Saturday, October 16: The Kickbackistan bandwagon goes to Goa. Claim your funny money and stand by for an important announcement.
I’ve been using guitar processors from 1998. I had a bunch of analog pedals before that – Boss/Digitech (remember those DOD pedals?)/Ibanez and so on. I think I made the switch because
a) I liked to use a lot of different tones and tweaking pedals in the middle of a gig, and stepping on multiple pedals with two left feet was a challenge;
b) pedalboards were something only the lucky few with rich uncles in the right countries had – the rest of us had to make do with locally-made dodgy adaptors and messy setups; and
c) the people I looked up to in the local scene all seemed to be using them.
Processors have gone a long way since my first Zoom 1010 (a terrible piece of junk which I sold off very quickly). I stuck with BOSS for a while, working my way through the ME-8, ME-10 and the great GT-5. Still, getting a good tone at every gig, with widely different amps at each venue (Kustom Sound, Stranger, Peavey, and the very occasional Marshall) took time, and for a while I actually lugged my Stranger Nightingale Series 100 W solid-state Calcutta beast around. Used the Line 6 POD 2.0 for the first time while recording our second album Jupiter Café, and was totally intrigued with amp modeling and everything it offered. Soon had the PODxt, then the PODxt Live, which you’ll hear on third and fourth albums Plan B and This Is It. Live, these modelers allowed me to travel light, and with a decent engineer FOH, nearly always get a decent tone. At least, that’s what people told me – many of them would come backstage after a gig asking about my clearly ‘analog’ setup and go away quite surprised (and perhaps disgruntled!) at the sight of the POD.
So, modelers have worked for me – for a good many years now. I’ve used them in front of plenty of amps, in the FX returns, going direct to the board etc., live and in the studio. With each generation, they seem to get better, more ‘interactive’, more detailed, and easier to use. For purists, of course, (and purists who can afford a whole stable of boutique beauties) there’s nothing that can replace the real thing, and this review may not change that!
The Eleven Rack
I’d used the Eleven plug-in to re-amp some tones on the last album, and found its single-minded focus on amp-modeling (no crazy collection of vintage pedals etc) very heartening. The amps always sounded crisp and clear, with much of the response that great tube amps give you – ease off on your attack/volume and things clean up, dig in and wail, shout and whisper – all of that. There were, of course, the plug-in limitations of latency, ‘feel’ and so on, but it did a great job of getting guitars to sit in a mix, or stick out nicely when they had to.
I first listened to the Eleven Rack on a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones, playing my Erisa Custom Strat (hand made in Auroville) with Lindy Fralin single-coils. The Fralins are pretty low-output pickups with outstanding clarity. Used first a Planet Waves circuit-breaker and then a Monster Rock cable.
Having used a Guru Plexi tube head (also hand-made in Auroville) for a while, I naturally gravitated to the Marshall Plexi models first, and was immediately surprised by the Eleven Rack’s single-focus approach: the controls on this model are exactly the same as on the original amp – with no Master Volume, which is the sound of a Plexi. On any POD, for example, you’ll have a generic set of drive/bass/mid/treb/presence/vol controls that work on ALL models – NOT the way the original amps are. On the Eleven Rack, if the original amp has just a ‘drive’ ‘cut’ and ‘bass’ control, that’s exactly what you get on the model. This, I found, made it much easier to get a good sound from an amp model, fast. Dial up a twin reverb, say, and you find just the familiar knobs on the real thing; some minor tweaking, a tad of spring reverb and you’re in surf heaven…
The higher-gain amp models also sounded as gnarly and in-your-face as expected. Crank up one of these metal monsters and you may actually feel your bell-bottoms flapping when you hit a low E. Some of the presets were a bit too ‘driven’ and harsh for my taste – and my Strat isn’t the greatest fan of gain at 11! She likes the ‘give’ of a mildly overdriven amp best…
What I liked best about it is what they call ‘dynamic feel’; which I think is the result of what the Eleven Rack calls a ‘True Z’ input. What this means is that the unit adjusts the input impedance in accordance with the ‘load’ on the signal chain imposed on it by the various modeled stomp boxes and effects, used both pre and post amp model, just like if you were using an array of these things in the real world. While some of the physics here can be challenging, the results are plain to hear – the Eleven Rack comes frighteningly close to recreating the actual ‘feel’ of running your guitar through a pedal board and amp.
Diggin’ Deeper – The Hardware Interface and Editing
Just as a test of how intuitive the interface is, I refused to look at the manual and tried doing some deep tweaking straight out of the box. This is where I believe the unit could use some work; some buttons and controls are just not where you expect them to be, and there are some edits that force you to move back and forth between pages. However, none of these are more than mildly irritating, and one gets used to the unit’s logic pretty quickly.
