Line 6 DL4
It’s not often you’ll see me wax poetic on a piece of gear still being made, but hear me out. It redefined an entire genre and rewrote the way musicians play with gear. And one of our era’s kings of pedal design had his mitts all over it; one Jeorge Tripps of Way Huge. However, this was not a Way Huge pedal. This is the Line 6 DL4.
For the handful of those not in the loop (heh), the DL4 is a delay pedal, with some extras, one of which just happened to change the effects game forever. The entire XX4 line was meant to be one in Line 6’s long line of modeling devices, and as such each pedal bore some semi-vague descriptive class of circuit, followed by the word “modeler.” Apart from the delay joint, there was a Modulation Modeler, a Filter Modeler, a Distortion Modeler and an Amp Modeler. The latter is no longer made, but the rest are still going strong, with another added, the JM4. All pedals are good to great in their own right.
Now that you’re up to speed, the DL4 is quite possibly one of the most widely-used pedals put to record. It was released in 1999, and if you listened to almost any rock record in the ‘00s, the DL4 is ingrained into your data banks. And while it’s easy enough to detect as a delay effect, chances are you’ve hummed entire passages powered by the DL4’s looper mode. That mode allows the player to manipulate the structure of the notes played as they see fit and at a multitude of speeds. Basically, if you’ve been agog at a seemingly impossible lick, wild arrangement or super-clean glitchiness in that decade, this is exactly what I’m talking about.
By the time the DL4 was released, every big name in the effects game was engaged in a contest to see how many effects they could cram into one box. The DL4 wasn’t released to compete with those, but to provide a completely different way for a musician to think intuitively about the gear they were using—acting and reacting, rather than just acting.
Personally speaking, that decade was my golden era in the city of Portland. I had just moved here, I played in a handful of bands and I was going to shows several times a week. There were a handful of clubs and sweaty, drywall-optional basements who had me as a loyal client; I would go to each and every show they put on. And with as many bands as I saw, and for as many pedalboards I ogled, this was the first time I can remember seeing multiples of the same pedal. At one show, Thunderbirds are Now! opened for These Arms are Snakes and Minus the Bear on the Menos El Oso tour. I remember it well because the Hawthorne Theater hadn’t opened yet and somehow, someone convinced them to host this show—a secret—a few weeks prior to opening. There were stepladders and drop cloths everywhere. When Minus the Bear came on, I was right up front (admittedly for These Arms are Snakes) and guitarist Dave Knudson walked onstage, dropped his pedalboard and went to work. On it were four DL4s.
One of my favorite Minus the Bear songs is “the Fix,” and this was the song Knudson was tinkering with. The DL4’s looper mode and interface allows players to record a loop, then recall it with the stomp of a switch. This mode is called “Play Once,” and it spits out whatever is stored just one time. If you hit the switch again while that loop is playing, it starts over. You can pre-load the DL4 by muting the signal after the DL4, then recording into it. You can record a whole riff, or just parts of one, then use Play Once to fill in the cracks. You can use the looper as a free-running sound-on-sound mode, or play loops back at half speed or in reverse. In short, the DL4 gave live musicians a serious taste of a full recording and editing rig at their feet.
Not only did the DL4 inspire a generation of artists, it fueled one of the great DIY booms as well. Sad to say, the DL4 wasn’t built outright for tap dancing, and they began to garner a reputation as invaluable, yet unreliable performance tools. Bands with the means hoarded them. Some bands went on tour with ten or more, and any indie rock band that toured in the ‘00s likely has one or more broken units at their practice space. You could find them at every Guitar Center in the world, and so bigger touring bands needed to look no further. For some bands, having a stable of them is a necessary tour budget. If your band didn’t tour primarily in cities with big-box music stores though, being able to fix your broken devices became a valuable skill.
It seems like back then, nobody actually fixed their own pedals, but everyone seemed to know a guy that did. For many musicians in the Portland area, that person was me. But once people started delving into the DL4 to replace the flimsy switches, they started working out more and more mods, letting players access another preset bank, glitch up the delay path or jump right to the looper mode without having to bend down and turn the knob. Soon, players had the ability to buy these options a la carte, and the DIY community thrived.
Even to this day, players covet the simplicity and streamlined feature set of the DL4, passing the lore down to the next crop of rock musicians. Even if it’s still being manufactured, if a generational piece of equipment doesn’t belong in the cabinet, what does?