Using Helix as an Effects Pedal Board

Introduction

Although Helix has great amp and cab models, and supports impulse responses for even more speaker models, you might already have a favorite guitar amp you’d still like to use. I have an old Fender Showman I bought in 1968 that’s still working fine. I’ve made many modifications to this amp over the years, including inserting an old Fender reverb unit with an extra gain stage and biased diode clipping circuit between the preamp and power amp. This was back in the days when distortion pedals were just bad, and you had to get the distortion out of the amp. But distorting a 90W power amp just wasn’t practical, even if you added the gain required to do it. Hence the reason for the diodes.

I haven’t used that amp in many years, but got it out a few months ago and tried using my POD HD500X to create a pedal board designed to go into the front of a clean amp. It sounded pretty bad, so I gave up. The distortion pedals in the HD500X just didn’t sit well in front of that clean Fender amp.

When I got a Helix, I found I liked the distortion models a lot more than those in the HD500X. Valve Driver (Chandler Tube Driver), Vermin Dist (Pro Co Rat) and Compulsive Drive (Fulton OSC) just sounded great in front of a clean amp model, so I thought I give the Fender Showman another try. This time the result was much better, so much so that I decided to upgrade the speakers from the Fender CTS 137’s I had to Celestion G15-75s and rebuild the amp’s power supply. The filter capacitors don’t age well in those old Fender amps, and they need to be replaced every 40 years or so.

IMG_1632.jpgAssigning Footswitches

As wit all my patches, I try to keep the footswitches assigned to similar functions in each patch. Here’s the assignments for this pedal board patch:

FS1
Delay
FS2
Chorus
FS3
Tremelo
FS4
Uni-Vibe
FS5
Phasor
FS7
Looper
FS8
Distortion
FS9
Overdrive
FS10
Drive
FS11
Compressor

This is exactly the same footswitch assignments I used for my Electric Guitar patch, but the effects are different and are designed to go into the front of a clean mono guitar amp driving guitar speakers.

Showman Vibrato Patch

This patch is inspired by research I did on guitar rigs from Matt Schofield, Robben Ford, Jeff McErlain, Eric Clapton and other guitar players that use traditional pedalboards. Much of the information came from Jeff McErlain’s Guitar Effects Survival Guide TrueFire.com course. This was a great and fun course that I highly recommend. The other primary source was Matt Schofield’s GEAR page and rig rundown video. I really love how he plays and the tone he gets. So that seemed like a good place to start.

IMG_1642.JPG

The signal path follows the recommendations in my Creating an Electric Guitar Patch (updated) post with the tone shaping effects first in the signal chain, followed by gain staging distortion effects, followed by modulation effects, then delay and reverb ambient effects. I used mono effects where available since I’m going into the front of a mono amp. There’s no amp or speaker model in this patch since I’m using an actual guitar amp and speaker cabinet.

I used two paths in this patch just to distribute the DSP load, and to keep the patch simple and easy to create. The output of Path 1A is sent to the input of Path 2A. Path 1 contains most of the typical front of the amp effects: Wah, compressor, distortion gain staging, phasor, etc. Path 2 contains most of the modulation, and ambient effects that would typically go in the amp effects loop using the four-cable method, or after the amp. Since we don’t have either of those options in a Fender Showman, we put all the effects into the front of the amp. However organizing the blocks this way makes it easier to reuse this patch in an amp that does have an effects loop.

Path 1

Path 1 contains the Wah, compressor, distortion gain stages, and phase modulation effects.

Guitar In

This signal chain starts with the Guitar input. For this patch I have the Noise Gate on the input turned on with a minimum threshold in order to eliminate noise while still retaining the subtle dynamics of the guitar.

  • Input Gate: On
  • Threshold: -48.0dB
  • Decay: 500 ms

Wah: Fassel

The first effect in the signal chain is the Fassel Wah. Of all the Wah Wah pedals in Helix, this one sounds the most musical to me. I liked it in the HD500X too. Its before the compressor to deal with any odd peaks when using the Wah with a clean tone.

  • FcLow: 455 Hx
  • FcHigh: 2.2 kHz
  • Mix 100%
  • Level: 0.0dB
  • Controller: EXP Pedal 1
  • Footswitch: EXP Toe

Dynamics: Deluxe Comp

I like this compressor because it gives a lot of control that can be used to reproduce other compressors as needed. The compressor is mostly used on very clean tones just to even out the guitar dynamics a bit, and make clean tones stand out a bit more for solos. It’s placed before any EQ or distortion effects in the signal chain so it sees the dynamics of the guitar itself, not the output of most effect blocks. The compression ratio is set very high, which seems to work well on electric guitar. The Level is set for makeup gain and a tiny boost for clean leads.

