Line6: McAmps

I’ve been a Line6 customer since 1998 (I was one of those original nuts who bought the AxSys combo amp -- their first, and at the time, flagship modeling amp). My first experience with the company, after reading the hype in a guitar magazine, was a phone call to their headquarters where I spoke with a guy who made Nigel Tufnel seem like a rocket scientist. The pseudo-rock star-hipster vibe was nearly as distasteful as special sauce on a sesame seed bun. Regardless, I took a chance on the amp. I played some shows with it, upgraded the beast to AX212 specs, and gigged around town with it until early 2001 when it started to smoke at an outdoor festival. It then entered an extended repair cycle: play, meltdown, drive to repair shop, pick up from repair shop, play, meltdown, drive to.... They finally got it to work but what a pain in the ass.

What I did learn in the processes, though, was that Line6 builds their amps (still do) out of pressboard and cheap car audio components -- a complaint I have seen repeated online by other disappointed owners with similar experiences.

Because I thought Line6 had a good concept (the upgradable digital amp) I decided to give other products a spin. Here’s a rundown/scorecard and later I'll ruminate on the virtues of the so-called upgradeable digital amp.

AxSys/AX212: Could have been tragic -- salvaged for a C-

FM4 Filter pedal: unable to use with an adapter after 18 months. Sold for a sizable loss. (My experience with this pedal prevented me from trying any other their other stomp boxes). D-

PodXt. Still using. The metal housing is good, the software is pretty good, the quality of AD/DA conversion in this unit is about as deplorable as anything I’ve heard manufactured in the decade of the 2000s. Really low-grade conversion and circuits. Who builds this stuff, anyway, an alarm clock factory in China? D+ if you run your sound through the horrible AD/DA but A- if you just use the Pod as a dongle for DAW integration.

Gear Box and Pod Farm: again, here is where L6 shines: good software. Never any problems. Their amp sims are generally good but the ‘pedal’ effects are nothing special and you can round up a collection of free VSTs that do a lot of what Gear Box provides. A-

Pocket Pod: a joke. It broke about three days outside of warranty. F

Pod Studio UX1. Bought this for my daughter months ago and she’s never been able to use it because there are no Snow Leopard drivers for it. Incomplete

Spider IV 75 combo amp and FBV Express Mk II controller.

I picked this amp as a practice and songwriting tool that could be turned on and off in the blink of the eye; I just wanted a non-tube amp + built-in effects for those times I didn’t want to go into my studio and fire up tube amps. (I considered Peavey's offering but it's burdened with a tweener snake fang motif that should repel all except Alabama's population of heavy metal mobile home dwellers and those drawn toward things like BC Rich guitars.)  The Spider sounds horrible in all modes.  Unlike a real tube amp, playing the Spider is like producing pre-recorded sounds. Pretty weird. But I bought this amp also under the impression that there were software add-ons and that I could use this in conjunction with my computer -- as it turns out L6 is more than half a year behind on getting their Snow Leopard (and W7) drivers written. What a joke. And that ‘Celestion’ speaker in the amp? Give me a break.  Let’s just call it a speaker of unknown origins with the ‘Celestion’ name pasted on it -- it appears to be no better than any other generic, low-cost unit you could pick up from Radio Shack for a few dollars. D-

And the FBV Express controller? Piece of junk. I paid my son $5 to spend most of the day stepping on the buttons on it to get them loosened up such that it could be used. Out of the box the ‘D’ button randomly alternated between engaging the ‘C’ channel; doing nothing, engaging the ‘D’ channel; engaging the tuner; engaging the looper, and so on. Madness. As it turned out, the ‘C’ and the ‘D’ buttons were sticking. After being pressed hundreds and hundreds of times it now functions properly -- I think. The ironic thing is I only bought this controller because you need it (the USB port) to interface with the L6 Monkey for firmware updates etc. But since there are no drivers for ..... oh, never mind. C-

Line6 should remember the golden rule of fast food: when your cheap product is no longer convenient or delivered quickly then people will go to a real restaurant for their sustenance. Your whole schtick is low price and rapid development, that’s all. If we wanted real ‘tube tone’ we’d buy real tube amps. We buy your junk because it’s like consuming a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos and a Cherry Coke -- terrible substance but exciting to the taste buds (setting aside the post-consumption regret).

Oddly enough, the sound of the Spider IV seems to be a step back from the original amp I had years ago -- and it was not great to begin with. Every emulation seems to be colored by a hard, cold, and unflattering base palate or sonic foundation regardless of what guitar is used. This is probably due to the sub-standard AD/DA and supporting analog circuity; if you remember what cheap AD/DA sounded like in the late-80s then you know the sound of this amp.  Instead of getting different amp sounds its like getting Spam + mustard; Spam + catsup; Spam + onions, etc. And speaking of mustard, catsup, and onions, I think this is exactly the territory Line6 inhabits.

