From the Ground Up: An Interview with Line 6's Brandon Frenzel
Brandon Frenzel lives in two worlds.
On the one side, he’s a Line 6 Product Owner, which means that he’s ultimately responsible for delivering quality products to the marketplace.
“I think it’s a lot like an entrepreneurship role,” he says of the title. “We come up with an idea, get reactions from customers and then company funds us to build it and prove it out.”
The cycle begins with Brandon (and those like him) identifying needs and opportunities in the marketplace and existing Line 6 product lineup, and then leading the Line 6 development team to craft new product concepts before assisting the marketing team with the eventual launch.
“As Product Owners we are involved in every aspect of the process, from the initial concept to the product making its way into the customer’s hands — and afterwards making sure they love it the way that we intended.”
To date, Brandon has overseen products like Line 6’s Spider V series of amps and Helix Native. He also assisted previously as a UX/UI designer on various software tools, including Variax Workbench HD, Firehawk Remote, AMPLIFi Remote, Mobile POD and the Line 6 Updater.
“Occasionally I also get to draw icons of gear for the HX Edit software,” he says, drawing back to his pre-Line 6 days as a graphic designer for print publications and flash programmer for websites.
“Remember Flash?” he jokes.
On the other side though, he has think, act and plan like one of his customers — which brings us to his most recent project: PowerCab.
“We had been thinking about the idea of some kind of FRFR system for a few years, and it took a while before we not only understood what our customers were really asking for, but also how we could bring something unique to the table,” he says.
Including the customer is one of the core tenets in how Line 6 has reshaped their development process. Crowdsourcing ideas for the company’s newest products from its user base using cloud-based innovation management tools like Ideascale not only assists them in validating — or invalidating, in some cases — their own instincts, but also helps “read the minds” of the end user, Brandon says.
“The first thing we look at is our Ideascale page, but we also check out forums and Facebook user groups, just to distill the needs out of the general trends going on there. Then, once we have a prototype or a proof-of-concept, we invite some in to take a look or listen to what we’ve done.”
This user-focused process achieves two goals, Brandon says. First: Line 6 can learn whether or not they like a product — and hopefully they do. But second, and more importantly, it also serves the purpose of dialing in what they don’t like.
“We try to catch the negative things early and make it even better. It’s a fail-fast type thing — until you don’t. This happens usually two or three times before the product is ready for primetime.”
As important as the customer voice is to Line 6 though, there was an internal voice driving much of the early refinement process on PowerCab.
"Our biggest challenge was that we wanted to prove that we could bring that tube amp 'grin factor' to guitarists — specifically those using Helix who were not satisfied with the feeling of playing it through PA speakers."
Brandon explains that the ‘grin factor’ idea was something that sprung out of early prototype testing inside the Yamaha Guitar Group. There was a specific marketing manager who was ‘never really into the whole FRFR thing.’ The whole FRFR thing, of course, referring to full frequency flat response speakers — a current trend in the gear landscape of using non-guitar speakers to deliver audio signals across a wider frequency range for the purpose of clarity.
“When you plug into a great guitar amp and it just sounds and feels right from the start, you simply start grinning from ear to ear,” he says. “So we made it our goal to make that marketing manager grin in just that way. We thought that if were able to achieve the ‘grin factor’ with him, we would know we were on the right track in developing our speaker modeling process.”
Speaker modeling is where the PowerCab breaks the mold of typical FRFR guitar cabs.
FRFR technology and old-school guitar speakers each bring a list of pros and cons, Brandon says, but for those on the traditional side of the argument, there are ample choices of speaker variety — and each with a considerable fan following.
“I knew that some guitarists would say, ‘Oh, I want a Vintage 30’ or all kinds of esoteric choices,” Brandon says. “And they are valid reasons for those choices, so the big idea for PowerCab was to see if we could offer both. To simultaneously leverage our modeling chops and give guitarists a choice of not only full range, flat response, but also make it easy to virtually swap out the speaker, so they don’t have to.”
Eventually, after lots of testing, they tested it out.
“We lined up a few amplifiers with the exact speaker side by side with Powercab and ran a few blind tests. When we had trouble hearing or feeling a difference between them, we knew we nailed it.”
Grin factor, delivered. But the process wasn’t without failure-induced change.
Brandon says that Line 6 has a tendency to over-design things; to include lots of features, screens, knobs and things like that. But they purposefully went a different direction with PowerCab.
