In 1998, Line 6 launched the original POD and ushered in the era of modeling for the masses.
Today, the Calabasas-based company — acquired by Yamaha Guitar Group in early 2014 — estimates that well over 1.5 million units bearing the POD name have been sold throughout the world. That figure includes the original POD, and other bean-shaped devices like POD 2.0 and POD XT, as well as various floor and rack-mounted units like POD XT Live, POD HD500X and POD X3 Pro.
But in 2015, Line 6 dropped the POD name and launched Helix, a decidedly more powerful, more innovative and more user-driven flagship product.
“POD was our bread and butter for over fifteen years,” says Eric Klein, Chief Product Design Architect for Line 6. “But there’s always a worry that yet another multieffect will somehow cannibalize those before it. And while that’s been true in the past, we’ve been exceedingly lucky that whenever we release a new box, the previous boxes’ sales actually go up.”
Klein speculates that the uptick in sales might be the result of a halo effect around increased visibility, more marketing and a larger user base, but either way — if cannibalization does take place, at least Line 6 is eating itself instead of waiting to be eaten by someone else.
“After Helix, a lot of people insisted that a $500 flagship modeler was right around the corner — that Line 6, BOSS, DigiTech or whoever was just weeks away from announcing a $499 ‘Helix killer.’ But that never happened and the spiritual successor to POD HD500X became Helix LT.”
So is he surprised? Given parts and labor price increases in recent years — not at all.
“A company in this arena is able to make affordable gear in three ways,” Klein explains. “Either by cheesing out on cheap components, exploiting their employees, or stealing designs and IP from a competitor to gut R&D and development overhead. Or sometimes all three.”
According to Klein, the $500 US price point is “kind of magical.” But developing a new box with IR loading, color screens, a flagship modeling engine, and a slew of other bells and whistles for five hundred bucks in today’s market?
Two words: Not — full stop — possible.
Unless, of course, you’ve already built the infrastructure.
“After years of building a comprehensive design language and extensible platform that scales so widely, we pulled it off by stealing our own designs and IP.”
So at Winter NAMM 2020, Line 6 unveiled POD Go — a streamlined and appropriately stripped-down modeling platform with an appropriately stripped-down price tag.
“We had always planned on returning to POD,” Klein says. “Of course, there are certainly people on the team who would love to do nothing but make über-expensive, ultra powerful flagship products all day — myself included,” he says. “But that’s almost elitist in a way. There’s no reason the masses shouldn’t get to play as well.”
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If you spend much time talking to people from Line 6, they talk a lot about design pillars.
With HX Stomp, for instance, the three unwavering fundamentals were that it had to sound identical to Helix, 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.
For Powercab, the pillars included quality, affordability and something User Experience Designer Brandon Frenzel described as “the grin factor.”
And when it came to POD Go, the three primary pillars, according to Klein, were ease of use, portability and affordability.
“It was supposed to be considerably less powerful and flexible,” he says. “But so much of the work had already been done for Helix and the HX line that we kept squeezing more stuff in there and stopped just short of the point where it pushed up against one of those pillars or ceased to capture the fun of the original POD bean from ‘98.”
Back when I interviewed Klein about HX Stomp, he told me that it was the answer to the question — “When’s the Helix bean coming out?”
So I asked him whether or not POD Go has changed that narrative.
“Whenever someone requests a Helix bean,” he says, “we’ll ask ‘Okay, but would you actually buy one?’ Sometimes people want a product to make them feel warm and fuzzy just knowing it exists. I’ve been guilty of this myself — but when someone demands a product or a feature, sometimes we have to unpack the narrative and get to the bottom of what they’re really asking for. Where's the friction point? Is there a more elegant method of shaving off that friction, perhaps one that might solve three or four other problems at once?”
With respect to POD Go, Klein says that the biggest challenges it solves are entirely of their own making.
“Helix is extremely powerful, but it’s big and heavy and its feature set is flexible and deep. And even though it’s the easiest high-end multieffect to learn and use, if you’ve never experienced digital before, it can still be intimidating. We wanted a multieffect that was all-in-one, affordable, and portable — but required the absolute minimum effort.”
So rather than building every preset from nothing, Klein says that POD Go is as meat-and-potatoes as someone is going to find in the budget modeling space. Rather than incorporating power user features that, for 80-90% of the guitar playing public, end up getting in the way, the optimization and utility of POD Go is considerably more approachable.
"Plus, the big win is that it doesn't sound like a budget box — it sounds like Helix."
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For Line 6, the enduring goal is to create the very best tools for guitarists and bassists everywhere. But now that we’re in a world where Helix and a resurrected POD are attempting to co-exist in the same marketplace, the question for many is how to decide between the two.
“Seeing the POD line evolve to this point is just fantastic,” says Frank Ritchotte, Line 6 Senior Director of Operations. “But our products are designed for different customers with different needs.”
According to Ritchotte, POD Go is an entry-level product — but if and when a POD Go user is ready to graduate to HX or Helix, they’ll know exactly what they’re getting into since the UI, workflow and models will be much more familiar.
“For many years POD has represented innovation, creativity and amazing sound for guitar players," he says. "So it was important that this version respect all of the things that made POD a great product in the first place — while taking the modeling and creativity up to HX standards.”
For more info on Line 6, the HX family of products and POD Go, visit line6.com.