Tech Talk: An Interview with Line 6's Eric Klein
Eric Klein is from a generic small town in South Dakota. A blink-and-you-almost-missed-it kind of place where life and conversation circles around high school football rivalries and how the crops are coming in. “Needless to say, being a music geek was" — he pauses for effect — “less than optimal, socially speaking.”
His family moved from South Dakota to Arizona when he was sixteen. “Getting to see live bands every weekend was life-changing,” he says. “There was one month in, maybe ’92, where Curve, Machines of Loving Grace, Front 242, Pop Will Eat Itself and Catherine Wheel all played Phoenix. Amazing.” He started his music career in retail at Rainbow Guitars in Tucson and spent free time producing artists from Los Angeles, where he eventually moved, just as, in his words, “the music industry started cleaning house.” But he was fortunate to join the team at Roland US and spent five years there specializing in synths and grooveboxes. It became clear early on, however, that there was no path to meaningful product input — much less design — without moving to Japan. So a friend made an introduction to Line 6 and he’s been there ever since, rising through the ranks to Chief Product Design Architect for Yamaha Guitar Group. [Yamaha acquired Line 6 in 2014 and created a US-based guitar division earlier this year.] Klein describes his position as getting to “design stuff” while simultaneously facilitating the ability for others to “design stuff.” It’s all highly technical. His desk is a mess of past, present and future gear, and people around the office say he obsesses about things like fonts and kerning too much. So much so that one of his coworkers has taken to occasionally sneaking Papyrus into presentations — just to drive Klein nuts. But it’s this kind of playful back-and-forth that keeps the day-to-day interesting. “There’s always a lot of moving parts, a bit of political maneuvering — and a lot of luck — but the goal is to always use our limited resources to achieve the maximum impact.” To ensure success, Klein has to play both sides of the big-picture-thinker and detail-guy fence. “One could design a box completely from scratch and nail it,” he says, explaining his design philosophy, “but if it won’t work seamlessly with the box they design five years down the road, that’s a ton of wasted work. So you have to think ahead, figure out where you want to be a decade from now and work backwards from there. The flip side is that you have to make sure all the little details are drum-tight to ensure the trajectory gets you to that spot a decade from now.”
Of course, Klein has been there from the beginning, sustaining design and managing lifecycle management for the Helix family of products.
First was the Helix flagship, unveiled in mid-2015, with Helix Rack and Helix Control shortly thereafter. Then came the stripped-down Helix LT in early 2017, HX Effects in early 2018 and now the HX Stomp. But this newest member of the Helix family is something different than its predecessors.
"The big advantage we see with HX Stomp is the power-to-size ratio. Plus it answers the question, 'When's the Helix Bean coming out?'"
Klein says the guiding principle for the HX Stomp was “How portable can we make Helix before it’s no longer Helix?” But he notes that every Line 6 product is first approached through the lens of ‘What’s the point of this thing?’ and ‘Why should people care?’ “This approach is helpful not just from a development standpoint, but also so that channel marketing, MARCOM, sales, ops, and support are aligned. If everyone in the building gets it and our channel partners will get it, then hopefully our users will get it too. For HX Stomp, the three unwavering design pillars were that it had to sound identical to Helix, it couldn’t be bigger than an average large-ish pedal on most pedalboards and that it had to be versatile enough to fit into a wide range of environments. But the design process was a sizable challenge, pun intended. “HX Stomp was a really tough one,” Klein says. “Originally, it was supposed to be even smaller — with two footswitches — but once our electrical and mechanical guys got a hold of it, the chassis ended up over three inches off the floor. So to get the height down, we extended the width to accommodate three switches and spent three or four months doing nothing but making sure we could fit all the necessary circuitry in the box. And I pushed the team really hard to keep making it smaller.” Klein says that his team maintains a library of 1:1 panels, LCDs, jacks, buttons, and footswitch symbols in Adobe Illustrator, so it’s easy to crank out lots of mockups. “We’ll build origami versions, print them out, and fold them into actual-size paper models before running around the building to gather input. Being in the same room to gauge authentic reactions is really important. Then, the winning origami model hits our 3D printing lab and the validation process continues.” Once a design is somewhat finalized, what Line 6 calls a Technical Requirement Document is created, sort of like a bible for that particular product. “It explains absolutely everything in the tiniest detail, from the navigation maps to every screen, to the default values for every parameter to zip files of bitmap graphic assets and pixel-accurate layout docs. The idea is that if I get hit by a bus, the engineering team can reference the TRD and upon release, my flattened ghost would whisper ‘Perfect.’” But getting HX Stomp to its final production form factor required a series of subtle, Tetris-like changes — often of mere millimeters — with each requiring redrawing and updating of the TRD before the cycle could continue. And that was when things went well. “A few months in, I started working on a future product proposal and its UI cluster ended up cooler and easier-to-use than the single-axis joystick we had for HX Stomp,” Klein says. “So, much to the team’s annoyance, we scrapped the joystick and redesigned the entire UI cluster. Cramming that much hardware into something the size of two Tube Screamers was just asking for trouble, but in the end, it’s exactly what we wanted.”
