So after about 10 days with the Helix:
The BIG DECISION is: "Do I keep the Helix, or return it and go back to my 10-pedal Strymon heavy board". Another decision is, suppose I keep the Helix; what pedals are "must-haves" that I'll run out of the (4) effects loops on the Helix. Now I can't keep a whole lot of pedals; if I did, why bother with the Helix at all? So at this point, how many pedals must I keep?
1) About every other day I change my mind on the BIG DECISION. After watching too many Helix videos, and hours of experimenting, I'm thinking "keep it."
3) I've spent probably 10 hours just listening to the various blocks while running 3 types of loops from my Boss RC-300 looper, 1) swelled chord changes, 2) a drone, 3) a swelled lead line. Blocks are e.g. 50 amp blocks, 15 delay blocks, 12 reverb blocks, etc.
4) The basic blocks (pedals) conclusions as related to keeping the current board:
Compression: I can live with the supplied blocks. I like my Strymon OB.1 better, but it's not a show stopper. There are a couple of very mellow compression effects that I like.
Distortion: OK, most of the effect here are for rockers, metal, cover. 98%. This is a challenge to me. I did find a few "mellow" distortion effect and I can live with them. Are they as nice as the Strymon Sunset's creamy, smooth, lovely, thick distortion? Take a guess. (No.)
Modulation: I really only use Chorus,Vibrato, Tremolo. All the other stuff on the Strymon Mobius I can live without. The Helix has pretty good modulation effects. Actually very good. This is a plus.
EQ: I don't have anything like this on my board, and the Helix has effective, good choices, so this is a plus. I like being able to dial-out the boomy bass before I get into the DAW. Big plus.
Built in looper: OK, this is a plus. It can "stamp" the effects on the loop, or record the dry loop. It can be anywhere in the chain which is really nice. Has reverse and 1/2 speed and overdubs. Plus.
Foot pedal onboard; nice, haven't used it as I like my Boss volume pedal. To be decided later.
Amps/cabs: Whoa, these are really great. Tons of them, too many of course, but I've found at least 3 that are real nice, clean, good for ambient. And I haven't downloaded any Ownhammer IR's yet, which should really improve this sound. This is a super plus. Otherwise, I'd be looking at an Avid Eleven Rack or something to give me the amp/cab sound. Haven't been able to get a good amp/cab sound from Reaper, and anyhow, I want the sound "live" not on my DAW. Amps/cabs: BIG plus.
Pitch-Shift: the Helix has pitch-shifters at least as good as (or better) than my Pitch-Fork. This is a plus for the Helix.
Delays: OK, here's where the rubber hits the road as delay/reverb are really the bread-and-butter of ambient guitar (at least my ambient guitar.) Again, I'd say the delays were primarily built for rockers, but, well, there's a lot of good stuff in here. There are a few, (Ping Pong, Sweep Echo, Reverse, Vintage Swell, Tape, Adriatic Delay, Adriatic Swell, Cosmos Echo), that are very useful for ambient. I'd say it's a full set of ambient delays. Now, compared to the Strymons I own, (El Cap, Dig, Timeline), how do they stack up? Well, to be fair, those 3 Strymons costed me $1,000, so I can't expect parity. They don't have that crystal, pure, organic sound that Strymon is know for. Are they terrible? No way, they are very, very good. I let go of a Carbon Copy because it didn't stand up to the Strymons; I was being very picky. Well, this is a similar deal. But you have to look at the overall picture. The Helix has 19 delay effects, all with adjustable parameters, all of "very good" caliber. So this is acceptable overall I think. Keep the Timeline, too?
Reverbs: Same argument as for delays. Not as good as Strymon's BigSky, but right up there with the Boss RV-6's of the world (which I also sold because it wasn't "as good as Strymon".) There are 12 reverbs available. Some, (like: Octo (shimmer), Cave, Particle Verb,) are particularly good for ambient. Onboard reverbs are fine. Keep the BigSky, too?
Now the UI on this thing is phenomenally good. And in looking at the Fractal AX8 reviews, I concluded that the effects on the AX8 may be better than the Helix, but it assumes you'll be doing all your setup and tweaking on the PC software, so they provided only a small screen on the AX8 itself, and the navigation seems clunkier. This is a big deal for me; I can't stand clunky, and I want to sit in my work area with guitar in hand making setting changes on the fly, not in front of my computer. So I'm not going to try out the AX8. I assume the "better effects" are marginal anyway. Whatever.
So the Helix has great ease of use, e.g.: recalling and storing presets; having 8 "snapshots" within each preset; a full-screen tuner (really nice); a vast list of back panel connection options; a big volume-out knob; headphone out with volume; ability to move the external looper to anywhere in the chain in 2 seconds (no cables to change); and more. This makes it a serious partner in creating and playing ambient music.
Can I envision performing with this? Absolutely, and much easier than punching switches on my pedal board; way easier. Not to mention transport.
Will the sounds "inspire" me the way my pedalboard does? I think so, especially with the Timeline and Bigsky. Can it do so without those two? Dunno yet.
I'm just getting below the surface now with the Helix. I just ripped up my pedalboard and took off the Timeline and Bigsky and I'm going to spend a week with my rig now being the Helix plus:
External volume pedal; external Boss looper; external Timeline; external Bigsky. That's it.