  • Threshold: -40.0dB
  • Ratio: 6:1
  • Attack: 38 ms
  • Release: 200 ms
  • Mix: 100%
  • Level: +7.0dB
  • Knee: +6.0dB

Preamp: Studio Tube Pre

A Fender Showman is not a high-gain amp. Plug in your guitar and put the volume on 10 and you’ll mostly get a very loud, very clean tone. So you see why I had to make all those modifications to get this amp to distort for blues and rock. Obviously I bought the wrong amp for my needs. To make this worse, I sold my Fender Super Reverb to buy the Showman because I thought I needed more power! What did a Freshman in college from Fort Fairfield, Maine know about he blues anyway. I’m using the Studio Tube Pre block as essentially another gain stage into in the Showman amp to add some grit and voicing for the Drive tone.

The Studio Tube Pre is designed to come before any distortion to provide low cut to control bass mud and high cut to control treble ice-pick. This block is controlled by the Drive footswitch.

The Studio Tube Pre sounds good and is a flexible means of adding some early distortion through its Drive control, and a mid-focus EQ using a combination of the Low Cut and High Cut parameters. By adjusting these two parameters, you can control the width of the mid-focus EQ and where it is positioned in the frequency spectrum.

The way I set this block is to start with getting the clean tone I want from the amp using the neck pickup on my guitar. Then I turn on the Studio Tube Pre block and adjust the Gain control for the level of distortion I want for this first gain stage (Clean, Drive, Overdrive, Distortion). See  Creating an Electric Guitar Patch (updated)  for additional notes on gain staging. Use the Sensitivity parameter to control the amount of distortion the preamp can produce. Sensitivity set to Line gives more headroom and a cleaner sound at a given Gain setting. Sensitivity set to Mic reduces headroom and provides more distortion. The distortion is set to the minimum I need for clean warm blues tones where the amp is just starting to break up.

In this case the high cut is kept pretty high because the block doesn’t add that much distortion and I want to preserve the guitar high frequency response then the amp is just breaking up. There’s just enough high cut to keep the drive-level distortion from getting fizzy.

  • Gain: 7.9
  • Polarity: Normal
  • Low Cut: 90 Hz
  • High Cut: 5.9 kHz
  • Level: 5.3 dB
  • Sensitivity: Mic

Distortion: Valve Driver

Valve Driver is used to create the Overdrive tone, and is controlled by the Overdrive footswitch. Gain is set to provide additional distortion for more aggressive blues leads while Bass and Treble are used to provide additional bass and treble cuts for the somewhat higher gain distortion voicing. The level is set so that the overall volume is just a little louder than the Drive switch.

  • Gain: 3.1
  • Bass: 6.0
  • Treble: 1.1
  • Level: 6.9

Distortion: Compulsive Drive

The Compulsive Drive distortion model is used to create the Distortion tone, and is controlled by the Distortion footswitch. Compulsive Drive is based on the Fulltone OCD. This is a very nice, and very flexible boutique distortion pedal that is a real Helix gem. This patch uses Compulsive Drive to get a nice creamy distortion that just sings. Combine it with the Drive footswitch to increase amp drive and low cut to get a bit more distortion with a slightly different voicing.

  • Gain: 6.0
  • Tone: 6.9
  • Peak Type: High
  • Version: V4
  • Level: 6.7

Scream 808 (Ibanez TS808 Sube Screamer), and Vermin Dist (Pro Co RAT) are also very good choices for this block. These have different distortion characteristics, and voicings.

Modulation: Script Mod Phase

Next in the signal path are modulation effects that change tone or phase of the signal. These can be placed before or after distortion. Their effect is a bit more pronounced after distortion, so I’ve placed them here, between the distortion pedals and any distortion created by the amp. That’s a compromise that attempts to get the benefits of both approaches. I keep the rate slow and the mix down to keep the phasor effect subtle. This make the effect usable in a wider range of situations.

  • Rate: 1.9
  • Mix: 39%
  • Level +1.0dB

Modulation: Ubiquitous Vibe

I use to own a UniVibe and loved the effect. Previous models in earlier Line 6 products weren’t that great, but the Helix Ubiquitous Vibe model seem dead on. This is just one of those effects you might need sometimes, especially for Hendrix tones. Its also useful when you want some tone modulation, but chorus is too much. The rate is controlled by EXP Pedal 2 with the min and max values set to mimic the typical speeds of a Leslie speaker. Lamp bias controls how the effect ramps up and down. There’s got to be some evolutionary biological explanation for the magic of a Leslie speaker and the particular choice of the slow and fast speeds.

