Updated: Feb 12
This review of Line 6 Helix Native aims to find out what are the functionalities of the plugin version of the famed modeller, what are the system requirements that work for rock musicians, and what are the caveats and main differences between this software version and the actual hardware like the Helix Floor.
The convenience of the plugin, which requires Logic Pro X running on a Mac OS to run, is undeniable. Imagine taking all the helix functionality anywhere you go with a portable laptop ? Ok yes don't forget to take your guitar as well, and a good portable interface like the Apogee Jam Plus.
The first real challenge is understanding what is the 'real' minimum system requirement and adjust that to your budget. Those with infinite budgets can go straight to the top of the line MacBook Pro, load it with all the optionals and not worry about a thing unless they are running a 100+ track orchestra project or similar. But for us mortals budget is a factor and allows you to buy more gear or more guitars :-).
The second challenge is to understand how this virtual version of the Helix behaves, for those used to having physical devices with dedicated hardware and real switches to push. Note: I have not at this stage reviewed any physical devices that would communicate with the laptop running Helix Native and allow for switches on the fly without having to go through computer screens. They do exist for some of the iPad modellers and effects.
What computer configuration do you need ?
This is simply called system requirements and can be retrieved with a simple search. Since Helix Native is a plugin running on Logic Pro X it makes sense to look at both:
Logic Pro X
· macOS 10.12 or later
· 4GB of RAM
· OpenCL-capable graphics card or Intel HD Graphics 3000 or later
· 256MB of VRAM
· Logic Pro X requires 6GB of disk space for a minimum installation or up to 63GB of disk space for the full Sound Library installation
· Mac OS X 10.10 and 10.11 & macOS 10.12
· 64-bit AAX Native, Audio Units (AU), VST3 host DAW software
· Supported Sample Rates: 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz
For the test I will be using and iMac and a MacBook Pro both using MacOs Mojave and Logic Pro X 64-bits. My aim will be to find the 'real' limit for my application - think a typical rock or metal band - to see what is the minimum laptop configuration that would allow recording and playing on the road without the Helix Floor.
Of course we are very aware of compact versions of modellers and I believe these will become more common in the future, but the plugin has other advantages like changing presets on pre-recorded material without re-amping, and the laptop is something you may already take anywhere anyway for other uses, like your day job.
The steps taken
The first goal is to ensure a fair comparison in terms of performance and sound quality. So I proceeded to retrieve the 5 presets from Helix Floor I normally use and identify the IR used on each one so I can load them in the Helix Native.
On the IR front, note that I had to go back to the original WAV files from the purchases I had made, if I tried to export straight from the Helix it looks like the file format had changed and I was concerned this could taint the tests.
In terms of interfaces the iMac was hooked to an RME Babyface Pro and a Rupert Neve DI, and the MacBook Pro was connected to an Apogee Jam Plus. This will make a difference in the sound quality and latency but was less of a concern, I expected the sound quality to be quite similar between iMac and MacBook Pro if the same interface is used and was really more interested in possible system limitations which could prevent the plugin from running properly.
The presets and their correspondent IRs are as follows:
1. 70s Heavy and Hard Rock based on Marshall JTM-45 with Celestion G12M Greenback 4x12" and Shure SM57 Mic, balanced tone IR from Celestion
2. 80s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal based on Marshall JCM-800 with Celestion G12T-75 4x12" and Shure SM57 Mic, balanced tone IR from Celestion
3. 80s and 90s Heavy Metal based on MESA Rectifier with the Recto 4x12 V70B 4x12"and Shure SM57 Mic IR from Ownhammer
4. 70s Fuzz Heavy Metal based on Marshall JTM-45 with the Allure 70s WhoWhatt 100 IR supplied by Line 6
5. 80s and 90s Heavy Metal based on ENGL Meteor Fireball with the Allure 90s Cali V30 IR supplied by Line 6
Note that all IRs are compatible with the Line 6 format of 200ms and 48 kHz sampling. The Ownhammer and Celestion can be purchased for various different modellers in case you wish to recreate these presets in a different one.
Downloading and installing Helix Native is fairly easy, you will have to activate it with your Line 6 account and either enter trial mode or authorise the purchased version to run on the computer where you're downloading.
Before I started any tests, I brought up the activity monitor so I could keep an eye on CPU and memory. I've then created a test Logic Pro X based on Audio Loops, aiming preferably for a mix of WAV files and MIDI synthesised instruments as they will stress different limits of the system.