American society in general is re-polarizing into a two-tier world: the haves and the have-nots. The guitar world is no different: on the one hand you have expensive boutique tube amps and, for the unwashed masses who crave cheap entertainment, you have the chintzy, imported junk that companies like Line6 crank out. Playing a fine amp with some hand-made pedals is like eating at a great steakhouse and enjoying a shot of Macallan afterwards. Owning a Spider (or anything by this company) is like McDonalds drive-thru: cheap and temporarily satisfying though, in the end, you know it’s not good for you or the world you live in. Line6 has a lot of good ideas but they are not cool. This company, like fast food joints, are a permanent feature of our cultural landscape but they are also purveyors of malevolence. Buy a good amp and you’ll enjoy it your whole life and might even hand it down to your kids or grandkids. Line6 and their ilk operate on the premise of temporary and disposable junk -- customers are not only throwing away good money but they’re also creating a mountain of waste. There’s something wrong with tossing out musical gear as if it were a 5-year-old computer because it is rendered worthless or non-functional.

Now, I realize that digital is here to stay and that I will buy digital equipment in the future. But, not all digital music equipment is created equal. For example, I bought an RME audio interface early in 2002 that is still going strong. It sounds fantastic and works great. And the couple of firmware updates contributed significant performance increases. Designed and manufactured in Germany, the breakout box and the PCI card set me back $800 (a lot for me at the time). While I am no clairvoyant I predict that the RME unit will last as long as my current studio computer -- six more years. And since I will repurpose that computer for archival and playback uses at that point the RME will still be going strong I suspect. As such, the initial expense was relatively high but, in the long run, it will have cost me anywhere from $100 per year to use (if it died right now) to $50 or less per year if it survives as long as I predict it will. Here’s the important point: I’m happier today with the RME unit than I was when I bought it, and I was perfectly happy with it in 2002. Never a problem and I’ve used it nearly every single day for eight years. The last sound card I bought from L6 cost me around $100 but my daughter has never been able to use for the lack of drivers. My last purchase, the Spider practice amp, with the chintzy controller, set me back only $400 but the idea of getting 4 to 8 years of service out of it seems highly doubtful if not laughable. Based on my own 12-year run with L6 products it will survive the warranty period and then it will die. Might I get lucky? Sure, even a blind hog finds an acorn every now and then. But I wouldn’t be betting on the Spider. And when it dies rest assured I will not be wasting more money on Line6 junk or any other junk.

A further example of digital done wrong and right: my Boss Giga Delay pedal recently died (evidently, another disposable unit) and I needed to replace it. Not wanting to reward Boss I decided to look at another brand. My initial plan was to get an analog unit but I was not finding the sound I wanted but I also did not want to buy another cheesy digital unit that would just slip away (technically, monetarily, or socially depreciate) the way most digital gear does. So, I bought a Lovepedal Echo Baby -- a one button, one knob affair that, while it does not have the bells and whistles the Boss unit did -- sounds phenomenally better than any Boss pedal and is built with very high grade components. Will it last for 10+ years? I don’t know for sure but it cost about the same as the Boss unit and I’d be genuinely surprised if it didn’t last three times longer than the Giga Delay, which would put it in the 15 year range -- not unheard of. I bought a Digitech effects unit (and later a pedal that I returned after two days) that died in short order whereas an expensive Lexicon box that is 22 years old is still functioning.

The bottom line is this: Prosumer and budget outfits like Line6, Digitech, etc., build to a price point and maybe you get lucky and maybe you don’t. Like buying a budget computer at Walmart for $500, you’ve wasted your money as soon as you walked out the door. The probability of throwing your money away is exponentially higher than if you spent on high quality gear in the first place. Which is the more responsible approach? Investing in a boutique amp that may cost you over $2000 but will last you ‘forever’ or a string of budget digital amps that will just be discarded in a couple of years? What is more responsible?

The Line6 corporate hype (The Whopper?) masks the tasteless reality that they manufacture and market McAmps.

I truly understand the limitations involved in operating within a budget but, in the long run, the cheap and quick fix is more expensive and filled with more uncertainty. Even if you have money to burn, buying the disposable amp is still irresponsible. We need to get over the cheap, disposable gear syndrome. We deserve a break, not on the price point (it's already next to free), but on quality -- and you gotta pay for that.