Let’s face it fellow musicians and guitar players: amplifier modelling is here to stay. Of course the eye candy of a Marshall stack still gets rockers all excited, myself included. But the versatility of modelling cannot be denied, and the sound quality is lightyears ahead of what it was when the first POD came out.
While the amp modelling devices out there look and sound cool, and can take your guitar tone straight to house mix, PA or equivalent directly, guitar players need that ‘amp-in-the-room’ feel. In fact, in a recent session with a friend who is a professional player (who owns this studio reviewed here) he pointed out the need to ‘feel’ the amp while playing as a way to develop your control while playing. Chopping away on headphones is one thing, but controlling string noise and other artefacts while getting the sound you want out of a high gain amplifier is another ball game.
With that in mind, many vendors of amp modelling technology are now launching their own amplifiers dedicated at amp modelling technology. Before you ask ‘why would we need an amplifier if we have modelling in the pedalboard or equivalent ?’ let me just explain. Of course the likes of Helix, Axe FX and others ‘model’ famous amps but don’t actually amplify the signal. Their outputs are typically line level and need to go to an amplification system. On the other hand, typical guitar amplifiers ‘colour’ the guitar sound and would double up what the modeller is trying to do.
So the buzzword for the amplifiers specifically designed for modellers is FRFR speaker or FRFR amplified speaker. FRFR stands for Full Range Flat Response, meaning it covers most of the audible frequency range with a response that is as close to flat as the physics of the speakers will allow, thus avoiding any additional colouring of the tone since this is already covered by the modeller.
Enter the Line 6 Powercab 112 plus
As one of the leading brands behind amplifier modelling, Line 6 just recently releaser their own flavour of FRFR speaker and it goes by the name of Powercab 112. Two versions are offered (plus and non-plus) and throughout this article we will note when the feature is not present on the non-plus version.
It is based on a 1×12″ speaker configuration with 1″ compression driver for higher frequency reproduction, both rated at 8 ohms. It claims a peak wattage of 250 but the RMS is not specified. In any event, it claims to reach a maximum SPL loudness of 125dB @ 1m so it should be enough for rehearsals, band practice and the occasional small gig. I believe these are the applications they are targeting, as on larger gigs another type of backline or a straight to desk arrangement is more likely to be used if you have a modeller.
Both models have a combined XLR and TRS input jack, with an XLR out in case you want it on stage but still want the same signal routed out to the mixing desk or PA. The plus model has an additional combined input jack, and L6 Link AES/EBU compatible input which can be used with the Helix, for example. It also features an USB interface for receiving direct audio from a connected computer or for configuring the device via the free Powercab Edit app. Finally it sports the classic MIDI connections so it can be controlled remotely by the Helix as well. More on this later.
While FRFR speakers have existed for a while, the speaker modelling technology is quite new, and it claims to reproduce the sound of famous speakers used in classic guitar cabinets. Both models come loaded with 6 presets of classic speakers (Vintage 30, Greenback, Creamback, P12Q, Swamp Thang, and Blue Bell) and of course a fully flat preset.
This is where it can get a bit confusing… why would we need speaker modelling if all modelling is coming from the Helix or equivalent ? First of all many early modellers either didn’t model the speaker + cabinet + microphone at all (just the amp) or did so with outdated technology. And modelling takes DSP power so even more modern modellers can benefit from off-loading some of their processing into another element of the signal chain.
For the basic (non-plus) model this is pretty much it in terms of modelling, the 6 speaker models and the flat position can be selected at the back of the unit. It is unclear if the flat position is fully analog (the speaker modelling is obviously digital) so this version would benefit from a digital connection to avoid the double digital to analogue conversion when used with a modeller. On the plus model this can be resolved by use of the AES/EBU cable which is sold separately.
The Powercab 112 plus has additional capabilities as it comes loaded with a few impulse responses (in addition to the cabinet simulations) and that can be expanded via loading of additional impulse responses (IRs) through the USB connection and the Powercab Edit app. This then opens the door for countless possibilities in terms of sound expansion, and it alone may justify the price difference between the two models.
All presets and models tried sounded quite impressive. While the overall sound feels more ‘under control’ than on a guitar speaker, the experience is close enough and certainly miles better than trying to hear yourself from the PA mix. I’ve used this in a small room while playing background music on other speakers and it felt like a real rehearsal. You can get closer to it and hear yourself better when you need.
