Whether you like their ideas or not, Line 6 has been cutting-edge for many years now. Their Helix line of products continues the legacy into 2020 with world-class effects and amp modeling, making complex routing and processing accessible without a mass of pedals and cables. The HX Stomp is the most compact of these new units.
My Journey to HX Stomp
I’ve wasted a lot of time and money over the years searching for and buying effects pedals. This has added up to thousands of dollars spent on these gadgets. While I don’t regret all of this spending (it has taught me a lot), much of my shopping was piecemeal and unfocused. One pedal here to try this, one pedal there to do that. Nothing too expensive or comprehensive, often with lots of leftovers that weren’t as useful as I first thought.
Flash forward a number of years and my setup had solidified into a fairly static pedalboard. This included a tuner, a delay, a reverb, and an EQ/preamp, all powered by a nice power supply. These were the basic things I used at every gig to get a good sound.
But for how great it was, I still felt like this set up was larger than it needed to be. Surely somebody had put all those things in a single box by now? I felt no affinity for having a “real” pedalboard if something more compact come along to do the job.
So low and behold, when I first heard about the Line 6 HX Stomp, it seemed like a great fit. My main hangup was the price. $599 (it’s since gone up to $650). This single processor cost only slightly less than my entire pedalboard put together!
After some consideration, I realized that if the HX Stomp could do what it said and what I needed, it would completely replace all these pedals (and then some) and allow me to finally achieve the goal of a small footprint powered by world-class, reliable hardware.
I bought one.
At this point in my life, I no longer have unrealistic expectations from effects. They do what they do and that’s that. I know they won’t magically fix anything or make your playing better. They simply sculpt and decorate what’s already there – nothing really that exciting.
That said, it is pretty exciting when all of these things happen under the same roof in a small box less than the size of three compact pedals. And that’s exactly what HX Stomp does: puts all my expectations and tools in one place.
What is Helix and HX Stomp?
Helix is Line 6’s flagship software and corresponding floor – and rack-based – processor series. It’s a heavy-hitting suite of effects and signal routing tools.
One of the big attractions of Helix for electric guitar players is its ability to realistically model amplifiers. This allows you to take a pedal to a gig and play through the PA instead of lugging an 80 pound amp around.
This isn’t very exciting for most ukulele players interested in a clean sound. But the bottom line is that Helix sounds great and is being used live by tons of musicians for much more sophisticated stuff than tweaking live acoustic sounds.
The HX Stomp brings Helix processing to a compact floor multi-effects pedal. It has 3 foot switches, a nice little LED screen, six knobs, and four buttons. Connections include stereo ins and outs, a headphone jack, FX loop, MIDI, and a plug for an extra two footswitches or expression pedal.
Unfortunately there aren’t any aftermarket or upgrade options unless you’re running other pedals and use a voltage doubler on a multi-source power supply.
What’s Included in the Software?
The HX Stomp interface is intuitive and fairly easy to use, but it’s simply a means of routing your signal through a computer. The Helix software is running firmware version 2.82 as of January 2020 and each update brings new effects, amps, and features.
Since it will do pretty much anything, I’ll stay focused here by looking at the more uke-centric features.
Starting at the input jack, the HX stomp has the ability to create an impedance load on the signal. This can be switched from a low impedance to a high impedance of 1MΩ, with several stops in between. This is pretty good, but isn’t sufficiently high enough to make me confident that it can function as a preamp for all passive pickups. You would have to do some research on your pickup to find out if the HX Stomp is appropriate for balancing it’s impedance as a stand-along unit.
HX Stomp includes a great tuner. You access it by pressing and holding the right footswitch for a couple seconds. It has several display options: a standard needle, a needle plus fine-tuning indicator, and a faux strobe tuner. It’s very accurate. Maybe not as smooth to use as my TC Electric Polytune 2, but way, way better than most.
Once into the box, your signal hits the first of six “blocks.” A block is one effect or amp model. Currently, HX Stomp is limited to six blocks in order to avoid overloading the internal DSP computer. That said, Line 6 has mentioned at Winter NAMM 2020 that the block limit will be expanded to eight with firmware 3.0.
First off, for ukulele, there is a host of great EQ effects to sculpt the tone. These include:
- A three-band parametric EQ
- A “Simple EQ” with fixed high and low boosts/cuts and a semi-parametric mid-band
- A high and low shelf EQ
- A “Tilt EQ” which boosts/cuts the highs and performs the inverse move on the lows around a moveable center frequency
- Several graphic EQs
I believe that EQ is the biggest part of a kick-ass plugged-in uke sound so these blocks are the meat and potatoes of my Stomp presets. Line 6 provides the tools to do almost anything with EQ.
That said, I have two gripes regarding the EQ blocks:
- There’s no comprehensive parametric/shelf studio EQ. This means you have to use two precious blocks to get multiple parametric bands AND moveable high and low shelf filters. This is a bummer with the six block cap.
- The high shelf EQ only only goes down to 2khz. I’d like it to go down to at least 1k.
Hopefully both these can be addressed with the inclusion of a more complex EQ block in a future update.
There’s also a global EQ setting that affects all presets. This has three parametric bands plus a high and low cut.
After EQ, I find the next most useful block is an unexpected one I didn’t really know about before I bought HX Stomp: the impulse response. An impulse response is basically a highly-detailed EQ representation of a space or the sound an object imposes on a space (think: rooms, instruments, and speaker cabinets). Basically, this means you can use the sound of something to EQ the sound of something else.
