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May 2014

Review: Fractal Audio Axe-FX

I was all ears when the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX came out because part of my work revolves around recreating classic and modern guitar tones. I was also excited because the unit has the potential to solve a few problems at once for me.


Check this out - the studio I work out of is often booked solid so I try to arrive before sessions start for the day - sometimes that’s the only way I can get in. Obviously, this isn’t ideal as most musician-types prefer to work later in the day. To top that off, by the time I set up the amp, mics and board for the tone I’m looking for, I usually have precious little time left for the actual performance. This has led me down many roads, from re-amping, to post-processing to matching tones, to recording multiple amps as a backup plan. Don’t get me wrong, re-amping is great for the convenience of getting tone after-the-fact, but you still have to have an inspiring tone when putting down the D.I. tracks, even if it’s not the final one. Sometimes the plug-in amp modelers do the trick but I’ve yet to use any that consistently meet my personal expectations of what a real amp should sound and record like, which is exactly what I need if I want a good performance captured to “tape”.


Tech Specs

Fractal calls the Axe-FX an advanced guitar effects processor. While that’s certainly true, it’s really an understatement. Housed in a two rack unit, the Axe-FX runs a 500MHz, dual-core processor and is able to process 2 billion floating-point instructions per second. The Ultra model that I tested runs a 600MHz version capable of 2.4 billion instructions per second. Comparing this to a plug-in amp simulator running on a PC or MAC isn’t even fair. Not only does it provide 49 amp types, 23 cabs and 25 effects, it also allows you to combine and route them in just about every possible combination imaginable. I should mention that of the 25 effect types, there are multiple iterations of each which brings the number up more toward 100. There are two sets of stereo unbalanced inputs, two unbalanced and one balanced stereo analog output(s), digital I/O in the form of S/PDIF input and AES outputs, MIDI in/out/through and a pair of pedal inputs for real-time control of parameters. Conveniently located on the front panel are level controls for both the stereo ins and outs as well as an instrument jack on the far right. A large scrub wheel is positioned just to the right of the LCD graphical interface.

The Axe-FX is so deep and full of options that even after weeks of exploring it seemed like there were still dozens of new sounds to experiment with - and I mean great, usable sounds. For the most part, the interface couldn’t be much easier to use. At first I was a bit concerned with the size of the display on the unit since I do most of my work on two 22” flat panel monitors, but I was pleasantly surprised by the intuitive layout and clear graphics. In the case of a dimly-lit studio or stage you would never have a problem seeing what you were editing. On top of that, you can download a free editor (http://www.axechange.net/ ) to do all your tone-shaping on your PC or Mac as well as share presets with other users and get the latest firmware. Mighty cool!

In Use

After the initial setup, which involved getting the inputs and outputs routed to my mixer and MIDI interface (for Sysex dumps and patch editing on a large screen), I did a casual stroll through the various patches. There was a wide variety of tones represented. Everything from classic to modern amp sounds, to crazy ambient patches that would be suitable for movie soundtrack work. Some of the patches transformed the guitar into a completely different instrument that you’d be hard pressed to guess that a guitar was even involved. Most of the sounds were very usable and switching from Les Paul to Strat, I was able to use the input control to get the right amount of gain into the Axe-FX to really make the guitar sing. Dialing up the “Hell’s Bells” preset, I immediately noticed how much clearer and defined the sounds were coming right out of the box. There was no digital hash and no blanket over the tone of my guitar. It also felt a lot like the response of one of my old Superleads. You can dig in for more gain and bite, or roll off the volume and the tone cleans up very nice. It felt like I had my amp in the control room and a mic’d up 4x12 in the live room.


To create my own patches I used both the onboard GUI as well as the PC editor. Sure, it’s nice to use the large screen and a mouse but it was easy to build sounds up right there on the unit. By taking an empty preset I started by choosing an amp type (Plexi), then selected a cab (4x12 Cali) and chose a reverb (med room). As simple as that sounds there are a million options to create from just that basic of a setup. I spent hours tweaking the sound by changing out the amp and cab as well as the mic choice (Royer 121!). The available parameters for each model went very deep. For instance, the Plexi1 amp has the standard controls you’d see on a Marshall Superlead. However, beyond that it offered control over depth, damping and sag as well as a master volume and level control. The next page allowed complete tweaking of the tone stack frequencies and where it was placed in the amp itself, which significantly alters the tone.

After I had enough basic tone-shaping I opened the floodgates to the effects portion of the tone. Fractal offers everything from compressors to flangers to vocoders and everything in between. It was refreshing to see that the effects were not specifically modeled after classic units but made to be what the original effects strove to be. Without the coloration of resistors, caps and layout you get the option of clear and focused sounds. I immediately enjoyed the ability to have infinite control over the flanging type as well as using a studio quality compressor before hitting the amp.

Speaking of FX, the Axe-FX really shines in the reverb department. Not only do all of the rooms sound convincingly smooth and artifact-less, they have incredible flexibility to be tweaked into just about any sound you would want. I liked the reverb so much I ended up using the Axe-FX as a reverb unit for a mix of a recent song. It totally stood up against my best plug-in ’verbs as well as a few hardware units we have at the studio. Nice!


The final test for me came from something I’ve been doing for a while now. It involves using a real amp head loaded down with a THD Hotplate, then routing the line-out of the Hotplate into the modeler just to use the cabinet simulator. It’s a great way to use my favorite amp when I can’t get into the studio (my neighbors don’t like my 4x12’s!). The Axe-FX was hands-down the best solution I’ve heard to date. Plugging the Hotplate line-out directly into the instrument input of the Axe-FX, I created a patch that consisted of a 4x12 greenback cab mic’d up with an SM57 and running into a medium room. All of the articulation of my amp came through and it provided me with a totally usable tone that was just slightly different from the real configuration I’d use in the studio. Not better, not worse -- just slightly different. We all know that the slightest variation in mic position, room sound, etc. will change the tone so I didn’t expect a perfect comparison. Let’s just say I might have found my new favorite way to record guitars, and I can think of another project I’m getting into that would definitely make the Axe-FX a welcome addition to my studio.

Final Mojo

I can’t say enough good things about this box. Top to bottom, the box itself is extremely tough. Electronics-wise, it has headroom and processing power to spare. The models of the amps, speakers, mics and all the FX are top-notch. Listen to the audio examples on the fractal audio website and you''ll see what I mean. (I''m told the company is going to revamp their website and add a slew of new clips September 1st)

The user interface is clean and easy to read and the PC editor, even in beta, is super easy to use. You can use it in the studio as well as in any live situation (try using a laptop and plug-in modeler sometime). It also doubles as a killer studio FX processor on its own. One thing I had an issue with was the fan noise coming from the unit. After speaking with Tom King from Fractal, he mentioned that they are planning to offer a silent fan upgrade at a nominal charge.
Buy if...
you are looking for a road-worthy all-in-one guitar preamp/effects processor
Skip if...
you are cool with plug-in amp modelers
Rating...
4.5

MSRP $2299.95 - Fractal Audio Systems - fractalaudio.com

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