And now for something completely different...

Line 6 M5 Stompbox Modeler


The M5 is the most compact member of Line 6's "M" family of floor-based multi-effect processors.

These processors collect together the effects from Line 6's MM4 Modulation, DL4 Delay, FM4 Filter and DM4 Distortion modelling pedals, along with the 11 reverb types from the Verbzilla pedal (from Line 6's compact ToneCore series) AND there are several new additions too.

The M5, M9 and M13 differ in several ways (e.g. number of presets), but the primary practical difference is in the number of effects that can be used simultaneously; the M5 allows only one effect at a time, the M9 allows three and the M13 allows four. As such, the larger M9 and M13 could potentially become the basis of a pedalboard for many musicians - I have seen plenty of guitarists using an M9/13 for ALL of their modulation, delay and reverb effects for instance, and just adding one or two standalone overdrive/distortion/fuzz pedals to complete their sonic arsenal.

The M5 on the other hand, is more likely to be used as a 'gap filler'. For someone that already has their main effects established, only occasionally needing to use a certain type effect but not wanting to buy dedicated pedals, the M5 is, on paper, a great solution.

The quality of effects on offer is very wide; some are terrible while others are very, very good.

DISTORTION & FILTERS

There has long been a mass perception that digital distortion is bad and should be avoided at all costs. I don't necessarily agree, as I have used some excellent digital distortion effects (inc. racks and plugins) in my time. I will always argue that there are good and bad digital distortion units, just as there are with their analogue counterparts. However, Line 6 are not going to change many minds here as this is the weakest area of the M-series - by a distance.

In order to make full use of the 5 control knobs, Line 6 have added extra controls to the pedals that are being modelled. My opinion is that this is to the detriment of the authenticity of many of the models. A big part of the sound of an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff or ProCo RAT for instance, is in the way their single tone (or filter) control affects the overall voicing. So, by replacing this with a 3-band EQ section, some of the original character is lost. While the RAT distortion is still recognisable, it takes a bit of tweaking (and it takes even more work with the Big Muff model) to make it really sound like the genuine article. But even then, it is still just a pale imitation of the real thing. Shame.

The one saving grace is the Line 6 Drive patch, which was inspired by the Colorsound Tonebender. It actually sounds pretty good!

While Line 6 chose to add mix controls to many of the patches that don't benefit from it (e.g. tremolo), I think the fact that they didn't add mix controls to any of the distortion or compressor patches is an opportunity missed.

The wah patches are generally good and perfectly usable, but I am largely underwhelmed by most of the envelope filters. This goes against what I had heard previously from other users, but perhaps I have been spoiled by using excellent 'real' filter pedals - such as an Ibanez AF9 Auto Filter and Electro-Harmonix Micro Synthesizer- so am expecting too much. The synth effects on offer are of a high standard, are loads of fun to mess around with, but may have limited appeal depending on the style of music you play.

MODULATION

This is the strongest area of the M5 for me: there are no real let downs* in the patches in this section; all are adequate at the very least, and some of them are truly excellent. Highlights are the Opto and Sequenced Tremolo patches, the Panner, Pitch Vibrato (based on the Boss VB-2) and Dimension (based on the Roland Dimension D rack unit, which was the predecessor of the DC-2 pedal).

* The Analog Chorus patch, based on the legendary Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble is almost an exception. It is by no means a weak effect, but it is a long way from emulating a CE-1's chorusing - the vibrato mode is much closer. Actually, it wasn't until I consulted the model list that I even knew it was supposed to be a CE-1 emulation!

Some of the more out there patches, such as the Ring Modulator are really good too. It's no match for a Moog Ring Modulator, but it gets the job done and lets face it, for many people ring modulation is something that is used sparingly (if at all!) so you may not want to invest in a dedicated pedal.

The Sequenced Tremolo patch (inspired by the Lightfoot Labs Goatkeeper) is a lot of fun to use. Regular readers will be aware that I am a big tremolo fan, so it won't come as a surprise that I choose this as one of the stand-out patches. My only reservation is down to the limited control set.

Whereas many of the distortion models suffer by gaining extra controls, Line 6's developers had to strip some of the options in this case, so you are stuck with a square wave tremolo only, which is fixed at its maximum depth. This produces the most dramatic effect (so will sound the most impressive when auditioning effects) but I have a nagging feeling that it could get old fast. It could be the kind of thing you can only get away with using in one song - any more than that and it will become repetitive and maybe even gimmicky.

REVERB & DELAY

This is another area where the M-series performs well. Considering the price of many multi-mode delay and reverb pedals, I wouldn't be surprised to see people using an M5 and dedicating it to one of those tasks. While I'm not a big user of delay effects, I'd say that there are enough options here to satisfy all but the most fussy of people - the kind of person that won't even entertain the thought of using anything less than an Echoplex or Space Echo, for instance!

The reverbs too are of a good quality; they are (as I mentioned earlier) taken from the Verbzilla pedal - which has been held in high regard since its release - so there are no surprises here. While I still prefer the Tech 21 Boost RVB for everyday use (it is the 'best' reverb pedal I've used to date, for my taste), I believe that the M-reverbs have much to offer and will please many.

Express yourself

For anyone purchasing an M-series effect unit, I wholeheartedly recommend the acquisition of an expression pedal to squeeze all of the performance potential out of many of the unit. It is obviously a necessity if you want to use any of the wah patches in the traditional way, but any - or ALL - of the parameters from any patch can be mapped to the expression pedal; allowing as much real-time control of an effect as you want...

From simple things like allowing foot control of a vibrato's depth, to more complex set ups where the expression pedal adjusts the relationship of multiple parameters at once. Imagine  having a chorus patch that transitions from slow and deep to fast and shallow... Or having a soft, shallow, slow tremolo, which gets faster, deeper and transforms into a stuttering square wave trem when you push the expression pedal forward... Or having one of the modulated delay patches set so it is a subtle chorus with the expression pedal rocked back, but the delay time, feedback and modulation rate all  increase as you rock the pedal forwards - creating a swirling mass of sound...

The combinations are endless.

CONCLUSION, OR CONFUSION?

While the Line 6 M5 has plenty of good sounding effects - most of which are perfectly usable - and some which are excellent, there is no way it is going to replace the likes of a real Boss CE-1. If anything, the best effect models make me want to go out and buy the originals!

I can definitely appreciate what people like about the M-series and why it is a sensible choice for many. I would also expect nearly everyone who uses an M5 - even the most ardent of digital sceptics - to find at least a handful of patches that they like. And that would more than justify the rather modest outlay.


On a cautionary note, if the M5 seems like an attractive proposition to you, I'd suggest that you think very carefully about it... Not because you will regret buying it, but because it is very possible that you may wish you had bought an M9/M13 instead. The ability to run multiple simultaneous effects (which can even be synchronised in the case of time based effects) could be a big advantage over the M5 (depending on your needs).