It’s nice to know they’re listening. When we reviewed the brilliant Line 6 M9 back in February of last year, our main reservation was that three effects at a time might not be enough for some gig situations. Full credit to the digital modelling pioneers for responding to our criticism with a new unit that allows you to use… um… one effect at a time. Oh, well.
The principle of the M series is to stuff every effect from every stompbox Line 6 has ever done, plus a few new ones, into one unit. This one includes all the same sounds as its big brother except for the looper, and comes in at less than half the price (note that the M9 is already nearly £100 cheaper than the snooker-table-sized M13).
There are two footswitches, one for on/off and one for a variety of functions including tap tempo and accessing the tuner, plus the usual six little black knobs. The top-left one handles menu navigation while the other five offer more than ample control over individual effect parameters.
The previous two models were launched with a lot of talk about the ability to keep adding to and improving the onboard sounds via the Line 6 website.
This is still the case with the M5, which has MIDI sockets on its left flank and works with the same free software, but it’s worth mentioning that the updates haven’t been flying out of Line 6 HQ – all three units currently ship with the same 109 emulations that were available at the M9’s launch 18 months ago, so don’t expect to download a new virtual fuzzbox every week.
Still, 109 effects means you get about 108 more than you do from most stompboxes of this size. They’re divided into five sections – Delay, Distortion/EQ/Compression, Modulation, Filter and Reverb – and the backlit LCD screen changes colour accordingly.
In normal ‘performance’ mode, you push the top-left knob to toggle between sections and turn it to skip through the models. Step on both switches and you move into preset mode. There are 24 settings stored from the factory, and all can be edited or overwritten; toggling between presets using only your feet can be a Riverdance-like process but, overall, navigating the M5 is very simple.
We’ll start with the green-coded delays. If you’ve got a DL4 or Echo Park, most of this is the same stuff. As well as a few tidy digital models we get a bunch of analogue and tape sims which are spot-on, plus a delicious reverse delay and some interesting stereo frolics.
And yes, the analogue types can easily be abused for self-oscillating sci-fi shriekage. The modulation section (blue like the MM4) is every bit as superb, with a variety of highly tweakable tremolos, phasers, flangers and chorus sounds plus a couple of scary ring modulators.
Which brings us into the yellow zone. The compressors and EQs are fine, but we found the distortions to be the M9’s weakest suit, so we set about performing an A/B test with some of the pedals they’re trying to copy. ‘Screamer’ comes up against Maxon’s TS808 reissue, with just one EQ control against Line 6’s Bass, Treble and Tone.
This tone should probably be called Presence but it works beautifully, gently crisping up the edges without ever getting harsh. It’s definitely a welcome improvement, and the basic mid-humped voice is scarily close to the real thing, but it never quite matches the Maxon when it comes to transparency and natural feel.
We tried the ‘Classic Distortion’ against a ProCo Rat with the LM308 chip. Again the knob count works in the M5’s favour, but again that intangible sense of sonic immediacy is lacking. Could it be there’s just too much circuitry in the way? Finally, ‘Fuzz Pi’ meets a Big Muff Pi.
At its default setting the Line 6 is closer to the rasping black Russian Muff than the scooped sweetness of our US original. Maybe the extra Mid control will come in handy here… or maybe not, as cutting the midrange makes things even more spiky. Yee-owch! Careful manipulation of all five controls brings us somewhere close, but not close enough for me. No real change to the overall conclusion: with filth, you just can’t fake it.
Moving on to the purple-lit filter section, the lunacy factor is cranked up as high as it can go with everything from funky envelope followers to un-guitar-like synth effects that are all impressively latency-free. ‘Attack Synth’ sounds like a Moog that someone has been sick on.
It’s glorious. There are eight different wahs – generally good but useless without the expression pedal, which is about 40 quid extra – plus ‘Smart Harmony’ and the Digitech Whammy-inspired ‘Pitch Glide’.
These are quite sensational, although decidedly monophonic, and the harmoniser can get glitchy with string bends. Whoops, almost forgot the reverbs. They come from the Verbzilla. They’re triffic.
Let’s face it: by offering just one model at a time the M5 is never going to replace anyone’s entire pedal array for gigs, and many studio players may prefer the flexibility of software effects. So where does the M5 fit in? Well, many of us are perfectly happy to cough up £150 or so for one high-quality effect… and this has got dozens of them.
It isn’t designed to replace your pedalboard, but to add to it. Gigs, rehearsals, jams, who knows when you’re going to need a cool phaser, synth, harmoniser or reverse delay?
And don’t rule out recording sessions, either – hardware FX are different to on-screen ones because they can be plugged straight into a cooking amp for real-world, real-time interaction, and that’s a priceless asset. Blimey, I’ve just talked myself around…