In my case, I load an IR that superimposes the miked sound of my uke onto the pickup sound. This results in a much more realistic sounding ukulele signal.
Line 6 is known for great delay sounds. The Helix firmware includes plenty of them: digital, analog, tape, and other models. There’s really no way to go wrong here. HX will have a delay for everyone.
I’ve been running the Vintage Digital model in my presets. It has an adjustable sample rate that can be set for a mushy, lo-fi vibe. I’ve got this parameter assigned to a footswitch that also adjusts the mix. The default sample rate is set low and helps the delay sit in the background, but when I press the switch, it gets moved to a higher setting, making the delay more articulate.
The Line 6 reverbs are not the most beautiful, “wow” reverbs I’ve played through, but there are lots of great options to get the job done. A simple plate or hall usually sounds best on uke in my experience and these models can be tweaked to fit most tastes.
Other Useful Stuff
The Stomp isn’t a preamp in itself, but does offer a Studio Tube Pre model of a vintage microphone preamp. It adds a pleasing “glue” to the top end of the tone. It also is a great way to boost the signal up if you need more juice, though there are volume options at almost every block along with a master output so it’s pretty hard to end up with a weak signal.
With all the routing options available you can create intricate setups with effect blends or crossover processing. This allows you to mix the effected signal with the dry signal or only process sounds above or below a certain frequency. For instance, you could split the signal at 500hz and send the higher frequencies to an IR and the lower ones to an EQ. Lots of possibilities here.
Using HX Stomp
The trade-off with such an abundance of highly programable effects is the ease of use. HX Stomp is not something you’ll just plug into and start rocking away on. The stock presets are pretty lame for ukulele and are the only real quick-start option.
Which means you have to sit and program your sounds. For me, this isn’t a problem. I know exactly what I want my uke to sound like at each gig. But if you want to experiment and improvise a crazy feedback delay sound live, you’re going to struggle. A unit like the ME-80 from BOSS is more suitable for this kind of playing.
Once you bite the bullet and resign yourself to pre-made presets and their framework, actually making presets is pretty simple. The top knob selects which block in the chain you’re editing, the bottom knob selects the effect from a menu. The effect is editted with the three knobs under the screen which correspond to the parameters shown above them. Side-to-side arrow buttons allow you to scroll through multiple “pages” of effect parameters.
When the preset is dialed in, you can save it in one of 126 slots, banked in groups of three (corresponding to the footswitches). I can’t imagine an ukulele player ever needing more presets than that.
This speeds up the process considerably in the initial stages of crafting a preset. It also makes it simple to copy/paste presets if you want to make several with slight variations.
I highly recommended using this program as a way to augment your workflow and get the most out of the Stomp.
The three footswitches on HX Stomp are highly flexible. To start, there are four footswitch modes: stomp mode (turns effects on and off in the preset), scroll mode (moves up and down through presets), preset mode (selects one of three presets in a bank), and snapshot mode (selects one of three “scenes” – different parameter settings – from inside a preset).
In addition to this, stomp mode allows you to assign multiple parameter adjustments to a footswitch – while also turning blocks on or off. So it’s possible to make FS1 turn on a delay, boost the reverb mix, and shift your EQ all with one stomp.
Three footswitches is really where the HX Stomp is limited compared to a pedalboard or full-size Helix. There just aren’t many options for turning independent effects on and off. And with FS3 set as a tuner/tap tempo, you only get two switches for effects.
For an acoustic set this is fine. I have one switch for tuner, one for more delay, one for a boost. But if you’re doing distortion sounds and heavy effects that require switching, you need multiple presets with different footswitch assignments to get all the sounds.
My Favorite Things
The size of HX Stomp is hard to beat. I don’t know of any other unit of appropriate quality that can match its features and size.
I love having such flexible EQ options. It really allows you to think more about sculpting your tone than just doing the bare minimum to fix problem frequencies.
The regular updates from Line 6 keep improving the investment and make it fun to dive into fresh sounds periodically.
For what it is, there’s not much to complain about. It can be frustrating to try and program a preset that covers a bunch of sonic ground then run up against the lack of footswitches. But that’s a disadvantage of the format itself, not the product.
The proprietary power cord sucks.
The six block limit can force you to compromise in certain situations, but hopefully within the year this will be addressed to an extent with new firmware.
Finally, as longtime user of acoustic preamps, it’s easy to get attached to having a DI output. This doesn’t really do much for sound quality over plugging the HX Stomp into a separate DI via a 1/4″ cable, but it would be nice if there was an XLR output option like on the big Helix.
Should You Spend Your Hard-Earned Money on a HX Stomp?
If you meet the criteria, absolutely. I couldn’t recommend it more. But for many people it will be a waste or a disappointment.
You’ll like HX Stomp if:
- You’re gigging regularly
- You know what tones you want
- You have an active pickup in your uke
- You don’t need more than six effects at a time
- You don’t need more than two or three footswitchable variations of a preset
- You want to experiment with IRs
- You’re relatively techy
You’ll resent the HX Stomp if:
- You need a bunch of effects at a time and want to switch them on and off
- You’re a hobby player who just wants to fart around with some sounds
- You like one knob to control only one thing
- You’re on a budget
Bottom line is that the HX Stomp is for serious, discerning players. It’s a powerful machine that takes time to learn and executes each task perfectly.
If you are starting out in effects or are a beginning player, I absolutely would NOT recommend it. Nor would I if your uke and pickup cost less than $650! In stead of buying a Stomp, spend that money on a better uke and pickup.