A New Friend

Recently I decided to get a new guitar to replace the Ibanez S540FMTT I’ve been using for almost twenty years.  Honestly, the S540 is my baby, it’s been through thick and thin with me, but I was just feeling the urge to get something new.  Been taking a break from strictly electronic-based music, and I really wanted to focus on the guitar again for awhile.  Figured now was the perfect time for a new guitar then.  I’ve always been drawn to Parker guitars, but they’ve also been way out of my price range too.  So I had more or less decided to trade up the S540 to a newer Ibanez S5470 Prestige.  Same thing just newer electronics and bridge.

On a whim however (and partly out of boredom one day), I decided to visit the Parker forums to see kind of guitars they were putting out these days.  Out of pure luck I ran into an ad for someone selling a 4 month old, one of a kind Dragonfly DF724 (they don’t make them in blue flamed maple usually).  And it was in my price range, though just barely.  Taking a chance I bought it from the seller (who was a super nice guy and pleasure to do business with), and roughly a week later I had my new dream guitar.

 

And then things got interesting.

When the guitar arrived, I was ecstatic.  It was beautiful, light, and everything I could have wished for in terms of fit and feel.  I like thin and light guitars, and this was perfect, it just felt right.  The neck is just about as thin as the Wizard neck on the Ibanez, and the stainless steel frets (as opposed to the usual nickel ones companies use) feel amazing.  A little thinner than the jumbo frets I’m used to, but so easy to bend on.  The action was a touch higher than I was used to, but that was simple enough to adjust, and is now lower than my S540’s with no buzzing at all.  In short, this is the best guitar I’ve ever played, it truly feels like a high end hand-crafted instrument.  All of my expectations were met or exceeded.

I rushed to the studio, and plugged it into my Line6 Pod X3 to check out how it sounded.  I’ve never used a guitar with Seymour Duncan pickups, always been a DiMarzio fan.  My other concern had been the pick up layout on the Parker, which was a Single Single Humbucker configuration, where as the neck Humbucker on my Ibanez (H S H configuration) was the pick up I used the most.  Luckily the pickups sounded really good.

At least, they did for about 90 seconds.

About that time, the Pod X3 emitted a tiny pop sound, released a thin puff of smoke, and proceeded to reboot itself.  When it came back on, the display was blank (but lit), and it was not making any sound.  If there was any doubt that this was not going to end well, the faint aroma of burnt silicon quickly squashed that.  Sigh….

So there I was, less that two minutes into the first session with my brand new dream guitar, and I have no way to hear it.  Sure, I messed with the amps and pedals in Garageband for a bit, but it’s not the same.  They’re ok, pretty good, but not as good as the Pod X3 was.  Thus began the fun process of trying to determine if it was going to even be worth it to fix the Pod X3, or just get a new one.  After some research and calls to the local Line 6 service center, it turns out that I was only going to save about $40 getting it fixed, versus buying a new one (with the full warranty since it was new).   Some might think I’m crazy going back to a company after something like this, but I’ve owned all the Pods over the years, and this is the first issue I’ve ever had with one.

So, I started looking at what Line 6 was offering and quickly realized that the HD500 was probably more up my alley than another Pod X3 (combined with my MKI Shortboard).  Went to Guitar Center to pick one up, and I’m back in business again and couldn’t be happier.  I’ve posted about my recent guitar exploits on a few forums, and a lot of people have asked for a review of the HD500, so I figured why not.  Read on for the review….

Line6 HD500 Review

A lot of people who asked for this review are current Line 6 owners, who are debating upgrading what they have to the newer Line 6 HD line up.  So to some extent I’ll tailor my review to those with experience with Line 6 Pod products.  As I mentioned, I’ve owned all the Pods over the years, and always been happy with how they sounded for my needs.  I’ve also owned Digitech and Korg all in one offerings, as well as real tube amps from Marshall (a JCM), Fender (silver face Bassman was my first amp), and Vox (AC30).

I’ll be upfront in stating that I could care less how “realistic” a digital emulator sounds compared to a real tube amp, I’m not a purist by any means.  All I care about is does it sound good, and how flexible and easy to use is it.  In my experience, once you record the guitar and put it in the context of a song, the differences between real tube amps and todays higher end emulations are all but gone.  How they “feel” and play is a different matter of course, so I can certainly understand why some people care about this.

For me, each new revision of the Pods has meant a noticeable increase in sound quality, especially when I went from the Pod XT to the Pod X3.  The reverbs sounded smoother, it was more responsive to volume controls, and overall it was just a very noticeable increase in the sense of space and depth the unit provided. Unfortunately, it was a slightly more complicated unit to use, not as dead simple as the XT was.  Line 6 stuff has always been pretty easy to figure out, and the X3 was no exception, it just wasn’t as simple as the XT was.  Also, I didn’t really find the dual channel processing it offered all that useful either.  It gave you a lot of flexibility, but you had to be really careful things didn’t get too busy and muddy sounding too.  Using just one channel though, it offered a ton of ways to shape your sound.

Enter the HD500.  The biggest difference according to Line 6 is that they scaled back the amps they modeled, and focused on making them more accurate.  At wide open volumes (i.e., via the volume pot on your guitar), the amps aren’t hugely different to my ears.  Start to roll back the volume though, and they definitely are a lot more playable over a greater range than the previous Pods.  It’s a lot simpler to tone down a distorted amp with your volume pot now, and not feel like it’s just sort of turning down the distortion in the process.  Much more playable, and as a result makes the way you interact with the amps that much better.  But again, to me the sound difference when the volume is wide open is not huge.  Noticeable over the X3 sure, but not a gigantic improvement.  Since I thought the X3 amps sounded great already, this is fine by me.

