, fuzz, and overdrive models were decent, but didn’t impress me in the same fashion as many of the other effects did. All said, there are some interesting applications of these units that one can explore – for example, putting a tube screamer in front of one of the modeled amplifiers to give it a bit of a boost is clearly an application that would be of interest to many.
One advantage of these "virtual" effects is their placement can be put "post amplification". In other words, your lovely A/DA Flanger model won’t compress into a non-dynamic worthless and weak sweep as it would if you placed it directly in front of a real fire-breathing Marshall set to 10. With the PODxt, you get to put it after the distortion and compression devices so all the dynamics remain.
Applications and Conclusion
What are the various and best applications for using the PODxt? Of course it can serve as a headphone amplifier but beyond this, you have the option to run it as a line out direct into a studio recording board or you can use the USB interface to go direct into your computer. For quick and convenient recordings, the PODxt definitely makes a compelling choice for a studio player.
It can also be placed inline with a PA system or used as the front-end preamp for a combo guitar amplifier. I found this latter application in particular to be the weakest, but it’s not the POD’s fault in this case. It’s just that guitar amplifiers are designed to reproduce certain frequencies and some will be more emphasized than others – they’re not designed like a PA amplifiers which try to offer a balanced or neutral tone. However, Line6 has addressed this area of concern and has updated software available with various e.q. curves to adjust to the different tones and types of guitar amps used. All in all, if the option exists for you, the use of a small power amp and p.a. speakers may make a better choice for those looking to use the PODxt in this type of live application, but still retain the "feel" of a guitar amp by keeping the speakers and power amp together as a unit that can then be miked and fed into a PA.
For my personal use, I find the PODxt best serves as a personal practice station when I need to keep the levels down and want to use headphones. Certainly it’s overkill to be used solely in this fashion and one can spend hours just tweaking knobs and setting presets rather than practicing, but even with all of its inherent flaws, there’s no doubt that the PODxt can also be quite fun.
One has to hand it to Line6 for working as hard as they do toward achieving what seems to be the nearly impossible goal in creating and offering the virtual "Swiss Army knife" of amplifiers. As a lover of tube amps and vintage gear, the PODxt falls short if I was to directly compare it to my modest collection of amplifiers. My own ’64 Vox AC30 TB isn’t loaded with channel switching, effects loops and reverbs, but it is loaded with an incredible dynamic response, and warmth that makes it my favorite combo amplifier. Though it is a simple design, it can run the range of clean to overdrive to full-blown distortion by use of a combination of touch and attack applied to the guitar, a little reduction of the volume knob on the guitar from time to time, and by employing a booster pedal for "going over the top". To me, it is the ultimate expressive amplifier and is truly interactive with the player – the greatest of tube amplifiers have this special character.
But with that said, many of the great amplifiers of yesterday aren’t being made anymore, and the ones that are offered as reissues today are at different stages of accuracy in tone when compared to the originals. To produce an original hand-wired Vox or Marshall today with the same class of transformers and parts as used in the past would put these amps at the very high-end scale in terms of pricing. That wasn’t of course the original intent in the first place with these amplifiers, but the point being that the difference in tone between a reissue and original can be because of the sum total of the parts used today.
Personally, having played through a great deal of mediocre or substandard tube and solid-state equipment through the years and at various degrees in pricing, I do hold high hopes of Line6 and others being able to achieve even greater results for digital modeling in the future. Not everyone will have the dollars or want to invest the dollars into some very expensive amplifiers so Line6’s ideology and goals again should be admired. It’s an exciting time to be a musician today and there are a wealth of great tools and choices available at our disposal. It’s also exciting when items such as the PODxt crop up in the market and offer so much technology for relatively so little money. At a current street price of $399, musicians interested in a relatively low-hassle tool for recording or interfacing with a PA will no doubt find the PODxt a great asset. Like with any amplifier or piece of gear, I recommend that the potential purchaser spend some time with it and give it a listen. For those looking for a simplified and even lower-cost version of the PODxt, the POD 2.0 may be the ticket.
(NOTE: we’re eliminating point scales in reviews to encourage the reader to go through the articles comprehensively).