Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - April 2015

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Good Design and the Line6 DL-4 Delay Pedal

This isn't meant to be a sales pitch for the DL-4 (I have no affiliation with Line6), and it isn't meant to be a treatise on the transparency of the pedal or lack thereof, or the uber-quality of it's models.

 What I am going to blather about for a bit, is in the nice "rightness" of the gestalt of this pedal.

 It's not my favorite pedal, and it's not what I think is THE BEST PEDAL OF ALL TIME.  I do think as a whole it is maybe the most complete design success I can think of in a pedal.

 In this day and age of tiny pedals being the trend, the series of pedals the DL-4 comes from are of the "Honkin' Huge" proportion category.  I have no problem with that in the case of the DL-4, because effectively you have 4 separate foot switches in a space narrower than the equivalent in the Boss stomp box footprint, and only a little longer.  So as far as I'm concerned, the footprint is utilized well enough.  

 In that footprint, though, I think the space is utilized basically as good as it's going to get.  If one is of the "I don't use rack effects" philosophy, then one is in turn willing to accept compromise, and the pedal is exemplary in this manner.  Do you need more than 3 separate delay presets?  A short delay, a long, and a longer/very wet/wild card?  Tap tempo makes that as flexible as you should want IMO.   So the form factor is great, not a too-large size for more switches than is pragmatic, not so small you wish you had just one more choice.

 In this respect, I get the impression that Line6's choice to use this form factor across the entire line was maybe influenced by that basic premise...?

 The robustness of the metal housing is nice.  Might be heavier than absolutely needed, but being in the "no worry about structural integrity" category is as it should be.  What was Ibanez thinking when they made those plastic-housing pedals?  

 The housing is nice, because it places the switches at  nice height, not some bizarre crazy high altitude, and not at some weird angle.  A sufficient distance from each other.   As it should be, and the knobs are recessed, so they don't get crushed or moved when activating the switches.   As it should be.  

 The knobs are a nice size in that they're not so small you have to "measure" your turning torque to miniscule amounts.  They're basic black, with simple and clearly marked indications of where they're pointed, visible while standing over the pedal.  As it should be.  The pots have a nice feel, slightly damped giving a sense of a nicer build quality - but also just slightly more "sticky" than most,  If you accidentally touch an adjacent knob it's not going to automatically get knocked 10%+ out of adjustment.  Which is a subtle touch, because it means when you're in a hurry (like before a song starts...) you can be confident about reaching down and making a quick adjustment without fear of the "I'd better not try that because if I bump the other button I'm screwed" situation.  Again, the distance between the knobs are a nice amount.  They could have crammed on more knobs/pots, but then - the knobs would be smaller, more cramped, less live-gig situation friendly.

 Ubiquitous basic red led indicators for each button.  That's fine, but also nice to have.  Companies that put multiple buttons on their boxes with no indicators - I hate that.  "I think it's switched off...(oops, it wasn't)".  

 Now I'm going to call out Roland as a company.   Roland traditionally has put an enormous amount of functionality in their devices, but for some reason never implements the potential capability with any kind of real-world awareness, or with a seeming afterthought.  The venerable VS-880 digital multitracker comes to mind, with an extraordinary amount of functions and features - bizarrely controlled by a tiny LCD display, and haphazardly strewn and labeled buttons, conjoined with non-intuitive functions accessed with arcane combinations of steps.  This seems par for the course for Roland, their drum modules, rack mounted effects devices, keyboards, and where they cross into Boss' more elaborate pedal line.  For some reason the Boss DD20 Gigadelay comes to mind...

 Line6 took a refreshing approach in not to trying to "double up" the functions of knobs.  You have your basic model choice set on the first knob on the left (the function and signal flow knob-wise goes from left to right - AS IT SHOULD BE - that's how you're reading this, right?).  All the other knobs provide functions specific to the model selected, nothing more.

 I think they invented something in the "morphing" function range of a knob, in that instead of having to press a switch for something different to happen, the decision has been made to have that happen at a certain point on the knob.

 This can be a catastrophe.  A lot of new pedals try to do this and fail miserably in my opinion (the Eventide TimeFactor comes to mind).   This is where the pedal shines again: the designers made all of the right decisions as to the variability of the functions of each knob.  The mature decision to just have a pair of knobs - "tweek" and "tweez" - to handle the variability of the idiomatic features of each model is brilliant.

 The choices show that there was input from people that actually play guitar.  What do you want in a ping-pong delay?  Delay difference and stereo spread.  Tube echo - distortion, wow and flutter of course.  Multi-head, sweep delay - each of the models make bold decisions on what you need to adjust, and they're the right decisions.  I'm glad they didn't cram an extra knob on it just to have a tone control on every model, or to have a modulation function on all models.  That "let's anticipate the lowest-common denominator choice", or rather "it seems like it should have this knob, maybe?" approach not being present is again - as it should be.

 The quality of the models I could say could be improved - maybe.  But being delay, I would say that it doesn't matter in a guitar amp setting - in general you are blending the delay signal in at less than a 20% level, and by default the nature of it is typically bandwidth limited anyhow.  The flipside is that I think the character of the idiomatic aspects of the what each model intends to be is captured very well.   Is it an absolute perfect Echoplex simulation?  Maybe not, but then how many Echoplexes sound exactly the same, and how practical would it be for you to substitute the DL-4 with a real one, or Fuller's version, and then do the same with at least 2 other "authentic" delays you would be replicating with the DL-4?   In my opinion as a time-domain solution the pragmatism of the DL-4 can't be beat.

 It's not transparent.  Not an issue with a parallel loop.   Don't have a parallel loop?  Then your set up is most likely of a different philosophy than one that is being asked to do more than one thing perfectly.  I'm not Joe Perry or the Edge, I can't afford to just buy a discrete signal chain for every sound I might want.

 The choice to set it to true bypass or not via a boot-up procedure is a nice addition, but something of a non-sequiter decision to make, for the above mentioned philosophical reasons.  The requirement for that to be in the pedal is an obvious thing, and their choice to implement it this way is again an intelligent compromise.

 I only have one quibble, which is specific to me and what I do.  I wish it did a 4+ discretely modulated multitap for volume swells.  If it did this it would without a doubt be "my favorite pedal".  As such I still require the arcane and obfuscated, now antiquated Yamaha Magic Stomp II; a Big Honkin' Pedal that I really use for just one thing.  I can't even program it without USB and a computer capable of Windows 98 compatibility.  Great.  

 From a grab-and-go standpoint, it is of what I call "second order importance".   I don't have to use it to do a gig, but if I'm going to have something other than an amp with gain, that is the next thing I grab.  Beyond that there is the Magic Stomp, Univibe, various gain pedals, whatever.... but in one pedal the DL-4 offers more creative, *pragmatic* potential than anything else in one box.