The test track then had a drum loop WAV with EQ, a picked bass loop WAV, a synthesiser loop in MIDI, and multiple available tracks to add Helix Native based guitars. Before adding anything on these guitar tracks (so Helix not yet active), on an iMac running MacOS Mojave with 3.6 GHz Intel Core i7 and 16GB RAM, the CPU load was 20% and logic was just shy of 1GB of RAM.
Logic Pro X was configured with software monitoring on, a buffer size initially of 64 samples yielding round trip latency of 4.3ms, at 48 kHz sampling rate, using the said RME Babyface Pro interface.
Enter the Helix Native
Initially I added two guitar tracks (rhythm and solo) based on native Logic Pro X guitar effects and this pushed the CPU to around 24%. By changing the library tone options from Logic Pro X I've managed to push the CPU to around 30% if I selected tones that had more spatial effects.
Next step was to replace that Logic Pro X native guitar sound with the Helix. Just enabling this channel with Helix as an audio effect in the chain and opening its interface made the CPU load to around 90%. Note that this is based on one core. I then proceeded to recreate the presets with the IRs I have on Helix Floor.
Once the Helix presets were fully recreated with their corresponding IRs, I then played and recorded some rhythm and solo tracks again to try and play everything in parallel. So I had two instances of Helix Native running, one for rhythm and one for solo. Note that when you open the plugin it looks a lot like Helix Edit so that can be confusing - maybe close that before you start. Also if you have multiple instances of Helix Native running, pay attention to the names at the top to see which instance is running on which channel of your DAW. I aptly named mine Helix rhythm and Helix solo.
The CPU load hit around 120% during various stages of playback and recording, but the total load for user processes never exceeded around 30% from the total. Memory was fine at 1GB utilised for the most part.
It is also interesting to note that the CPU load was higher when not only the Helix Native channels were running but also the effect screen was open. I presume this is because with the screen open there is additional loading for processing the visuals such as audio level controls and other parameters. Presumably when you close the Helix Native screen the settings are 'frozen' therefore there is less CPU consumption. This is good to know as it's unlikely that you would need to live-tweak many Helix instances at once.
Logic Pro X also has its own CPU and load monitor widget which, while simpler than the Activity Monitor, will show load caused specifically by your audio tracks on the cores of the processor you're using. It doesn't have any numeric indication but you can gauge how far from the ceiling you are.
I then proceeded to tweak the settings to see what effect they would have on CPU and Memory. The load was still bearable even at 32 sample buffer size which yields even lower latency. Note that the latency is calculated on the fly by Logic Pro X and is shown below the buffer setting as this depends on what plugins are loaded in the current project and on what interface you are using.
I've repeated the tests on a MacBook Pro running MacOS Mojave with 2.3 GHz Intel Core i5 and 8GB RAM. The presets and IRs loaded were exactly the same. At 64 samples we hit 120% CPU but again no more than 30 to 35% of the total. 1.2 GB RAM utilised was the peak. Occasionally the latency increased significantly. This happened once or twice when playing against external music such as Youtube. The solution was to re-start Logic Pro X and everything went back to normal. I presume this is due to some process loop or CPU wait time caused by the OS or other apps.
It should also be noted that with the Apogee Jam the latency was almost double (~9ms) then when the Babyface Pro was connected to the MacBook Pro, but this was hardly noticeable when practicing with background music. If I were to make recordings I would obviously lean towards using the Babyface Pro.
How did it sound ?
I've uploaded samples of the test tracks used. Both have the same instruments and the same rhythm and solo guitar tracks. The first one was mixed with the original amp plugins from Logic Pro X, and the second one used Helix Native on both guitar tracks. On all of them I tried to create patches that closely resemble a Marshall JCM800.
The results were quite satisfactory. Helix Native is a nice counterpart for the hardware versions of the same technology and allows one to either expand recording possibilities in their DAW. The main positive aspects are:
It's a plugin that processes the audio on the fly in your DAW, so the recorded sound is dry unprocessed guitar, which allows you to change the tone until you're happy, or even migrate to or experiment other plugins. You could go back to a song and change the tone months down the track when new patches or new amps become available, for example.
It runs on a decent laptop, so this makes the rig portable. Note that there are many forums and Youtube videos where players show how to use this for live gigs. This was not the aim here, my tests were directed at recording and practicing.
It has the same look and feel as the hardware versions such as the Helix Floor and the Helix LT, and accepts the same IRs and same presets. Basically minimum learning curve if you're already a user.
The presets tested sounded very close or equal to the ones in the hardware version.
The alarm bells should be ringing for these aspects:
It requires a DAW or a powerful laptop configured to be a DAW.
It requires a decent guitar or audio interface.
You get a discount if you're already a Helix owner.
As a bonus I've added links below to further information about system overload alerts and how to use the activity monitor: