The right combination of guitar + pedals + amp = sonic glory.
In the 90s, I was OK loading my car with all the necessary gear to achieve tonal goodness. But, I was also a gigging musician in the NYC area where paid parking costs more than the gig pays, and the performing area is en route to the bathroom or kitchen. And after taking my Mesa Boogie Mark IV on the subway—once—I started looking for more portable solutions.
I live in South America today and have my fair share of fly dates, inconsistent backlines, and venues with amp-free stages. Also, voltage irregularities destroyed my beloved tube amps. So, I needed a practical solution.
We cannot compromise the guitar, but we can use amplifier simulators and FX modelers that all come neatly in one floorboard unit, a digital skateboard.
Can guitar + Headrush = tonal happiness? Let’s find out.
In this HeadRush Pedalboard review, I’ll guide you through the pros and cons of using the Headrush Pedalboard and Gigboard (yes, I own both) for live performances, band rehearsals, and studio dates. I’ll also cover the specs and features. So, grab a coffee, tea, or something more robust and read on.
Bottom Line Up Front
The Headrush is a guitar FX and amp modeler that comes in four sizes:
- The MX5 is compact and can fit into your guitar’s gig bag. It features 3 footswitches and a 4-inch touchscreen.
- The Gigboard has 4 footswitches and a 7-inch touchscreen.
- The Pedalboard houses 12 footswitches, an expression pedal, and all the necessary connectivity.
- The Prime was released as I was finalizing this article. This is the Headrush Pedalboard on steroids. It features guitar and vocal processing (and auto-tune), Bluetooth, wi-fi, and amp/effect cloning. It’s around the $1300 range.
These units are built tough and ready for the road. The Headrush is powered by Eleven® HD Expanded™ DSP software that sounds and feels good.
I’ve successfully used the Headrush for every sized gig you can imagine. From hotel lounges to open-air festivals to 2000-seat theaters and it’s done the job. And I love the simplicity of one-trip-from-the-car-to-the-stage load-in and two-cable setup.
My first gig with the Headrush was at a winery with a comfortable stage, a good sound system, and a great sound engineer. I used the Headrush FRFRs as my monitors and ran the pedalboard straight to the front of house (FOH). The band members were absolutely amazed at the clarity of the sound. I coolly puffed my chest and wore an I-sound-good-and-I know-it smile. But, inside, I was doing happy somersaults.
The Headrush is a practical solution for the gigging musician. When you consider the features, convenience, and sound, it’s a no-brainer. But, it’s not for everybody and there’s some uncertainty. Let’s find out if it’s for you.
What is the Headrush
The Headrush is an excellent amp modeler/multi-effects pedal amp that offers a truckload of effects and a smoking-hot touchscreen (my favorite feature). It also provides double duty as an audio interface.
I was an early adopter and have witnessed the consistent growth and steady addition of amp and FX models. As of this writing, the Headrush offers 33 amp models and 42 effects. It comes loaded with factory presets that I immediately dumped and replaced with the free artist packs.
The Pedalboard is powered by a quad-core processor and has the most connectivity. Its UI is also well thought out.
The amp and effects modeling is top-notch and easily tweakable via the touchscreen, and the pedalboard has all the routing necessary for any gigging situation. The routing options are more limited in the Gigboard and MX5 models.
Its quad-core processor-powered DSP platform is player friendly and fast. And, another favorite feature of mine is the reverb/delay “tails on/off” that allows for spillover between presets. I also invested in third-party impulse responses (IRs) that greatly impacted my sound. Lastly, there’s the looper that provides 20 minutes of recording time. There are probably a few more features for the deep-dive geeks, but I’m more of a plug-and-play nerd.
As I mentioned before, the Headrush’s best feature is the 7-inch touchscreen. And you can easily edit amps, effects, cab sims, etc., or create new rigs. There’s also a large knob you can dial with your foot, making it tweakable during a performance. Some players like using the knob with their foot, but I’m not one of them.
The Headrush Pedalboard reminds me much of Line 6’s Helix, the main competition I had in mind when I purchased the Headrush. There are 12 footswitches with ‘scribble strip’ LEDs showing each switch’s function, and you can customize the color LED for each and select the position and function of each footswitch.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of options available, and I certainly felt a sense of too-much-too-soon anxiety as I was test-driving the presets. So, I downloaded a couple of artist packs available through the Headrush website and dove in. BTW, Headrush uses the term “Rigs” for presets or patches.
There are a couple ways to call up sounds, and I found Stomp mode the easiest to start with. The two left-side footswitches allow you to scroll through and select Rigs, while the eight footswitches in the middle stomp effects on and off within the selected Rig.
In Rig mode, the left-side footswitches scroll through Rig banks while the eight middle footswitches allow you to select rigs.
How Does the Headrush Sound
The Headrush has been my first digital performing experience. I came from using tube amps with a few stompboxes where the hiss and hum of tubes and overdrive circuits are the norms. The Headrush was surprisingly quiet.
The clean amp sound is quite convincing. Not quite the real-amp experience, but I wonder if that’s due to the lack of air that a typical speaker cabinet pushes at performance volume.
The higher-gain rigs were also quiet, and changing the pedal order was realistic. My greatest worry was the fizzy and thin-sounding distortion of digital processors. The Headrush passed the test. So much so that I purchased the Gigboard as a backup. This has a smaller footprint and was perfect for my hotel and restaurant gigs.
How I Headrush
I use both the Pedalboard and Gigboard. I usually create and tweak rigs on the larger board and back up to my computer. I’ll then load the rigs to my Gigboard. That gives me one primary backup, and both boards have the same sounds.
My favorite experience was using the Pedalboard during a Tribute to the Music of Sting and the Police show with a 20-piece big band. I created a generic rig with my core tone for the gig, then duplicated it and tweaked it for each song.
I saved the rigs in the order of the setlist in a “setlist” folder in Headrush. I used Stomp Mode so that the left-side footswitches scroll from one rig (or song) to the next and used the Hardware Assign feature to save ‘scenes.’ Each ‘scene’ was either a song section like intro, verse, chorus, etc. or a generic description like ‘clean rhythm’ or ‘solo.’
The scene feature is handy for turning on and off multiple stomps between song sections. Instead of doing the multi-stomp tap dance from chorus to solo, I hit the ‘solo’ scene, and all the effects needed are turned on with one foot click. Then, when the solo ends, another foot click on ‘chorus,’ and we’re back in action.
For smaller venues and rehearsals, the Gigboard is more portable, but it has fewer connectivity options and only four footswitches. These limitations don’t bother me because I really want to have my sound without moving a ton of gear.
But I wouldn’t use the Headrush to record!
In a live situation where you’re dealing with many variables like audience noise, microphone bleed, glass and concrete surfaces, plus a thousand other possibilities, using the Headrush keeps your sound isolated and clean.
But, there is a natural warmth that is still missing from digital modelers that is apparent in the controlled studio recording environment. Digital modelers can’t take a snapshot of every possible configuration plus take into account how every effects modeler will interact with every amp simulator. I do realize that I’m splitting hairs here.
Digital modeling will get there soon. And I like the simplicity of tweaking a stomp box, and the sheer joy of an amp plugged into a 2 x 12 speaker cabinet pumping sound and air.
The direct competition of the Headrush is the Line 6 Helix ($1700) and Boss GT-1000 ($1200).
I was a Line 6 user for years but used the Line 6 products primarily for practice and teaching. I began experimenting with the Line 6 HD500 for live use. I trid the HD500 for hotels and restaurants and it worked great. But it didn’t do so well when I used it for theater and larger venues.
The sound quality would get thinner at higher volumes. I was impressed with the sound of the Line 6 Helix but chose the Headrush because of the UI and my previous experience with the Eleven® HD Expanded™ DSP software.
My experience with Boss multi-effects pedalboards could be improved. I’ve tried them many times but could never get good sounds. My friends get great sounds out of the Boss GT-1000, so it was mostly my limitations working through the UI.
The higher-priced competition is the Neural DSP Quad Cortex ($1850), the Kemper Profiler Stage ($1800), and the Fractal FM9 ($1600).
Although I’ve played through each of these units—and they all sounded great—I didn’t tweak any sounds or create patches. I’m just letting you know what’s out there, and if I have the opportunity to dive into these, you’ll be the first to know.
It’s important to note that many early adopters had issues with the pedalboard crashing. Many users complained that the pedal would get caught in a reboot cycle where the lights would flash, but the pedalboard would never load and start. I never had this problem, but I did worry whenever the pedalboard didn’t shut down properly.
I’m a member of a couple of Headrush Forums and the admin of the Headrush in Spanish Facebook Group. I’ve read about these issues and know about them. But I have yet to personally experience them.
Lastly, as of this writing, Sweetwater has discontinued the Headrush Pedalboard and Gigboard. There is no news regarding the future of the Headrush Pedalboard, Gigboard, and MX5 on the Headrush website, but those models will still be available.
The Official Headrush Facebook Group has hyped the release of Prime and Firmware Update to 2.6 for the Pedalboard, Gigboard, and MX5. But, the future of these models is still being determined.
Question: Can I use the Headrush with an amp?
Answer: Yes, you can. There are three basic methods:
• Stompbox: Plug your guitar into the ‘input’ of the Headrush and the Headrush’s ‘output’ into the amplifier’s ‘input’ jack. Just ensure you bypass any amplifier or speaker cabinet simulators on the Headrush.
• As a Preamp: Plug your guitar into the ‘input’ of the Headrush and the Headrush’s ‘output’ into the amplifier’s ‘return’ jack. This will bypass the amplifier’s preamp section. You’ll then use the Headrush as a preamp and the amplifier’s power amp and speaker. Again, make sure that you bypass any amplifier or speaker cabinet simulators on the Headrush.
• The 4-Cable Method (4CM) allows you to plug the Headrush into the amps ‘input’ and ‘effects loop’ sections simultaneously. You can also use additional pedals and your amplifier simultaneously.
Question: Can I use the Headrush with pedals?
Answer: Yes, you can. In addition to the 4-Cable Method, the Headrush allows you to select an ‘FX Loop’ stompbox in the signal chain and connect to the effects loop ‘send and return’ section. This will enable you to plug a pedal or pedals into the effects loop section of the Headrush and place them anywhere in the signal flow.
Question: Can I use the Headrush directly to a PA?
Answer: Yes, you can. Send the signal from the main outputs of the Headrush Pedalboard to the PA or the front-of-house (FOH) monitors. You won’t need a direct box. And this is how I use it most of the time.
We really do live in a glorious time. Many of our heroes had only a one-channel amp and needed to coax the sounds they heard in their heads out of a guitar and an amp. Today, if you have a computer and are a musician, you probably have a home studio. And this also gives you access to the sounds of dozens of amps and a hoard of effects.
I’m a fan of the convenience of trucking numerous amp setups with stomp-like effects in one trip from the car to the stage. And that includes the Headrush on one shoulder and the guitar in a gig bag over the other. These are the times that we live in.
My Headrush solves many problems and provides me with a consistent setup for live venues. Also, the sound engineer feeds me two XLR connections, and I’m in stereo, set up, and ready to go in minutes. The sounds are fantastic and perfect for any gigging situation.
But, is it the most powerful guitar FX and amp modeler ever? This is from the company’s website. And the answer is no. It’s a great piece of gear and I’m a fan (and user) of the product. But, there’s too much competition.
Most multi-effects pedalboards in this price range provide similar sound quality and features. But the layout and user experience made me choose the Headrush. I love the touchscreen and using knobs to dial in my tone.
If you’re looking for a multi-effects pedalboard, check out the Headrush Prime. Headrush had a lot of issues and bad press regarding the Pedalboard crashes.
They’ll probably ghost all the queries and continue pushing their new flagship product.
For now, I’m happy with the Pedalboard and Gigboard. If I move to a Prime board, I’ll let you know. Thanks for reading.
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