Quad Cortex

Quad Cortex First Impressions

My Quad Cortex came in yesterday as part of the first batch of preorders sent to the US. In the first 18 hours that I had it, I’ve played about six hours and thought I’d share my early impressions. 

It’s not typical for me to spend six hours in a 24 hour period with a guitar in my hands. While a good bit of my enthusiasm is probably due to the 14 months I waited for the product to be developed, as a number of YouTube personalities indicated, the thing is just a lot of fun to play. After I got it set up, the first time I looked up was after 90 minutes had passed. Same thing this morning: I got up and before I knew it, 2.5 hours had gone by.

So what’s so fun about it? None of the YouTubers put a finger on it but IMO it’s a bunch of things. First off, it sounds great. NDSP had a terrific reputation for their plugins and clearly applied that expertise to their hardware. On top of that, it has great feel. Latency is low and it has the same sort of “bounce” in its dynamic response that I really enjoyed in my Fractal and Atomic modelers. The UI is straightforward. It still has some awkward bits (more on that later) but overall workflows are clean and interactions are intuitive. Overall, the device invites you to play and to explore without the “amp geek” parameters that can take a lot of one’s time with minimal ROI.

An interesting aspect of the Quad Cortex is that it seems to have been conceived as a post-PC device. It’s telling that the only computer integration available at launch was USB audio for running a DAW. There’s nothing that a person can do with the QC that requires anything more than a mobile device. Since the USB audio is class compliant, you can even hook it up to an iPad and record in Garage Band. For us dinosaurs who persist in using computers outside the workplace, a desktop editor is in the works for managing presets and performing backups. The Cortex Cloud does allow for backups to the cloud.

One thing that I think differentiates the QC from other modelers is NDSP’s perspective as a plugin developer. To put it bluntly, they’re probably more interested in having things sound good than having them sound authentic. Most of their plugins were focused more on achieving a certain sound rather than slavishly emulating benchmark gear. Of course they do have plugins that replicate Soldano and Fortin amps but the Archetype line has been more about replicating (and creating) artists’ signature sounds.

I’ve found the factory presets to be more akin to the Fractal ones in their usability as opposed to just showing off features. Getting a producer like Adam Getgood to shoot their IRs and having their signature artists help build factory presets provides users with a solid foundation for creating whatever sound is in their heads.

As I went through the factory presets—the guitar ones anyway—I spent most of the time in “gig view”, which displays footswitch mappings instead of the virtual signal chain. As a result, I didn’t get an idea of what was in the signal chain. I bring this up because I couldn’t tell which presets used a neural capture (NDSP’s equivalent to a Kemper profile) vs. an amp model. With the majority of YouTube previews focusing on the capture capabilities, some folks were concerned that the amp models were somehow lacking. They’re not. You might not have scores of amp models available at the moment but what’s there is very good. Neural has stated an intent to provide ongoing updates at a reasonable pace. If they execute on that plan, the amp models should get rounded out in the months to come while the QC community and commercial KPA profile makers expand the range of captures available.

Speaking of ongoing updates, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes down the pipe. Right now, my QC is running firmware 1.0.0 and the features are aptly characterized by Doug Castro (NDSP’s CEO) as MVP: “minimum viable product”. While the feature set is definitely not mature, what is implemented is done well. This is exemplified by the cabinet simulator. Rather than auditioning scores of impulse responses, you select the cabinet and adjust the virtual mic position and distance with a GUI. Another great example is the pitch shifter. While an intelligent harmonizer is on the roadmap, the fixed pitch shifter is phenomenal. While I’ve not personally used the Digitech Drop, the QC’s pitch shifter handles downtuning better than any multiFX / modeler I’ve ever used. There’s no perceivable latency so the feel is the same as it is at normal pitch. Another brilliant feature is the parametric EQ. Editing the parameters is so easy when you can drag/drop to adjust parameters. The PEQ, used in conjunction with the slick cab simulator should make it super easy to dial in whatever sound is in your head.

So what am I looking forward to in updates? One feature omission at launch is expression pedal auto-engage, a must-have for me. Fortunately, that feature is expected to be in one of the early updates. The Cortex Cloud is functional but immature. It works but lacks metadata to facilitate searching as the preset / capture libraries grow. Options for managing cloud content on your QC (e.g., reordering IRs) is limited. While the touchscreen is slick and works well, there are some workflows like IR selection that would benefit from refinement.

This is looking like it’ll be a fun ride. What we have now is a great-sounding device that is easy to dial in. While it’s already impressive, one of the things that struck me about Castro is that he seems to have a good handle on how software development teams should operate. As a result, I’m hopeful that they will be able to quickly mature the product and continue to add content.

Excuse me as I get back to playing guitar…