Fractal Axe-FX II Preamp FX Processor Review
“This thing is the greatest invention ever for electric guitarists,” Dweezil Zappa told Premier Guitar at last year’s LA Amp Show as he gushed over Fractal Audio’s new Axe-Fx II—the company’s follow up to the very successful Standard and Ultra models. While such a bold statement might raise eyebrows among those numbed by marketing hyperbole, no one could argue that the Axe-Fx II isn’t an extraordinarily powerful signal processing system. It’s so capable that big bands like Deftones, Megadeth, and Animals as Leaders have forsaken massive rigs for a lone Axe-Fx II, and guitar gods like Steve Vai and John Petrucci integrated the units into existing rigs. And remember—these are players who can afford to have roadies carry backbreaking towers of gear, and yet they’re so enamored with the Axe-Fx II that they opt to leave the heavy stuff at home.
In the simplest terms, the Axe-Fx II is a rack mountable preamp and effects processor. But that description barely scratches the surface of what this thing does. What makes the Axe-Fx II remarkable is that it’s powerful enough to replace a lot of traditional amp/effects/cab setups. It’s a major improvement on the already impressive previous Axe-Fx models on many counts, as well. Two TigerSHARC processors (versus the Standard’s and Ultra’s single processor) run the new G2 modeling technology, which generates twice the processing power of its predecessors and improves sound quality. In fact, one CPU is dedicated entirely to processing the amp sounds. Other upgrades include a larger LCD display and a quick-control section with X and Y buttons for channel switching and four knobs for editing multiple parameters on a single screen. There’s also a USB 2.0 jack for computer connectivity, which makes the Axe-Fx II a serious audio/MIDI interface with capabilities like re-amping and recording.
A Handle on the Axe
The Axe-Fx II is so feature packed we couldn’t possibly discuss it all here. If you’ve avoided multi-effects units because of their inherent navigational challenges, I’m not going to lie to you, the Axe-Fx II is even more complex than most. But expecting a simple plug-and-play experience would be naïve, and there’s just no way that a piece of gear that many regard as the ultimate guitar processor is going to be as user-friendly as a Tube Screamer. But if you put the time into learning how the system works, you’ll find there aren’t many sonic stones the Axe-Fx II leaves unturned. And the hours you spend climbing the unit’s steep learning curve very well may reward you with every tone that has ever eluded you.
Navigating the unit’s myriad options involves moving through a lot of submenus and scrolling screens—and they all take practice and time to get to know. Still, I was eager to see how easily I could extract sounds without consulting or printing out the 178-page PDF manual. But without direction even some very basic functions— such as tuning—can be tricky. For example, pressing the tuner button led to a familiar-enough readout, but I had to consult the manual to discover that the recall button gets you back to normal mode. That said, if you want to ease into the manual, a very handy 60-second edit guide helps you take your first steps. And a free software editor/ librarian makes everything easier to navigate and use on a computer if you’re accustomed to software instruments and plugins.
After investing some time in manual research, things got easier. You scroll through presets using the big value knob next to the screen, and the four navigation buttons next to it move through the presets either one at a time (up and down) or in increments of 10 (left and right), which is handy if you want to go from, say, preset 4 to 54 in a jiffy. Chances are, though, you’ll want Fractal’s optional MFC-101 foot controller when you’ve got this many options to choose from.
Each of the 384 editable presets represents a complete signal path of amp, effect, and cab. Pressing the layout button takes you to a screen that displays everything in the signal path from left to right, as blocks on a grid. You can change or rearrange components on the grid, such as amps, cabs, or effects, and wire things up in any order or arrangement that suits you. The edit button then enables you to open block menus and set the desired parameters for each component. Once you have that process down, operating the Axe- Fx II becomes much more fluid.
I tested the Axe-Fx II with a variety of guitars, including a Gibson Les Paul Standard, Fender Strat, Ernie Ball Music Man Axis Sport, and Parker Fly Deluxe, as well as a Mesa/Boogie 2:90 power amp and a QSC K8 powered PA speaker.
