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http://lamkins-guitar.com/music/article/eleven-rack
David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: Avid, amplifiers, effects, review, @gear info
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Avid Eleven Rack

Both of the big local shops have had 11Rs on display since they first started shipping. I've been very deliberately walking past them. I really didn't need another modeler.

Someone over on TGP posted a description in a comparison between the Axe-FX and the 11R, saying (among other things) something along the lines of "if you think great guitar tone starts with EVH, consider the Axe-FX; otherwise consider the 11R". Well, I've never heard that particular dichotomy expressed before (and the poster has since weakened his assertion), but it caught my attention. I'm definitely a pre-EVH kind of guy.

So - ignoring the probably-false dichotomy - I spent a couple hours playing with an 11R at the store down the street from my house. And then went back the next day and spent another hour. And then asked the manager to put together a good deal on an 11R and a rack bag...

First impression

Here's my earliest impression. I'll probably have more to say after I use the 11R at a couple of rehearsals.

The 11R's `59 Deluxe emulation alone is worth the cost of admission. It's as good as any of the vintage or repro 5C3, 5D3 or 5E3 amps I've played. These amps, for me at least, are the holy grail of touch-responsive amps. The tone and volume controls interact just like on the real amps, too.

I didn't give the other models much of an audition. Frankly, I could build my entire sound around the `59 Deluxe model. (In fact I've done exactly that, so far.) The `64 Blackface Deluxe and the `66 Vox AC30TB are pretty good, too.

The `59 Bassman and the `67 Twin models sound as I'd expect. I wouldn't build my sound around these models; I was never a fan of the real thing, either.

The effects are - for the most part - outstanding. There isn't a huge selection, but what's there will be very appealing to folks of "my vintage". Those of you who know me well know that I love tape echo and Leslie; the 11R's implementation of these is the best I've heard. The Big Muff Pi is also spot-on.

The spring reverb is - IMO - the sole weak link. It seems incapable of some of the overdriven sounds of a real Fender 3-knob reverb. In addition to all the classic effects, the studio reverbs are very nice with plenty of variety.

That True-Z thing is less gimmicky than the ad copy makes it seem. By default it'll load your guitar according to whatever device is at the head of the chain, but you can override that setting and run whatever load you'd like - from 1M down to 22K, with or without added (but unspecified) capacitance. Changing the True-Z setting really does some interesting things to the tone and feel of the guitar.

The UI is easy to learn. Not quite Digitech-simple, but close. I skimmed the manual before visiting the store, just enough so that I remembered the basic functionality. It only took a few minutes before I was navigating and building patches like a pro. The one thing I couldn't remember was how to navigate to the firmware revision screen. (I figured that out for the next visit: a long press of the edit button brings up a utilities menu.)

There are enough knobs to make the UI very convenient to use. You can scroll through all of the processing blocks' pages in order of their appearance in the signal chain or press and hold the button dedicated to any effect block in order to jump directly to its page(s). The knobs light up different colors to signify whether they're controlling an amp or an effect and whether the current setting differs from the setting stored in the patch.

Integration issues

The 11R plays an interesting role in the Avid strategy. It seems pretty clear that they want to use it to help drive Pro Tools sales (upgrades, anyhow). There's a lot of cool stuff that you can do with the 11R hooked up to Pro Tools on your computer - things that I'm not likely to find out about because I only want to use the 11R as a performance tool.

The Pro Tools integration leaves some vulnerabilities for people like me who would rather not use Pro Tools. AFAICT, for example, there's no way to back up patches w/o using Pro Tools. Yah, I thought about that before the purchase. The 11R is simple enough to program, and my use of patches so incredibly limited, that I made a conscious decision to simply rebuild my patches (all two or three of them) in the unlikely event that some unexpected event caused the loss of all of my programming. I build my patches by ear anyhow; it only takes me a few minutes to arrive at a patch I'm happy to use.

Not installing Pro Tools means that I can't use their computer-based editor. I can live with that. The UI is pretty good (as I noted earlier, nearly Digitech-simple) and having the 11R in a rack bag means I can put it up on something to give me ready access to the controls.