  • Rate: 0.7 – 7.6 (Controlled by EXP Pedal 2)
  • Intensity: 6
  • Mode: Chorus
  • Lamp Bias: 2.7
  • Mix: 50%
  • Level: 0.0dB

Path 2

Path 2 contains modulation and ambience effects that would typically be in the amp’s effects loop or after the amp. These are effects that generally don’t sound good distorted. Since this patch is designed to go into the front of a clean amp, and all the distortion is done by effect blocks, these modulation and ambient effects will sound fine. If your amp has an effects loop, you can use the four-cable method to put the effects in this path into your effects loop. This will give you the option of using your amp’s preamp for additional gain staging and distortion options.

Modulation: Gray Flanger

Although there’s no footswitch to control this flanger, I’ve included it for whose cases where its needed.  This block is set to all the default parameter values.

Modulation: 60s Bias Trem

Tremelo is a nice vintage effect, and one that’s included in the Showman. So I included it this patch and assigned it to the Tremelo footswitch. The settings use a moderate intensity so that the signal doesn’t pulse too much.

  • Speed: 1.6
  • Intensity: 6.3
  • Mode: Tremelo
  • Level: +2.4dB

Modulation: Chorus

I like to use chorus sparingly and with moderate settings. The Line 6 Chorus model seems to work well and gives a good mono chorus effect. Use Predelay to avoid having the chorus kill pick attack and therefore articulation.

  • Speed: 2.5
  • Depth: 6.0
  • Predelay: 3.2
  • WaveShape: Triangle
  • Tone: 4.1
  • Mix: 50%
  • Level: 0.0dB

Delay: Simple Delay

This is the first of two delays. The Simple Delay model is used to create a slap-back delay to create ambience without loosing clarity and articulation that can sometimes happen with reverb. This effect block is usually on all the time and therefore isn’t assigned to a footswitch. The mix is set so that the delay is barely noticeable when it is turned on. Trails can be off since there are no repeats for this delay.

  • Time: 125 ms
  • Feedback: 0%
  • Mix: 18%
  • Level: 0.0dB
  • Trails: off

Delay: Transistor Tape

I used the Transistor Tape (Maestro Echoplex EP-3) delay to create a more vintage delay tone. I still have an old Dynacord Echocord Super in the closet and was hoping to mimic its delay sound. This delay adds an obvious delay or echo effect intended to be more noticeable. The delay is longer, 1/2 sec, and there are repeats. This delay can be used to fill in softer, sparse phrases, or provide even more ambience in situations where there are fewer instruments and you need some fill.

  • Time: 500 ms
  • Feedback: 15%
  • Wow Fluttr: 2.4
  • Mix: 16%
  • Level: 0.0dB
  • Headroom: 0.0dB%
  • Trails: On

Reverb: ’63 Spring

I generally prefer a very small amount of very natural reverb. So I usually choose the Hall model. But in this case, because of the vintage amp, I thought I should use a vintage reverb, and one that’s a model of the Fender reverb unit I use to use with this amp.

I use a short decay to avoid having the reverb make the tone become indistinct. Predelay avoids having the reverb compete with pick attack. Low cut and high cut are adjusted to make sure the reverb doesn’t compete too much with the main dry signal. Mix sets the overall amount of reverb. Trails don’t matter because the reverb is left on all the time, and is not assigned to any footswitch.

  • Delay: 54.1
  • Predelay: 33 ms
  • Low Cut: 220 Hz
  • High Cut: 4.2 kHz
  • Mix: 23%
  • Level: 0.0dB
  • Trails: Off

Modulation: 122 Rotary

I’ve always loved the sound of a Hammond organ through a Leslie speaker. So I included this model in the patch, but use it somewhat rarely. There’s no footswitch assigned, but it could replace the Uni-Vibe footswitch since it performs a similar function. This is last in the chain to simulate using a pedalboard into a real Leslie speaker. But it could be placed before the ambience blocks. I find it doesn’t matter that much whether the Leslie effect is before or after ambient effects. The Leslie effect trends to swamp out other effects.

  • Speed: Slow
  • SlowSpeed: 0.8
  • FastSpeed: 6.4
  • RampType: Medium
  • Drive: 6.5
  • SpkrBlend: Equal
  • Mix: 100%
  • Level: -5.7dB
  • Headroom: 0.0dB

Looper

The Looper is placed at the end of the signal chain so that any effects that were on when the loop was recorded are include in the loop. Playback and Overdub are adjusted so that as overdubs are added, they are reduced in level, leaving headroom to play on top of the loop. If you don’t turn Playback and Overdub down, the loop will become saturated after a small number of overlaps, and won’t leave any room left to hear what you’re playing on top of the loop. See Using a Looper for Solo Gigs for some ideas on how best to use a Looper.

