Fractal Audio Systems AX8 Review
The sounds of Axe-Fx are now available in a compact pedalboard format.
Fractal Audio System’s rackmount Axe-Fx units awakened many players to the possibilities of modeled amps, cabinets, and effects. Nowadays many touring players, seduced by Fractal’s realistic modeling, travel with compact digital rigs in lieu of cumbersome amps and cabs. Fractal expanded into the pedalboard format with their FX8, which provided Axe-Fx effects minus the amp and cab modeling. Now AX8 adds those missing amps and cabs as the company's first "all-in-one" unit—at some $500 less than FX8’s original price.
The AX8 amp modeler and multi-effects pedalboard is almost a pedalboard version of Fractal’s flagship Axe-Fx II modeler. The main difference: less CPU. That means the sound quality is identical, but you just can’t pile on as many simultaneous models (though you can create parallel effect chains using a single amp model.) But there’s plenty of juice for most applications, and AX8 sells for nearly a grand less than the big box.
More on the Floor
Many will flip for AX8’s form factor, nearly identical to the FX8. Measuring roughly 16" x10" x 4" and weighing less than 12 pounds, the board fits into backpacks and overhead bins. Mind you, it has no built-in amplification—you must connect to a PA or full-range/flat-response amplifier. (Plugging into a conventional guitar amp might yield cool sounds, but you would need to disable the AX8's onboard sims to avoid stacking amp coloration on top of amp coloration.)
Despite its size, AX8 offers comprehensive connectivity, with 1/4", XLR and S/PDIF outputs. A USB jack lets you connect to a computer (which is almost essential, as we’ll see). There are MIDI in and out jacks. You can connect up to four controller pedals (not included). There’s also a programmable stereo effects loop for inserting external hardware. (One odd omission: there’s no headphone jack.)
The build is beautiful. Steel and aircraft aluminum form the rugged chassis. The silent relay footswitches have no mechanical connections to fail. The knobs feel substantial. A folded steel bar doubles as a handle and protection for the surface hardware. The power supply is built-in.
AX8 can save 512 presets. Each preset can include eight “scenes”—patches that use the same virtual components as the master preset, but with alternate settings. Each footswitch can also toggle between two stored settings when pressed for several seconds. (You might, for example, store high- and low-gain amp gain settings on a single switch, or alternate trem speeds.) The USB link makes it easy to load, archive, and exchange presets.
AX8’s sounds are superb, thanks to a great-sounding signal path and ultra-detailed models. The fat, three-dimensional tones have stunning dynamic range. Delicate playing sounds … delicate, with detailed, naturalistic decay. There’s no hint of the squashed, boxy feel you get from some modelers. On a clean setting, you feel every playing nuance, each subtle scrape of finger or pick. Many new users will strum a chord or two and think, “Yup, I’m convinced.”
Metal, prog, and shred guitarists are among Fractal’s biggest fans, and macho high-gain rigs predominate among the presets. But AX8 is equally adept at clean, rootsy, and lo-fi tones. Many AX8 settings suggest John Petrucci, Steve Vai, and Mastodon. But it can also do Pops Staples and Curtis Mayfield.
The number of available amp, cab, and effects models is some huge integer I already forgot. Think of it this way: There’s a vast amount of raw material here, and you can manipulate it in a vast number of ways.
Creating models is more subjective than many realize, so please indulge a few subjective impressions: The individual amps and cabs are shockingly realistic. But the virtual components don’t always interact as they do in the analog world. For example, most AX8 amp models (especially high-gain ones) aren’t as responsive to variations in touch and guitar settings as their analog equivalents. And it’s tough to get a clean-to-apocalyptic range of tones using only your volume knob like you can by, say, plugging straight into a great tweed or plexi.
Meanwhile, the fine-sounding effects can match most sounds you’d create with an analog pedalboard, but they don’t always interact in the same ways and often omit signature quirks. For example, the analog delay model faithfully mimics the spectrum of a BBD chip, but cannot capture the chip’s unique distortion. The Fuzz Face provides Hendrix-y bulk, but lacks the hair-trigger dynamic response of the real deal. The Muff model spews volcanic fuzz, but doesn’t include the signature scooper-duper tone stack.
But believe it or not, these aren’t really criticisms. You can create many of the “missing” characteristics cited above, but you might have to do it on AX8’s digital terms. Fortunately, they’re highly agreeable terms.
You can access every AX8 function without connecting to a computer—but it won’t be fun. The sole visual feedback is a small, low-res LCD screen that reminds me of programming a Yamaha SPX-90 in 1987. Fractal expects users to do the dirty work by connecting to a computer. If you hate that notion, consider this a warning flag.
Fortunately, once you fire up the included editing software, life is grand. The AX8-Edit software (for Mac and PC) boasts a large, lucid layout and intuitive drag-and-drop operation. You arrange modeling blocks on a simple grid and click on a block to access its parameters. Of course, you don’t have to perform deep editing—you can do plenty of damage with presets only. But Fractal makes tone creation easy and fun. (Crucial wish list item: an iOS/Android editor for tweaking at gigs and rehearsals.)The amp and cab options are mind-boggling (in a good way). Amp parameters include not only the basics, but also such cool arcana as negative feedback amount, speaker distortion, and cathode squish. The cabinet options are equally impressive. These don't feel like static impulse responses (IR). Fractal has gone to great lengths mimicking the quirky and dynamic resonance—the thump—of physical cabs. You can also load your own cabinet IRs (or the add-on IRs sold separately at Fractal’s online store) and tweak them with the dedicated Cab-Lab app. Bravo!
Assigning external controllers is a snap, and you can route almost anything anywhere. You can even insert the effects loop send and/or return anywhere in the virtual tone chain. The list of effect types might seem meat-and-potatoes at first glance, but the endless editing and routing options can get deep. (Not so meat-and-potatoes: the cool pitch-tracking mono synth and powerful single-track looper.)
Even if you plan to use presets only, brace for a learning curve. But after a few hours you’ll probably get the hang of navigating banks, presets, scenes, and the X/Y footswitches, and feel confident making basic adjustments on the fly. And thank you, Fractal, for creating such a lucid and skillfully written operation manual.
AX8 is a landmark product release. The sounds are stellar. It’s compact and portable, yet it can be as open-ended and flexible as you desire. Its construction and ergonomics are top-notch. If you’re not already an Axe-Fx user, plan to a) spend at least a few days getting acquainted, and b) do most editing and archiving on a computer. If you invest the effort, AX8 is likely to reward you in spades, clubs, diamonds, and hearts. And oh—it’s a bargain at $1,299.
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