Hardware issues

Then there are the Amp outputs. These are on a separate (programmable) signal path from the XLR Main outputs. Avid seems to have reasoned that most people will use the 11R either in a studio situation where one amp output gets used for reamping or in a basic stage situation where that amp output drives some kind of guitar amp or powered cab as a stage monitor for the guitarist. I'm personally not thrilled with the notion of running a modeler through a guitar amp, but whatever... Avid didn't consider someone like me who'd run the XLRs to the PA and both amp outputs to a separate recorder. After all, why would they think of this? They're giving me Pro Tools... So they have a stereo feed to 1/4" jacks - one on the front panel; the other on the rear. It would have been nice to have a second Amp 1 jack on the rear panel next to the Amp 2 jack. But I'm picking at nits... that's the worst criticism I've been able to level against their hardware so far.

Comparisons

It's still pretty early, but I'm happy with the 11R so far. Like I said, I love the `59 Deluxe emulation. Is it "better" than my RP355? In the sense that the depth of touch-response is better and the - for lack of a better word - "swirl" of the harmonic evolution as the note decays is more complex than the RP355, yes it's better. The downside, if you want to put that improvement in the appropriate context, is that the 11R rig in it's bag is twice the size, at least twice the weight, and four times the cost of my RP355 rig in its bag. Time will tell whether I find that to be a worthwhile tradeoff.

How does the 11R compare to the Axe-FX? I honestly couldn't tell you. It has been a while since I've used an Axe-FX. What I will say is that I didn't find the immediate gratification in the Axe-FX that I found in the 11R. I was good to go - with an ear-to-ear grin, to boot - after fifteen minutes of setting up the 11R the very first time I sat in front of one. I never got anywhere near that level of satisfaction in my time in front of an Axe-FX. Again, this goes to "suitability for purpose". The Axe-FX simply didn't float my boat. In the sense that the 11R has met my needs better than the Axe-FX, sure... I think it's better: for me. But everyone really should make that call for themselves. Your mileage will almost certainly vary...

Bad experience with software installation

As I noted earlier, I have no interest in using Pro Tools (which comes with the 11R). However, it might have been nice to use the 11R as an audio/MIDI interface with other applications on my Mac. Avid's installer makes this seem like a possibility as it offers the option (during a custom install) to select just the Core Audio and MIDI components.

And the installer does install something when you try to do that...

But it doesn't work.

I first attempted to install of the Core Audio and MIDI components from the Pro Tools disc that came with my 11R. It turns out the version on the disc is incompatible with Snow Leopard, but the installer went ahead and put a bunch of useless files on my system anyhow.

After a bit of research I discovered a Core Audio installer that's supposed to be compatible with Snow Leopard. Indeed, I could then see the 11R in the Sound control panel, but couldn't actually send audio to the 11R. The Sound control panel indicated that it was "hearing" a signal from the 11R, but Garage Band (which I'm almost certain uses Core Audio) didn't recognize the interface.

At this point there was also an Eleven Rack preference pane in the System Preferences application. This showed the Eleven Rack as "not connected". Even though USB shouldn't depend upon sequencing of power and connection, I tried all combinations of sequencing and a selection of several USB cables, including the cable that comes with the 11R. At this point my confidence in the Avid software was almost at its lowest.

So, chalk that up as a failed experiment and another indication that Avid really wants you to install the full PT LE suite. (Although I'd be surprised if that is compatible with Snow Leopard, either; I noticed two PT LE updaters while I was trying to get the Core Audio stuff going...)

After a couple hours of futzing around with this junk software (as a long-time Mac user I have pretty close to zero tolerance for any application that doesn't "just work" right out of the box) I figured I should uninstall all the Avid drek littering my computer. Thanks to Time Machine I was able to find a ton of stuff in the Library folder - all manner of system extensions and background applications. The Core Audio support could have been very simple, but Avid saw fit to also install PACE anti-piracy tools (note to Avid: really... for a driver?) and lots of other unrelated software, including software for other Avid hardware. Geeze, what a mess...

Oh, ... on top of all of the above nonsense, the second Avid installer somehow managed to clobber all of my file icons. I got that sorted out, too. I'm still scratching my head over how their installer managed to cause that kind of damage, but it did.

So, read this as a cautionary tale. As I'm sure you know, DAW vendors tend to create software that plays poorly with the OS. I was hoping to avoid that problem by only installing a device driver, but Avid couldn't manage to get that right. Too bad...

You may have better luck on a Windows machine or by installing the Pro Tools suite in its entirety. I have to imagine that there'd be a huge stink if PT didn't work at all. But who knows...?

 {Avid Eleven Rack}
August 15 2010 21:14:18 GMT