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Line 6 AM4 Amp Modeler
A lot in a little box
Reviewed by Rob Gilliland

This is my first foray into the digital amp-modeling technology that's been out in the music gear world for a while now. I've since gone back and compared things such as the Behringer V-amp, Line6 Pod 2.0 and Boss GT-6, just to get a bit of practical experience under my belt. I've been a 100% tube amp user for about 23 years now, having gigged full time for six years, using a Mesa Boogie 60-watt head all the while. So, I'm well versed in the vibe and feel of real tube amps, played at volume in live and studio applications.

The Line 6 AM4 is an amp modeler only. No effects, no direct ouputs, mono in and out. Years ago, when I gigged for a living, this would have been a godsend for covering tunes by many different artists. Live application is a whole different deal than studio, and with the differing acoustics in clubs, and the "people" factor that comes into live music sound reinforcement, the little differences that are important in a recording environment really don't matter in the live setting. So, to the meat of the matter. Let's look at the physical stuff.

This thing is built like a tank. The shell feels like it is thick aluminum. It's got a fairly beefy paint job on it, but I imagine that it could chip with road use. Personally, I think a little chipping would give it some "real" personality... like a scar on the face, or a three-day-old beard.

The switches are typical beefy foot switches. They click off and on with a smooth feel, and I didn't detect any glitches with the electronic switching.

The dials are typical of the Line 6 control interface. They're big and obvious, easy to grab and dial. They feel smooth, and have a vibe of authority. These dials can be changed on the fly, without overwriting any user presets, which could throw you into sonic trouble if you have two left feet and accidently spin one as you're tap dancing on the pedal. But honestly, you would have to be almost retarded to do this (I am sometimes potentially retarded, so just suffice it to say that I warned you.).

It runs on AC power (power supply) or batteries. I tested the unit with the power supply, so I cannot attest to the changes in tone that MAY occur (for you EJ types) if you use batteries.

The way this thing works is dead simple. You have four programmable memory locations, four foot switches, 16 amp models to choose from (by way of a selector dial). You set the amp model you want to work with (say, a '53 Fender Blackface Deluxe), set the Drive, Bass, Mid, Treble, and overall Volume to what you like, hold down the first footswitch for three seconds (example), and voila. Simple. Repeat three times, with three other choices, and you've got four different amps saved into memory. The AM4 circuitry includes a true bypass, so you can go straight through the AM4 to your own amp sounds.

Now, a caveat. This thing is meant to be used like a stomp pedal into the front end of your amp. If you've ever played your favorite stomp pedal through another amp (your buddy has a Fender Twin, you've got a Marshall Combo...) you know it sounds completely different through your own rig than his. Well, same deal here. I've got a Mesa amp (a vintage sound to begin with, circa 1981) and I have to tweak the AM4 in such a way that it marries the sound of the Boogie's preamp and output characteristics, and the output charactertics of the models that are coming into the Boogie through the AM4. So every sound in the AM4 will sound different through every conceivable combination of amp head and speaker combination. Suffice it to say that there are so many possible combinations of front end sounds from the AM4 that you should block out about two weeks of time just for playing with it.

The sounds
The idea is that you plug it into the front end of your amp, dial in the most neutral clean sound that you've got (I call it "sweet spot") and then use the AM4 to shape the overall sound to the nearest amp model. And for amp models, there's a bunch: Roland JC120, British 800, Rectified, Tweed 410, Fender Twin, Class A-15, Plexi 50, Solo 100, Valvestate, Fender Blackface Reverb, Line 6's own "Insane" and a Budda Zen.

I think it's safe to say that none of these settings really sound "identical" to the real thing, because it's just impossible to capture the three-dimensional qualities of what occurs with an amplifier and cabinet, in a given room. The sounds in the models are based on "miked" sounds, so you have to begin a point of reference there. I will say that the basics of all the amps that are modeled are there in the basic sound. To further experiment, varying how much gain you put on your amp, and the tonal settings, and the presence settings, will help you dial in a specific sound. What I have to stress about this setup is, if you start with a crappy sounding "main" amp, and a somewhat limited sounding guitar/pickup combination, you'll be unimpressed with what the AM4 does. Its success is tied into the original amp setup you've got, because face it, you're putting an external sound through your own "tone engine," and it's like cooking: Use good ingredients to get a good meal.

This thing is pretty quiet and also includes a noise gate that you can use, or not, though I never felt the need for it, even with the high gain settings.

My favorite settings are the Matchless, the Fender Blackface, the JCM 800, the Soldano, and the Line 6 Insane. I've got two clean settings and two dirty settings, using the Matchless, Blackface, JCM 800 and the Insane. You have to jockey the "Volume" knob on each setting to basically match the volume from preset to preset. Turning the volume setting down on the high gains to match the volume sound on the clean presets doesn't change the sound, just the overall ouput.

I found a Blackface sound first, and fiddled with the Boogie's preamp section to get the Blackface preset to find the sweet spot for that sound. Then I went on to the higher gain amp models, and ended up adding a little dirt to the Boogie to refine the high gain sounds I liked. Then I had to go back to the Blackface and dial a little of the gain out of it to compensate. This is the way it goes, you have to go back and forth to find the sweet spots, and twiddle and twiddle til you have sonic nirvana.

Now, right out of the box, you've got some presets there, but I suggest you close your eyes, select an amp, and just start twiddling. That's the only way.

I found all four of the presets that I came up with to be totally usable, especially for a live gig. In a studio setting, there were none of the presets that I would rather use through my rig instead of the real thing. But I don't think that's where the strength of this device lies. It's in giving you the power to get the basics of 16 different amplifiers, all out of one rig. There were some sounds I found that went away from the intended use. I set up the Insane setting, and forgot about the other presets, and simply set up the Boogie to react to the output of the Insane settings, and found an incredible meaty sound that I could control feedback instantly with! But of course, none of the other presets sounded good anymore. So maybe, looking at this unit to find a single, lethal individually unique sound is really the strength of the AM4. It works well, as what I refer to as a "tone generator." Then take that tone, and feed it into your amp with the sweet spot of the amp's output section in mind — now, there's MY sonic nirvana with this particular device.

Just to throw a kink into the chain, I recently purchased a POD XT. It's much more powerful, with more realistic amp models, cabinet and mic models, much more tonal variation, plus effects and direct recording options. I set THAT up through the effects loop of my Boogie. My sonic nirvana.

For more information on the Line 6 AM4 Amp Modeler, visit line6.com


This review was originally published in Digital Pro Sound in June 2003.

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