A note on the Helix Looper: the 1/2 FULL speed switch appears to be global. It is not saved with the patch, and remains at its last setting when switching patches. This can be quite surprising since a FULL loop in stereo is only 30 sec long. This may be shorter than most of your loops if they are a full verse or chorus of a song. So glance down when you first use the looper in a patch and make sure the looper is set to be able to accommodate the length of the loop. In 1/2 mode, the looper is twice as long, 60 sec for a stereo loop. This is often long enough for a verse or chorus of a song. But the fidelity of the tone is diminished in this mode. This often doesn’t matter that much because the loops are intended to be background and have their levels reduced anyway.

  • Playback: -2.6dB
  • Overdub: -4.0dB
  • Low Cut: 20 Hz
  • High Cut: 20.0 kHz

Output

The output is set to just the 1/4″ output which is connected to the input of the clean amp.

Wrap-up 

Helix has some great effects that model those used in many professional pedalboards. So it makes obvious sense to create a Helix patch that implements a traditional pedalboard designed to go into the front of a mostly great guitar clean amp. What Helix has done for me is to breath new live into an old amp I’ve owned for close to 50 years. I have a warm place in my heart for this amp since my good friend Doug Cyr (deceased) and I spent so may hours modifying this amp and the reverb unit to get a more modern controllable sound. There were many situations were Doug and I would get the soldering iron out during a gig break to undo some change we made that didn’t work out as expected. Sandwiching that reverb unit between the preamp and power amp caused some DC shift problems because of separate power supplies in a high gain signal path. We got it fixed, but it was an adventure.

With Helix providing a modern pedalboard and great effects, that old Showman sounds exactly like what we were trying to achieve, and plays a role similar to Dumble and Two Rock amps used by some of our favorite guitar players.

But my musings and reminiscing aside, why is a Helix pedalboard patch like this useful anyway? If you already have all the amps and cabinets in Helix, why not use those instead? See The Traveling Guitarist for some thoughts on why this is such a useful patch.

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9 thoughts on “Using Helix as an Effects Pedal Board

    • Audio doesn’t translate well be cause the guitar and playing style are too personal. Also too many things to demo. These post are intended to stimulate your experimentation.

  1. Jim,

    I great insight. Thanks very much. Do you have any experience with adding stomp Boxes into the Helix?
    I hear a loss when I add them in.
    Ben

    • I don’t hear any loss in terms of quality. You have to be careful about gain staging so that there’s no digital clipping going, and that levels are balanced. Any small different in level will be perceived as a quality difference. Keep mostly unity gain across devices to avoid overloading anything.

  2. Hello,
    Very nice article.
    So if I don’t use preamp / amp / cab modelling in the helix, then I should be able to plug the output of the helix into my guitar amp ? Like a normal pedalboard (I still own the line6 M13) ?
    Because the 4 cables method is quite overkill for me… A simpler setup would help ! 🙂

    • You have a couple of options. You can use Helix as a traditional digital pedalboard, with no amp or cab models (but a preamp model might still be useful). Put this directly into the front of your amp with the amp set for your clean tone. Then get your distortion tones from Helix, usually using two different pedals for flexible gain staging. The drawback of this approach is that you can’t put effects (usually mod, delay and reverb) between your preamp and power amp – the effects are going into tone controls voiced for guitar in your amp rather then the guitar tones going into the effects which are then flat. That might not make that much difference as long as you run your guitar amp really clean. You probably don’t want to distort chorus, delays and/or reverb.

      The other option is to use the Helix amp models, but no cab model, and go into the effect’s return of of your amp. In this case your guitar amp is being used as a power amp and cabinet while Helix is providing the amp and effects.

      Which one to use depends on how much you like the preamp and tone controls in your guitar amp, and how much you need to be able to change the tone using different amps.

      • A big thank you to your detailled answer. Much appreciated! I think I will go with the FX return way when available. It’s good to use the Helix at the maximum… 🙂

  3. fantastic of you to write this up, thanks! i’m actually, as of today, the owner of a new helix. i have a couple of amps but my favorite is a fuchs ods and I would like to set the helix up as a 4 or 5 wire connection so i can always bypass everything and go straight to the Fuchs and my pedals. What I haven’t found is how long and how many wires I actually need? Your two in the set up above look to be about 4 or 6 ft. But your helix looks mighty close (and facing the wrong way) to your amp if you’re gonna be playing on stage.
    Think 12′ each wire? I am perhaps ridiculously attached to mogami wires, so I’d like to not buy extraneous wire, ya know?
    Thanks again,
    Wick

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