You can download the HD 500 custom tone used in that video clip RIGHT HERE. I recommend reading the article below before using it.
UPDATE! I no longer own or play the Variax. I have moved on. There is nothing wrong with it (in fact, it’s excellent), I just moved on.
One of the best tools to come along for guitar in a very long time is the exceptional James Tyler Variax series of guitars. I chose the JTV-59, as I’m most comfortable with a Les Paul style instrument and I like a big beefy neck, but there are two other models available, one more like a Strat and one a reverse-headstock shred machine with a thinner neck. Any of them can make a dizzying array of sounds, from a Telecaster, Stratocaster, or Gretsch to a 6 or 12 string acoustic, a dobro, a sitar, or a banjo, by “modeling” via an onboard computer. Previous Variax guitars were not capable of doing two voices at once (as they had modeling built-in but no magnetic guitar pickups), and therefore didn’t interest me. But the newest JTV models have addressed this, and have also improved the modeling technology a bit.
In my use, I am normally using the on-board magnetic pickups (which are very capable and sound really good) alongside the acoustic models to play acoustic and electric guitar sounds at the same time using the Line 6 POD HD 500. For those who want to go this route, this solution is simple and elegant, and it sounds terrific. So let’s dive into the method I’ve settled on most recently. The latest update of the POD software has made this solution even better than it was before, and offers the promise of sonic flexibility that is light years beyond what we imagined even a few short years ago. So let’s dig in.
I connect my JTV-59 to the POD HD 500 using a “Variax Digital Interface” (VDI) cable. This is not something you’ll find in most guitarist’s bag of tricks. The VDI cable is basically a heavy-duty Cat-5 cable with reinforcements at each end to protect your gear from damage.
The signal from both the magnetic pickups and the “modeling” section get sent along the VDI cable separately (as a digital signal), and if you have a POD X3 series, HD 500, or HD Pro, you can keep the signal separate and route them to their own signal chains. This is why, for two-voice, the Variax is well worth considering if you own one of the aforementioned PODs, especially if you have the HD 500, which with its new “Vintage Preamp” model, is an even better way to process acoustic guitar.
As the signals get “split”, things get very busy on the HD 500. We’ll start with the electric chain. I run my electric signal first to a Tube Compressor model, set very subtle, but with a mild boost, then to a Tube Driver model (a very useable emulation of the old Butler Tube Drive). Both of these are off by default, and can be switched on as needed.
Next I use the effects loop feature in the HD 500 to insert a volume pedal. The one I use is an Ernie Ball VP Jr. I don’t use the on-board volume pedal because I’m saving it for something else, which we’ll discuss in a moment. Without a buffer before a volume pedal like the VP Jr., you will experience a loss of tone, but because the HD 500 acts as a buffer*, there is no tone loss to be found in this application.
After the signal returns to the HD 500, it goes to a Rotary Drum and Horn model, which is set slow and very subtle (but is left off by default). When layering two sounds, a little modulation goes a long way. Then it makes its way to the amp. The one I’m using in the video above is the Plexi model in the HD 500, which is stunningly good in both clean and dirty variations, takes pedals (whether modeled or real) very well, and responds to touch dynamics as good as or better than any other model in the box. In short, it’s my new favorite. (Even though you can toggle between clean and dirty sounds with EXP 1, there is only one Plexi model in use, leaving the other chain open for the acoustic. Instead of crossfading between two “amps”, it is changing the parameters, as I explain below.)
After the amp, you have a pair of delays (one a 1/4 note analog delay and one a dotted 1/8 note digital delay with modulation) available at any time. Last, I like to have a special effect reverb for more atmospheric songs, so in this patch, I use the Octo verb. I favor the particle verb, but can’t use it in this patch with the Rotary Speaker… It’s just a little too much for the unit’s processor. When I use the particle verb, I typically either skip the Tube Drive pedal, the Rotary Speaker, or both. (I also sometimes like to layer an electric guitar through a cave and/or particle reverb, fully wet, underneath an acoustic with delay. It makes a nice “synth pad” sound.)
Now the acoustic chain is totally separate, and although I often like to use delay and sometimes reverb on acoustic, in this instance, the acoustic is only going through the “Vintage Preamp” model in the POD. Its volume is controlled by a Mission Engineering expression pedal, plugged into “EXP 2” on the HD 500. That pedal controls the “output” parameter of the Vintage Preamp model, meaning I need use only one single effects block for the acoustic signal. (Before Line 6 released this great new update, I needed two or three, a “Volume Pedal”, compressor (sometimes), and equalizer.)
This leaves the onboard “EXP 1” pedal open for me to do something else. I use it to control the Plexi amp parameters. When it is at 100% the sound is clean, and the delays (if they are on) are very present, at about 50% mix. If I back off to 0, every parameter on the amp is changed (this takes a few moments to program in the HD500 Edit software. I have no idea how to do it on the actual unit, and wouldn’t try). So… the drive increases, the master goes down, I reduce the bass, crank the mids to 100%, and drop the treble and presence a bit. I also drop the level of the delays, the dotted-1/8 more than the 1/4 note. The reason I set the pedal the way I do (which seems backwards to most people) is that this way, without having to concentrate on what I’m doing, I can just “stomp” on that EXP pedal for amp drive. Also, I can spread my foot across the acoustic volume pedal and the amp gain pedal and smoothly switch from acoustic-and-electric-clean to electric-overdriven-only.†
Between those two extremes of the amp’s capabilities and the pedals (the Tube Comp/Boost and Tube Drive, off by default, but always available), I have a range of different electric sounds at my disposal in one patch, and I’ve balanced it all out so that it mixes properly with the acoustic sound at each setting, sometimes supporting the acoustic sound and sometimes appropriately overwhelming it.
At that point, I send the signal to my on-stage personal monitor (I don’t use an actual guitar amp anymore), the small and loud FBT Verve 8ma and I daisy-chain out of that speaker to the house as a mono signal. (I’ve split the sounds in stereo for the demo above so you can hear the sounds more clearly. I actually run the whole thing in mono, because I don’t want the sound man to have to get the balance just right.)
And that’s it! Two-voice goodness with Line 6 and the James Tyler Variax. You can use these same principles to play two electric guitar sounds at once (as long as one is the built-in magnetic pickups), each through it’s own amp and with its own signal chain.
* Some might argue that the “buffer” is in the analog to digital conversion that happens in the Variax, but I’ve used other guitars using the guitar and aux inputs on the HD 500 and have also experienced no tone loss with the VP Jr with them. It was easy to verify, because you can turn the loop on and off with a footswitch if you like.
† You might notice in the video that the volume gets a little louder somewhere in the middle of that amp gain pedal’s travel. A fortunate by-product of changing all the parameters together. I can “play that pedal” for a more “over the top” sound if need be by finding that spot in the middle, effectively giving me an extra sound.
Minor Revision: November 13, 2012