One of the most essential pieces in any Electronic and Hip-Hop producer’s toolkit is a plugin or hardware unit that excels at dirtying up clean, boring sounds; in my experience, whenever an aspiring producer asks ‘how did [Insert mega-producer’s name here] make this sound??’ the answer, almost invariably, is a pretty basic bit of source material that was mangled and twisted in creative ways using distortion or re-amplification.
While a great distortion unit is essential for the professional producer, many beginning producers and engineers shy away from the process out of lack of understanding or simply not knowing where to start: distortion can run the gamut from single-purpose stomp boxes to highly complex multiband plugins, and it’s rare to find a single distortion unit that can be versatile, powerful, and sound stunning in the process.
Rare as it might be, that is precisely what renowned developer and guitar manufacturer Line6 has done with their new Helix Native plugin. Much more than a mere amp or stomp box emulation, Helix Native is a one-stop-shop for creative sound design, enhancing dull source material, and simply making things sound awesome. In this review we’ll examine what makes Helix Native so great - and why any electronic or Hip-Hop producer should seriously consider adding it to their plugin arsenal.
Setup & First Impressions
Installation and authorization are simple and straightforward - download the Helix Native software from the Line6 website, install the software, and run the AU/VST/AAX plugin for the first time. A free 15-day trial is available for first time users, or you can authorize an existing purchase of Helix Native via a login to your Line6 account. We are always fans of plugins which don’t require a hardware dongle, and we’re pleased to say there’s no iLok or Syncrosoft needed here.
Once authorized, the Helix Native GUI is markedly different from those of many competing amp simulations; unlike almost every competitor on the market I can think of, there’s no large 3D renderings of modeled amps or stomp boxes to be found anywhere - just a simple and clean preset/impulse response browser, an effect editor, and a large pane which lets you view the signal flow of the active preset. While everyone will have their own opinion on this minimalist approach, I personally grew to prefer it to my other amp simulations pretty quickly - having consistent and easy to understand controls across a wide range of different effects units within Helix Native makes the plugin easier to use than many of its competitors.
Speaking of signal flow, Helix Native is highly flexible - we’ll dive into this more shortly - and can accommodate just about any routing scenario you can draw up; everything from simple mono processing to elaborate serial and parallel effects chains are possible here.
The biggest point I want to stress about Helix Native - because it’s something that I didn’t quite get myself before trying the plugin - is that this is not merely an amp simulation aimed at guitarists and producers seeking additional guitar tones. Rather, Helix Native is as full-featured and impressive of a sound design plugin as I’ve found to date; it’s got everything from chorus and tremolo effects to compressors and guitar amps - and they’re all chain-able, can be re-ordered and arranged in just about any signal path you can imagine, and all sound phenomenal. Installing Helix Native on your computer essentially gives you every creative sound design tool you could hope to find in a top-level professional studio within one efficient, highly useable, and killer sounding plugin.
While Helix Native is much more than just an amp simulation, let’s start there - in my experience distortion units, and guitar amps in particular, show the widest variance in quality from one plugin developer to the next, and the quality of the algorithm really matters when it comes to distortion simulations. While I’m just learning to play guitar, I’ve been using amp sim plugins for years in both Ableton and Logic Pro - in addition to their obvious use for making guitar tones in the box, I find them to be a secret weapon on synth leads and bass for both Hip-Hop and Electronic music. I’ve tried and used all the usual suspects when it comes to amp plugins, and I can say unequivocally - Helix Native is hands down the best amp simulation I’ve heard in the box, and it really isn’t close. Helix Native is the first and only plugin I’ve used where plugging your guitar in and playing around simply feels like the real thing - you don’t feel like you’re playing through a plugin, or through some kind of modeling: it just sounds and feels real. No lag, no latency, no modeling that makes it obvious you’re playing a bit of code and not a real hardware amp - and it is awesome (especially if you’re lucky enough to be pairing it with one of Line6’s Variax guitars).
Helix Native doesn’t just shine on real guitars; it sounds outstanding on synths, bass, and yes, even vocals - thanks to the one and only Dave Pensado for that creative tip. During a recent session, I was working with a female vocal that sounded outstanding in the verses (which were sparse), but a bit weak and lacking in presence on the hook, which featured a much more full arrangement - I needed something that would make the vocal cut through the mix and match the higher energy of the beat behind it. Helix Native came to the rescue: dialing in an aggressive guitar preset on a parallel vocal track and mixing to taste pushed the vocal right to the very front of the mix, cutting through in a way that no other EQ, compressor, saturator, or distortion plugin I tried could. If you’re anything like me, Helix Native will become a plugin you start using on everything - even on tracks you’d never think to run a amp sim on - because of the versatility of its processors and their outstanding sound quality. For the Ableton users out there, you’ll appreciate that it does all of this with absolutely zero latency, so it won’t cause any issues with LFO or Sidechain plugins placed after it in the signal path.
Helix Native’s device browser offers 15 different categories of processors to choose from: Distortion, Dynamics, EQ, Modulation, Delay, Reverb, Pitch/Synth, Filter, Wah, Amp+Cab, Amp, Cab, Preamps, and Impulse Responses can all be inserted anywhere in the signal path. And speaking of the signal path, it can be customized to do just about anything you need: creating parallel, serial, or split mono routings is simple, and up to 32 effects units can be inserted in the signal flow at any time. With the exception of preamps and amps, all effect units can be used as mono or stereo - and you can combine mono and stereo units within the plugin’s internal signal path for added flexibility.
Aside from the absolutely killer guitar amps, Helix Native offers some phenomenal sounding modulation options if Chorus, Tremolo, or Phasing/Flanging are what you’re after - there are some serious vibes to be had here. Likewise, we found the Pitch & Synth options to be the best we’ve found in the box to date (check out the samples at the end of this article for examples) - it’s really not hard to turn boring synth presets into unique and completely unrecognizable sounds here. Despite the fact that I own a lot of dedicated modulation plugins, I find myself reaching for Helix Native far more often than not, even when no distortion is needed - it’s simply got a sound and vibe that’s hard to match with any other plugin.
The only thing that we hope to see added in future updates of Helix Native that isn’t already here is a taggable preset system: especially with the immensely wide range of tones this plugin is capable of, it would be helpful to be able to sort presets by sound type, custom attributes, or genre/type.
Conclusion / Recommended For
In conclusion, we absolutely love Helix Native - it’s become my most used 3rd party plugin in recent sessions, and both the breadth of tones possible here as well as the sound quality are absolutely phenomenal and the best we’ve heard from any plugin in this category. More than anything else, Helix Native is a fun, creative, and inspiring plugin to use - I haven’t found a better tool for transforming ordinary sounds into something unique, and I’ve tried just about everything out there.
For guitarists, Helix Native delivers the most impressive and realistic amp tones we’ve heard anywhere in the software realm, and for sound designers, engineers, and producers, this plugin is simply a must-try for creative sound shaping and processing - you simply can’t go wrong here.
Try Helix Native for 15 days free here.
- The best sounding amp sim we’ve heard to date.
- Much more than an amp sim - absolutely killer on synths, vocals, and bass.
- Modulation effects are top notch.
- Flexible, creative routing options.
- Zero latency operation.
- Taggable preset browser would be a nice bonus.