Some people might lament the fact that the HD500 has less amps than the X3 did over all, but I think Line 6 did a great job of picking the right amps to include.  Creating a new guitar tone from scratch is much faster now, so in many ways I actually like the limited options.

And while they limited the amp models, there’s still over 100 different effects you can choose from, and these all sound fantastic.  The two biggest differences with the HD effects compared to the Pod X3, is that on the HD you have up to 8 different effects slots to insert whatever effects you want, and that the effects can be in any order that you want (as well as serial and parallel routing). Some of the reverbs and pitch shifters use a lot of computing power, so there are some rare times you might only be able to use 5-6 effects before you get a warning message about lack of processing available.  Also, keep in mind that things like the volume and wah pedals, EQs, and noise gates use up 1 of your 8 slots as well.  Hasn’t been an issue for me personally, it’s still way more flexible than the X3 was.  Effects now only have 5 editable parameters, but I don’t find this a limitation at all so far.  On the plus side, you can also assign more than one effect parameter to a toggle switch now, so one button press can do multiple things.  Handy.

In terms of hardware, the IO options on the HD500 are very plentiful, more so than the X3 was.  Rather than list the connections available, I’ll just say check out the list at Line6.com.  The pedal board itself is very sturdy, pretty heavy too, definitely built for use live.  I really like the new toggle switches on the HD compared to my Shortboard MKI, much easier to toggle effects and select presets now.  The volume/wah pedal feels solid, as do the basic tone controls, though I did feel these were spaced rather close together.

The HD500 also has a dedicated looper now, with up to 48 seconds sampling time.  The looper is simple to use, the display changes to show you what each toggle does when you enter this mode, so I didn’t even need to open the manual to figure out the operation of this. In fact, the overall operation of the whole unit has been greatly improved compared to the X3 and earlier Pods.  Instead of scrolling through a long list of all your effects modules in a patch (some with pages of parameters each),  you use a visual grid of the effects to select which to edit, and the 4 soft knobs below the display to select and tweak each one.  It makes perfect sense once you’re in front of the unit, and I think it’s biggest change to how you edit patches on Line 6 gear since the Pod was introduced.  Very hard to explain in words, so I’ll just say once you ‘get it’, it’s far easier and faster than the previous Pods were.

If you don’t want to edit from the front panel (and who could blame you since it’s a floor-based unit), the HD series comes with some free editing software for your computer.  While not quite as simple as Line6’s Gearbox software, I was able to figure it out in a couple of minutes without the manual.  The software lets you view all the effect parameters at once, as well as functioning as a librarian program as well.  Great for moving patches around in set lists.

Ah set lists, I almost forgot about them.  New to the HD range is a concept known as set lists, which are basically a collection of 128 patches each.  You have room for 8 set lists onboard, 4 are factory patches you can over-write if you want, and 4 are blank User locations ready for you to store your favorites too.  Like previous Line 6 gear, patches (Tones) are stored in 16 banks with 4 patches each.  So a set list is collection of these 16 banks.  These are easy to switch between, you just press the selection encoder on the hardware to open the set list selection screen, and you just turn the encoder to select the set list you want.

A quick bit of math and you’ll realize this means there are 512 locations for patches built into the HD series, 4 times the amount available on the X3 and earlier ranges.  In a somewhat misleading way, Line 6 states that the HD500 comes with 256 patches preprogrammed onboard.  In use though, a lot of the patches are duplicated among the different set lists, so you don’t get that many unique Tones.  I read a lot of complaints about the factory sounds when researching the HD500, but to be honest, I like them a lot.  They definitely tend towards the weird and wild many times versus being straight up simple amp emulations, but they’re very well done IMO.  Some of them turn your guitar into otherworldly sounds that you’d be hard pressed to identify as coming from a guitar, so this is great for a musician like myself.  Most make great use of the expression pedal, though because many of the effect parameters can be assigned to the same toggle switches, sometimes turning these on and off leads to unexpected results.  Hard to know what you’re turning on and off if you didn’t create the patch.  The display will show you which effects are assigned to each toggle, but only for the first effect assigned.  Minor complaint though.

Ok, this is getting stupid long now, so I’ll try and wrap it up and summarize my overall thoughts.  Line 6 state that the main goal with the HD series was to make the amps more playable, and on that front I think they did as intended.  Especially if you use the volume and tone controls on your guitar to help shape the tone you’re after.  In terms of pure sound quality, I don’t think the HD500 is a huge step up from the X3, though there is a small but noticeable difference.

I really like the new effects models the HD500 has over the X3, especially the pitch-shifting effects and the pattern tremolo, which lets you create some complex gating patterns.  The looper is a real blast to use as well, and it’s simple to operate.  Navigating and creating patches is so different from previous Pod’s, that at first it was slightly confusing.  Once you get it though, it’s definitely an improvement over earlier models, and I really like the way Line 6 did it.  Even if most effects have less parameters to control as a result.  The hardware itself is very robust in most cases, and has enough IO options to please just about anyone. The global menu has also been revamped, and now has a lot more options to control and tailor the HD500 to perform exactly as you want.

Other than losing some of the bass and vocal processing functions of the X3 (which I never really used anyway), I can’t think of any other area where the HD500 is step back from the earlier Pods.  At least for my uses.  It sounds great and is easy to use, and those have always been my primary criteria.  If you have any questions or need a clarification on something, please post it in the comments.  Likewise, if there’s anything you’d like to know about the Parker guitar, let me know and I’ll be happy to answer it if I can.  Hope you found this useful!

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