LINE 6 VARIAX 500 DIGITAL MODELING GUITAR
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Although the folks at Line 6 did not invent the concept of Digital Modeling of amps, speaker cabinets, and digital effects, their products are certainly respected, and their technology, especially in the form of the PODxt series, can be heard on many top notch professional recordings. A few years ago Line 6 turned their attention to a new concept, which was to produce a Digital Modeling Guitar. Digital Modeling of guitars was certainly not new concept, and the Roland did an excellent job of capturing different guitar sounds in their VG-88 Guitar System, which uses Rolands COSM Technology to model some of the most popular guitars and amps used in rock music. Line 6s unique contribution to the Digital Modeling of guitars was to create a free standing musical instrument, specifically the Variax Series of Guitars, which was capable of Digitally Modeling an entire collection of some of the most popular guitars used in rock music, as well as some rare vintage guitars, and unusual stringed instruments such as a sitar.
Although I have extensively described what Digital Modeling is and isnt in my review of the Variax 700, I feel I should say a few words about it here. The Variax is not a midi guitar. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. A midi guitar or keyboard requires a MIDI connection to a digital source, such as synthesizer sound module or bank, in order to play it, and the sounds of the guitars that it produces are housed externally in that synthesizer module. The midi guitar or keyboard merely triggers the sound, it does not produce it. I have owned guitar synthesizers and guitars with midi-pickups, and there are still some problems inherent in the best of them. Although there has been much improvement in midi guitars, one is inevitably forced to frequently alter their playing style to accommodate the limitations of the midi guitar. For example, fast riffs, certain picking techniques, trills, etc. have to be either eliminated or minimized in order to avoid tracking errors and delays, and other related problems. That is not the case with the Variax. All the sounds of the over two dozen guitars, as well as some other exotic stringed instruments, are located inside of the guitar, and can be instantaneously be available with the flick of a switch or turn of a dial. With the Variax, there are also none of the tracking errors inherent in midi guitars or guitar synthesizers. You can play the Variax 500 in any style, and be able to do so without having to alter what you would normally do on any other conventional guitar with conventional pickups.
When first looking at the Variax 500, one is immediately drawn to the fact that there are no discernable pickups between the bridge and the neck. Thats because there are none there. There are however Piezo pickups built into the bridge of the guitar. These pickups carry the impulses of the string vibrations to the internal electronic processors that are the heart of the Variax, and that is where the sounds of the various Digitally Modeled instruments are stored. Every subtlety of string picking, bending, rapid trills, etc., is faithfully reproduced, without the tracking errors or delays inherent in midi guitar pickups.
The Variax 500 in made in Korea and it has a Basswood body. Basswood is a wood that is commonly used in Japanese guitars, as it is a wood that is readily available in the Far East, and it has tonal qualities that are similar to Alder, which is frequently used in many Fender guitars. The neck is made with Maple, and the fingerboard is made with Rosewood. The Variax 500 has 22 medium profile frets, and a 10 inch fretboard radius, which is similar to the Variax 700 (the Variax 300 has a wider flatter neck radius of 12 inches, while the Variax 600 has a 9 ½ inch radius similar to a Fender American Series Deluxe Stratocaster). The fret markers are pearl dots, and the scale length of the neck is 25 ½ inches. The tuning pegs are three on a side like a Gibson. The neck feels good, slick, and smooth, and there were no discernable imperfections in either the finish, or the overall appearance of the guitar that I played. The Variax 500 is also available in a left hand model as well, and is available in Sunburst, Candy Apple Red, and Black. The Variax 500 has a standard ¼ inch guitar jack output, as well as a Digital I/O jack for use with a Line 6 PODxt live, Vetta II Amp, or connection to the Line 6 Workbench.
Like any other electric guitar, the Variax 500 has a knob for volume and tone. You will notice that when you set the Variax to model a specific guitar, lets say a Gibson Les Paul Special, that the volume and tone controls have the same response as they would on the guitar that they are modeling. For instance, varying the tone control on a guitar that is modeling a Gibson with P-90s will sound different than on a Gibson with Humbuckers. There is simply not the range of tone variation with the P-90s as compared to Humbuckers, and thus a greater amount of turning of the tone knob would be required to noticeably alter the tone of the P-90s as compared to the Humbuckers. Simply put, the Variax 500 really models the responsivity of the volume and tone controls of the electric guitar that it is set to model. The same can be said for the 5 position pickup selector. It will faithfully duplicate the different sounds of the bridge and neck pickups that it is supposed to be modeling (as well as the middle pickups on guitars with three pickups, i.e. 1961 Gibson Les Paul Custom or a 1959 Fender Stratocaster). When set to model one of the acoustic guitars, the volume control acts as a volume control and that is all. However, the tone control simulates the various tones that might be derived by different mic placements used in picking up the sound of an acoustic guitar. As anyone who has ever tried to capture the sound of an acoustic guitar with a microphone knows, different placement of the mic in relation to the guitar will produce different sounds (i.e., fatter, thinner, richer, fuller, etc.). The Variax 500 permits this subtle tweaking, which is very important when trying to make a believable recording.