"It's the only Helix I take home from the office every night."
The initial results have been stellar. Though the team expected HX Stomp to be a hit, they were surprised to see the first production run sell out in hours. But even with all the hurdles and headaches, Klein still regards the HX Stomp as a fun design — and it’s actually changed the way he plays, too. “It’s also the only Helix I take home from the office every night,” he says with a laugh. “So now I’m playing more because of it.” In the short term, the hope for HX Stomp is that it fulfills a need for the existing modeling community. But there’s a secondary wish that it also finds a home outside that world — that players who would never consider a full Helix experience might look at HX Stomp and think, ‘Okay, let’s see what the fuss is all about.’ With so many different ways to implement it, that should be a possible outcome. “If someone comes up to me at NAMM and says ‘Hey, I use HX Stomp for nothing but massive swirly stereo delays into my Fryette’ or ‘Hey, I just run my MatrixBrute into it for extra weirdness’ or ‘Hey, it works best as a really small dual cab/IR loader,’ I’d say “Cool!" But in the bigger picture, it’ll be interesting to see where Line 6 lands in ten years; to have full visibility on whether or not the HX Stomp was the genesis of something new, or simply a continuation toward a world of Line 6-led digital domination. Q&A w/ Eric Klein:
Where, in your opinion, does the HX Stomp sit in the L6 lineup alongside the Helix and HX Effects? What is its place?
Eric: HX Effects is really meant to act as the central hub of your pedalboard/amp rig whereas HX Stomp is the smallest and most affordable way to get into a complete Helix signal flow without sacrificing quality or what it means to be Helix/HX. It’s not unlike how M13 and POD HD500X are in a similar space, but used in very different ways. Had HX Effects and HX Stomp launched at the same time — which was an early and unrealistic goal — I think the messaging might’ve been clearer.
How did Helix predecessors like the M-Series influence HX Stomp?
Eric: When we started designing HX Effects and HX Stomp, we knew they were like two sides of the same coin — one for amp and pedalboard players and the other for modeling players. And it was important that they cost the same so the conversation would focus on functionality instead of price. But more specifically, the M-Series certainly inspired HX Effects, except we wanted a UI/UX with two completely different approaches to it. One, like M13/M9, where you simply select a footswitch and add an effect to it, and two, more like Helix, where you can dig deep and go nuts. HX Stomp, however, is its own beast. How were Helix users engaged during the development process of HX Stomp?
Eric: We have quite a few close friends of the company who are under NDA and we’ll pitch product ideas to them. And working in a building filled with so many guitarists, bassists, and producers is like having a market research firm on demand. We’re also fortunate to have so many passionate Helix users who straight up tell us what they want. The tricky part is reading between the lines to understand where the points of friction truly lie. If you take requests at face value, you're just checking boxes and end up with a slightly smaller Helix with the treadle removed and a few switches shaved off. That doesn’t do us or our retail partners any favors — and it certainly isn’t fun or challenging. Last Question: Before moving to LA, you spent time scoring movies. Anything we’d recognize?
Eric: Probably not. I did some work on video games that were more well known. POSTAL 2 was probably the most recognizable, if only because of the violence controversy. Army Men RTS, Dark Reign 2, and a dozen or so others.
For more info on HX Stomp, go to line6.com/hx-stomp
Note: This interview was originally featured on Line6.com