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The lineage of Line 6

Paul Watson talks to Line 6's Marcus Ryle about 30 years of developing groundbreaking products.

This is Marcus Ryle of Line 6’s 30th year of developing products. Having started out designing synthesisers in 1980 for Oberheim Electronics, in 1985 he launched what would, in essence, become Line 6 as a design consulting company. “Our main aim was to harness technology to bring new capabilities to musicians and people in professional audio,” he says.

And indeed he did, having been involved in the development of a number of groundbreaking products including the Alesis Quadraverb and the entire ADAT line. ADAT, of course, transformed home and professional recording by suddenly making high-quality digital recording possible at an affordable price. Since those days, Line 6’s innovations in products for guitarists have been almost unprecedented; and now the company has turned its attention to wireless technology with the Frankfurt launch of the XD-V70 Digital Wireless Microphone system (shipping now, at just over £500).

How did you come up with the name Line 6?

“Our company at the time, Fast Forward Designs, had five phone lines and when we started the new brand, it was the sixth phone line – hence Line 6.

“It actually began as a code name, because we were developing our modelling technology and trying the first exploration of ‘could digital replicate what a tube amp does?’ and we wanted to keep this research a secret until we determined what to do. So when one of our clients came to visit, the receptionist would page one of us to say we had a call on line 6 and, since line 6 didn’t exist, we knew that meant ‘You need to shut off the amplifiers and behave for a little bit!”

So what do you think Line 6 represents now?

“Our focus has been on new technology to guitar players, and we’ve become the number one maker of guitar amplifiers in a short period of time, but what Line 6 truly represents is bringing groundbreaking technology to all musicians and audio professionals. As we enter the world of digital wireless, we’re doing that same thing.”

ADAT was certainly groundbreaking; what was the market reaction at the time?

“It was really very jarring and shocking for the industry. Not only was it a technology and price breakthrough that seemed too good to be true, it was coming from a brand that at the time was only known for doing reverbs and drum machines. But when people realised the capabilities, it became the bestseller of all time. What that brand represented is very relevant to what we’re doing today.”

So you’re ready to shock the industry again?

“We hope so. The basic fundamentals of analogue wireless are rooted in 50-year-old technology and it usually requires a technological breakthrough from a new company to really change the landscape of what’s possible.”

So, why the digital wireless market?

“Well, we weren’t arrogant enough to think we could go and become experts in the world of wireless and solve all these problems overnight, but we were very fortunate to meet up with the founders of the first digital wireless company – Xwire.

“In discussing the problems of wireless and the opportunity new technology can bring, plus Xwire’s understanding of Line 6 and our background in pioneering new technology, we decided we wanted to work together, so we acquired the company and developed this technology together. As a result, although this is a brand new wireless from Line 6, it’s actually fourth-generation technology: we’re bringing over a decade’s worth of expertise in wireless.”

When did you come up with the concept and how long have you spent on R&D?

“We first met Guy Coker, the principle of X2 (and the principle developer of Xwire), in 2007 and we acquired them in early 2008. We started distributing the X2 guitar wireless products in the US and then started development on this new platform.”

Sell the product to me…

“Well, it solves three key problems of analogue wireless. First, audio quality: analogue wireless, because of the limitations of FM and regulatory limits, has to use companding to squash the dynamic range down; it uses pre-emphasis/de-emphasis; it has a limited frequency response and you have to use squelch circuits to get rid of noise. Digital wireless removes all those limitations. We have a 120dB dynamic range, 10Hz to 20kHz flat frequency response and no companding or pre-emphasis/de-emphasis. We produce what we believe is truly a wire replacement; you can A-B our wireless system with a cable and not hear the difference.

“Second is the problem of radio spectrum [and how it is being sold off]. When the FCC in the US eliminated the 700MHz band, a whole slew of analogue wireless systems became illegal to even operate. That is an area that’s continuing to evolve and it’s not known how much more spectrum will be taken away.

“We solved that problem by operating in a licence-free 2.4GHz band, which wireless microphones don’t traditionally operate in. There’s no intelligence to analogue wireless; an analogue radio is going to pick up whatever is in that frequency. That’s why you hear interference and why you need a pure frequency band to work with. Digital wireless is encoded so that it can share the spectrum with other devices and know who’s supposed to talk to whom.

“Lastly is the issue of complexity. It’s complex because of audio limitations. You have to set up levels properly and trade off noise versus dynamic range versus distortion, and you’ve got to be well informed of your spectrum and know where your frequency bands are.”

So what’s the target market?

“Well, it won’t be for everyone, but for the majority of wireless users, we’ve found 12 channels is enough – and for productions that need more channels, one of the exciting things here is that this is 12 more channels that don’t interfere with any existing analogue wireless, so these can be your best audio channels and you can still use whatever analogue channels you still have spectrum available for.

“You can also daisy-chain antennas; you can have an antenna pair for all 12 channels. We have optional panel antennas both omni and directional so if your receivers are a long distance away from your transmitters, you can put up remote antennas, so you don’t need a separate distribution box. Battery life is visible on each receiver and you can name each transmitter.”

So what about the microphone itself?

“We’ve created models of some of six of the most popular microphones that can be selected directly from our microphone. The capsule itself is interchangeable with Shure, Audix and other brands that make wireless capsules.”

So how have you made it so affordable?

“Most analogue wireless companies are relatively new to digital technology, but we have a history of making high quality affordable. In addition, we don’t make analogue wireless systems, so we don’t have a separate business that we need to protect.”