LINE 6 Variax 700 Vetta II Combo
Byline: Rob Shrock
Line 6’s Variax 700 is an electric guitar that emulates 28 separate guitar models or similar stringed instruments. The Vetta II Combo provides the power of two PodXT Pros in an open-back, 212 combo amp. Separately, the Variax 700 and Vetta II are very powerful; when connected, they provide a mind-blowing palette of guitar tones.
The combination of Variax and Vetta II could be a godsend for guitarists who record at home where space is limited and noise can be a problem. The system can replace a studio full of guitars, effects, pedals, and amps. It also allows you to record massive-sounding tones using headphones for monitors. You can take this minimal setup to a gig and have a virtual encyclopedia of guitar and amp combinations at the touch of a button.
The Variax 700 (see Fig.1) uses a piezo pickup built in to the bridge to capture string vibrations. (There are no electromagnetic pickups.) A built-in DSP chip modifies the signal to match one of a number of painstakingly modeled guitars. There is a negligible delay (under 2 ms) in processing.
The Variax is not a MIDI guitar or guitar synth. It responds to a player’s touch the way any other electric guitar does, albeit with a large collection of personalities culled from some of the most popular guitars in history. Dynamics, hammer-ons, pinch harmonics, and false harmonics sound just as they do on other guitars. Even E-bows work, although bowing closer to the pickup doesn’t affect the Variax’s output as it would with a traditional electric guitar. The Variax sounds like each modeled guitar’s output before any processing or amplification occurs.
The Variax has three knobs: Volume, Tone, and a Model Selector. The Volume and Tone controls for each model have been tailored to emulate the controls of the original guitars as closely as possible. The Model Select knob has 12 positions, each of which holds a bank of 5 models, for a total of 60 models. You can select a model from each bank by using the 5-position pickup selector. Two of the banks store your favorite presets. Oddly, those two banks are situated in the first and last preset positions, with the ten preset banks in between them.
Line 6’s terminology requires some getting used to. For example, the Les Paul bank is called Lester and the Strat bank is called Spank. The model indicator is hard to see in certain lighting conditions; I put a small piece of white gaff tape on the guitar body to help identify the indicator’s location. The text on the Model Select knob is small and difficult to read. I wish that the pickup selector were in a different location. I had to retrain myself from strumming broadly on this guitar, because I kept knocking the selector to the down position.
Because of its built-in DSP, the Variax must be powered to generate sound. If you connect the Variax to the Vetta amp using the guitar’s RJ-45 output, the Variax will receive power from the amp. If you want to use the Variax simply as a guitar with other amps, you can install six AA batteries, which will provide approximately 12 hours of operation. (Unplugging the guitar cable when not playing extends battery life.) Or you can connect the Variax to the XPS footswitch with a TRS 1/4-inch cable. (Both are included with the guitar.)
Besides providing power to the guitar, the XPS functions as a direct box, sending the full-frequency guitar signal out the unit’s XLR jack when the footswitch is pressed. This is useful especially for the Variax’s modeled acoustic guitar sounds, which many players will want to send directly to a mixing board. One problem with this setup is that the XPS’s 12-foot AC power cable houses an inline converter positioned right in the middle of the cable’s run. I stepped on or kicked it several times during rehearsals, once knocking the power out of the XPS.
Most of the models are impressively accurate representations of the basic tone and response of the original guitars. Many models provide the sounds of individual bridge, neck, and combined pickup positions. I especially liked the Telecaster, Gretsch, Danelectro, and Les Paul models. The Gibson and Epiphone semihollow bodies sounded authentic as well. The Coral Sitar model will have you playing ’60s-style Indian-sounding licks in no time, even if the G string on this model was noticeably louder than the other strings. I enjoyed the wide variety of timbres in the Variax.
Although the Variax is a powerful instrument in its own right, I didn’t care for the sound of a few guitar models. In particular, I was disappointed with the 1959 Strat model, which is modeled in all five pickup positions. I sensed that some envelope shaping had been used in an effort to give the sound the fast decay sploing that makes a real Strat so good for R&B music. I tended to go for the Telecaster model when I was looking for a single-coil sound, and I was usually happier with that choice. The 12-string models use pitch shifting to create the octaves, and the effect is apparent. The acoustic models were pretty good, sounding a lot like acoustic guitars with piezo pickups pumped through a PA. Hopefully, Line 6 will continue to refine the models and perhaps offer even more choices in the future.
Stage and Studio
For live gigs, most of these deficiencies are more than tolerable in exchange for the guitar’s flexibility. I would not hesitate to use an acoustic model for the intro of a song before switching to the electric sound at the chorus in a live setting. The same goes for the occasional 12-string or Dobro passage. I would not use the Variax for those sounds on a recording, however, unless I was going for something with lots of effects. Those models are just not authentic enough in an exposed setting. But I would have no problem using most of the 6-string electric sounds on a critical recording.
The Variax 700 itself is well crafted and better than the original Variax 500. My review model, however, was in need of intonation- and string-height adjustments. (According to Line 6, the Variax is now set up and intonated properly when shipped.) After adjustments, the guitar played well.
The Variax can be modified somewhat for those with different tastes. The Strat-style neck can be replaced with a comparable neck without any compromise in the Variax’s functionality. Replacement necks are available from Warmouth. (For more information about replacements, visit www.line6.com.) You can install other modifications, such as the Earvana nut or Feiten tuning systems. Even without those mods, the Variax has become a favorite of mine.