The Variax 500 also has a third knob, which is the Model Selector Knob, which in conjunction with the Pickup Selector Switch, permits you to dial up the various guitars that the Variax models. However, a really exciting feature of the Variax 500 is that this Model Selector Knob also permits you to save and instantly recall your own favorite custom settings. There is a Custom 1 and Custom 2 setting, which in conjunction with the 5 position Pickup Selector Switch, permits you to save up to 10 different custom settings and sounds. This is very easily accomplished in the following way. Pull up on the Model Select Knob, flick the Pickup Selector Switch to the location you want to save the sound on, turn the Model Select Knob to the sound you want, and then press the Model Select Knob down. You now have saved not only the sound of the guitar you want to model, but also the pickup you want to use and the tone as well, and you can access this immediately when you want to call it up. Plus you can store up 10 different custom guitar sounds this way. This is a fabulously useful feature for playing live.
Versatility is the best word to describe the Variax 500, as it permits a guitarist to have access to the sound of 28 different guitars, and other stringed instruments. At this point I would like to list the instruments that the Variax 500 Digitally Models:
1) 1960 Fender Telecaster Custom.
2) 1968 Fender Telecaster Thinline.
3) 1968 Fender Telecaster.
4) 1959 Fender Stratocaster.
5) 1958 Gibson Les Paul Standard.
6) 1952 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.
7) 1961 Gibson Les Paul Custom.
8) 1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior.
9) 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special.
10) 1976 Gibson Firebird V.
11) 1959 Gretsch 6120.
12) 1956 Gretsch Silver Jet.
13) 1968 Rickenbacker 360.
14) 1968 Rickenbacker 360-12
15) 1961 Gibson ES-335.
16) 1967 Epiphone Casino.
17) 1957 Gibson Es-175.
18) 1953 Gibson Super 400.
19) 1969 Martin D-28.
20) 1970 Martin D12-28.
21) 1967 Martin 0-18.
22) 1966 Guild F212.
23) 1995 Gibson J-200
24) 1935 Dobro Model 32.
25) 1965 Danelectro 3021
26) Coral Sitar
27) Gibson Mastertone Banjo.
28) 1928 Tricone.
Because the Variax does not have conventional guitar pickups, the onboard electronics must be powered. This can be accomplished by using 6 AA batteries or a 9-Volt battery, either of which can be connected internally on the guitar. When the Variax is powered with 6 AA batteries one can get about 12 hours of playing time, and a 9-Volt battery will give you about 90 minutes or so. The Variax 500 can also be powered with the included XPS footswitch. This requires the use of a stereo guitar cable, which is connected to the output of the Variax 500 and then to the input of the XPS footswitch. A standard mono guitar cable can then be connected to the output of the XPS footswitch to the input of any stomp box or guitar amp you choose to use.
A wonderful bonus feature of the XPS footswitch is that it also serves as a direct box for recording purposes, and also doubles as an A/B switch as well. This is a very important feature when it comes to recording or live playing. When the indicator light is on, the XPS footswitch routes the output of the Variax to a guitar amp. By then stepping on the XPS footswitch, the signal can now be routed directly to a recording device, an acoustic guitar amp, or a good PA system. This is a very important feature to have, because the sounds of the different acoustic guitars Modeled by the Variax will only sound their best when they are being playing through a good PA, or preferably an acoustic amp which is designed to reproduce all of the upper and lower register overtones inherent in the sound of a rich full bodied acoustic guitar. If you have ever tried to mic an acoustic guitar through a Marshall, and then compared it to the sound of putting the same acoustic guitar through a good PA, you will clearly know what I am talking about. A conventional guitar amp is just not made to reproduce all of the full rich sound of a good acoustic guitar. If you plug the Variax 500 into a convention guitar amp, and you are using any of the acoustic guitars the Variax 500 models, do not blame the Variax if the sound does not seem to be authentic.
While we are on the topic of the different sounds that the Variax can produce, I think it only fair to discuss some of the pros and cons. The sounds of the 6 string electrics really do sound like the guitars they are modeling. I know this is accurate as I compared the sound of some of the Gibsons, Fenders, and even the Rickenbacker and Gretschs. Of course, I had to use modern versions in most cases, as I do not, and neither do all of my friends and relatives combined, own all of the exact guitars that are modeled by the Variax. However, there is some concern when it comes to readily accurately modeling the sounds of the acoustic guitars, especially the 12 string models. Nevertheless, that being said, I found that with some tweaking and a bit of effort and time, this problem can be overcome as well. For example, take the Martin D 12-28 modeled by the Variax. When I played this model through my recording setup, I initially recorded it flat. The sound of hitting individual strings that should be tuned to octaves (i.e., the D and A), just did not seem to have the sound that is associated with the string attack of individual notes played on those strings. However, by adding a bit a reverb, a slight echo, and also a very rapid delay, I began to be pleased. When this guitar was then surrounded by some other overdubs I made, such as a Bass, keyboards and drums, the overall sound of the guitar in the blended mix sounded very close to the real thing. A bit of reverb, a touch of echo, and a rapid digital delay, made a world of difference in the recording, and even fooled one of my friends, who upon hearing the recording, asked if he could borrow my 12 string acoustic for a project he was working on. I also found that a certain amount of extra tweaking, similar to what was done with the acoustic 12 string, was also required in order to more closely emulate the Rickenbacker Electric 360-12 string as well.
I could go on all day about how much I like the Variax series of guitars. Try one out for yourself, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Thank you for reading, and now I must get back to my practicing.
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