With a drummer in the room, the recommendation is to stay on the other side of the room, and put it up high on a stand (not directly on the floor) unless you’re using the kickback stands. It’s certainly not a 4×12 system even though you can emulate one via IR. But again playing loud is a big no-no if you want to keep playing music at a later age, so this 250 Watts peak combo should be relatively close to a 50 or 100W RMS combo which is widely used in rehearsals by us weekend warriors.
Using with a Helix
Now while the benefits above can be enjoyed with any modeller, the pairing with a Helix or another MIDI capable modeller has a few additional advantages. With a MIDI connection between the modeller or a computer and the Powercab, presets can be chosen automatically.
Since I’m a Helix user I’ve achieved this by doing the following:
- Made sure all my favourite presets (total five) on Helix were to my liking, and grabbing the original IRs I had used to create them back from my archives (example: the Line 6 version [48 kHz, 200ms] of the Ownhammer and the Celestion IRs I had purchased).
- Making a copy of all 5 presets into a new preset bank (so I can keep the originals with the IRs switched on for other use cases).
- Downloading these IRs to empty IR positions on the Powercab 112.
- Making Powercab 112 presets on empty positions, pointing them to the uploaded IRs. I then named these presets in a way that matches the preset on the Helix. So if I have a preset in the Helix called JTM-45, this would now have a counterpart in the Powercab called JTM-45 which contains the IR for the Celestion greenback speaker I normally associate with the JTM-45.
- Turning off the MIDI PC send on the Helix global settings. I found that this would send out a program change with a preset number matching the Helix and my Helix and Powercab preset counterpart are not in the same number. Example the JTM-45 is 01A in the Helix, but position 14 in the Powercab contains the counterpart Celestion IR.
- Edited each Helix preset and added a MIDI message out for bank/program which sends out a program change into the desired preset every time I change a preset in the Helix. So now when I switch to 01A in the Helix it sends out PC ’14’ to the Powercab which causes the Celestion greenback IR to be selected simulatenously.
The combination between the Helix modelling of the JTM45, the quality of the Celestion IR and the power of the Powercab was jaw dropping. I’ve repeated the same for other combinations (like the JCM800, the MESA and so on) and I’m now gig ready with this setup.
Obviously nothing stops one to a) operate with the cab simulation and IR turned off on the Helix, and the Powercab in flat mode or b) have cab sims and/or IRs on both sides. Not a good result if you do this so be sure to turn modelling on only on one of your devices.
The next logical question was: is it possible to hear the difference between the same IR loaded on a Helix or loaded on the Powercab ? I then went back to the original preset bank (the one still with the IRs switched on) and programmed them to send out a PC for preset number 0 (zero) which puts the Powercab in flat mode. Another way to achieve this of course would be to turn the IR off via foot switch and then put the Powercab in flat manually, but this allowed me to do an A/B comparison with just one mouse click.
The difference is subtle in favour of the IR loaded into the Powercab. Maybe this was just my brain trying to justify the extra cost, maybe is the refreshed technology inside the Powercab, or maybe the fact that in reality it’s not 100% apples to apples since with the IR inside the Helix I do have some post IRs effects (virtual 4 cable method anyone…?). Both sounded great and made me happy with the investment I made.
In summary the pros of this arrangement are:
- Very versatile, both the Helix and the Powercab 112 have all the I/O you need and can be used in a variety of situations.
- Flexibility, virtually infinite possibilities of tones as the vendor can update the firmware and you can download your own IRs.
- Portability, the Powercab has a handle and it doesn’t weight much, practical to take to gigs and rehearsals.
- Sound Quality is decent enough.
As for the cons:
- Not a real valve amp, man !
- Limited in terms of power as there is no option of separate head and cabinet.
- Configuration can be tricky for non tech savvy players. If that is your case just get the non-plus version and use it in flat, with the tones you already have in your modeller.
If you want a more detailed spec on the Powercab please follow the link below:
If you want to go ahead and purchase please use the Amazon links below:
A quick search online is likely to yield at least the Headrush and the Friedman as possible options. They all have excellent reviews and are great contenders. There are also modelling amps that have their own FRFR cabinets like the Marshall Code, but it’s a different ball game. For an outlook of some of the best modellers available have a look at the link below:
If you have other options to mention or want to discuss this further please drop me a line.