ABSOLUTE TWANG BUILT IN AGOURA.
AGOURA HILLS - Many guitarists brag of making their six strings talk; Line 6 wants to make the axes speak in tongues.
Known as a rising force in the music business for its guitar amplifiers and studio products, the electronics developer is poised to tackle the instrument itself. Its new Variax guitar, introduced at the National Association of Music Merchants' trade show last month, digitally alters the sound of a plucked string to simulate more than two dozen guitars, banjos and sitars. With the flick of a switch, the instrument shifts tones from a screaming Fender Stratocaster to a 50-year-old acoustic Martin, reproducing each tone with remarkable clarity.
``We sought out the great sounding devices and modeled them so the masses can afford the sounds,'' company founder and chief product strategist Marcus Ryle said. ``There will always be the purists who love the old technology, and if you can afford it, you should certainly buy it. But you might not want to take it on the road. ...''
Ryle's latest offering won't be cheap, with a sticker price of $999 when it hits stores this fall, but considering the alternatives, it's not so bad. Classic Gibson Les Paul guitars can easily run in the $4,000 range alone, making the Variax a more budget-friendly and versatile alternative.
``It feels pretty nice, but you won't get the hard-core buffs to drop their Les Pauls and say, Oh, this sounds just like it,'' said Jimmy Leslie, editor of Gig Magazine. ``But for a younger generation that doesn't have the same attachments, it could become a new standard.''
Line 6 occupies an odd spot in the tech world, embraced both by the creative and business communities. In its lobby, Inc. 500 fastest growing companies and Deloitte & Touche Fast 50 awards sit alongside autographed pictures of Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and framed Aerosmith posters. It's grown from 16 employees at its founding to 200 today. Its amps and processors, manufactured in Woodland Hills, brought in $38.9 million last year, up sharply from $1.5 million in its nascent days in 1995. Still, it retains the freewheeling spirit of the early days, with a lunch room that doubles as a jam stage. Though the hard numbers don't mesh with the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, this odd dichotomy mirrors the dual interests of its executives.
Mike Muench, chief executive officer and president put in his time at both IBM and Apple before joining up with Line 6, while moonlighting on keyboards and horns in Tower of Power cover bands.
``I was wearing the white shirt by day, playing the clubs at night,'' he said. ``I wanted to find a way to mix technology and music.''
With Line 6, the green-shirted, relaxed Muench does just that. With the Variax, as well as all of the firm's amps and processors, computers take care of the work once handled by vacuum tubes and electrical coils. Rather than merely sampling the sound of a Marshall stack of amps or the rich wash of a Dobro's rasp, the processors mimic all the various ways in which the tones can be manipulated, providing a near-facsimile of the original sound.
``One thing Line 6 has done is they put so much into the ease of operation, it belies the amount of technical wizardry behind it,'' said Barry Rudolph, a North Hollywood recording engineer and music journalist. ``They've reduced a whole bunch of technical stuff into a few easy controls.''
The guitars have indeed been engineered with extreme precision, down to the way they hang from a strap when unsupported. Though old time rockers may raise eyebrows at the bodies bereft of magnetic pickups - digital pickups in the bridge measure all vibrations - the guitars are designed to be accessible to both the novice picker and techno geek alike.
Even the designers had their doubts about the viability of creating the many voiced-ax, but the finished product speaks for itself.
``The technological process doesn't get in the way,'' said Dan Cohen, who helps design and demonstrate the instruments. ``Everyone who's involved in the design, even the most serious code writers, they're all players. It's my job to be the skeptical guy, but I get proven wrong a lot around here.''
Mike Muench, left, president and CEO of Line 6, jams with founder Marcus Ryle at the company's facility in Agoura.
Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer