Well, after well over 40 hours of experimenting, I've returned the Helix to Guitar City for a refund.
I've written here a lot about what I found with this device, so I'm not going to summarize. OK, I will...first, this device is a technical masterpiece; the connectivity is awesome, the UI is phenomenal, etc… I don't have a single thing bad to say about the device in that regard. If I was a gigging musician, I'd go with this instead of my large pedal board. If I was starting out in ambient music from scratch, I'd go with this instead of the pedal board. But I'm neither.
Bottom line, I just couldn't get sounds that I really loved. The dirt/rock/crunch/etc…. All those sounds are awesome. The ambient sounds? I dunno.
After literally a month of every day experimenting, I decided today would be the shootout. I recorded 3 (ambient style) loops on my Boss RC-300 looper: 1) Swelled chords, 2) a drone, 3) A single note line. After finding what I felt was the best sound for each on the Helix, I recorded them each on a separate track in my DAW (Reaper). Then I played the 3 loops into my pedal board and recorded 3 separate tracks through the pedals (Strymon OB.1 compressor, Strymon Sunset Dual Overdrive, Strymon Mobius, Strymon El Capistan, Strymon Dig). I used equivalent pedals/blocks in both of the “Pedal” vs “Helix” signal chains, trying to get them to be as identical as I could, (e.g. Hall Reverb on both, with 8 second decay, etc.)
Then I sat comparing: chords Helix vs chords Pedal….. single note Helix vs single not Pedal….. To me, and again, I have 67 year old ears, I know what I like, etc….. To me, I preferred the Strymons, enough so that I just packed up the Helix and took it back.
Now I'm not saying that you can't make great ambient sounds with the Helix; because I don't know. Frankly, there are SO MANY different choices, that in no way did I exercise every amp, cab, amp/cab in combination with all the choices of effects. Not to mention dialing-in every effect and really learning all those parameters. But I couldn't get sounds I loved. And I had real trouble with a low end rumble and boominess that I spent a lot of time EQ'ing out in the DAW, and just didn't like the result of all that EQ.
Now I have a lot of respect for Graham (at ambientonline.org); he makes great music and he knows a lot of stuff. The fact that he loves the Helix just goes to show that it's not a cut-and-dried thing. I'm sure he'll produce awesome music with it and make me second-guess. I loved his Christmas tune he did through the Helix.
I did decide early on that I'd either go “all the way with the Helix”, or “all the way with pedals”. Wasn't going to hang a few pedals off the Helix. I saw a great ambient demo of the Helix, but he was using the BigSky to get his huge wash-y sound. I can't see the point in that for me.
Anyhow, as Forest Gump said, “that's my story and I'm stickin' to it!”