The Vetta II (see Fig. 2) is a 212, 150W combo amp that is roughly the size and weight of a Fender Twin. It contains two separate 75W channels, allowing you to create two entirely different amps in the same physical enclosure. You could stack a Vox AC-30 and a Marshall J-900 on top of each other for that classic dirty and clean sound combination. The amp tones can be panned to any position in the stereo field. An extension cabinet can be connected to the Vetta II, letting you treat each physical cabinet as a completely different amp rig. The Vetta II can also get quite loud. I have yet to push it close to its limits for fear of breaking glass. (For those who need even more power, the Vetta HD is a separate 300W head and 412 cabinet system.)
There are no vacuum tubes in the Vetta II, but it offers all the functionality of the PodXT Pro (it’s actually more like two PodXT Pros, since Amp 1 and Amp 2 can be programmed independently of each other). The Vetta II also adds more stomp boxes (three at once instead of one), more post-amp processing, and more flexible routing. The elaborate interface is a bit daunting at first because of the amount of buttons and lights. Once you learn the layout of the Vetta II, however, you’ll appreciate its capabilities. A free editor/-librarian called Line 6 Edit (Mac/Win) makes programming and managing patches a breeze.
The Vetta II Combo contains 73 detailed amplifiers; 27 cabinets; 8 distortion stomp boxes; 15 modulation pedals and effects; 12 analog, digital, and tape-based delays; 6 stompboxes and processors for dynamics; 12 synth and filter effects; and a variety of studio effects (some the same as the stompboxes) designed to be applied after the amp tones. The sounds of many of these modeled classics have shown up on countless records over the past few years courtesy of other Line 6 products, so the Vetta II has a bit of pedigree.
At first I was disappointed in the Vetta II’s factory presets. The preset sounds are overprocessed to show off the amp’s capabilities. But once I started building up my own tones from scratch, I appreciated the power, flexibility, and quality of the amp. Most of the amps and cabinets sounded great.
I liked most of the effects, although I wasn’t able to get some of the stompboxes to sound as much like the originals as I wanted. In those instances, I moved on to a different effect until I found a sound that I liked. Considering all of the variables – choice of guitar, amp model, cabinet, effects, routing, and so on – it’s possible to get just about any sound, as long as you have the patience to do it. A programmable line-level effects loop (see Fig. 3) allows you to inject your favorite effects into the system.
The Vetta II ships with a digital interface card that provides AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital inputs and outputs at a maximum 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution. Recording with the Vetta II’s digital outputs is similar to recording digitally with a Pod. It’s not my favorite method, but the speaker emulation is good and many users like the sound. The digital I/O can also be used as a digital effects loop (replacing the analog effects loop) or for reamping a recorded signal.
I had more success recording the Vetta II with dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mics. Varying the mics and employing different amp and guitar settings -resulted in recordings that truly sounded as though entirely different guitar rigs were employed.
I also tested the optional FBV Foot Controller ($599), which is the largest of four compatible pedal boards that connect to the Vetta II with RJ-45 cables. The FBV comes with dedicated volume and wah pedals. Eighteen buttons are well laid out for changing patches, turning the separate amps and effects on and off, and providing access to the built-in tuner.
When the Variax is plugged into the Vetta II using the included RJ-45 digital cable, patches stored in the amp can contain the specific guitar model information, which can be loaded back into the Variax. In that mode, whenever the model knob or pickup selector is moved, the new guitar model is immediately selected. (Line 6’s upcoming Variax Workbench will allow users to build guitar presets with alternate tunings and capo settings.)
Another huge benefit to using the Variax and Vetta II as a system is that there is absolutely no hum, buzz, or other interference noise. It was almost disconcerting to have a cranked-up single-coil sound with full-on distortion and not hear any pickup garbage. But I quickly got used to it, and became acutely aware of the noise in my other guitar-amp rigs.
The system is not perfect. A few of the Variax models leave room for improvements, especially the 12-strings. The Vetta II digital outputs don’t sound nearly as good as the sounds you can get by miking the cabinet. The system is expensive (street prices are significantly lower). The only way to get any closer to owning this large a collection of tones is to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.
An intangible symbiosis exists between the Variax and Vetta II that makes the sum greater than the parts. The Variax and Vetta II are formidable in their own right and are legitimate tools in a guitarist’s arsenal. As a system, there’s no comparable guitar rig that comes close in the versatility department.
Rob Shrock recently worked on releases for Aretha Franklin, Ronnie Isley, and American Idol II. He has recorded and/or performed with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Dionne Warwick, and David Foster, among others. Visit him at www.robshrock.com .
Variax 700 LINE 6 Vetta II Combo
Variax 700 digital-modeling electric guitar $1,899.00 (black) $2,099.99 (other colors)
OVERALL RATING [1 through 5]: 4 Vetta II Combo digital modeling guitar amp $2,399.99
OVERALL RATING [1 through 5]: 4
PROS: System provides a virtual collection of coveted guitars, amps and effects. Most models sound close to the originals. When connected there is no hum or buzz. Variax guitar plays well and can be customized. Vetta II is versatile, loud, and sounds good. Built-in effects cover most of the bases.
CONS: Variax must be powered to operate. Model indicator is hard to see. Pickup selector is easily bumped when strumming. Vetta II digital outputs lack depth of a miked cabinet. Both are expensive.
Line 6, Inc. www.line6.com
VETTA II COMBO SPECIFICATIONS
VARIAX 700 SPECIFICATIONS
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