You can explore models of plenty of popular amps—including a Fender Deluxe Reverb, a Marshall plexi, a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, a Dumble Overdrive Special, and a Peavey 5150—but there are less mainstream amps, too, like the Cameron CCV 100 and Carol-Ann OD2, as well as original Fractal creations. There are also lots of presets based on classic guitar songs, like “People Get Ready,” “Still Got the Blues,” “Cliffs of Dover,” and “Sultans of Swing” (to name just a few), as well as wacky sounds that have to be heard to be believed. These include “A Clockwork Banana,” “Intrigue [C Minor],” and “Horror Movie.”
I decided to start out by cranking the Axe-Fx II ’s Deluxe Reverb model and comparing it, back-to-back, to my own blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb. In all honesty, it had me doing double takes—the sound was virtually identical. The trademark Fender sparkle, tube warmth, and sweet breakup were all audible in the modeled version. More importantly, the feel and dynamics were very amp-like. And a big plus with the Axe-Fx II version over the real amp is that you can very easily run it through different virtual cabs—say, a model of a Celestion Gold-equipped 2x12 or a 1x8 tweed—to get totally different flavors from the same amp without fretting over ohms or filling your garage with cabinets of every size.
Clearly, the Fractal guys took everything into account when embarking on their mission to create realistic models—even amplifier attributes some might consider less than optimal. The Recto Orange, for instance, had as much noise at idle as the orange channel on my Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb. But other high-gain models such as the Solo100 Lead, based on a Soldano SLO-100’s lead channel, were dead quiet. This not only led me to believe the Orange Recto fizz was a deliberate recreation, but it also lent credence to Fractal’s claim that the new G2 and Virtual Vacuum Tube technology “models the entire power amp including the tubes, transformers, choke, filter caps and more.”
The Axe-Fx II’s other patches were great jumping-off points, too. I tried the “Eruption” patch using my Music Man guitar, comparing it to Eddie’s original, and while a few other variables obviously came into play—not the least being the fact that I’m not actually EVH—the Axe-Fx II patch was superb: slightly darker and with less presence than you hear in the recorded version, but an excellent launching pad with the feel and reactivity necessary to explore the nuances of Eddie’s style.
If you have a sound that you’ve always wanted to recreate exactly using your favorite guitar, or if you want to add the sound of a new amp to the Axe-Fx II ’s library, there’s an ultra-cool feature called tone matching. It lets you input an isolated signal—it can be an audio file or a live amp—and sample the tonal characteristics. If you’re trying to match a recorded sound you’ll want to start with an Axe-Fx II preset that’s close to the signal you’re sending. But once you’re in the ballpark, the tone-matching feature frequency- plots the reference signal alongside the local (tone-matched) signal so you can compare and match the two.
If anything can bring the rack back in vogue, the Axe-Fx II will be the thing to do it. It’s a complete, self-contained unit that does just about everything an amp-effect-cab setup can do (minus actually outputting the sound for the masses), and it pretty much avoids the Achilles heel that has long plagued many products of this type—it offers the organic element of touch dynamics. There is some serious number-crunching power in the Axe-Fx II, and it adds up to a wealth of tones that would take a whole studio space—and a whole lot of material resources most of us don’t have—to put together.
At almost $2,200, the Axe-Fx II is obviously still a significant investment, but the price of just one of the complete virtual rigs it affords would most likely cost much more. Even if you just used the Axe-Fx II for its effects, you’d have a phenomenal-sounding and almost limitless effects palette at your disposal. If there’s a downside to the Axe-Fx II, it’s more aesthetic than practical—something about the typical guitarist’s psyche just digs having a rad-looking amp next to them onstage. This unit certainly doesn’t have the visual allure of a road-beaten Fender tweed or vintage Marshall, but what it offers practical and adventurous players alike in terms of sonic potential is hard to put a price on.