this space intentionally left blank

January 21, 2009

Filed under: music»tools»looping

Requiem for a DL4

The Line 6 DL4 delay modeler occupies an enviable position on the pedalboards of a lot of musicians, both famous and not. It's considered by many to be not just one of the best delays available, but also one of the best loopers for the money. At the same time, it has a well-deserved reputation for unreliability. Even though it's been a decade since the pedal was first introduced, Line 6 hasn't ever produced a hardware revision to fix those issues. Why would they? The combination of the two means that a lot of people have bought DL4s several times over.

I am, in general, a fan of Line 6. Their modeling tech is impressive, and it's relatively affordable. More importantly, I usually find that they understand the ways musicians will use their products more than a lot of prosumer music companies do. So it's frustrating when an issue like the DL4's fragility goes uncorrected for so long--and it's really frustrating when the flaky DL4 in question is mine. I'm not keen on paying for another faulty unit (or driving it up to Maryland for a costly repair job), but it's hard to find anything that can replace the Line 6 at anywhere close to the same price.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of loopers under $500 that beat the DL4 on a spec sheet. Boss has a whole set of pedals with longer sample lengths, or the ability to save samples for later. Its largest model can play multiple loops simultaneiously. Digitech's JamMan even records its audio to CompactFlash cards, so you can load arbitrary sounds from a computer. Either one of these, just to take two examples, is also much more durable than the DL4.

But neither of them is anywhere as usable for real-time looping. On both, for example, there's no way to go directly from the first recording pass into an overdub pass. The JamMan requires a double-stomp to enter overdub mode, which is much harder to time correctly, and the Boss pedals typically require playback to begin before overdubbing (the exception is the RC-50 pedal, which is A) enormous and B) only allows users to replace the default behavior, not make a decision at runtime). The great thing about the DL4 is that you don't have to make a choice--you can start with an overdub right away, or you can go straight into loop playback.

The same kind of thinking--or lack thereof, for other pedals--shows up in the one-shot feature. On other loopers, the option to play a loop just once (like a triggered sample) is usually set via a small switch on the actual unit, and it can't be changed while the loop is playing. In contrast, the DL4 has a switch set aside just for arming "Play Once" mode. At first, this seems like a waste of hardware, but don't be fooled: that switch is tremendously useful. It's not just good for the obvious applications of trigger-and-forget sample playback. You can also use it to tell the looper that you want playback halted automatically, freeing up your feet to make changes on other pedals at the same time. And if you're really good, you can use its ability to restart loop playback for compositional tricks that aren't otherwise available.

In other words, what you get with the DL4 isn't the most fully-featured pedal. But the designers have made sure that every feature it does have is accessible with one step at all times. If you're playing a looper as an instrument, and not as a foot-mounted samplebank, that's arguably far more important. Any time you have to reach down to adjust an option, or let a sample play through in order to get a proper overdub going, you've broken the performance.

When the DL4 started acting up, losing power or freezing onstage, I went looking for alternatives. The only one I've found with any potential is the Eventide TimeFactor, which offers overdub/play flexibility out of the box. Even then, to get a decent one-shot mode you have to add an external switch--but it at least gives the impression that it was designed with real-world users in mind. This may seem like faint praise (and it is), but it's something I think you can only rarely say about effects boxes. Why this is, I'm not sure. I suspect that the margins are too thin, and the consumer data too sparse, to provide proper incentives at the lower end of the market.

Frankly, when it comes to pedals gone bad, there are few good choices. Repair in our throwaway culture is expensive and hard to find. Reuse is a nice idea, but unlikely in practice, since I don't really have the technical background or patience for DIY pedal-making. And with commodities this expensive, the cost for a replacement is a bitter pill even in the best of times. In a rough economy like this, it's even harder to swallow.

Still, I'm trying to become less prone to fix problems through additional consumption. So if the choices are bad, perhaps the point is to find new ones. I still have looping tools available to me--the Loop Junky or a Mobius-based laptop rig. And I'm hoping this will serve as a reminder of why I started playing with loops in the first place: not just that I'm a misanthrope, but as a set of constraints for channeling my creativity. I like the DL4, but I'd gotten comfortable with it. Its constraints weren't really limitations anymore. It's probably time to find new ones.

Future - Present - Past