With much of the editing being done by the nicely illuminated black knobs in front, you also quickly realize that the lights on the knobs change to let you know what your previous settings were before you started re-tweaking, which is pretty cool.
You can also place your stomp boxes and effects (not a very large collection, but what’s there sounds GOOD) anywhere you want in the chain, something I haven’t seen since the BOSS GT-5. Great for all us knob-twiddling control freaks.
Like the newer PODs, another cool thing is being able to add and remove stomp boxes and effects from the same preset or ‘patch’ as I still like to call it. This allows you to get a pretty amazing range of sounds from a single patch, simply by adding removing distortion, modulation, delay, reverb, EQ, etc. The Eleven Rack, being, well, a rack, all this of course needs to be handled by your MIDI foot controller, most guitarists lacking prehensile toes, third arms and suchlike. Incidentally, I used a MIDI cable to connect my PODX3 Live to the Eleven Rack and was afforded instant access to patch changes, FX on/off, Wah, volume – pretty much everything I needed. Nice! And for some time now I’ve believed that interoperability was a myth – especially when you have two units from different manufacturers and so on.
Recording and Re-amping
This is where the Eleven Rack may, once again, prove to be ahead of its rivals: it comes bundled with Pro Tools LE, ready for installation on to your PC or Mac. And this version of Pro Tools features the Eleven Rack Window, allowing you instant access to all the unit’s settings. Easier to work with if you’re simply re-amping (more on that later) or recording, because tweaking stuff on the computer while playing and recording very quickly becomes a pain. Just the mouse-pick-mouse thing I guess. But there is one really cool thing here – Pro Tools can now embed your Eleven Rack settings into the audio files, so if you have to work on tracks much after you’ve put them down, you save yourself a lot of head-scratching and trying to remember settings which you may not have saved as a patch.
Fire up one of the Pro-Tools-for-Dummies ‘templates’ and you’ve straightaway got everything you need to record some guitar – and the Eleven Rack allows you to put down one ‘direct’ track, with no processing on, one ‘wet’ track with all the fruits of your tweak-mania, and one ‘re-amp’ track just in case you suddenly hate that fruit basket and want to start over without actually playing the guitar part again.
Once you get into this, you’ll figure that your guitar track can be assigned to the Eleven Rack, processed, and then re-routed to another track fairly easily; you and send it out again through the ‘output to amp’ jacks, from where it can be plugged into an amp just like a guitar. Then, you can actually plug the mid you use on the speaker cabinet back into the mic input on the Eleven Rack!
Using it Live
While my X3 Live may suffice for now, I’d much rather use a proper full-featured MIDI foot controller to use this orange beast live. Digidesign haven’t got one out yet, but I’ve heard that there are various controllers in the market that will work, including something from Behringer that’s supposed to be really good value for money. Need to do some checking on that.
When I plugged the main XLR outs on the unit I got for this review into our mixer and PA, there was a very audible (actually very loud) hiss that wouldn’t go away. Perhaps it was this particular unit, because I don’t see this being a ‘feature’!
The Eleven Rack allows a direct balanced signal to be sent to the PA, and an independent stereo signal to be sent to any stage amps you want to use, where you can remove the cab/mic simulations.
At a street price of $899 in the US, the Eleven Rack isn’t cheap, but it does offer some outstanding amp models, and a dedication to high-quality guitar tone that isn’t seen on many of the inexpensive modelers out there, for obvious reasons. Clearly, the high levels of detail on the amp, cab, mic and FX models will be heard best only by more experienced ears, but that’s more a result of just how quickly technology has been able to digitally re-create all the myriad variables that go into making a great guitar sound.
Will it knock things like the POD out of the water? Dunno – the PODs do a great job of giving you a LOT of amp models, and a LOT of effects and a LOT of in/out options that still aren’t available on the Eleven Rack. It seems to me thus, that this is a product that will very quickly be snapped up by studio/session cats that have their own recording setups. With the addition of a recommended foot controller, even gigging guitar players with big ‘analog’ ears should be happy with this unit. Hopefully Digidesign will soon release ‘model pack’ and other updates that will add more bells and whistles for those that want them.
For now, the Eleven Rack is as specialist as the plug-in – and does the job a whole lot better, methinks!
Guitar Doctor Bruce Lee Mani will demonstrate the Digidesign Eleven Rack at a free workshop on guitar technique and technology at Blue Frog, Mumbai on Digidesign’s Eleven Guitar Day – November 11, 2009. Special guests include Amit Heri, Amyt Dutta and Tony Das. More details on our Facebook page. Limited seats. Pre-register now: firstname.lastname@example.org