“Customers told us they wanted it to be in a guitar cabinet, which seems easy. Spoiler alert — it’s not. But when we interviewed them they also said they were using tube amps on stage, even with PODs and Helix,” Brandon says. “So we actually stripped down the concept to the core features for the PowerCab so that it would still be different than other competing products, be easier to understand and use, but also be relatively affordable.”
To deliver on quality and affordability, PowerCab features a curved plywood design that’s sturdy, relatively lightweight and maintains a high quality build.
“Oftentimes we like to push the envelope and it was worthwhile for us to allow our customers to reign us back in on things like aesthetics and form factor. We had some funky shapes early on and met with customers at several steps through the project to show them how it was coming along. They ended up preferring the more traditional designs because they were more familiar. That resulted in big changes early on, and fine-tuned changes later.”
Brandon says that, from the outset, the goal for PowerCab was to create the ideal active speaker system for Line 6’s flagship product, the Helix, and for it to be adopted widely because the public demanded it. Over the course of the project, that goal stayed mostly the same, but along the way he decided it would be fun to turn some of the dyed-in-the-wool amp-in-the-room “cork sniffers” to Team Helix/PowerCab, too.
“The development of PowerCab means that if you were on the fence about getting into amp modeling and ditching your tube amp, now you’ve got a reason to pare down the amount of gear you need and have something that is not only flexible, but pragmatic and has a great look, feel and sound.”
According to Brandon, many Line 6-ers believe the future of guitar amps will become increasingly modular. Perhaps, he admits, it’s always been modular, but now certain parts exist in different places because it’s more convenient — and that’s where PowerCab comes in.
“I hate the term ‘game changer,’ but modeling only the transducer itself — aside from the traditional IR approach — is a brand new approach and can be better in certain ways,” he says. “We believe the result here is greater than just the sum of the parts, and it’s designed that way from the ground up — not a rebranded PA speaker.”
Q&A w/ Brandon Frenzel:
In your own words, what is the PowerCab?
Brandon: PowerCab is the ideal active guitar speaker system for modelers and profilers. It can give you a full range, flat response for plug and play. Or, if you like the sound of particular guitar speakers and the amp-in-the-room feeling, you can have that, too — so the choice is yours. It also looks respectably like guitar gear and isn’t like carrying an anvil to a gig.
What does the PowerCab mean for you on a personal level?
Brandon: Personally, I’ve been using a Bass POD Xt for over a decade — and almost always with a rack amp and big cabinet. I play metal, so that’s what I thought I needed. After doing a fair amount of touring, it got old pretty quick — and impossible overseas — so I was able to switch to a Helix and L3m. I never could go the route of just using the PA because I needed something on stage moving air in the backline. Now that I’m playing more guitar, I needed the convenience of a lightweight simple powered speaker so I could go to a jam with my brother, who is a very loud drummer. I wanted to be able to load in and out of a gig comfortably in one-trip and sound great. Now I’m satisfied.
Plus, we have a monthly jam here at Line 6 where we all get together and play some tunes, and our stage was really lacking a backline.
So what’s the best way to play the PowerCab?
Brandon: Play it loud! It’s a great experience in my personal opinion, but the PowerCab can serve bedroom players as well. FRFR actually tends to be a better experience for me at bedroom levels because it’s a fuller sound. At higher volumes though, or when I’m playing with a group, I actually like the amp-in-the-room sound a bit more, so I can cut through and hear myself.
It breaks up like a guitar speaker, but handles almost 3-4 times the wattage, so the louder you can play it, the better. Also running two of them in stereo can really get this full otherworldly sound with your effects.
Last Question: What do you do when you're not designing new products?
Brandon: I’m an avid craft beer snob, particularly for sours and IPAs, and got into homebrewing from other co-workers at Line 6, which is a fun hobby when I have time for it. I enjoy snowboarding in the winter and recently gave surfing a try. I’ve also been really into PC gaming since I was a child, which gave me an early interest in all things tech. However, in my obsession with Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds, I have only gotten a chicken dinner twice.
In my spare time I take care of my Dad who has Alzheimer’s and work on fixing up his house. I’m getting married soon, too, so I’ve got a pretty full plate going on most days.
To learn more about Powercab, go to line6.com/powercab
Note: This interview originally appeared in Distortion LTD